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When the Evil in the World Weighs on You

Preacher: 
Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Date: 
Feb 18 2018

If you were to call to mind the story of Jesus’ temptation, likelier than not, the story as told by Matthew or by Luke is what you would be thinking of: where Satan says ‘turn these stones into bread’ and hisses enticements, where Jesus – once, twice, thrice – resists and then rebukes the Tempter. For there is not much to the story as Mark tells it that you might remember – no doing battle with the Devil, no nail-biter of a denouement with Jesus looking down and down off a ledge as we wonder, will he do it? will he leap? Once upon a time, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. The end. Mark’s two, short sentences read more as an aside than as a story, really. But he has, Mark has, hidden the drama in the details. Did you see (and now, this is the moment: make your high school English teacher’s heart swell with pride) that in the story as Mark tells it, Jesus is never the subject of an active verb? That in the story as Mark tells it, Jesus never acts, but is always and only acted upon? That in the story as Mark tells it, Jesus is totally passive, is seemingly without agency or power? John baptizes him. The Spirit descends upon him. Satan tries him. Angels serve him. As Mark tells it, the story of the temptation is not about what Jesus does, but about what Evil does to him and in him.

Evil-with-a-capital-E, which is one way to think about Satan, as a personification of evil, as evil so terrible and real that you can almost feel the foul breath of it on your neck, Evil acts upon and acts against Jesus. He is tempted. That is, temptation happens to him. Evil happens to him. Evil presses in on his thoughts. Evil forces itself on his feelings. Evil wracks him. Jesus must bear up under the weight of the evil in the world. He is made to. He is made to – in his psyche, in his soul – he is made to shoulder this great boulder, this burden of evil. He is made to struggle under it. He is made to go on struggling under it, in fact. For – and, again, the drama being in the details here – unlike in Matthew’s and in Luke’s telling of the story, where we are shown a Jesus possessed of a strength and resolve which see him through, a Jesus holding his own against the Tempter, a Jesus resisting the lies and the lures of Evil, a Jesus looking Satan in the eye, saying, ‘Away with you!’, unlike in Matthew’s and in Luke’s telling of the story where Jesus’ temptation is all but tied up with a tidy bow, where the Devil is dismissed and the good guy wins the day, where Jesus triumphs in his trial, unlike in Matthew’s and in Luke’s telling of the story, Mark, Mark never draws the story to a close. Mark does not say how this ends. Mark leaves us wondering: will Jesus fail? will Jesus fall?

Mark gives us no answer. He gives us no satisfying moral. He gives us just Jesus struggling, Jesus going on struggling this great struggle, as if Jesus is to live all his life in a sort of wilderness – with Evil acting upon him, Evil acting against him, Evil offering no reprieve, no relief. In Matthew and Luke’s telling of it, the temptation of Jesus is a story, a story, one story among many stories; the story begins and it ends, and then another story begins and ends. But for Mark, with the open-endedness and uncertainty of this story casting a shadow over all that is to come, this story is the story, is the only story; the temptation of Jesus, the trial of Jesus, the testing of Jesus – this is the whole of his life. Mark’s entire gospel reads as a temptation story, as a story of one man’s encounter with what is demonic, of his agony in enduring the terrible, ceaseless onslaught of Evil, with the unanswered questions posing themselves again and again and again: will he fail? will he fall? will it be, finally, too much for him? how will this end?, and with our wondering and waiting stretching on, chapter after chapter, even as he stumbles, carrying his cross.

Maybe, in your way, you too feel the weight of the evil in the world. Maybe you are burdened – in your psyche, in your soul – burdened by what it is you know and can never un-know about the evil wracking the world, about the hatred and the violence and the terror holding the world and the world’s peoples in iron grips. Maybe the heartbreaking news of the day pushes and pushes and pushes and pushes, pressing in on your thoughts, forcing itself on your feelings, with no relief, with no reprieve, so that the worry and the anger are constant and close to unbearable. Maybe, in this, you experience yourself to be without agency and without power, to be all but helpless, to be reduced to passivity so that a despairing ‘well, what can I do?’ is the only response that comes as Evil acts everywhere around you, acts even upon you and against you. Maybe you are overwhelmed. Maybe you are weary. Maybe the uncertainty – how will this end? – is too much for you.

One last detail, then: it is the Holy Spirit who drives Jesus into the wilderness. It is the Holy Spirit who, at the very hour of Jesus’ baptism, casts him still dripping wet into the desert for a kind of baptism by fire – a bitter, hellish immersion, a being held down in… just… evil. God gives Jesus to feel the weight of the evil in the world, horrible and grinding as it is, and you, Christian, you who in your baptisms have been made one with him, God gives you also to feel the weight of the evil in the world, and to go on feeling it, to endure the knowing (with no possibility of ever un-knowing) all the pain of the evil in the world. You have to stand up in this. You have to struggle on in this. You have to feel how wrong things are, and feel how bad things have gotten, and not stop feeling that way no matter how wearying it is, because there must be someone, there must be someone – amidst what seems the terrible, ceaseless onslaught: more and more and more and more news of… just…. evil – there must be someone who refuses to be morally de-sensitized to this, who refuses to let the senses of their hearts dull to this, who refuses to see this as normal, who refuses to accept that this, that the way things are, that this is the way they have to be. There must be someone who feels the weight of the evil in the world and holds themself to feeling it, and to not, to never growing inured or hardened to feeling it; for there must be someone to ask, ‘How many dead children? How many cold, purple, little bodies will be lain, will we let be lain on the altar of the false god of a so-called personal liberty?’ There must be someone to ask, ‘If this is your freedom, your precious freedom – bought with the blood of dead children – if this is freedom, who needs tyranny?’ There must be someone who will not let our legislators cry crocodile tears and change the subject. And there must be someone who will not let especially those of our legislators who savage the public funding of our mental healthcare programs then stand to coolly opine, mass shooting after mass shooting, ‘that what we have is a mental health crisis here.’ (And there must be someone also to remind them, that the mental health crisis of their own creation notwithstanding, a troubled soul with a kitchen knife is not going to be able to mow down a calculus class.) There must be someone to say, ‘with all due respect, Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Mr. Senate Majority Leader, these dead children do not need your thoughts and your prayers – they need you to have gotten the guns.’ There must be someone who can feel evil for what it is, who can endure feeling it, the terrible, ceaseless onslaught of it, who can name the demonic forces as such, and who can stand and struggle and go on struggling until the as yet uncertain end.