To destroy the works of the devil – Second Sunday before Advent 2013

 

There’s a hymn of Isaac Watts’, once familiar, that includes the lines

 There’s not a plant or flower below But makes thy glories known,

And clouds arise, and tempests blow, By order from thy throne.

From a bare scientific viewpoint, clouds arise as part of the water cycle and tempests blow because of changes in air pressure. But from the perspective of interpretation, what do these natural phenomena mean? Do they make God’s glory known? What about Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines? Does it blow “by order from God’s throne”?

The ancients might have said yes. The Psalms in particular are full of God’s power and glory seen in the storm-wind. The hurricane certainly reveals power: but what of goodness? What of justice? What of compassion? Again the ancients might have said, it is God’s judgement on sinners; and given the sinfulness of the world, the wonder is that there are not more such disasters. There was a more modern version of that idea dreamt up in the 19th century by Malthus, who believed that natural disasters were nature’s way of compensating for human over-population. Tragic, of course, but necessary.

However convincing such interpretations might be to those who observe from a distance, they are hardly appealing to those who are caught up in the disaster, or to those who remember that it is human beings who are being destroyed. Power without compassion does not equate with the works of God. Should we say then that this is a work of the devil? Anything that afflicts so many with so much misery and suffering is certainly diabolic; and indeed it makes it more difficult to believe in the goodness of God.

Heavenly Father, whose blessed Son was revealed to destroy the works of the devil

Our Collect today speaks of the destruction of the works of the devil. But in our experience the works of the devil are deeply embedded in the world as we know it and indeed in human nature as we experience it. We certainly long for a different state of affairs, when sin and sorrow will be no more. We can just about imagine it, but can we believe that it could be an experienced reality? Is it not just wishful thinking? One thing for sure, we can’t bring it about of ourselves. Every human effort to make the world perfect has made it even worse. Yet without this hope would life be bearable?

I don’t think this is a modern dilemma. The Biblical writers are very good at expressing the longing and the hope, but also indicating that its fulfilment can only be a mystery and the sole work of God. They use phrases like “in that day”; “the world to come”; “new heaven and new earth”. And while they encourage us to have a lively expectation of that work of God, they are also clear we are always living in the time of waiting.

The passage from 2nd Thessalonians is instructive. Some people are so certain that the end of all things is at hand, that they have given up normal life and work in order to be ready – presumably passing their time in fervent prayer. The instructive thing is that Paul – or perhaps a successor writing in his name – does not commend such piety. Instead of praising them for total devotion to the coming Lord, he characterises them as lazy busybodies sponging off the labour of others. Commentators often see this passage as indicating a developing sense among the first Christians that the Coming of Christ in Glory would not be as soon as they first hoped. Perhaps. Or maybe it was more a growing realisation that we are called to live the life of this world, work and relationships and all, but in a different spirit. By our lives we are to give expression to our hope that God will destroy the works of the devil, and that in the revealing of Christ he has already begun this very thing.

 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

 The Epistle writer indicates that the Christian life is one of “patient continuance in well-doing”, as one of our prayers so quaintly puts it. In the face of natural disasters and human violence and our own inadequacies and the pettiness of others – we are to continue to do what is right, without giving in to weariness and impatience. Nothing else quite expresses our true hope that in God’s good time – “on that day” – the works of the devil will be destroyed and our true nature and destiny revealed.

“During the meanwhile” –

 Grant that we, having this hope, may purify ourselves even as he is pure

 The purity of Christ consists in his total openness to God and his complete submission to God’s will and his complete embodiment of God’s good purpose for his creation. As such the devil has no place in him and so his works are being destroyed by the very revealing of God’s Son on earth. As we engage in the patient and long-drawn-out work of repentance, of making ourselves attentive to Christ in the Gospel and to the Holy Spirit in our heart, hoping in God’s goodness and seeking in every way to make that hope real by the way we live, so we are purifying ourselves as he is pure. 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