Sunday 26 February 2023

The Elephant in the Room

Genesis 2:7-9,3:1-7, The Creation, and the sin of our first parents

Romans 5:12-19,  However great  the number of sins committed, grace was even greater

Matthew 4:1-11 The temptation in the wilderness





The first time I heard the phrase ’elephant in the room’ I couldn’t think what the speaker was talking about.


An actual elephant? In the room?


Of course, I then twigged that there was no physical elephant in the room, but this was a metaphor for something that everyone was thinking about but that no one wanted, or dared, to talk about.


There is an elephant in the Church.


This elephant thrives on not being identified or called out; thrives on being downplayed and not taken seriously.


This elephant loves hiding away in the shadows, in fact this elephant loves the dark recesses of the world and of the human heart.


The elephant in the Church is Satan, the devil.


The devil is a topic that practically no one in the Church wants, or dares, to talk about… and that’s just how he likes it.


Yet the reality of evil is a major theme of the Scriptures, and the Devil is well and truly named, not just as evil in general, but the embodiment or personification of it.


There may be an elephant in the room, an elephant in the Church, but there is no elephant in the Bible, quite the contrary, as we see in today’s readings, Satan is exposed for who he is.


Satan, in the form of the serpent in Genesis and then, in person, before Jesus in the Gospel, figures front and centre in our readings, which is just where he hates to be: for when exposed to the light and challenged by the truth, his power begins to melt away.


So why is the devil, Satan, so often unspoken in the Church and by reasonable Christians?


Perhaps we are all too aware of the way in which wicked and manipulative people have used the devil as a proxy for their own cruel and abusive behaviour: mistaking the sinner for the sin, or attributing motives and personality, particularly mental health, to satanic causes.


Perhaps we just find talk of the devil all just a bit too weird or a bit too medieval, from a time when, if something bad happened, they just said it was the work of the devil, because in those days they didn’t know about modern medicine or therapy.


Perhaps the talk of evil in the world, personified in the devil, is just too painful or too close to home for us.


How do we talk about the devil mindful of some of the brutality of the last century and, frankly, the last year?


When we can name Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Assad, Putin, or Fred and Rose West, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein, do we need to talk about the devil?


Perhaps the language of the devil, the name Satan, is redundant when we hear those names.


Yet the Gospel talks about the devil, about Satan, because giving a personal name heightens the impact of the reality of evil and wickedness.


When we talk about evil only in general or abstract terms, the danger is we diminish it and it becomes like the elephant in the room whose name and presence is never mentioned.


So, the question cannot be ‘shall we stop talking about the devil?’, but, rather, ‘how do we talk about the devil and remain faithful to the Gospel witness?’


In the Gospels Satan, whose name means ‘adversary’ or ‘the one who is against us’, is the one who actively distracts us from God and what is good for us.


He tries to distract Jesus from God by working through a hierarchy of human needs.


Satan starts to tempt Jesus by addressing Jesus’ need to eat: ‘turn the stones of the wilderness into bread, go on, you know you can, you know you want to’. Jesus refuses, for he is the bread of life.


Satan tries a spiritual angle and sows doubt: ‘if you trust in God then he’ll catch you even if you leap from the top of the Temple’. Jesus refuses, for God is not to be tested like that.


Satan tries the seduction of power: ‘you can have all this, if you just worship me: it’s an easy, a hassle-free way to wish fulfilment’. Jesus refuses and is clear eyed about where worship and adoration is due, and that is always to God.


The same seductive whispers are around us, as they were for Eve, who, let’s face it could be you or could be me, ‘Go on’, the serpent whispers to Eve, ‘just eat that fruit, it’s hardly bad is it?’.


Eve, of course, didn’t refuse Satan, and nor did Adam and they hid themselves from God.


Jesus Christ, the New Adam, comes to restore our relationship with the Father, and Mary, the New Eve, says ‘yes’ to God’s call: be it unto me according to thy word’.


St Paul reflects on Jesus’ obedience, as he tells us that humble obedience, active listening to God in Christ, is the route to righteousness.


There are moments at home, at work, at play, in life where we have to decide and resolve to follow the path of Jesus Christ the way, the truth and the life, facing down the seductive whispers and small temptations that, unaddressed, draw us further from God.


Lent is a time of grace to work particularly hard on that; in saying yes to God and turning from evil.


When Satan is no longer an elephant in the room, in our lives, in our Church, then as children of the light we find that the powers of darkness are driven away and we are free to have a clear-sighted vision of the source of life and light and truth who frees us to love, and our hearts and minds turn to the Living God: to whom be all majesty, might, dominion and power, now and through the ages of ages. Amen.


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