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Third Sunday of Lent

(This was actually delivered at Milston on June 16th 2002, the third Sunday after Trinity, but the theme was taken from the third Sunday of Lent)

Lessons: Prov. 3.5-18: Luke 11.14-28.

It is now some years since a parishioner of mine came to me for my help as a priest. The parishioner was approaching retirement and had bought a house in the parish. It needed re-decorating, and old wall-paper had had to be stripped off. The removal of the paper had revealed drawings and lettering which suggested that the house had at some time been used for evil purposes.

There were signs and pictures used by those who practice the occult.

The parishioner wanted the house cleansed of evil and subsequently blessed before taking up residence.

Now you may be tempted to think that the parishioner was some superstitious old weirdo who had hardly emerged from the middle ages. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was some dear old soul who was a victim of advancing senility. You may be surprised to learn that he was neither of these. He was a Colonel of the Royal Engineers.

In this matter he called for my services, and through me for the Church's help, and through the Church for God's power against evil in much the same way as he would have called for the Bomb Squad to deal with an unexploded missile. He was very matter-of-fact about it.

He didn't actually say, "Carry on Sergeant", but I got the message.

Tonight's reading from St. Luke was about Jesus - as it says - "casting out demons", and we are aware of Jesus on another occasion being tempted by "the devil" and driving him away.

You may be embarrassed by this and regard it as superstitious nonsense. Well, I can sympathise with that. But before we dismiss the devil completely - beware. To talk of "the devil" is a way of saying that we believe that evil is NOT a PART of US. Evil is NOT built into us like heart or brain or lungs. It, (or he), is something which comes to stay with us - it is a parasite - like a flu' virus - an unwelcome visitor.

This means that evil is something which CAN be driven away.

That is why mankind has always instinctively given evil a personality. And it - or he - is called the devil or Satan or Beelzebub - amongst other things.

If you insist that there is NO devil, then you are implying that all the evil in the world is a part of mankind. You are implying that mankind alone is responsible for all the evil that has ever been and ever shall be. And you are implying that there's nothing much we can do about it, because it is an essential part of our nature. The next step along this line is to blame God for making us what we are.

But Jesus believed in Evil. You can put a letter 'D' in front of it if you like. Jesus believed that evil was something personal, something that was NOT an essential part of human nature. Evil, he told us, was something which COULD be driven out with prayer and fasting, with determination, and with God's help.

"Get thee behind me, Satan !" said Jesus - "you are superfluous to our requirements."

It is probably 'modern' NOT to believe in the devil. There are those who say that all crime is due to genetics, or to upbringing and to environment. So of course, they don't believe in the good old-fashioned word "Salvation".

The first step to salvation is to acknowledge that evil CAN be driven out with God's help. It is an unnecessary factor in your life.

Oh yes! Jesus believed in the evil all right.

That SHOULD bring us some comfort. It means that there is hope for our being able to dispense with all the evil that seems eager to come and live with us.

But Jesus gives us another warning. "Make sure", he says, "that when you drive the evil out, you put some POSITIVE good in his place." (Football commentators are always saying that you've 'gorra be positive'.)

You may have come across one of those intelligence tests that used to be given to children. Ask a child to get the air out of a small bottle. It can be really funny. The child may think that you are just being silly or pretending to be a magician. Sometimes you can get the child to suck away like mad at the neck of the bottle and try to get a thumb over the end before the air gets back in again.

All the time YOU know that it is quite easy to get ALL the air out of a bottle. You just fill the bottle with water!

If evil is taking up a great deal of space in someone's life, it's not much good offering advice like, "Pull yourself together!" or "You really ought to give up that habit!" or other comments beginning with "You ought...".

That's like sucking a bottle to get the air out.

You may succeed for a time, but as soon as you turn your back - as soon as you remove your thumb, then the vacuum fills up with anything that's handy. The person you are dealing with is soon in the grip of evil again - and it can be seven times as strong - seven times as addictive.

If you want to get the evil out of a person, then you must find some good to put in its place.

Let's imagine that you want to get some evil out of yourself - something which occupies a certain amount of your time and energy - something which you secretly enjoy.

It's no good just 'giving it up'. You will find yourself getting more and more frustrated until you can stand it no longer. You finally give in and are worse off than you were before. It is far better, first, to find some GOOD alternative use for your time. Find some water to fill the bottle, and the air will come out much more easily.

If you want to 'reform' someone else, don't read them a lecture - find some good for them to do - something which they will enjoy.

We in our latter-day arrogance think that psychology was something invented by Freud. But just read the New Testament and you will find that Jesus was a master psychologist.

Look, for instance at that man Peter. He had no guts, no loyalty. He would cheer you on and swear undying devotion one minute. The next he would deny you with an oath. What did Jesus do about Peter ? Did he read him a lecture and offer him "counselling"? Not a bit of it!

He gave him a job to do. "Feed my sheep!" he said.

"Go and do some work for my people."

Then there was that man Paul. He was as full of evil as a man could be when he set of to Damascus to terrorise the Christians there. How did Jesus handle him? Did he order him to go back to Jerusalem and be good ? Did he threaten divine punishment if he did not mend his ways?

Not a bit of it! "Go to Damascus", Paul was told. "There you will be told what you must DO." And what a job it was! If ever a man, quite literally, had no time for evil, it was Paul.

I cannot help wondering how many of the world's criminals, addicts and hooligans are that way because no-one has ever given them something good to do.

Next time you come across evil - next time you meet the devil in yourself or in someone else, then send up a quick prayer, something like this :

Lord, show me something good to do - quickly!

He will, and the devil will no longer be a problem.

The Estate of William John Green, 2004