To listen to the sermon for November 11th 2012 (Remembrance Sunday) select this link.
Remembrance Sunday 11th November 2012
Standing firm against the enemy What is it about devious, unscrupulous, evil characters that make them the most fascinating roles in films? Often compared to the good guys who can appear somewhat insipid, the baddy can draw you in. Disney has long recognised this fascination with the evil character. From their earliest animated films such as Snow White where the Evil Queen is given such a bold role alongside the soppy heroine, through films like 101 Dalmatians where Cruella Deville steals the show, to more modern films like Aladdin where Jaffar the Sorcerer is the quintessential baddy, Disney has played on the human draw to the dark side. And believe it or not they have even brought out as a marketing ploy this Christmas, their “Villains” range for children and adults – you too can have your evil villains’ tee shirt...
And it’s not just in animated films either. Depending on your age and whether you were into your soaps or not, I wonder which characters did you find more appealing: JR Ewing or Bobby from Dallas; Dirty Den or Angie from East enders....
And this fascination with the dark side every year reaches its zenith with Halloween where children and adults wear increasingly grotesque masks and costumes. The market for Halloween is rapidly growing here as we follow the trends in North America. In 2011 a retail survey showed your average Canadian spent nearly £200 on food and costumes and a staggering £40 on accessories for their furry friends. The mind boggles. We had a fantastic Light Party here in St. Mark’s on 31st October, over 40 children came, but it took my Isaac and Gloria a large number of attempts to find a friend who wanted to come to the party with them. The temptation to dress up and go trick or treating was too great.
All harmless fun or something more sinister? I have no doubt at all about what the apostle Paul would have made of it. In our reading from Ephesians he is crystal clear about the need for Christians to stand firm in righteousness against all evil. I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have seen the human fascination with the dark side as harmless fun, but rather a slippery slope towards getting drawn into something much more sinister. He writes of the need to hold onto truth, righteousness and peace and to oppose all things which runs counter to that. Paul writes to remind the Ephesians that to be a Christian in the world was not to be in a neutral position. The enemy of God, the devil, doesn’t like people finding salvation in Christ and lives being restored, so he will scheme and manipulate to try and undermine the work of the Kingdom of God. In verse 12 Paul speaks of the rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world and spiritual forces of evil against whom we need to take a stand. And he invokes a military metaphor of armour to make the point that this is a battle we need to take seriously. Today I don’t want to run through each of the pieces of armour he speaks of, I shall do that at Cafe Praise next week, but I do want to emphasise the importance of his words. For Christians can all too easily fall into 2 camps with regards to the spiritual battle. Either we can be complacent and underestimate the schemes of the devil, or we can become people who start seeing the demonic behind everything around us. Both approaches are foolhardy. The complacency because the devil is very much a reality, and if we are complacent spiritually we might find the devil ambushes us. All we do as Christians has a spiritual dynamic which opposes his work of destruction. And on Remembrance Sunday as we inevitably reflect on wars past and present, it’s not hard to think of people whose evil actions almost certainly had a spiritual root.
But neither are we to be so wrapped up in awareness of the demonic that we develop an unhealthy fascination or fear. I wonder how many of you have read any of the Frank Peretti novels – “This Present Darkness” or... “Piercing the darkness”? Peretti is an excellent Christian writer, but his books always centre on the spiritual world behind the human actions. I stopped reading his novels after I found myself starting to look for the demonic behind often innocuous actions. In the words of Paul elsewhere in scripture, sin, the world and the devil are three causes of things going wrong. Sometimes bad things happen because of our sin whilst on other occasions the cause is to be found in the randomness of occurrences in the world. The devil is not behind all bad things. So what is the most appropriate response to the devil?
I wonder if you’ve ever heard the story of Smith Wigglesworth’s encounter with the devil. Smith was an evangelist who lived and ministered in Britain from the late 1800s till 1947. He was a devout Christian and a Pentecostals. On one occasion he reported how he had heard some noise in his living room in the middle of the night. He went there to apparently find the devil sitting on his rocky chair and Smith was quoted saying, “Oh!! It is just you” then he put off his lamp (there was no electricity in those days) and went back to sleep. He wouldn’t have wasted his time coming to the sitting room if he knew it was the devil. He knew that secure in the armour of God, the devil was powerless to harm him.
The story may sound far-fetched but it emphasizes what our response to the demonic should be. For Jesus through his resurrection has already overcome the power of death, and the devil will be ultimately defeated. But for now we live in an age when the devil is still loose in the world before he is finally defeated when Christ returns in glory at the second coming.
Let me illustrate what I mean, by considering the situation in the Second World War before and after D-day.
Prior to the Normandy landings the outcome of the War was uncertain, but once the Allies had secured their beach heads after the 6th June 1944, the ultimate defeat of Hitler, the Nazi’s and the evil they had brought was inevitable. It took 11 months for VE Day to arrive after D-day and many thousands were to lose their lives in the fight, but there could only be one ending. Our D-day, when Christ was resurrected, has passed, and we wait for our VE Day, the judgement day, when the evil of this world is destroyed. And in the meantime we need to be right with God, and lead faithful lives. Not seeking out evil but praying against it whenever we encounter it. In the power of Christ we have no need to fear the evil one.
So when we hear of Psychic Nights being held in our area or other inappropriate events, let’s not panic but be alert and pray secure in the knowledge that Christ has the ultimate victory. Pray that the light of Christ prevails and that our enemy the devil is confounded. And today our prayers in this area should also be for the defeat of the powers of darkness wherever they lurk in the destructiveness of war. For the enemy loves conflict, death and desolation. So in a world where war has never gone away, and our troops face Al Qaida insurgents in Afghanistan, and civil war tears Syria apart, we need to continue to pray that the forces of darkness are overcome.
Today I want to close by telling you a remarkable story of a man who when faced with the ultimate evil stood up in his faith and brought the light of Christ into the very blackest of evil places. The man was Maximillian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest from Poland who founded a number of Franciscan monasteries between the 1st and 2nd World Wars. When the Second World War broke out and the Nazi persecution of the Jews began in earnest, Kolbe provided shelter to refugees from Greater Poland, including 2,000 Jews whom he hid in his friary in Niepokalanów. However on 17 February 1941, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and imprisoned in the Pawiak prison. And on 28 May, he was transferred to Auschwitz as prisoner #16670.
At the end of July 1941, three prisoners disappeared from the camp, prompting SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, the deputy camp commander, to pick 10 men to be starved to death in an underground bunker in order to deter further escape attempts. One of the 10 selected men was Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish Army sergeant who had put placed in Auschwitz for aiding the Jewish resistance. When Franciszek was chosen for the bunker, he cried out, "My wife! My children! What will they do?” And on hearing this Kolbe volunteered to take his place. So Kolbe and 9 others were placed in the bunker. This should have been a place of terror, where the evil of the camp could run free. But Maximillian Kolbe had other ideas.
So in the cell, in the centre of the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps, he celebrated Communion each day and sang hymns with the prisoners. He led the other condemned men in song and prayer and encouraged them by telling them they would soon be with Jesus in Heaven. Each time the guards checked on him, he was standing or kneeling in the middle of the cell and looking calmly at those who entered. The sound of singing and prayer from the starvation bunker permeated the bleakness of Auschwitz.
After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, only Kolbe remained alive. The guards wanted the bunker emptied and so they gave Kolbe a lethal injection of carbolic acid. Some who were present at the injection say that he raised his left arm and calmly waited for the injection. He sacrificed his life that another Franciszek Gajowniczek might live, and he spent his condemned days bringing the light and life of Christ into the blackest of surroundings. A place where it is estimated 3 million people died.
Kolbe’s life was extinguished, yet his memory lives on. Franciszek Gajowniczek whom he saved, was to survive the 2nd World War and live another 53 years – long enough to give tribute to Kolbe when he was beatified in 1971 and canonised in 1982. Aged 93 in 1994, in the last year of his life Gajowniczek said of Kolbe, “"so long as I ... have breath in my lungs, I consider it my duty to tell people about the heroic act of love by Maximillian Kolbe."
That my friends, is how the light of Christ overcomes evil.