Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Renouncing Evil

Renouncing Evil
Psalm 51
Ash Wednesday
February 10, 2016

When young parents meet with me before a baptism, there is usually a point in the conversation that gives them pause. They want to know where to stand and what to say, while I remind them that raising the child within the church is what infant baptism is all about. They nod and smile, expecting the pastor to say something like that.

What many of them don’t expect is one of the questions that the church expects them to answer. “Do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” It almost always gives them pause. One time, a mother blurted out, “Of course we’re not going to sin, we’re in church,” and that made me chuckle. That’s not even touching on the pride, lust, gluttony, greed, envy, wrath, and sloth that all Christian people must resist.

But it’s the second part of the question that usually stops them in their tracks. “Do you renounce evil and its power in the world?” Frankly, most of them hadn’t given that much thought. They figure evil is out there in the world. They hadn’t considered renouncing it. And when I tell them that’s an ancient exorcism question, it’s almost enough to make their heads spin around.

What does it mean to renounce evil? The dictionary definitions are helpful. To renounce is to “refuse to abide by any longer,” or “to declare that one will no longer engage in or support,” or “to formally declare one’s abandonment of a claim.” It is to refuse evil when we see it, to shrug off its power when we discern it, and to stand up against it when we know it.

The truth is that evil can get into any one of us. The poet of Psalm 51 knows that. “Have mercy on my, O Lord . . . I have done what is evil in your sight.” He does not specify, and he doesn’t need to. Whether we assign this Psalm to King David, who grabbed for what didn’t belong to him, or whether the mirror that we peer into, at any given moment, we could hurt one another or damage God’s world. Mercy is the first request for our prayers.

But we also pray to be cleansed and renewed, so that we can renounce and refuse the corruption of our own souls. The early church knew this is possible. Brother James wrote to his churches, “Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (4:8). Another early preacher said, “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him.” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

With God’s help, we can do this. Jesus renounced evil, as we will hear in next Sunday’s scripture text. We can do this too. Let the season of Lent be our spring training for the soul, that we would stand up to all that is destructive and demented, that we would work for justice and live in God’s peace.  This is God’s will for us, for us to love the Lord with all our ability, and to let go of all that is unworthy of the love of God for all people. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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