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City Church

THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST MARY THE VIRGIN, HENLEY-ON-THAMES

Wednesday in Holy Week

Apr 2, 2021, Author: Fr Jeremy Tayler

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Isaiah 50.4-9a
Psalm 70
Hebrews 12.1-3
John 13.21-32

+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Amen

One of the recurring themes of the psalms is that of enemies. Again and again the psalmist prays to be delivered from enemies, as in Psalm 70 which we have heard this evening. And sometimes the psalmist prays directly against the enemy. Sometimes this sort of language is mild, as in this evening’s psalm: “Let those be put to shame and confusion who seek my life. Let those be turned back and brought to dishonour who desire to hurt me”. But sometimes he really lets rip, as in Psalm 58: “O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord! Let them vanish like water that runs away; like grass let them be trodden down and wither. Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime.”

I suspect that many of us today are uncomfortable with this sort of language – and not without reason. It is after all Jesus Himself who asks for forgiveness for His enemies – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” – and St Paul too tells us to pray for our enemies and to do them good. And I think even the idea of enemies in itself is something that we can be uncomfortable with. Great dangers lie in assuming that those who are opposed to us are evil, and our modern tendency has been to want to turn evil into a sociological or psychological or even a quasi-medical problem. And yet we find this sort of language about enemies over and over again in the Psalms and indeed elsewhere in the bible, in both the Old and the New Testaments. Sometimes it is simply as a prayer for deliverance, but sometimes it comes with some real full-throttle cursing.

What should we do with this sort of language, aware as we are of the rather more sensitive climate in which we live, and aware too of Jesus’ command that we should love our enemies and pray for them, rather than against them?

One strategy is to internalise these prayers. Instead of seeing our enemy as our next-door neighbour who has too many barbeques or doesn’t adequately trim his hedge, we can instead see our enemy as lurking within our own heart, in our impatience and intolerance and anger, for example. And so when we ask God to deliver us from our enemies, and even if we use some of the more blood-curdling language from the psalms, it can feel more acceptable if we are directing this language against the enemies that lurk within our hearts in the form of evil desires, rather than at some poor individual down the road who has rubbed us up the wrong way. This way of internalising the enemies language of the psalms is a tidy move, and it can be a helpful one.

Another related strategy is to use these prayers to bring our dark desires out into the open. When we pray through Psalm 18, for example, we find ourselves rejoicing in beating our enemies as small as the dust and throwing them out like mud from the street. If we come to this Psalm in a mood of anger, we find that these words hit home in a deeply uncomfortable way. We recognise ourselves in these words, we recognise the depths of our anger and resentment, and our negative feelings are brought out into the open through the words of the Psalmist, brought out into the open where they can be healed. This too can be a helpful move.

But I think it is also important to acknowledge that there are in fact some pretty nasty people in the world from whom we can reasonably ask God that we might be delivered. Of course I would caution you against the sins of self-righteousness, and we certainly should not write people off as being wholly and irredeemably evil.

But the sad truth is that there are manipulative people, there are dishonest people, there are violent people, there are deeply selfish people, and we need God’s help to deal with these people, and sometimes we do need God to frustrate such people and their schemes.

And not only nasty people, but also nasty things. Covid-19 for one.

And then there is another enemy, and I rather hesitate to enter this territory. There are those who argue that the concept of the devil is so laden down with unhelpful baggage as to be somewhere on a spectrum between ridiculous and harmful, and certainly we should put out of our heads any notion of a little red man with horns. But that there is a cosmic force of evil and disorder I certainly do believe, just as I certainly believe that there is in God a force of goodness and order. But these are not equal opposing forces; not only is Good stronger than evil, but Good is also able to bring Good out of evil itself.

We see this supremely on the Cross. Jesus too has enemies. Like us, He has enemies within. St John’s gospel tells us that He is “troubled in spirit”, and the other gospels have the account of the agony in the garden. And Jesus faces enemies without, those motivated by fear and by jealousy who seek His death. And Jesus faces the ultimate enemies: suffering, death, evil itself. But it is precisely through the efforts of evil to overcome Jesus that He is able to defeat it. The Cross, apparently the victory of His enemies – His enemies who are both human and spiritual – the Cross becomes instead His triumph over them.

And it is a triumph in which we share. It is not always easy to believe it, but the battle against our enemies, the struggle against the sin that lurks within our hearts, the struggle against the disturbed and disturbing people and things that from time to time afflict us, and the struggle against evil itself, this struggle has been won by Jesus on the Cross, and what remains is simply the mopping-up exercise. And just as the Cross, the darkest deed done by human beings, the attempted destruction of the One who is love and life and light, just as this dark deed becomes the means of our salvation, so too God is able to bring good out of the evils that we from time-to-time must endure.

In the +Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.