Readings Luke 10.1-11 & 16-20
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Presently I’ll be talking about the gospel reading that we’ve just heard but first it’s confession time. Don’t fret, this is confession time for me, not for you. I’ll be the one baring my soul – well, some of it anyway.
My confession is about driving a car – not the CO2 emissions that I cause, though no doubt that’s reprehensible enough. No, my confession concerns how I’m prone to behave sometimes when I’m driving our little Honda Jazz to places near and far.
Now, you’ll hear it said sometimes that people change character when they get behind the wheel. But I don’t buy that. I don’t think a person’s character is changed. I think it’s revealed.
I reckon it’s something to do with the innately stressful nature of driving – cars are potentially dangerous objects, ours and the ones around us – that, and the deep psychological investment many of us seem to have in our cars and in our driving.
So, when I see other drivers driving thoughtlessly or discourteously or downright dangerously, I can get a little het up. My big bugbear is people not signalling when they’re turning left or right – even at a roundabout. But, believe you me, there are plenty of other bears that bug me apart from that one.
The upshot is that words like ‘idiot’ and ‘jackass’ sometimes pass my lips when I’m driving. And, unfortunately, when I say them, I really mean them.
As you can see, and as you no doubt knew already, not all clergy are saints.
In my best moments I realise, of course, that I too make plenty of mistakes at the wheel, that in berating others I’m behaving arrogantly and contemptuously, that I have in effect accused people of being inferior to me. I have become an accuser. And what nonsense that way of thinking is – and how utterly irrational.
By now you may be asking yourself what this has to do with our gospel reading – if anything. Well, here’s where the connection lies: Satan
The sentence that modern people probably find most meaningless in today’s gospel is when Jesus says: ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning’.
Satan may or may not exist. To be honest, I really don’t know. Sometimes we make fun of this possibly non-existent entity – perhaps rightly, but for all that – weirdly – he’s not someone to be taken lightly.
In the Bible Satan doesn’t start off as the figure of absolute evil that we usually think of him as. He starts off as the ‘accuser’. The accuser! Sound familiar? He’s a sort of counsel for the prosecution against human beings.
Nothing wrong in itself with being a counsel for the prosecution but in his case it seems to have filled Satan with arrogance and contempt. Does that sound familiar? And he gets caught up in a downward spiral that leads to enmity with God and with all that is good.
He becomes evil, rebels against God and is cast out of heaven.
Let that be a warning to all us car drivers who may be tempted to accuse others of idiocy or jackass-hood. You never know where that sort of thing might lead. Not that arrogance and contempt are unique to car-drivers. Probably most of us are at least tempted in that direction one way or another – politically perhaps and even in our ordinary day to day lives.
So why in this passage does Jesus say: ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning’? Well, there’s one obvious reason. He has sent seventy of his disciples into towns that he hopes shortly to be visiting. And it has been a success. They tell him that ‘even the demons submit to us’. The good has triumphed over that which is evil.
But why has the good triumphed? There’s a clue, I think, in what Jesus says to the disciples a little bit further on: ‘Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’.
Of course, the disciples are ecstatic that people have been healed through their ministry – and rightly so. But they mustn’t get to thinking it was all down to them.
Jesus is telling his disciples not to make this an ego-thing. Make this an ego-thing and it won’t work. They mustn’t get to thinking that they are somehow superior because of what they have been able to accomplish. What they’ve accomplished in a sense has nothing to do with them. All they have done is to allow Jesus to work within and through them.
In effect Jesus is saying that we cannot afford to succumb to any form of pride. That’s the key. The deep, besetting sin of Satan was pride. Pride was his downfall. All that arrogance and contempt for others, and for God too, led to a swollen, all-encompassing pride.
And pride is a real problem when it comes to our relationship with the ultimate good, i.e. with God. It impairs that relationship and, in the last analysis, if left unchecked, it will destroy that relationship.
In a sense the opposite of love isn’t hatred or even indifference, it’s pride. Those three are probably all connected but fundamentally it’s pride that is the great separator creating an abyss between an individual and others – or for that matter between a group of individuals and others.
It’s not for nothing that traditionally pride was seen as the most corrosive, most dangerous of vices – and the most insidious because it can so easily grow undetected and unheeded, incubated by our barely conscious hunger for self-approval.
So when I next get behind the wheel of my car (which will be in about 90 minutes), I will try to restrain myself in thought and in word. Not that this kind of thing can be done in our own strength. Otherwise we just become proud of our self-restraint – or of whatever else it is that we think we’ve achieved all by ourselves.
Only by a real companionship with God can we be freed from the grip of pride. Only then do we become receptive to the transforming goodness of God.