Date: August 28, 2016
Title: “Better the Devil You Know, Than the One You Don’t”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Exodus 14:5-15
Today is the last in our sermon series on “Scriptures That Aren’t”. Over the past four weeks we’ve considered a number of sayings or colloquialisms. We started off with “God won’t give you more than you can handle”… not in the Bible. Then we looked at “Charity begins at home”, also not in the Bible; and last week, Jeremy helped us with that perennial favorite, also not in the Bible, “Love the sinner, hate the sin”. Today, we wonder, is it really true, “Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t”?
While not in the Bible, this particular saying does have a long history. It goes way back, all the way back to a collection of Greek and Latin adages entitled “Adagia”, and compiled by a fellow named Erasmus in the year 1500. Over the centuries, many variations of this saying have appeared. But always the idea was to make one central point: when faced with an unknown future, full of as yet imaginary possibilities, our very human tendency is to choose the status quo. We typically will stick with whatever we know right now, regardless of however good or bad it might be. Better the devil you know, than the one you don’t.
The Hebrew slaves, running for their lives from their Egyptian oppressors, come to a dead stop at the edge of the Red Sea. Looking into an unknown future, faced with what appears to be an immediately insurmountable obstacle – one they have never faced before – they let their fears take center stage, deciding it would have been better to have stayed as slaves in Egypt. Oh, so much better, the devil you know than the one you don’t.
The people in Jesus’ time were no more courageous. I think of religious leaders threatened by new understandings of God and new possibilities for humanity. I think of Peter, who wanted to capture the moment of Jesus’ transfiguration, and stay right there on the mountaintop with Jesus. You remember how he suggested building three booths so they could stay right there. I think also of the paralyzed man, lying beside the pool, and of Jesus’ poignant question to him, “Do you want to be healed?”
And then I think of my own loss of nerve in the face of change. If we are honest, we will admit that we all have stood with the Hebrews at the edge of the sea. Each of us, at one time or another, has looked longingly back toward slavery, when faced with the wild possibility of freedom. Because for us, change is hard; even good change. Someone else pointed to the tale of Jesus healing the man possessed by demons:
Certainly those townspeople, before Jesus came across the Galilee, would have argued that they wanted their government to fix the demon problem out by the tombs. They might have said something like, “Take care of those people! It isn’t safe! What if one of them moves into our neighborhood? They must be healed!”
But, when faced with the fact of a healed man, clothed and in his right mind, they ask Jesus to leave. Because they are afraid.
Just what had them so afraid? Probably, the same thing which leaves us shaking in our boots, the same thing you and I fear the most… the healing which might be coming for us! Think about it – if Jesus can radically alter the life of one Gerasene demoniac, what kind of change does he have in store for us?! Maybe we’ve gotten comfortable with our dysfunction. We know what it is and we’ve figured out ways to work around it. Yes, we say, he is a naked demoniac. But he’s our naked demoniac – thank you very much! When Jesus heals anyone, when God enters into anyone’s equation, you can bet your bottom dollar, you are going to be asked to change.
Better the devil you know than the one you don’t. It’s not Biblical, and it isn’t even very faithful. Helen Keller once said:
Security is mostly superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do we as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all.
And the poet Luci Shaw suggests:
The kind of life Jesus lived would appear to be foolishness to any uninformed onlooker (he had no money, no home, no car, no organizational support). His close friends proved unreliable, with the exception of a few women, and his death was a scandal, a scandal that turned the world around forever.
I think it is true – life is either a daring adventure, or it is nothing at all. Which suggests that Shaw is onto something when she goes on to say:
The cliff edge of our anxiety about the future may indicate that God is calling us to a new and different level of faith. When we walk, praying for guidance, to the edge of all the light we have, and breathlessly take that first step into the foggy mystery of the unknown, we must believe that one of two things will happen: either God will provide us with something rock-solid to land on and stand on, or God will teach us how to fly.
A few weeks ago we celebrated together another year of amazing ministry. We saw pictures and we heard stories of love shared and lives changed because of the work we do together… from packing food at the Oregon Food Bank, to creating health kits at UMCOR; from advocating for the earth, to caring for the homeless; from teaching in our Sunday School, to supporting the work of three covenant missionaries around the world; from providing a space for our neighbors to meet and for the world to worship… we have every reason to be proud of ourselves! And even more reason to be grateful for God’s Spirit, alive in our midst.
Yes! And, in some ways, we are standing on the shore of the Red Sea, where we are going to have to make a choice. Among the five goals of the Strategic Plan we adopted for the next three years is a calling to discernment. The question before us is whether we will be bold enough to multiply our ministry – here, and in a site yet to be identified – a satellite site for First church. It is a question of ministry; a question of vision; and a question of faith. Will we have the capacity to risk an unknown future? Will we find it in ourselves to turn away from what Luci Shaw calls the crime of living cautiously? Will we remember that God does not intend for the church to be simply “safe”, God intends for us to be courageous, and to risk even the devils we do not know, in order to receive the blessings yet to come.
We don’t know now where our discernment will finally take us. There is a lot of learning, and a lot of dreaming, a lot of praying and a lot of planning still to do, before we are ready to set up shop in a new way in a new place. What we can know for sure is this… when Jesus gets involved with us, when God enters into our equation, we are going to be asked to change.
You know there is nothing to suggest that the man possessed by demons, once healed, hears the crowd’s fear and says “Hey, they’re right! I wish I was naked and living in the tombs again!” Quite the opposite, in fact… with Jesus’ help, he lets go of the devil he knows and finds the blessings he didn’t imagine were even possible for him.
We might just do the same, as a church – and even as individuals. Take a moment right now, and reflect upon these questions:
- What is the unknown in your life right now?
- Where do you feel as if you are standing at the edge of sea, uncertain about the future, fearing the change before you
- What is it that God is inviting you to let go this morning, in order to be free?
Now, listen to this poem, entitled “The Journey”, by David Whyte:
Above the mountains
the geese turn into the light again.
Sometimes, everything has to be inscribed across the heavens
so you can find the one line already written inside you.
Sometimes, it takes a great sky to find that
first bright, and indescribable wedge of freedom in your own heart.
Sometimes, with the bones of the black sticks left when the fire has gone out
someone has written something new in the ashes of your life.
You are not leaving, even as the light fades quickly now.
You are arriving.
Better the devil you know? I think not. Because when we are standing at the edge, one of
two things will happen. Either God will provide us something solid to stand upon. Or, God will teach us how to fly! Thanks be to God. Amen.