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My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5.1-7)

“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.“ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11.16-24)

Grace be with you and peace from God the father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

One of the funniest comedy sketches I have ever seen has British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb playing two German soldiers on the eastern front close to the end of WWII. To be exact, they‘re SS troopers, dressed in black and carrying the SS skull symbol on their caps.

8ubGFLtOne of them asks the other: „Hans. Do you think perhaps we may be the baddies?“

Hans doubts that. „How can you think such nonsense,“ he asks. „Have you  been listening to the enemy‘s propaganda again? Of course they say we are the baddies.“

The first one answers: „The allies did not design our uniforms, Hans. Why do we have skulls as our symbol? What do you connect with skulls? When have the good guys ever adorned themselves with skulls?“

Then they discuss this back and forth until the horrible realization dawns upon them: They‘re not the good guys – they are in fact the baddies.

Besides how far-fetched and absurd it is that characters like these would have this conversation at this time and place this is also funny because it is true. Everybody thinks they‘re the good guys.

The higher purpose of evil

Very few people follow a cause they believe to be wrong and bad. All the greatest villains of history were convinced they were doing the right thing, doing their country and people good. That the genocides, mass murders, executions and persecutions were an evil necessity for their glorious vision to be realized. That in the end what would be gained would be worth more than what was sacrificed to obtain it. That they would be remembered for the great result, not the horrors that paved the way.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot … this is by no means a complete list, just the first four names that sprung to my mind … none of them made the decision to bring their country to its knees, but all of them did – some to a greater extent than others. Nobody intends to be bad.

I was once on a radio interview where I called the present president of the United States a fascist. In return I was asked how I could call him a fascist. Wasn‘t he just a man who wished the best for his people? … as if what defines a fascist was wanting bad things for his or her own nation. What makes someone a fascist is not whether or not he or she defines himself or herself as a good guy or a baddie, but the method with which he or she proposes to do good according to his or her own definition of what that entails. The problem is that no one has ever succeeded. All attempts to create a fascist utopia have only resulted in hell on earth. This is because the end never justifies the means. The conclusion is always the legitimate offspring of the methods with which it was reached.

Maybe it is therefore that Láki the goblin (a character in a classic, Icelandic children‘s book) is in my opinion one of the most horrible villains in literature. Simply because his wickedness has no higher purpose, he only does evil for his own entertainment. „Being bad is fun,“ is his motto. Not even Hitler and Stalin commited their atrocities because they thought being bad was fun.

They thought they were the good guys.

But they were wrong.

Justifying one self

Today‘s readings from the Bible are not pretty. They are curses upon those who thought they were the good guys but were wrong. Isaiah speaks on the behalf of a God that is going to tear down the vineyard he loves, which is the people who say they believe in him and probably believe themselves to truthfully and faithfully obey his will in everything. But God is going to destroy this vineyard because he „looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.“

And Jesus tells the people of Capernaum that they will literally go to hell, down to Hades. That it  will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for them. This is not a cozy message.

Jesus had worked in Capernaum, resided there and healed the sick (Matthew 4.12; Mark 2.1, Luke 4.23; 4.31-44; 7.1-10). This curse is usually not considered to stem from the townspeople‘s lack of will to accept faith but from their arrogance. The reason Jesus mentions that the city will not be lifted into heaven is thought to have been that the townspeople believed it would be. There would be no reason to state this if nobody had claimed the opposite. Jesus sees no reason to mention that other cities won‘t either be lifted into heaven. Probably there was no such misunderstanding that needed to be corrected.

The imagery here is based on the book of the prophet Isaiah (14.13-15). The fate of Capernaum will be the same as the emperor‘s of Babylon. In the fourteenth chapter the emperor says to himself: „I will ascend to the heavens“ (14.13). But what happens? Two verses later he is „brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit“ (14.15). The gospel‘s text is a very typical prophetic curse in the style of the Old Testament. The messasege is that „pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall“ (Proverbs 16.18).

As a sidenote it may be added that Capernaum was a harbor town on the northern shore of Lake Geneserath. It went into ruins in the 11th century. If Jesus‘ words are to be understood as a prophecy then it took a thousand years for it to come true.

The waring signals

But now we have a problem. We, who wish to be the good guys, how can we be sure we are if we would also believe we were even if we in fact were the baddies? Aren‘t there some warning signals, some red lights to which we could be alert?

Of course there are. And it is very important that we keep our ears and eyes open for them. Here, for instance, is one warning signal for which we should constantly be on the lookout:

If you are somewhere with a group of your peers and suddenly they start waving flags that can only be linked with mass murders, genocides, torture and the dehumanization of entire races of people for the financial benefit of rich, white males – i.e. swastikas and confederate flags – and they start chanting slogans about white supremacy and against Jews and muslims … and you don‘t leave the party but still feel you‘re surrounded by peers and you start participating in these activities with them … then you are not a good guy – no matter how convinced you may be otherwise.

charlottesvilleThis of course is so obvious that everybody understands it exept for the president of the United States. But exactly because the most powerful man in the world appears to be less sensible than comic characters in an absurd comedy sketch about nazis it is so important that the rest of us aren‘t. That we keep our heads clear. That we accept facts and don‘t make up our own.

Simple truths

Vaccines save lifes. The moon landing was not a hoax. The holocaust happened. The earth is not flat. Nazis are not the good guys.

It is of course horrible that in the year 2017 there is reason to reitirate such simple truths. But since there is reason to it is vital that we do.

Because God still asks us the same questions he asked the people of Judah in the days of the prophet Isaiah: „Do I see justice or do I see bloodshed? Do I hear righteousness or do I hear cries of distress?“ The answers to these questions determine wheter we shall be in heaven or in hell.

Or rather: The answers define whether we are in heaven or hell.

Because it is within our power to live in heaven on earth – as it is within our power to make this earth a living hell.

Glory to the father and the son and the holy spirit. As it was in the beginning, so it shall be for ages and ages. Amen.

A sermon given in Laugarnes church in Reykjavík august 20th 2017.

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