Each and every Halloween offers us an opportunity to reflect deeply afresh on the nature of life in the church and the world. Toward that end, I invite you to look back in history with me this morning at the origins of this holiday, then further back still to the words Jesus spoke to his church long ago, for the truth he spoke then is every bit as relevant today.
It was believed by the ancient Celtic people that evil spirits came out of hiding as the heat and light of Autumn began to give way to the cold and darkness of Winter. From October 31 through November 2, therefore, they observed a festival called "Samhain," and practiced certain rituals designed to ward off these evil influences. The Celts dressed in costumes designed to disguise their humanity in the hope that the evil spirits would pass them by. They built bonfires to light the long nights and frighten away the denizens of the underworld. They gave away treats at their doors, in a symbolic effort to appease the evil spirits and keep them from unleashing their wicked tricks upon humanity.
When thousands of Celts became Christians during the sixth and seventh Centuries, the church made the decision to try to co-opt or consecrate the celebration of Samhain rather than try to eradicate it. The festival was, after all, aimed at resisting evil—a purpose with which Christians were sympathetic. They, therefore, linked Samhain with the Christian celebration of All Hallow's Day at the start of November—a time when the church remembered and honored all the "hallows"—the "holy ones"—who had served Christ faithfully on earth and had now gone on to their eternal reward. Over the years, that day became variously known as All Soul's Day or All Saint's Day. But, in time, October 31st became known as All Hallow's Evening—the contraction of which became our familiar "Hallowe'en."
Centuries later, on October 31, 1517, a young priest by the name of Martin Luther went to the door of the Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, Germany, and symbolically nailed there a document in which he questioned—among many other concerns—whether the church's desire to be embracing of the traditions of others had not backfired. In sanctioning the celebration of All Hallow's Eve, the church had hoped that the pagan world would eventually be drawn from a preoccupation with evil to a greater fascination with the good. What was happening, however, was the inverse phenomena. Luther feared that the church itself was losing its focus on the character of holiness and becoming more and more perversely fascinated with the character of evil. It wasn't the first time, I might add, or the last.
Stay in contact with Jesus
When Jesus Christ spoke to the church at Thyatira at the end of the first century, it was a similar problem that he sought to address. So much was at stake, because the work of God in and through them had—up to that point—been so very fruitful. "I know your deeds, says the Lord of the Church, the One whose "eyes are like blazing fire," able to see behind every mask and costume to the reality of who we are. I see "your love and faith, your service and perseverance," he says. These are always the marks of a church in which Christ delights: a love that seeks the lost, a faith that pursues the truth, a servant-hearted hope that stands up under pressure. They are marks of a great church because they are qualities of our great God himself. And Jesus reveled in the reality that these attributes were only growing more authentic and abundant at Thyatira. He says I know "you are now doing more than you did at first."
It's hard for a Christian or a church to stay vital that way. Without care and constant connection to our Lord, all of us can begin to petrify in the places that matter most to God. Our love can begin to turn inward and grow cold. We can become lazy in our pursuit of the truth, or merely interested in that part of the truth that bolsters our opinions. In time, our hope in Christ and his promises can become quietly replaced by a smug confidence in ourselves or a foolish trust in the securities of this world. Somehow this had not happened to the Christians at Thyatira. They had stayed close enough to Christ that their creeds and rituals remained genuine convictions and commitments and not merely the superficial costume that religion can become.
Toleration of evil
And yet all of this health was now being jeopardized. Christ puts it this way: "I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess." We can assume that this "Jezebel" is a real woman in the Thyatiran church, but that the pseudonym she's given here is simply intended to tell us that she's a "type" and not merely a "temp." And as a type, a Jezebel can be a man or a woman. In other words—like the figures of Balaam, Sodom, or Babylon also repeated in Revelation—Jezebel is representative of a timeless archetype of temptation among God's people, rather than simply a temporary and fixed problem in that particular church.
The original "Jezebel" was the spouse of a weak-kneed king named Ahab who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel in the middle 800's B.C. Jezebel's very name, ironically, derives from a word which means "pure" or "chaste," but, like the rock-singer "Madonna," this person had made a mockery of the name. She was a prophetess of the cult of Astarte—a pagan goddess who sanctioned ritual prostitution and human sacrifice under the guise of spiritual experience.
At first, perhaps, King Ahab had simply entertained Jezebel at the door of his life. He could see no harm in showing a bit of hospitality to a visitor from the neighboring kingdom of Phoenicia. He had ultimately invited her into his home on a permanent basis, probably convinced that under his influence she'd eventually convert to the worship of Israel's God. He may have told himself that he was only making a limited concession when he helped her build a Temple to Astarte in the capital city of Samaria. But when Jezebel brought in 850 prophets of her cult of wanton sex and violence, when she began the systematic slaughter of virtually all the prophets of Israel's God (save Elijah), when Israel had been plunged into moral darkness and chaos reigned, one hopes that Ahab saw how he'd been tricked and treated.
The Lord of the church was concerned that this same sort of slide was facing the believers at Thyatira. Some prophetess was exerting a perverting influence over the Christians there and drawing them into practices that were dulling their moral conscience and distorting their character. The Thyatiran Christians there may have believed that their love, faith, and hope was strong enough that they didn't need to be all that concerned about expelling Jezebel from their midst. But Jesus made it clear that tolerating this witch would only lead them to the same "bed of suffering" and judgment for which she was destined, "unless they repent of her ways."
The witch's lies vs. our Father's truth
I know it isn't easy to hear—at least it sure is not for me—but this warning of our Lord must be taken seriously by Christians today. We like to shake our heads at the unholy Jezebels (both men and women) leading people astray in the streets of our culture. But we've been slow to face the fact that we've lost some of our holiness, because we've made a home for them in our midst too. Like the church confronting Samhain long ago, we have accommodated ourselves to the world's ways, naively thinking that we would change it, while it, too often, has changed us. We have forgotten that to be children of a holy God is to be "holy"—literally, "set apart"—ourselves. It is to respond to a distinctive calling that often leads us to live differently than the other voices of this world commend.
The witch has said, "Go ahead and take a good look at all that sex and violence. It doesn't hurt to just observe and it'll help you stay current with what's really happening in the world." And we've looked and looked some more, till the sight has sullied, sickened, and saddened our spirits. But God says: Forget Jezebel and fix your eyes elsewhere. "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things … And the peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
The witch whispers, "In order to be happy and successful, you and your kids need to keep busy, rack up experiences, broaden your contacts." And so we have. We have filled every day, even the Lord's Day, with such a gauntlet of activities that we have become slaves to our schedules. But God says: Take time to be holy—set apart. Draw some new lines, prune your involvements, recover the time necessary to be a family and nurture a soul. For "six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest."
The witch declares, "Be sure to speak your mind. It's a sign of strength and you know best." And we have often obeyed. We have carped and criticized or supported those who do. But God says: "The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit." "So be quick to listen and slow to speak." "Be slow to anger, abounding in love, and forgiving sin."
On All Hallow's Evening we are reminded that, for the present time, there are two very different kingdoms at work in the world and the church—a Kingdom of Darkness and a Kingdom of Light. But one day, says this Revelation, there will be only one Kingdom left. In the dawn of that new age, those who have repented of the witch's way and obeyed the Master's voice here will be given the "authority" to "rule" there and will live eternally by the light of "the Morning Star" himself. In the meantime, each of us has to decide whom we'll really listen to and serve behind our masks and whom, as a result, we'll be throwing out. Jezebel or Jesus? The trickster of Satan or the Treat of sinners becoming saints? May we choose wisely.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.