“The Poison Vapor and the Path to Grace”


Excerpt from a sermon by the Rev. Jasper Alexander, August 17, 1954, Seven Hills Baptist Church, Liberty, Tennessee.

“People have a lot of funny ideas about Satan, and most of them come from fairy tales or folk tales or cartoons or what have you. But let me tell what Satan really is. Satan is not a big red monster with horns and a tail; no, beloved, Satan is a vapor, a cold, clammy vapor that penetrates every corner of your heart and your mind. He seeps in slowly, like a fog, a poison fog, and little by little he fills every crack and crevice, he clouds up every vein and artery, he winds around every nerve, he creeps in and infects every thought, every impulse, every dream, every desire. That’s why you can’t fight him with your mind, your reason – he infects your reason, the vapor is already there, down in the very foundation and cellarage of your mind, of your thoughts.

Now, reason itself is not bad, you understand; reason is neither good nor bad. Reason is just a tool – but Satan is a master craftsman. You can’t fight him with reason. You can’t fight him with emotion, because he’s there too, that poison vapor surging in the raised blood. You can’t fight him with desire, you can’t fight him with imagination, for there is no tool in the arsenal of human understanding that he cannot infect and turn against you. You can’t fight him at all. He can’t be fought, he can’t be wrestled with, he cannot be defeated. He is far, far stronger than you. He is an ancient power, older than the earth, a mighty power, the power of evil, the power of negation, the thing that says No to the Yes of God’s creation. And we are sick with it, we are sick with this vapor, it is inside us, it has consumed us, it has eaten us away. We are trapped with it, forever, in the dark, choking cave of our minds, in the storm and churning mud of our hearts, and there is nothing inside us, nothing, nothing we have that can relieve us from this sick and burning pain.

“Something must come from the outside. And that something is grace. Grace doesn’t fight, grace doesn’t do battle, grace doesn’t rage and make war; grace … cleanses, like the autumn wind. Grace heals. Grace is a light that dispels the vapor, it comes like the sun in the morning to burn away the fog and spread life-giving warmth across the earth. Little by little, it starts to heal and cleanse the infected quadrants of your soul; little by little, your thoughts become clearer, your feelings become sharper, more directed.

And beloved, I’m here today to tell you what was imparted to me: this grace is there for everyone to have. It’s not some kind of mystical thing, some miracle reserved only for the elect. It’s … Oh, I don’t know how to tell you, I don’t know how to put into words what was given to me without words. But beloved, it’s a natural thing, it’s everywhere, it’s lying in the grass at our feet, and all we have to do is reach down and scoop it up. It’s a … a natural process, you see, like the planting and tending and harvesting of crops. And what it does is not transfigure you into something else, but rather, it gives you back your own self. It gives you back your own mind, your own feelings, your own soul, as murky and imperfect as that is. It sets you free – not to be become an angel or a saint or some sort of perfect creature, but to become nothing more and nothing less than a human being.

“And when it’s there, when that grace comes, beloved, you’ll know it. You’ll know the difference between making an ordinary, awful, stupid, hurtful, human mistake, and acting out of the … the infected impulses of that evil vapor. Why, it’s like trying to run with a fifty-pound ball chained to your leg. When they take that chain off, you still might not be able to run very fast – you still might be slow or lazy or old – but, by God, you’ll know the difference. It’s like that.

“How do you get it, how do you find and plant and tend and harvest this grace? Beloved, you’ve got to emulate Jesus. Emulate Jesus. Do you understand? Belief is a knotty thing, I know. There are many stumbling blocks, and some of them, I confess it, are beyond my ken to resolve. But you don’t have to resolve them. You don’t even have to believe in every jot and tittle of the Holy Scripture – although I do, beloved, I most potently and powerfully do. But what matters most is not that you believe on Jesus but that you emulate him. Who are you going to emulate, if you don’t emulate Jesus? Who are you going to emulate, if you don’t emulate the Lord? He was humble, he wept, he was in no way proud, he turned away from earthly power, he gave away his worldly riches, he committed his heart, his work and his life to the poor, the oppressed, the despised and the rejected. Whoever he was, whatever he was, let us follow that path, and be like him.”

(Fragment from an unfinished fiction)
Picture and text © 2019 by Chris Floyd

About Chris Floyd

Tennessee. Moscow. Oxford.
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