Saturday, January 31, 2009

Sermon: 4 Epiphany (1 February 2009)

Sermon: 4 Epiphany (1 February 2009)
(Deuteronomy 18:15-20/Psalm 11/1 Corinthians 8:1-13/Mark 1:21-28)
Demons and Angels

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Despite its apparent flaws, the lectionary does have this in its favor: it protects the congregation from endless sermon series based on the whims and fancies of the minister. Once, at the church where I first heard the gospel and was born to new and eternal life, the new minister – and I recognize now just how young and inexperienced he was – developed a fascination, an obsession really, with demons. Service after service he preached and taught on the subtle ways of these evil beings and upon the danger they present. The congregation was growing restive. With the arrogance of youth – with the arrogance of my youth anyway – I confronted this minister after service one evening.

“Have you ever encountered a demon?” I asked the minister. “Well, no,” he replied. I continued: “Have you any direct experience with demon possession?” He stammered a bit now: “No.” I pressed my advantage. “Do you think this congregation is experiencing a particular problem with demons?” Now he really grew flustered. “Well, not really – no, of course not.” “Then for God’s sake can we please move on and leave the demons behind?” This, my final question, marked his final sermon on demons.

I was wrong in my handling of this episode: may God forgive me my lack of charity and humility and protect me from parishioners like my younger self!

Now, half my life later I am confronted by the lectionary with a gospel passage on demons, demon possession, and exorcism. Now I am the minister and I must either deal with the topic or ignore it. Perhaps it is God’s way of making humble the arrogant.

The gospel is clear; there is no easy and faithful way around it: Jesus was an exorcist, pure and simple, though not the theatrical sort found in grade B horror films. No elaborate rituals, no sprinkling with holy water, no burning application of the cross: Jesus simply spoke the word – a word sometimes preceded by prayer and fasting – simply spoke the word and the demons were banished. And that seems to be the emphasis of the evangelists: Jesus had authority, simply by virtue of his identity and his word, to conquer demons and the strong man (Mt 12:29), Satan, who controls them. Though the religious authorities never got the point, the am ha eretz, the common people of the land, did: “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27b, NRSV). They obey him, not willingly, but because they know him to be the Holy One of God, the one before whose authority they must yield. Every gospel exorcism is a preview of that last, great day when every knee will bow – of those in heaven, and of those on the earth, and of those under the earth – and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (cf Phil 2:9-11).

Single demons, sevenfold demons (Luke 8:2), a legion of demons (Mark 5:9): Jesus banished them all with a word. He even shared this power with his disciples.

1After these things the Lord appointed seventy others also, and sent them two by two before His face into every city and place where He Himself was about to go.

17[Then] the seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your Name.”
18And He said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. 20Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:17, 18-20, NKJV).

Paul, too, was an exorcist, and his work in Ephesus provides some welcome comic relief to the breakneck pace and intensity of the Acts of the Apostles.

11Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, 12so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out of them. 13Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” 14Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so.

15And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”

16Then the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, overpowered them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17This became known both to all Jews and Greeks dwelling in Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified (Acts 19:11-17, NKJV).

The emphasis is the same in all these accounts, whether deadly serious or comical: the Lord Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, authority before which the demons tremble and flee, and he has graced his disciples – and his church – with the same authority exercised in his name.

So here we are, stuck with all this talk of demons. Jesus could exorcise unclean spirits from the lives of oppressed men, women, and children, but we cannot seem to exorcise them from the New Testament text or from our faith; they are present and will not be banished. We can ignore them or dismiss them, but they will not go away.

With demons, as with many issues, there is a continuum of thought, both inside and outside the Christian community: C. S. Lewis rightly defines its extremes.

"There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or magician with the same delight" (C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters).

I’ve met some – both Christian and non-Christian – with an excessive and unhealthy interest in demons: Christians who see demons lurking in every shadow, underlying every physical illness or mental disturbance; Christians who develop obsessive interest in accounts of possession and exorcism; Christians who fancy themselves alternately either in danger of possession or champion over all the powers of darkness; and non-Christians who are drawn to séances and witchcraft – modern day Druids or Wiccans, dabblers in the occult. It is dangerous business, this.

I’ve met some – both Christian and non-Christian – who dismiss demons as pre-Enlightenment superstition, as a remnant of the dark ages carried forward in outdated religious ritual and doctrine. Demons are inventions of primitive peoples to explain forces and phenomena beyond their understanding and control, say these rationalists. Modern concepts of medicine, psychology, and the natural sciences now provide better explanations – we just know more and better than did the ancients – so that demons can be relegated to the dustbin of the past along with the flat earth and the earth-centered universe. It is dangerous business, this.

A better way than either of these has been charted for us by the faithful and preserved in the thought and practice of the church. It begins, ironically, with the very words of the demons themselves: “We know who you are, the Holy One of God.” If the demons acknowledge the authority, the Lordship, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, dare we, as his disciples, do less? And if we acknowledge the authority, the Lordship, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, dare we dismiss his words, his deeds, his description of the reality he created as superstition or primitive mythology – outdated notions which must be reinterpreted in terms of wiser men like Bacon and Freud? No. The church accepts the reality of these spiritual forces because the church’s Lord taught us to, because the one who has the very mind of God taught us to. From his nativity to his resurrection Jesus battled the spiritual forces of evil arrayed against him: forces apparent in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, in the wilderness temptation, in the life-threatening storms on the Sea of Galilee, in the lives of the possessed, in the betrayal of Judas, in the cowardice of Pilate, in the lash and the thorns and the nails and the cross. Jesus’ life was an epic battle – the epic battle – of spiritual forces, all the powers of Hell arrayed against the power of heaven, the Lamb of God. When Jesus speaks of spiritual reality, he speaks from experience. We do well to listen. The church accepts the reality of evil spirits – demons – because the church knows who Jesus is, the Holy One of God, and because the church knows him as the Truth.

The church accepts the reality of these spiritual forces because the fathers and mothers and saints of the church – across time and space, across culture and geography – consistently attest to their reality. Sainthood, ancient and modern, is achieved, in part, through struggle with evil: not just evil within – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life which afflict us all – but real evil out there, malevolent spiritual beings who intend man’s separation from God and man’s eternal destruction. This is the testimony of those who have followed most closely the way of the Lord, who have verified his words by their lives. When the saints speak of spiritual reality, they speak from experience. We do well to listen. The church accepts the reality of evil spirits – demons – because the church knows the saints, the holy ones of God, and because the church knows their lives and their words to be true.

The church accepts the reality of these spiritual forces because the prayers, the liturgy, the practices of the church are life giving and life sustaining. It is the dark of night on Holy Saturday and the church sits vigil awaiting the death-shattering victory of Christ’s resurrection. Some gather in preparation for their own deaths and resurrections in the water of baptism. The priest stands before them and intones ancient words, words which rest on Jesus’ promise to the seventy and to the twelve and to generation after generation of the faithful. He prays with fear and trembling for each baptismal candidate:

The Lord rebukes you, Satan: the Lord who came into the world and dwelt among us to destroy your tyranny and to deliver humanity; The Lord, who upon the tree triumphed over hostile powers, when the sun was darkened and the earth quaked, when the graves were opened and the bodies of the saints arose; the Lord, who by death destroyed death, and left powerless him who had the power of death, that is you, Satan.

I adjure you by God who has shown us the tree of life and placed the Cherubim and the flaming sword every way to guard it. Be rebuked! I rebuke you by him who walked upon the surface of the sea as on dry land and rebuked the stormy winds, whose frown dries up the sea and whose rebuke melts away the mountains, for He himself now commands you through us!

Be afraid, depart and keep away from this creature and never dare to return or hide yourself within him; lie not in wait for him nor scheme against him neither during the night nor during the day, neither in the morning nor at the noon day, but depart into your own dark abyss until the great day of judgment prepared for you!

Fear God who is seated upon the Cherubim and looks upon the depths, fear him before whom the angels, archangels, thrones, dominations, principalities, powers, virtues, the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim tremble, before whom tremble heaven and earth, the sea and all they contain.

Begone and depart from the sealed and newly enlisted warrior of Christ our God; for I rebuke you by Him who walks on the wings of the wind and who makes the winds His messengers and flaming fire His servants. Begone and depart from this creature together with all your power and your angels.

For glorified is the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit now and ever and forever. Amen.

I have said these words and you have heard them and together we have experienced their power. The church accepts the reality of these spiritual forces because the prayers, the liturgy, the practices of the church are life giving and life sustaining.

Yes, the church accepts the reality of the spiritual forces, these beings set in opposition to God and set upon our destruction.

12For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12, NKJV).

We accept the reality of these spiritual forces but we do not fear them, because we are persuaded “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39, NKJV).

We accept the reality of these spiritual forces but we do not fear them, because we have been given the full armor of God if we will but don it.

14Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. 17And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; 18praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints (Eph 6:14-18, NKJV).

We accept the reality of these spiritual forces but we do not fear them, because we are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in us is greater than the one who is in the world (cf 1 John 4:4).

The promise of the Lord Jesus Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, the full armor of God, the prayers and practices of the church: these are our strength by which we overcome all the spiritual powers arrayed against us.

In the Western church we do not speak of these matters very often; perhaps we are slightly embarrassed by them or simply don’t know quite what to make of them. Are they, after all, even important, even worthy of mention? Yes, most certainly. We live in an impoverished culture with a diminished view of reality, a culture where materialism and rationalism dominate the philosophical landscape: “The universe is all that is or ever was or ever will be," Carl Sagan said in the introduction to the Cosmos series. The only reliable source of knowledge about it is experiment and reason. In this universe of the materialists and rationalists there is no place for demons, no place either for angels and archangels, for cherubim and seraphim, for prophets and apostles and saints and martyrs, for heavenly choirs and all the company of heaven singing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” There is no place for incarnation and resurrection – for Emmanuel, God with us, and for Christus Victor, Christ victorious. There is no place for sin and fall, for redemption and salvation. This universe is far too small.

The true reality we inhabit – the reality that transcends the merely material and rational – is vast beyond our imagining, vast as the creative power of God. And we are not alone in the vastness. God is there – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – not a being among others located in space and time, but the Being above all others transcending space and time, the source and ground of all being, the One in whom we live and move and have our being (cf Acts 17:28); and angels – ministering spirits guiding men and nations according to the will of God; and demons – malevolent spirits deceiving men and nations according to the will of the evil one, the father of lies, the ancient foe, the serpent, the roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, the accuser – Satan. These are defeated foes – conquered by the life-giving cross of Christ – defeated, yet still present and powerful, still intent upon our destruction. We dismiss these as fantasy, superstition, historic relic at our peril. It is important to know. It is important to be strong in the Lord.

In the end, of course, it is not demons themselves which should be the focus of the church, but our Lord’s authority, our Lord’s power over them – and what that power tells us. Following one exorcism Jesus said to a skeptical crowd, “[But] if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20, NIV). He did and it has. Thanks be to God.


1 comment:

Desert Pilgrim said...

This is a wonderful message, and so very needed in this time of increased darkness. I was blessed in reading it.