Epiphany 5 – February 7, 2020
Faith Lutheran Church
Grace to you all and peace from God our creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus. Amen.
Demons. Devils. One can’t receive the gospel that was just read without asking questions about them, with them being mentioned four different times in these short ten verses. Following last week and our engaging the role of exorcism in Jesus’ ministry, it is fitting that our reading for today immediately follows the scene in the synagogue.
This reading makes me ask six questions about demons and the demonic (terms I will use interchangeably):
- What does one picture when they think of the devil, or demons?
- Where do demons come from?
- What do we make of possession in the New testament?
- What do we make of the demonic today?
- What does Jesus have to do with the demonic?
- What difference does any of this make for us?
First, what does one picture when the terms “demonic” or “devil” are used? Some might imagine the devil as a half man, dressed in a red leotard with pointed ears and tail and a type of pitch fork in his hand. Maybe that pitch fork is used to prod people into sinning, and that is why we have the phrase” the devil made me do it.”
Maybe others picture the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, with the devil whispering suggestions of forbidden ideas or actions into the person’s ears?
Yet, I don’t think either of those images of a devil seem too realistic. Both of them seem too obvious to me. I think that in his book, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis paints a convincing picture that a devil would probably try to look like you or me. Maybe on they would dress in their Sundays best, and seem friendly to everyone they met. But I don’t really know. I don’t think I’ve ever recognized a devil or demon. But the demonic, that which works counter to God, it seem likely that it would be more covert in approach than overt.
Yet, even if we could recognize the demonic, it begs the question, where did it even come from?
If we look to scripture for that answer, demons are not a common concept in the Old Testament, and are primarily referenced in the New Testament. Certainly, there was evil and sin in the Hebrew Bible, but specific demons and possession sprung up in the time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments.
Scholars believe that the Israelite people who had been subjugated by foreign nations began to name the demonic as a way to explain the plight they faced. It was a method to explain the presence of evil in their lives, even in a world that they believed was under God’s sovereign control. And after beginning to recognize the evil around them, the devil and demons were named beyond that “time between both testaments” into the New testament.
But what do we make of possession in the New Testament? It is clear that by this time the Jewish believers recognized that just as a person could be overcome by the spirit of God, so too evil spirits could control a person.
There were beliefs that demons were responsible for different illness and there was the desire to drive out the demons to rid people of those associated illnesses. That a person or people could be possessed was not a fringe or strange belief, but was part of everyone’s common understanding.
But do we make of demons today? What do you make of the demonic today?
- Some folks use phrases like, “The devil made me do it.” As though somehow they aren’t responsible for some action or actions.
- Many others don’t believe that there is such as thing as the demonic.
- Perhaps others never think about it till they watch a horror movie or read a scary story.
- Some people live in fear of being overcome by demons, believing they are all around us.
- Martin Luther threw an ink bottle at a pesky demon one day when he was annoyed.
Whatever we find ourselves believing today, perhaps we should say that for those who believe demons exist, they do. Especially hearing stories from folks who have served in places where there isn’t a strong stigma against acknowledging the demonic.
But what does Jesus even have to do with Demons?
In a way we can answer that by saying, “Nothing!” He has nothing in common with them. But on the other hand, we could say “Everything!” Jesus has everything to do with them because he completely overcomes them. We read that Jesus “cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak.”
In the gospel of Mark, that emphasis on not letting the demons speak was in response to their recognizing who he was. They recognized that Jesus was the son of God who was bringing a new way of being to the world, one that stripped them of their power. They recognized that as Jesus preached and healed he was pushing the devil back on his heels. They saw that he was the cosmic Christ of Colossians 1:16 & 17 who was before all things, in all things, and triumphing over the powers of evil. And as such, there was only one response Jesus could have to these demons, and that was to cast them out.
Yet as Jesus cast them out, what difference does that make for us one might ask? I think it makes all the difference.
First, that Jesus shares in our suffering, no matter its cause. Jesus who was fully human recognized that pain and suffering brought about by possession in the people around him. Yet because he was empowered by the spirit, he worked against those demonic spirits in a manner that others could not, and he was able to bring about change.
Second, Jesus sought the healing of people in mind and body. This means that we can and should celebrate all that aids humanity in seeking health and restoration. In this time of a global pandemic, we can give thanks for vaccines that are safe and effective.
Third, we can live powerful lives. In Christ there is power to overcome anything that would seek to draw us away from God. In Christ, we have been empowered to no longer be afraid of that which is other or different from what we know, because Christ has overcome the evils of the world.
Empowered by the spirit, we can follow Jesus’ example of recognizing the demonic forces that surround us. We can work to bring the change that is so needed in our world and in our lives. The demonic in our lives might not present itself in the same manner it did before Jesus. Just as in the Screwtape Letters, the forces that defy God are likely those which we least expect. They may not jump out to us and “look like” the demonic. But following our Savior, Jesus, who worked to bring healing and restoration to the whole world, we too are called to follow and bring healing and restoration in our world and in our lives.