Dealing with Demons
Scriptures: Mark 1:21-28, Mark 5:1-20
I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I have at home The
Complete Works of Calvin and Hobbes. Three volumes. I classify it under theology. In one of the comic strips Calvin says to Hobbes, "Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man?" Hobbes replies, "I'm not sure man needs the help."
When it comes to the subject of demons, part of me agrees
with Hobbes. Believing in demons can be excuse for people. If you are possessed by a demon, you are not responsible for your actions. You are a helpless victim. "The devil made me do it."
Likewise believing in demons can also be an excuse for the
rest of us. If you view mentally ill people as demon-possessed, there is nothing you can do for them except lock them away, which is exactly what we did to the mentally ill for centuries.
You can see this at work in our first scripture reading from
Mark chapter 5. When approached by Jesus, the demon-possessed man says, "What have you to do with me Jesus? Do not torment me." The man uses his demon-possession as an excuse to be left alone, an excuse not to deal with his problems. It is also an excuse for the townspeople to write him off. There was nothing to be done for the man except to lock him up, which is exactly what the people in the town tried to do.
I have to confess I don't like preaching about demons.
Belief in demons gives us an excuse for inaction, a reason to give up on people, an excuse to demonize them, to lock them away or try to destroy them.
But what then do we do with these stories in the Bible about
Jesus casting out demons. How should we understand these stories?
I find it interesting that in our second scripture lesson
the demon possessed man is in a synagogue. The demon-possessed man in the first story was living in the tombs, the cemetery. He was homeless, disheveled, howling, bruising himself with stones. He was a mess. But none of that is said about the demon-possessed man in our second story. The man in the second scripture reading was not shackled. He was not incarcerated. He was not homeless. He was not howling at the moon while bruising himself with stones. He was in church for heaven's sake. I picture him in a suit and tie, back when men still wore such things. He was probably a respected member of the community. At least no one was trying to get rid of him. No one wanted him shackled and thrown out of the synagogue. He seemed to fit in, until Jesus came along. It was only when Jesus came along that the demons in the man began crying out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?"
The same was true of the other demon-possessed man, the one
in the cemetery. When Jesus came along, he came out of the tombs yelling at the top of his voice, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" One was a certified lunatic, howling at the moon, and the other was a respected member of the synagogue, but both of them came unglued when they met Jesus.
Why? Because when they met Jesus they found themselves face
to face with God. The man in the tombs says to Jesus, "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" He knows who Jesus is, and the thought of that scares him to death. The same is true of the man in the second scripture. When Jesus shows up at their church as the guest preacher, the man cries out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." Both of them realize that in the presence of Jesus they are in the presence of God. They are in the presence of the Creator, the one Lord who has an absolute claim over their lives, every part of it. Which means the demons will have to go.
In a book called Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith Kathleen Norris
writes, "Scratch the surface of any ordinary church congregation and you will find not hypocrites but people struggling with demons" (p. 46). I think she is right. I don't think churches are full of hypocrites; I think churches are full of people who are struggling, just like that synagogue in Capernaum. Call it sin, call it demons, call it whatever you want, but scratch the surface of any human life, and what we have is not just a medical problem, a psychological problem, or a political problem; what we have is a spiritual problem. Whether you call it sin or demons or something else, it is the problem of wanting God to go away and leave us alone. But Jesus won't do that.
Now if you saw the movie The Exorcist or any other Hollywood
depiction of an exorcism, you noticed there is always a dramatic struggle between the exorcist and the demon. The exorcist uses prayers or holy water or a crucifix and struggles to cast out the demon. During the exorcism the exorcist usually had to take a break from exhaustion, and when the demon finally comes out, the exorcist is totally spent.
None of that has anything to do with the Bible. Jesus does
not use incantations or objects to banish the demons. He does not sweat or collapse from exhaustion. He speaks and the demons are banished. They are conquered by his word, just as the darkness was banished when God said, "Let there be light."
The congregation in the synagogue notices this. After
listening to Jesus teach in the synagogue, verse 22 says, "They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." The scribes were like a first century Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz, dispensing advice. But Jesus was something totally new. After Jesus casts out the demon, verse 27 says, "They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, 'What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.'"
Jesus was not a first century Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz. Jesus did
not bring into the world a new self-help book, a new 12-step program, or a new video series on how to get the most out of life. I don't mean to disparage these things; they can be very helpful. But they don't get to the core of our problem. Our problem is a spiritual problem. That's what the demons represent. Our problem is a broken relationship to God, exemplified by the fact that the demons want Jesus to go away and leave them alone.
One demon possessed man was a lunatic living in the
cemetery. The other was an ordinary member of the synagogue. But both of them had the same problem: wanting God to go away and leave them alone. That's what the demons represent. We may have a drinking problem or an addiction and go through treatment and be completely sober, but we are still not whole if we want Jesus to go away and leave us alone. We may have a disease and go into remission and be completely healed, but we are still not whole if we are alienated from God. We may have marital problems or problems relating to parents or children, and we may go through counseling and get help for those problems, and that is great; but we are still not whole without a relationship to God. We are still dealing with demons, secretly or not so secretly, if we want Jesus to go away and leave us alone.
But he won't, and that is the miracle of grace. Jesus will
not let the demons have the final say. Jesus will not let the forces that separate us from God have the last word. Jesus has the last word. And letting his word have its way in us will finally make us whole.