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February 1, 2009

When Demons Come to Church

Teri: Astonishing, amazing, authority. According to Mark, that is what the people in the synagogue see in Jesus.

Cong:  No it isn't.

Teri:  What do you mean. It says it right here - They were astounded at his teaching. They were amazed. He taught with authority.

Cong:  That may be what they say- but those people weren't paying attention to Jesus. What they saw was a demon.

Teri:  Sure, but that is really incidental to the story.

Cong:  How can you say that? There was a demon in their midst. I'd hardly say that's incidental. If there were one here right now, would you say it's incidental?

Teri: What I mean is that the demon isn't the main point of the story.

Cong: It takes up half the verses and let's be honest, it IS the most interesting part of the story. How can you say it doesn't matter? Why did Mark bother to write it down if it doesn't matter? Mark is the shortest gospel, I assume you already know that. Mark is very selective about what gets included in his account of Jesus' life. He doesn't record much, so why would the demon be there if it is only incidental to the story?

Teri: Ok, ok. In Jesus day people believed in demons. Demon possession was an accepted belief of those ancient times. Scholars still find in graveyards skulls which have had a hole cut in them to let the evil spirits out.

Some scholars suggest that the intensity of belief in the demonic is in direct relationship to certain social, economic, and political conditions. When times are tough and tragedy follows greater tragedy, when life tumbles in and there are more questions than answers, more people begin to believe in demons. The fall of Jerusalem increased Jewish interest in the problem of personal possession by evil spirits.

In the Middle Ages belief in the demonic ran rampant among the uneducated masses who were caught in a web of fear for their very existence. Even some of the great minds that helped people emerge from the darkness of the Middle Ages, like Luther for example, did not fully rise above a belief in the demonic. When flies flew over his books and distracted his attention, and rats disturbed his sleep at night, he blamed demons.

Cong: So are you saying that they believed in demons but we don't? What about the movie the Exorcist? I think a lot of people started seeing things that made them believe in demons after that.

Teri: There are some movies I choose not to mention in sermons. The view is
commonly held that the writers of the New Testament were creatures of their age and therefore ascribed all physical illnesses and abnormalities to possession by evil spirits. Demon-possession was understood to describe insanity and mental illness.

Now scholars are beginning to question this and see instead a distinction between the sick and the possessed. In scripture there is a difference in the way the person addresses Jesus and they way he responds to them if they are called possessed as opposed to being identified as sick or lame.

This distinction between sickness and demonic possession is important because it brings the presence of evil into the story. Mark is not calling our attention to the ability of Jesus to heal a mentally disturbed man. Rather, Mark is presenting this miracle as a sign that the battle against evil is in full swing as Jesus begins his ministry.

Cong: So are demons real or simply a metaphor for evil?

Teri: I know a very intelligent theologian who believes that demons are grey and smoky, about 4 ft tall, with red or green eyes, and able to come into rooms under the doors. I prefer the definition of demons as "those malevolent forces that are deceptive, destructive, and diametrically opposed to the good and gracious will of God" (Samuel D. Zumwalt).

Cong: Like the dementors in Harry Potter?

Teri: Sort of. The dementors suck all the good out of your memories, leaving you with only the terrifying and painful parts of your life to remember.

Whatever our answer to these questions, we know that evil seems defiant and stubborn. Evil steals innocence. We are too often influenced, if not controlled, by such things as addiction, mob mentality, and our own weaknesses and compulsions. Parents, relatives, and even church members pass on their prejudices. Desperation makes us do things we wouldn't ordinarily do. Whatever it is that causes these actions and feelings can seem so strong that we believe it can't possibly be us- it must come from some other source- like a demon.

But some demons do come from inside. Memories of parental neglect or abuse of some sort are inside. Memories of childhood taunts and humiliations are inside. Living with the road not taken whether career choices, romantic choices, or some other what-ifs are inside. Knowledge of one's failures and imperfections are inside. All of these things can become demons that possess and even destroy.

Oh, we don't talk about a personal devil in long red underwear, with tail, horns, and a pitchfork. Still, we can be possessed by powers which rule our lives, like addictions, racism, sexual obsession, lust for power, and plain old guilt, greed, and self-centeredness.

Cong: It seems like we should separate ourselves from people who are possessed by those kinds of powers so we don't become like them. I would worry that if I tried to help them, whatever has got hold of them might start to affect me. Can't we just pray for them from afar?

Teri: When this demon-possessed man caused a disturbance in worship, Jesus did not have him removed from among the listeners.

The church attracts all sorts of people, from misfits to malcontents to egomaniacs, and there will always be those who cause a ruckus in the congregation. The demonic has put on church clothes and has joined us for worship. It's clear from this story we should not only encourage them to be here with all their unpleasantness, peculiar behavior, and downright strangeness, but we should reach out to them with God's undeserved and forgiving, graceful love that healing might take place. We certainly should pray for strength to help them and to avoid the temptations to which we all fall prey.

Without a doubt, Christ has the power and authority to cast out demons. In the confession of sin and assurance of pardon, and in the presence of Jesus at communion, that which is demonic can be defeated and called out. The people of God are called and created to use Christ's authority to heal one another. Through Christ, we can bring healing to the demons in life. Whatever the demon, Christ is the authority to cast it out.


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