June 24, 2007
Your list of daily worries and woes probably doesn’t include demon possession. You don’t likely think much about the prospects of some evil spiritual being taking control of you, your body, your life. You probably don’t spend much time thinking about the devil and his influence in your life, or even in the world around us.
But then we come to this Gospel reading today from Luke 8 and it all seems so shocking. Like a horror movie. A man is completely possessed by not one, but many demons – “Legion” they are called. They take complete control of him, and while giving him superhuman strength, they also take from him his freedom, his home, his clothing, his dignity. Mark tells us, in a parallel account, that they caused him to gash himself with stones. The man was living in the tombs – surrounded by the dead – but undergoing a living hell himself as the demons tormented him.
It had been this way for quite some time. We don’t know how it all began, but we do know how it ended. The Son of the Most High sets foot on the land, and immediately the demons take notice. The tormentors (ironically) begged not to be tormented. They beg not to be cast into the abyss. But Jesus casts them out. They take to the pigs, and then in self-destruction those pigs run down to drown in the lake.
Now, what are we to make of all this? We could turn this into a bible study on the details of demon possession – how it happens, why it happens, what are the signs. We could ponder the nature of those evil spiritual forces themselves. We could dismiss this, as some do, as a quaint mythological story told by the early Christians to make Jesus seem even more powerful. But none of those approaches will do.
There is a reason the Gospel writer, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells us this true account. And like all of scripture, while it does teach us information, it is never simply about head-knowledge. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message to be believed. It shows our Savior and tells of his work and his promises for us. So what DO we make of this?
Well, even though we are not assailed by this kind of demon possession, we are certainly accosted by the forces of evil. We learn in Confirmation class that our spiritual enemies are Sin, Death and the Devil. And that temptations come from the Devil, the sinful world, and our own sinful nature. So we must contend with the Devil and his minions. And they harass and harangue us in many ways.
Satan loves to see us suffer, but also to distract us from what’s really important and especially to make us doubt our salvation in Christ. He is the master of deception, the “Father of Lies”. And he has many evil tricks and schemes up his sleeve.
It’s often said that the two mistakes we can make when it comes to the Devil and his minions is to pretend they don’t exist, on the one hand, or to become paranoid about them, on the other. We needn’t find a demon under every rock. We needn’t blame Satan for our own sinful nature and its temptations. We don’t have to lie awake at night worried about how he will bother us next. But neither should we think that he is a fairy tale. How many people today would affirm and endorse the existence of Heaven and angels, but deny the existence of Hell and the Devil?
We are not the Gerasene demoniac, but without Christ we are like him. Under the power of the Devil. Self-destructive. Apart from God and from his people. Nothing to cover our shame. Haunted by death, tormented by sin that brings death. Sinners who may think we are strong, but are held captive by the Devil. All who are outside of God’s kingdom are possessed by the Devil in one way or another.
But all is not lost. There is hope for those under the power of the Devil. Jesus has set foot on our shore. He strikes fear in the heart of our enemies, because they know he comes to destroy them.
He destroys sin, death and the Devil at the cross. Jesus dies and rises and then descends to Hell to announce his victory to the forces of evil.
They know who he is, and what his authority is. And they know they are doomed. The unclean spirits are loosed into the unclean pigs, and they drown in the lake. And the man who was possessed is made clean.
One of the interesting things about this passage is the prevalence of the water. Jesus comes to the man via the water. And those evil spirits are cast out, and they drown in the water. What a reminder of what happens for each and every one of us in Christian baptism.
Jesus comes to us in that water, paired with his word. He rescues us there, at the font, from the devil and all his works and all his ways. He washes away our sins, and the unclean becomes clean. He drowns our old sinful nature in the flood of his grace and mercy. Each day, by repentance and remembrance of our baptism, the Old Adam is drowned anew, and our life with God continues. We are no longer associated with death – but with the life that he wins and brings and gives.
And we are no longer “possessed” by Satan, but instead by Christ’s own Spirit. Yes, in a way, you could say we who are baptized are now “possessed” by the Holy Spirit. He dwells within us, guides and directs us. He gives us life and we belong to him.
This is why we Christians need not fear demon possession. We are already possessed by the Holy Spirit, we belong to Jesus, who promises us that no one can snatch us from his Father’s hand. Oh the forces of evil can distract us and tempt us. They can even make us suffer. But they cannot have us. We belong to Christ. We are bought and paid for by his blood. And they can’t overshadow that.
Just like the man who was freed from his demons, and came to believe in Jesus. He was freed from one master, freed to serve a much better master. He went and told how much Jesus did for him. And so can we. For we have been healed and cleansed, released and restored in Jesus Christ, by His Spirit, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.