A Sermon Preached by Rev Graham Hamborg on 23 June 2019
Isaiah 65:1-9, Luke 8:26-39
Today’s gospel reading is a tricky passage, so would you pray with me? Lord, sometimes the Scriptures speak straight to us across the centuries, and sometimes they make us scratch our heads a little as they confront us with a world which can seem quite different to our own. Give us insight and wisdom, Lord, as we come to engage with this passage from Luke’s gospel. And as we engage, open your word to our hearts, and our hearts to your word. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
What are the demons that you wrestle with in your life? What are the things that trouble you, constantly or regularly, and never seem to go away? What are the habits that you know to be negative, and you’ve tried to work at them, but nothing ever seems to change? Maybe you know yourself to be deeply insecure inside. Maybe you’re a worrier, who can’t stop worrying about one thing or another. Or maybe, on the contrary, you know that you are really much too full of yourself and not much good at listening to anyone else.
Perhaps you identify with St Paul in Romans 7, where he writes about the good he wants to do, he somehow doesn’t, and the bad he wants not to do he somehow does.
Perhaps you’d love to live a simpler lifestyle, yet some unseen power seems to keep on making you get the latest techie gadgets or the necessary new clothes for your already full wardrobe. And you’d love to be different, but somehow you seem powerless to change things.
And what are the demons that afflict our nation and our world? There seems to plenty around just now which might qualify. In recent years we seem to have let loose and made respectable a whole range of unhealthy attitudes. We have created a hostile environment for the migrant, even declining to let refugee children be reunited with their families. Hostility to the stranger is now acceptable. We have become divided into camps. We have seen a resurgence in racism. We have allowed nationalism – in itself perfectly right and proper – to be commandeered by hateful extremists, and to be turned into something rather ugly.
A survey (BritainThinks) which reported just over a week ago found Britain to be a more polarised and pessimistic nation than it had been for decades. The survey found that less than 6% of people thought that politicians listen and understand them, and that a staggering 75% think UK politics is no longer fit for purpose – something which should worry us. The words that people used were words like ‘broken’, ‘sad’, worried’, ‘angry’. To call much of what is going on ‘demonic’ is hardly an understatement.
But I do appreciate that in speaking as I am, I have made a jump from the world of the New Testament to our world, and I think I need to go back a step or two as we come to consider this gospel reading. Because it does raise questions for us.
The biggest question is the whole matter of demons. It’s an issue for us not just in this passage, but in many in the gospels. A significant proportion of the healings that Jesus performs are actually a casting out of demons, especially in Mark’s gospel, but also in Matthew and Luke too. It feels like a whole different worldview from that held by most of us schooled in western, rational, scientific ways of thinking, a way of thinking which has little space for either angels or demons. How do we bridge that gap?
One way – one extreme , if you like – is to say that the Bible’s worldview must be right, because it’s the Bible. And if our worldview differs, then it must be simply wrong, and if science doesn’t like that, then tough for science.
Another view – at the other extreme, if you like – is to say that people in the ancient world thought there were demons around afflicting people, but that we grown-up scientific people now know better.
And in between those two extremes lie a whole range of hard-to-be-specific positions, people who are happy to recognise that perhaps we’re in a complex area; people who don’t generally expect to see demons being cast out, and certainly not as frequently as the New Testament seems to, but who don’t totally discount the presence in the world of unseen spiritual forces. Such people – and I’d count myself among them – are happy to live with some ‘not sure’ attitudes, and to accept that while they can be clear about the essential elements of Christian faith, there are grey areas too, about which sometimes it’s best not to be too dogmatic.
One of the cleverest statements, oft-quoted, is that of C S Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. He wrote that “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.”
That seems to be to be a middle-ground position worthy of respect.
It’s also true that we need not to get so hung up on this question that we fail to hear what the gospel story is telling us. Whatever we end up feeling about that particular question, we can go on to ask: whatever may or may not be exactly the case in terms of the reality or otherwise of supernatural spiritual forces manifested as demons, how do we appropriate the story and its vocabulary in such a way that God speaks to us from the story today?
So this morning I’m going to adopt a particular understanding about the principalities and powers, which makes sense to quite a lot of people today, and say that they can be at work in organisations, businesses, and even in nations.
The John Steinbeck novel Grapes of Wrath has a marvellous piece of dialogue in it. It was published in 1939 in the Great Depression in the USA, and focuses on a poor family in Oklahama driven out of their home and land by drought, economic hardship, and changes in the agricultural industry. And at one point two friends talk about the role of the banks that call in their loans and refuse to extend credit any further, thus making them destitute. One says: “But the bank is only made of men.” And the other replies: “No, you’re wrong there—quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
Now I’ve nothing against bankers. I have family and friends who work in financial services and who serve Christ in their work through doing so. The point from Steinbeck’s novel is the fact that big organisations – and even nations – can somehow take on attitudes and follow practices that no one individual within them is really happy about, and yet that’s what happens.
In the twentieth century an American theologian, Walter Wink, built a whole theology of the ‘principalities and powers’ around this. So, he comments, most people want a world without poverty, without sexual exploitation, in which we don’t despoil nature. Yet corporately we don’t manage to create such a world. One reason is that our social, economic and political structures powerfully resist transformation.
With climate change and our lack of care of the environment, most individuals, if asked, want to see climate change taken seriously, and want to see the creation cared for. Yet corporately, we seem to be incapable of making the changes that most individuals accept should be made.
This, says Walter Wink, is how we may interpret the presence of demonic forces today. Our inability to act for good corporatelydespite the wishes and good intentions of many individual who comprise the corporation people is not just a social and political matter, it has a spiritual dimension to it. And as Christians our human involvement in the structures of an organisation or in the political life of the nation is part of a spiritual struggle.
A more recent writer, Brian McLaren puts it this way: “Think of it like this: you have a crowd of normal, happy people dancing in a popular night club. Suddenly someone shouts ‘Fire!’, and people panic. There is a stampede towards the exits, in the course of which some are trampled on and killed in the chaos – which means that others are doing the trampling and the killing. Now none of those present were heartless killers before the scare. But we might say that a ‘spirit of panic’ possessed them, and drove them to violence. That spirit had a will of its own, as it were, turning peaceful, decent people into a ruthless, dangerous mob that became every bit as evil as the threat it feared. Now imagine a similar spirit of racism, of revenge, of political partisanship, of greed – and you can begin to imagine decent people becoming possessed, controlled and driven by these forces, mind-sets or ideologies.”
Those words were written five years ago, but seem horribly prescient of where we are now.
What, then, do we make of the gospel story in the light of viewing the demonic powers in this light?
Well, this poor man, living in the tombs, is utterly destitute. His life could not be worse. We must give the community the benefit of the doubt and assume that they had tried to help in the past, but by now they have clearly given up, and are keeping him at arm’s length, literally and physically.
Despite the terrible place this man is in, he and the demons within him nevertheless recognise that this Jesus brings love and goodness of a kind which will confront the evil powers.
Jesus asks “What is your name?” – and one of Walter Wink’s classic books is called Naming the Powers. And the answer is that his name is ‘Legion’. His problems are multi-layered – as are so many of the world’s problems. If there was one simple identifiable problem, perhaps we could deal with it, but it hardly ever is.
Then we get this bizarre conversation in which the demons beg not to be thrown into ‘the abyss’ – the place in which it was believed that one day the devil and all his forces would be destroyed – and amazingly Jesus grants their request! But then they bring destruction on themselves, as the pigs into which they are sent rush down the steep bank and are drowned.
And doesn’t it feel right now that as a nation we are in danger of charging down the hillside and drowning ourselves?
And yet, the good news follows. The man is healed. The demons have departed when the presence of Jesus and his loving power has come near. The people of the community find him in his right mind seated at Jesus’s feet.
A time for celebration, you might think? But no. The people of the city can’t cope with this new situation. They’ve got so used to seeing this man with his messed-up life, that they fear to welcome him back. They knew where they were with this man chained up in the tombs, and they prefer the devil they know to the opportunity for an alternative way of being in respect of this poor man. And besides that, the pigs were the livelihood of some. Change is not welcome if there is economic loss as part of it.
And it turns out that this story is not about one individual in need of healing, but of a whole community in need of healing.
And in the end it’s the healed man himself who is sent back into the community, still unhealed, to bring the good news that God’s love and power can change things, and can reconcile, and can save from disaster. What God did for him that day, healing and restoring to sanity, he can do for us all, and for our society.
It’s quite a story.
So where does it leave us? What are the implications for us?
- Well, firstly, we do well to recognise that even in the most extreme situation, when the whole of life seems to be falling apart, the love and power of Jesus can heal and restore and make whole. That’s important for us to remember in respect of our individual lives, that when we feel total failures because of whatever it may be, and feel that the demons that afflict us seem to have the upper hand, then actually we can remind ourselves that Jesus is Lord over all the principalities and powers. We can and should turn to him constantly and regularly to find his love afresh, and especially in those times when we are dispirited and tempted to think that we are stuck where we are and that’s that.
We should recognise it, too, for our society and our world. That when the mess and the hatred and the intolerance seems greater than we’ve known for many years, that actually the love and power of Jesus remain greater still. And we can and should invoke that love and invite it into our world.
And that leads to the second implication of this story for us. That what we see going on around us right now is not just about human and social dynamics and interactions, but actually there’s a spiritual dimension to it all. If ever I felt that the devil was having a field day, it’s been over the last two or three years.
And so we Christians need to pray. Yes, we need to campaign for our beliefs and values, yes we need to speak up for what we believe to be right. But as well as that, we need to pray, and pray earnestly, for Christ’s love to be at work, creating and growing love in us and in our society:
- love for our neighbours;
- love for the weak and vulnerable;
- love for the refugee and the migrant;
- love for those with whom we disagree.
In the end human resources will be insufficient. We have to cry out to God for his healing and his love.
The opening verse of our Old Testament reading, Isaiah 65:1, said: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said ‘Here I am, here I am’, to a nation that did not call on my name. I held out my hands all day long.” May we not be those who fail to seek, and who fail to call out in Christ’s name for the help that he stands ever ready to give.
It’s right that in church and in our homegroups we pray for those close to home, and we pray for those known to us to be unwell or in need. But we must pray, too, for our society, for our nation, for our world. For if Christians don’t pray and invoke the love of Christ, then who will?
And in praying we can recognise that the love and power of Jesus are stronger than the demons, stronger than the principalities and powers, however we understand those.
For our own lives, and for our world, may we cry out to him – in the sure knowledge that he longs for us to seek him, and holds his hands out to us, and he will always be there.
Would you pray with me once more? Loving God, thank you that your Son Jesus Christ has brought your love to earth, greater than any demonic and evil power in this world. In the dark times in our personal lives or in our world, may we turn to find that love. And may we bring that love to heal our troubled nation. For we ask it in his name. Amen.