"DEMONS" - Psalm 103:1-8; Luke 8:26-39
A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, June 23, 2019
Texts: Psalm 103:1-8; Luke 8:26-39
Many of you know that my upbringing had me absolutely enfolded into the Presbyterian family of the Christian tradition. My father was a Presbyterian minister. My earliest life and memories include riding my tricycle on the sidewalks just outside of the church sanctuary, because the manse where we lived was next to the church. I got into mischief racing my brothers on our bellies underneath the pews of the sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church, Auburn, AL. Going weekly to Sunday School and Worship, participating in Confirmation, going to Youth group – these are the things that totally shaped my life. I remain so blessed to be nurtured in a loving, faith-filled home.
With that upbringing, and now with more than 30 years as a Presbyterian pastor, I bet it is no surprise to you that my total number of DEMON castings is still at ZERO. J Ha!
I have never even been around anyone who has tried, seriously, to cast out a DEMON. That talk of DEMONS and casting out DEMONS has not been part of our tradition.
I am not sure I can even remember any conversation about DEMONS, except in talking about some stories in the Bible.
Moreover, I have earned three degrees in Bible and theology. I have so many books on my shelf (almost every day Ginger urges me to get rid of some!). And, in preparation for this sermon, I could find almost nothing in those books about DEMONS.
When I reached for my most well-worn books, written by the people and professors and theologians who significantly shaped my life and faith, I could find almost nothing on this topic: DEMONS.
Presbyterians are strong at talking about the love of God, about justification by grace through faith, and how, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God.
Presbyterians are so good at emphasizing life in gratitude for God’s abundant goodness and care. Presbyterians talk so well about how we live in response to God - our lives of faith and commitment are to work for the in-breaking of God’s reign.
Presbyterians are excellent at saying we are elected to service as well as salvation. Presbyterian are great at lifting up how we respond to God’s amazing grace with gracious lives that promote justice and peace. We are real good at so much theology and faith, and life and service.
But we do not talk much about DEMONS.
Yet we have this story from Luke. And it is pretty vivid picture . . . of DEMONS. Listen:
26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As Jesus stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country.35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid.36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Jesus has just gotten out of the boat. The previous story is about Jesus calming a storm – the winds and the sea of Galilee. But when he gets out of the boat, Jesus encounters a man distorted by . . . DEMONS.
The DEMONS are so powerful inside of this man that he has, according to this text, made his home among the buried dead.
Who makes a home among the buried dead? Who lives in a cemetery? Moreover, this man has lived naked, isolated, apart from society.
When Jesus permits the army of DEMONS to find a new home – not in the man, but in a herd of pigs, which rush to destruction, the man is restored to health, and even to community. But the community, however, responds with fear so intense that Jesus has to leave. A new storm – a human storm - has been started swirling!
DEMONS – what is going on here with the DEMONS?
I want first to try to clarify what we are talking about when we talk about DEMONS.
A DEMON is a way of talking about a power that takes over our hearts, souls, minds, and lives and alienates us from the life that God intends for us. A DEMON distorts our sense of who we are, what we are called to do – distorts our sense of identity and purpose.
In this sense, we all have DEMONS. We all struggle with DEMONS. Maybe our DEMONS are related to how we see ourselves – perhaps low self-esteem, or chronic worries about whether we are good enough, beautiful enough, smart enough. Or it could be that our DEMONS carry us to the other extreme. We are caught up in being so very full of ourselves, cannot really ever get past ourselves: narcissistic.
Maybe our DEMONS relate to our upbringing, or something that happened to us. Psychologists tell us that the things that happen to us can become life-long challenges in our lives. We are always trying to prove ourselves or, at the other extreme, minimize ourselves. We often fight through our demons, or over-compensate, for what we are carrying around. We might carry shame. We might fight addiction. We try to deal with various levels of PTSD. We might remain burdened by guilt. All of these can become our DEMONS because they bring challenges to the other things that happen in our lives.
So, the word –DEMONS - is a way of talking about the struggles that are ours, the powers and burdens that we must deal with in order to be our best selves. In this sense, perhaps we need to re-claim the word. These powers, these forces that distort who we are called to be, destroy our wholeness. They are real and can be sometimes very challenging for many of us.
And when the DEMONS get truly strong and overwhelming, we can understand DEMON-possessed. The man in the story is quite a vivid depiction. It says, “For a long time he wore no clothes and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.” He had lived lots of life “bound with chains and shackles” – or in the wilds. And these DEMONS are loud – the man falls down and they yell and call out to Jesus.
A DEMON-distorted life has made it impossible for this man to live in community. He has been invaded fully, not by a DEMON, but by DEMONS. His very name is Legion. This man has not been wrestling with a few DEMONS, like we might know, but a whole army of DEMONS. “Legion” is the name also of the oppressive Roman army that was everywhere in the region. So this man’s existence is not just DEMON –distorted; it is symbolic of the disruption, of being surrounded, over-taken, totally victimized by DEMONS.
I would guess that you, like me, have known some people who are so “DEMON-possessed” that they cannot function in community. We get to know some of these folks in this downtown church where we – day in and day out - encounter lots of interesting people. There are medical explanations for many of the conditions of these people. A simple term is mental illness. Normal neurological processors have been disrupted. Medications can help. But clearly these people struggle, and they are dealing with issues that take over their mind, heart, and lives. And they most likely do not have any health care, or do not know where to find it. They find themselves alienated from community and far away from the life that God intends for God’s people.
Sometimes the DEMON-possessed will include addiction, which can be a real and awful DEMON. It might include also intense depression. It might be extreme worry and anxiety that can make it impossible to function normally. And when it gets really bad, we might say it’s “Legion” – so oppressive and disruptive to life.
So in thinking about this subject – DEMONS – there is the spectrum: DEMONS that we can name, that we might fight sometimes, that might haunt us in some ways, all the way to the DEMON-possessed life that we have probably seen.
We could even carry this concept of DEMONS beyond ourselves – and think about this word DEMONS - out further, to our culture, to society. So many DEMONS from our cultural habits through the years shape us in ways that remain oppressive, disruptive.
We could probably talk about our DEMONIC love affair with guns that generates a society of so much gun violence. We could talk about our DEMONIC obsession with consumption, that takes such a toll on the planet and human relationships. Certainly we could talk about the DEMONS of white-privilege and intense racism, particularly in this city, and how the city has developed, been divided.
Just this weekend, this city took a step in taking on that DEMON, with the re-naming of the Boulevard with the name Arthur Ashe. That does not come close to absolving the cultural DEMONS of racism, but it seeks to be a step toward better, more wholesome purposes.
We could talk about the DEMONS that pervade our politicians, who continue to act with self-interest instead of the common good. Maybe it is the DEMONS who keep guiding us toward power conflicts and war instead of peace and the concern for the planet. Maybe it is the DEMONS that keep spreading fear, that keep dragging us toward more division, toward some other catastrophe, instead of toward life and justice and joy which God intends.
This could be a most helpful word – “DEMONS.” DEMONS is a way of describing the sincere and dangerous realities that take over our better lives, that oppress our best gifts and intentions, that haunt us individually and as a community. I even think the word, DEMONS, is a way of waking us up to our continuing inclination to move away from God and God’s plans.
Yet here is the good news: DEMONS never prevail in the Bible. God does. Jesus does. And that should absolutely direct our living.
Look at what happens in the passage. It is very dramatic – even entertaining. Jesus permits the Legion of demons in the man to find a new home in a herd of pigs, which prominently rush to destruction, to drown in the sea. Just as Jesus can calm the storms on the sea, Jesus can defeat the most challenging and abundant DEMONS in this troubled man and his community. All of this affirms so powerfully what Jesus’ life, teachings, and actions really mean: Jesus comes to free us – to deal with our DEMONS – whether they are some relatively minor issues of our hearts and lives, or the most extreme and overwhelming setbacks and circumstances that debilitate us. Jesus seeks to make us whole, to give us life and peace, to promise us that no Legion is too much for God’s power, that no darkness is too dark for God’s light. Jesus wants to heal us, free us, strengthen us for life. This is another story to make that point. DEMONS are real. DEMONS can be pervasive. But DEMONS – not ours, our culture’s, or our country’s – are too much for God.
Then, there is one more piece of this story that makes it even more interesting and pertinent. Jesus releases the DEMONS in the man. The man, now bereft of the army that had oppressed and disrupted his life, tries to remain with Jesus. But in an interesting move – Jesus does not say “come and follow me” – Jesus sends him back into his community. Who knows how the community will receive him? Who knows how he will be treated? The community chased Jesus away – but Jesus still has a witness there – the healed and restored man. The man went away to the people, to the community that has alienated him for so long – proclaiming what Jesus had done. He went throughout the city proclaiming Jesus (v. 39).
That reminds me of that wonderful phrase – “THINK GLOBALLY – ACT LOCALLY.” Jesus told the man to go back to his community and proclaim what God had done. He went and shared about Jesus.
Jesus keeps asking us to go back and join him in the struggle against all the disruptive, oppressive, debilitating things that alienate us from the life that God intends.
Yesterday at the event at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, and the re-naming of the Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Congressman John Lewis said “we cannot go backwards; we have to go forwards.” We have to keep working for racial justice, and equality, and treating people with human dignity. We have to fight, and vote, and do what is right. Even as we see places getting worse, like at the border, or with racism growing, and even after 400 years in the struggle for equality and justice, we “cannot go backwards; we have to go forwards.”
Jesus says – “go to your community” and keep going – God wins over DEMONS. “Go back” to throw off the Legion – to expose and defeat the powers that distort our sense of purpose, that destroy wholeness. Jesus sends us to be fully engaged in our community to point to and work for the ways of Jesus – healing, love, welcome, justice, light, peace, possibility, and fairness for all.
And we have so much work to do. By God’s Spirit, we keep on!
Prayer of Commitment: Loving God, thank you for your power and promises. By your Spirit, we align our lives with you and your purposes following Jesus, the Way. Amen.
Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on June 23, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.