Gods and Demons

Demons and Spirits take on form and power when we give ourselves over to them --- but so does God. The choice is ours... a sermon for Epiphany 4b

SJF • 4 Epiphany • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father... and one Lord, Jesus Christ.+

Anyone who watches the TV trailers for the movies — whether you end up going to see the movies or not — knows that demons are and always have been a hot topic for film-makers. I’m sure many of you here remember “The Exorcist” — with its sequels and prequels and even the satires and fun-poking parodies about spinning heads and split-pea soup. That film was not the first by any means to take up the theme of demons and possession and exorcism — and nor was it the last, as the current fare offered by Hollywood continues to show. We are offered ample portions of demon possession and exorcism — and split-pea soup. This is like one of those restaurants where the food isn’t very good, but the portions are generous!

Why is it that people never seem to tire of such supernatural tales of terror — of demons and devils, of those possessed by them, and those foolish enough to worship them? Why is it that tales of supernatural evil — resident or just visiting — continue in the form of such a large part of our popular entertainment? Is it that there aren’t enough real horrors to frighten us, or enough real human evil in the world that we have to look for evil from beyond?

Perhaps after all it is just the fear of the unexplained or the unknown. When something strange happens, when we do not understand the natural cause of some phenomenon, we are likely to attribute it to something supernatural — and people have been doing that since the dawn of human consciousness.

That goes for evil nasty things as well as ordinary things, of course, and in ancient times all such things were divided up into the care and cause of numerous spirits, gods, and demons. Prehistoric people didn’t know what the seasons were or why or how plants grew and animals reproduced, so they put all this down to the action of various gods. Early historic people — the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians — began to record their stories of gods and monsters, whom they believed to be the supernatural source of the natural things for which they had no other explanation. The sun-god rises at dawn and rides his chariot across the sky, then sinks into the west and travels by boat under the earth to re-emerge the next day. Lightning and thunder are the work of the Storm-God, waves and floods the work of the Sea-God and his lesser cousins the lake and the river gods; and the evil fortune is the result of nasty wandering spirits who do their mischief in spreading sickness and disease.

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By the time we get to the first century, we find Saint Paul somewhat on the fence when it comes to the question of whether these gods and demons have any reality or not. The Corinthian Christians to whom he wrote were a sophisticated lot, who felt that since only the true God exists, it doesn’t do any harm to pay tribute to idols representing other gods. It was their rejection of these other gods that ironically had earned them the accusation of being atheists who would bring bad fortune on the cities of the Gentiles by offending their patron gods. So to accommodate, the wise-in-their-own-eyes Corinthians were ready to spill a drop of wine in sacrifice to the pagan gods, with a wink and a nod. “It’s just a formality...”

Saint Paul warns them they are treading on dangerous ground, warning them of the danger a horror movie fan will recognize when a person invites a vampire into their home! “Not so fast,” Paul says: Yes, we know there is but one God and one Lord, but not everyone is so secure in their belief. If you make offerings to idols, even though you know these offerings are meaningless and that you are just doing it so as not to cause offense in your pagan society — what if new Christians who still believe that these false gods are real are scandalized, and you cause them to fall away on that account? In the long run, you have done the demon’s work — you have made the demon real by your actions, and lost your brother or sister to their power.

The point, for Paul as for us, is that these gods and demons derive their power not from themselves — after all they don’t exist! — but from how people relate to them, and are possessed by them. Evil may not have a personal supernatural existence as a being of some kind, but when evil is at work in people, either as individuals or as a group, it might as well — and the damage is done whatever the case. Theologian Walter Wink has written about how it is that these “principalities and powers” can arise out of the human systems that give them flesh and blood — or ectoplasm. These human systems give the spirits bodies to work with and hands to do their evil.

Think for a moment about mob violence. I think in particular of the horrors of group assaults — lynchings, gang-rapes or bashings — that happen from time to time, when a mob seem to become possessed by some evil spirit that eggs them on to do something as a group that few or none of them would have done alone. There is an evil spirit in a mob — and whether natural or supernatural, it is real.

Good Christian people — or people who think of themselves as good Christians — can, when gathered in a crowd, do some very un-Christian things. I don’t want to get too far into politics, though it’s hard to avoid in campaign season, so I hope you pardon the illustration. I was twice struck in recent weeks by the irony of people in self-designated crowds of “Christian conservatives” — each time in response to Ron Paul — first eagerly calling out to let a sick man die if he couldn’t afford his hospital bills, and then actually booing the Golden Rule! What, you might well think, possessed these Christians so to forget the rudiments of the Christian faith? To what power or principality were they giving up themselves in that moment as instruments?

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The same goes for the spirits that Jesus encountered in his ministry, such as the one who possessed the man in our Gospel today. Although this is a case of an individual rather than a mob, the point is the same: the evil spirit has no effective existence apart from the one who is possessed by it — that’s precisely why the spirit is so desperate not to be cast out, not to be destroyed by being driven from the mind and body of the one who gives it the means to function in the physical world.

The spirits can only act in this world through and by means of those they possess. I cannot answer the question as to whether they have any existence apart from this time of possession, though the ancients well thought so. But it is doubtless that they do take on life in individuals and mobs who give themselves over to thinking that it is right to pay tribute to a demon or a false god they know — or think they know — doesn’t exist. The powers act through groups of people who do evil as a group that few would dare as individuals, as the group and its demonic driver gives each member some form of plausible deniability, or the opportunity to say, “It wasn’t me” or “I was only following orders.” Some of the greatest evil in our history is the work of people who thought it wasn’t their fault. The devil made them do it.

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The good news is that God works for good in the same way these evil spirits work for bad — through human beings. The good news is that people can do more good as a group than they can as individuals, and even as individuals — when we turn our selves, our souls and bodies, over to God as a reasonable and holy offering and sacrifice — God can and will make use of us for his good purposes. The good news is that the good that can be done is greater than the evil that is done, if only we will do it. Let us pray then that God will strengthen us to be of courage and good will to work his will. Let us not turn our hearts and minds to the dark-side of the powers, but to the light and the life of God the Father of us all, in whose name we pray, and to whom we give all glory, with God the Son and through the Holy Spirit.

Dorothy's God

SJF • Proper 16c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Our God is a consuming fire…+

If we were to imagine our Scripture readings today as items on a supermarket shelf, and then to take a look at the list of ingredients, we would find: sheer terror, sweeping hail, sprinkled blood, consuming fire, strange deeds, alien works, weeping and gnashing of teeth. I don’t know about you, but when I read a label like that I place the box back on the shelf, and look for one with fewer calories and less fat.

Today’s readings confront us with a God who is completely unlike us— whether thundering like a volcano on Mount Sinai, or in a technicolor spectacle with a cast of thousands on Mount Zion. So we find ourselves, you and I and every human being since Adam and Eve, gently returning this God to the shelf, and going off in search of the diet section. This God is just too rich and heavy; we’d rather just have an apple.

History ever since that apple in the garden is full of lo-cal religion, and the Letter to Hebrews cites another example. We’ll hear the full account itself in a few weeks, but I’m sure you remember it. The children of Israel, have been brought out of Egypt with mighty works, assembled by God in a holy place where they might be changed into a new people. They behold God’s majesty from afar, and God does them the great service of hand-carving his word in stone with letters of fire, entrusting it to Moses, who brings it to the people in a physical, visible form that can be seen and touched — for God deeply desires to be in Covenant with them. But Moses finds — what? — that the people have already lost their faith that God can deliver the goods. They turn from the living God to the works of their own hands, where they think they can take charge, in a faithless exercise of their own selfish self-determination. They want more control. They are happier with a manufactured god, a golden calf who won’t do much of anything for them— but who will ask nothing of them.

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Manufactured gods can take many forms. Politics has always played its part: from the time Isaiah refers too, when the rulers in Jerusalem vainly promised safety because they’d done a deal with death, through all the schemes that politicians have produced ever since: from the Divine Right of Kings to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; big government or small government; Tory or Whig; Democrat or Republican; Tea-Party Independent or Party Loyalist.

The truth of the matter is, that behind all of these tin-plate gods, and all our more personal household gods, there lurks the fearsome knowledge, deep-down, that these substitutes can’t really replace the noisy, alien God on the mountaintop. Deep down we know that golden calves are powerless. But we put up with their powerlessness, and even in the long run try to whittle God down to size, to seek to treat God like one of these powerless Gods: to put God in a box. So we nurse the hope that as we approach the fearsome mountain we will discover that God will turn out, after all, to be a nice old man hiding behind a curtain off to the side. What we all want in the short run is a God like Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz.

We know that the special effects are our human substitutes for God, they are only special effects; they don’t really do anything; they don’t really change anything. But then, we don’t really want to be changed, do we? We just want what we want. We maybe don’t mind some external alterations, but we don’t want to be changed, transformed deep down where we need it most, right in our hearts. So we go for the superficial answers of artificial gods, of a carnival huckster turned “wizard.”

And the nice old wizard — the phoney religion — appears to deliver at first. Everyone seems to get what they want: a brain, a heart, courage, even a trip home. The short-run god appears to deliver.

But what happens in the long run? We know the disappointing answer. Artificial gods cannot save. The crash diet doesn’t work. The government, big or small, centralized or federalized, communist or capitalist, can’t solve the problems of the world, far less satisfy the inner needs of the human heart — where all of the world’s problems have their start. Artificial gods can’t provide us with what we need in the long run— just as artificial food can’t nourish us.

Artificial gods can only provide artificial blessings: love as mechanical as the Tin Man’s clockwork heart; courage as cheap as the Cowardly Lion’s plated medal; wisdom as thin as the Scarecrow’s diploma; and a home that there’s no place like, because there never was such a place.

The short-run solutions of artificial gods don’t last. What happened after Oz? Did the Tin Man go through a mid-life crisis and succumb to metal fatigue; did the Lion with his new-found courage perish in a fatal bungee-jumping mishap; perhaps the Scare-crow had a nervous breakdown? And Dorothy— or rather, let’s call her by her adopted name, Judy Garland; because even that wasn’t her real name, which was Frances Gumm — we know what happened to her: “home” for her became a sanitarium; and the false gods of drugs and alcohol got her in the end. The short-run, make-do, lo-cal, no-fat, man-made gods don’t work.

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So then, are we left with no other choice than the mighty fortress God, the One of Sinai and Zion? Yes, I’m afraid that’s it, my friends; for salvation lies on the mountain — for only there is the sure foundation that offers opportunity for change, the kind of change that means life: deep down change — right here — where change needs to begin. It is in God’s nature to shake things up— God is not safe, as C. S. Lewis said — God shakes us up, God shakes the world up, not to destroy it, but to set it, and us, right. God is like the cosmic Dad who fixes the TV by giving it a miraculous bang on the side. God is like the cosmic Mom who cleans the throw rug by briskly shaking it out the back window. God is the cosmic Lover who grabs hysterical humanity by the shoulders and gives it a shake — and brings it to its senses.

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But there is even more to this mystery. There is more than the fire and the flame, the lightning and the thunder. It turns out that God is behind the curtain after all. Not the deceptive and concealing curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz hid, but the curtain of the temple, torn open from top to bottom, revealing our God to be — not a carnival humbug with ready explanations and inadequate answers — but a naked, wounded, suffering figure nailed to a cross, forgiving those who nailed him to it: one who shakes us up in the depth of our being and changes us through and through, through the power of his loving, transforming, sacrificial forgiveness. What can be more upsetting than for someone whom you have hurt to say, “I forgive you”? That is what changes us, deep down.

Behind and within the earthshaking mystery, behind and within the utterly different, we discover someone who is utterly the same. We meet someone who ate at people’s tables, who taught in their streets — this same Jesus, of one being with the God who thundered on Sinai’s height, who was praised and will be praised on the hill of Zion, and who finally appeared in the scandalous and transforming power of his saving and forgiving death on that third hill, Calvary.

What is more, Jesus comes among us still — do you know that? — and deigns to be our guest. He eats at our tables— do we pay attention to his dinner conversation? He teaches in our streets — but are we too busy to take notice of what he says? His brothers and sisters are all around us, and as we do to them, we do to him. Do we reject the God who comes to us as one like us, as surely as those at the foot of Sinai rejected the God who revealed himself to them as something so unlike them? We do so at our peril. The Summary of the Law bids us love God and neighbor.

Our call is to remain rooted in God, safe in the mighty fortress amidst the storm, trusting that God will change us so that we can change the world, the world in which we meet God and neighbor. We are called to strive for the real well-being of every man, woman, and child whom we meet, in the knowledge that all of them are made in God’s image.

Our faith is not perfect, nor is our performance. We are still in the process of being changed, and we struggle and resist that change. We still try to keep God at arm’s length. The problem is, it’s very hard to pass through the narrow door to life with our arms held out in stubborn refusal to be led or carried. Our arms can be put to better use: to reach out to each other, to feed and clothe, to hold and if need be to carry each other. When we do so we are touching another child of God, and we change each other as God has changed us.

We have come this morning, after all, to something that can be touched. Not stone tablets hewn from a mountainside, but the responsive hands of our neighbors that clasp ours in peace.

Our hands in just a few minutes will join around this banquet table, hand to hand with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and all the folk from north, south, east, and west, gathered with the spirits of the righteous made perfect. And so, let us give thanks, offering to God an acceptable worship — as we have been accepted — to the only God, living and true, who dwells in light inaccessible, but who deigns to dwell with us as one of us as well.+