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.