“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
– Mark 1: 25-26
Did this morning’s Gospel reading grab your attention?
If it didn’t, perhaps you might want to check your pulse!
It seems to me that everything about this scene is striking!
Jesus comes to the Synagogue to worship and He is basically given the honor of being the guest speaker…
He gives a powerful message, and the people are floored (Paulson) by His authority.
All of a sudden, a man with a demon interrupts Him, and cries out “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.”
With the exclamation “be silenced!” Jesus commands the demon to leave the man, and it happens instantaneously.
The demon convulses the man’s body and leaves with a loud shriek…
Again: the people are floored by Christ’s authority, except now doubly so (the Greek word this time is a bit different and more emphatic)….
So the word spreads, and more and more begin to ask: “Who is this Jesus?”
It is all very dramatic, isn’t it?
Seems like our worship services here are perhaps a bit dull, huh?
Well, as I was told growing up, if you want to see things like healings and exorcisms, that kind of thing will generally be found where we find the Kingdom of God gaining ground…
In other words, where the Word of God is really getting a “foothold” for the first time… where a beachhead is being established. That is where you will find God’s fierce soldiers on the front-lines, battling the resistance of the Prince of this World, Satan.
So again, if you want to see healings and exorcisms, you might need to become a missionary…
Around here though, the devil appears a bit quieter and doesn’t “make a scene”… he keeps a bit of a “lower profile…”[i]
The more you think about this, the more it makes sense…
After all, in some ways, the environment that we in the “Western world” created certainly has captured the world’s attention…
And if you are the devil, why not keep our attention on that – and not spiritual and eternal matters?
So… what do I mean when I say the environment we’ve created has captured the world’s attention?
Well, at least in the Western world, during the last 300 to 400 years – and in our own context, the English speaking lands more generally and America in particular – we have witnessed previously incomprehensible and unimaginable feats of human creativity and control, haven’t we?
And this is largely because of something we call the scientific method.
This really “took off” with the ideas of 17th century men like Francis Bacon, Blaise Pascal, and Isaac Newton….
And here, as things progressed, an interesting thing happened. While the world “nature” had previously basically been a synonym for “creation,” it begin to take on a life of its own.
You see, the word “creation” implies a Creator to be mindful of! – but that is by no means as clear as with the word “Nature”.
In any case, the core idea of science here is that you can really begin to understand how “the natural world” works – and some, therefore, become unsure of why you still need God in the picture at all…
After all, if you, using the scientific method, can pay close attention to how nature works… if you can create accurate physical and mental maps of its most intricate details and doings…
You can harness it, ride it, and take it where you want to go!
Isaac Newton and Kepler discover “laws of nature,” and we then take advantage of these laws and begin to effectively manage the world!
The ocean is not as frightening when it can be mapped and understood…
Thunderstorms are not so threatening when they can be explained by predictable patterns in the weather…
Diseases are not so scary when you can pinpoint the cause and target it with antibiotics and vaxines.
STEM, as it is called – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – makes these things more friendly, in a way…
And I mean, “Behold! Right?!”
We developed microscopes and telescopes!
We discovered the core elements of the natural world and put them into the elegant Periodic Table!
We postulated and then obtained real evidence for the atom…
We created guns, telegraphs, phones, trains, cars, planes, washing machines, atom bombs, and microwaves.
This all culminated – if you believe it! (some don’t today) – with our putting men on the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s…
Or maybe in culminated with the iPhone. Who knows?[ii]
In any case, you get the idea.
The world became ours…
Knowledge is power, you see…
And power is true authority!
And this feeling that we have – particularly that our elites have – is still there, but it is changing a bit now…
My own vocation of academic librarianship is interesting in this regard.
Some in my profession continue to say reasonable-sounding things like:
“[people] come to libraries seeking information that will help them create knowledge. They do not want misinformation or disinformation; they do not want to be deceived”.
On the other hand, I read others insisting that “power operates through knowledge production”, “knowledge production is […] historically situated and embedded in power relations” and its production “never occurs outside power relations”.
That idea sounds complicated, but maybe it really isn’t. Maybe it’s as simple as what another academic librarian says:
“…it’s not even so much that knowledge is power, but “it’s more reflective of reality to say, ‘Power is knowledge’”.
Power is knowledge.
Cue the great contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty, now deceased:
“Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying.”
…“Truth is what our peers will let us get away with saying.”
Rorty thought that was a good thing. For many an elite contemporary person then, knowledge and truth aren’t strictly related… knowledge and truth aren’t strictly related They don’t necessarily go together.
Knowledge is “knowledge” [in quotes]…
Whatever words and skills that you pick up – and that you can employ — to get the job you and others want done done – that is ultimately what is important.
Do you see how the role of things like facts (“facts” in quotes) diminishes here?
What is important, when it comes to knowledge, is that there are only other persons who exercise power over their circumstances, their worlds, and who trust each other or not.
We might say this is knowledge as conceivable, useful, trust.
Do you see why I am bringing this up?
People who have this view–even unconsciously–are definitely going to struggle with the Apostle Paul’s idea of “the pattern of sound teaching [or words]”
Why? Because the meaning of words changes and can change. Because all things, after all, evolve.
Radical transformation – not necessarily understood in a Christian sense – is what life is all about!
Now, suddenly, Nature is definitely not creation but fluid beyond our wildest dreams… it is our chaos to control…
And you see? Even human nature is fluid…. Authors from the past die and we move on, radically reinterpreting their words for our era.
All while Silicon Valley big-shots continue to practice the Enlightenment science, they also begin to imagine that things like “Artificial Intelligence” might present the key to actual immortality…
For the world, if there is a movement of the Spirit… it is about changing what has been considered “natural” and changing the future – not any kind of history and “tradition”!
This, they think, is where the true authority lies.
The true power.
But what are the Scriptures if not the absolute core of the tradition that has been passed on to us…?
God’s own words…truth….knowledge… handed off to us… like the baton in a relay race…
We’ve got a bit a responsibility here… a bit of a mission and charge here… don’t we?
Pass on that baton!
And so – in the midst of all our fun and shiny gadgets as well as our success in making nature obey us – we look at those Scriptures again and we see…
I mean come on…
Not very scientific, to say the least!
And in our day: “Not very authoritative!”
No, we don’t see him much here, but the reason Satan lies low is because, really, when it comes to the West in general, he thinks he has us right where he wants us…
And not only because we are distracted and drunk with our shiny gadgets that control the world…
I recently read some very interesting things from a man who used to be a bit of a rogue, a player, but has converted to Christianity. Here’s what he said about demons
“Secular people think being under heavy demonic influence looks like something out of a Hollywood movie. You develop a guttural croak, stick out your tongue at inappropriate moments, and even develop a limp that signifies you are not well. Or you’ll do things that are obviously evil, such as punch little children in the face and torture backyard animals. The reality is far more subtle. Demons can be in total control over your life, directing your every move, and you will still be deceived that you’re a ‘good person’ who is in charge. The word demon may not even enter your mind.
You’re under demonic influence if you commit evil deeds yet are unable to recognize them as evil…”
Do you see what is happening here? He is not talking about being possessed bodily by a demon.
He is not even talking about being oppressed by a demon, where a demon devotes specific attention to a Christian by using past dalliances with the Occult (by a Ouiji Board, for example) as an avenue to accuse them of past sins such that they can live without any certainty of their salvation in Jesus Christ…
He is just talking about the devil knowing full well our own natural desire to sin.
And he then goes on to make some very thought-provoking observations:
“The typical Western city of today is the most effective environment to encourage sin. It is able to generate immoral behaviors so effectively that the task of corrupting your soul becomes one of demonic auto-pilot.
….I suspect that there are not many demons residing in the major cities. The evil you may feel while in one may not come from the presence of demons but the mass quantity of people who have chosen evil. The city is actually a platform for evil, one that Satan has constructed and optimized over hundreds of years to lower the barrier for you to commit severe sins. To engage in pride or fornication within a modern city involves no debate or consternation—they’re so normalized that you are looked at as an oddball if you decide against them. You don’t have Instagram? You’re anti-social. You don’t want to hook up after a night of drinking? You’re sexually inadequate. Your friends and acquaintances play the role of the demons by tempting you to sin, and they do that work for free….”[iii]
So, in other words, this man is saying that the demons don’t bother us because we already act like we are God, that is, in control of the world.
And how so? Precisely because the best and brightest have really engineered the world in order to satisfy their desire for sin all the more.
Whatever you might think of that explanation of why cities exist, I don’t think we go too far if we assert that we modern Americans particularly – and not just city-dwellers! – are addicted to sin in its’ many forms…
So when the 16th century church reformer Martin Luther says: “Oh, that I could only pray in the way that my puppy stares at meat!”
… we have a hard time identifying with his sentiment.
I think this man, the former rogue who is now a Christian, is right.
God might indeed redeem cities, but throughout history most of the men who have been instrumental in building cities have been fleeing from God
…even if their desires and designs were not necessarily so unsophisticated, crass and base…
I used to believe that Satan only wanted to get people to not believe in Jesus (perhaps ideally to get them to stop believing and to take their own lives)…
“Satan is more than happy to have really moral societies with ‘respectable’ families and traditions,” I thought – “just as long as they ignore God…”
I don’t think that is true anymore.
Rather, Satan delights to make spaces and places where the law of God is mocked, shunned, and ignored…
In our Psalm for today we read:
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established for ever and ever,
enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He provided redemption for his people;
he ordained his covenant forever—
holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow his precepts have good understanding.
To him belongs eternal praise.
Satan absolutely hates this!
He doesn’t like that God created His world the way He did!
And that we really can depend on it to run in regular ways and that people too have grooves they are meant to run in…
Why so much hate?
Well, at bottom, he doesn’t like that he is a creature and not the Creator…
Metaphorically speaking, he is not content in his own skin…
Thankless always, He doesn’t like who he is…
Let’s go back to science for a minute.
Is the scientific method wrong in itself? Well, as long as one does not forget God – and thereby also assert that things like invisible demons aren’t “scientific” – I don’t think so.
Science can be used responsibly.
Nevertheless, as useful as the scientific method can be, has the “mask slipped” as they say… and we are finally seeing what… Who… was really behind the curtain the whole time?
I think many people in power today believe that their science and rationality gives them more or less effective control over the world!
The power is not just in math, chemistry, and physics. I’m talking economic control, political control, cultural control… maybe even religious control…
It’s not that these people think that the world is so chaotic that they can’t get accurate information in the moment.
They think they can… But then, though collective power, they can change also the world…and then change the information that we can get from it….
“Don’t talk to me about limits… much less your unproven ideas of ‘God’s law!’”
You see, they can change what most everything is…
They can change the essences of things…
What is man? What is woman?
Male? Female? Marriage? Family? Children?
What is knowledge? (its no longer justified true belief!)
What is good?
What is evil?
“I can help you with that,” the World’s Spirit says, as I direct you not to the Tradition, the Bible… but to my brew of scientific methods… or should I say Magic?
By which I will harness the world and ride it…
What happens is that, without Jesus Christ, a good desire to manage the world responsibly easily becomes twisted into the desire to dominate it and bend it to one’s desires…
Until, I guess, it breaks.
What an illusion this is!
“ all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established for ever and ever,
enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.”
In the end, Satan does not trust in these words…
He does not believe that God’s precepts are trustworthy and established for ever and ever…
We however, must, and increasingly believe this more and more…
At the same time, when it comes to this battle, the strength of our faith is ultimately not what needs to be emphasized.
What is more important is what really is, what really exists.
And, with that, Who, among the “gods,” is the One to believe and listen to.
Who is the one lying to us and Who is the one telling us the truth – this is what needs to be emphasized!
In the Bible, after all, we are told that even unbelieving and unfaithful men cast out demons by Jesus’ Name… the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life!
My friend Pastor Harold Ristau can help us here. He recalls the first time he found himself having to deal with a real-life exorcism and tells us what his thought-process was in the car as he went to challenge the devil for a possessed soul:
“…I was a mediocre spiritual soldier and an even less competent exorcist. My past exposure to the subject did not prepare me for this!
“Yet there was a profound comfort in my knowledge that a Christian’s power over the unholy Trinity of sin, death, and the devil is not based on the strength of his or her personal faith. Rather, the victory was already founded on God’s concrete, holy and solid Word, embodied in the Christ event. We are assured in the Epistle to the Romans: ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan underneath your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you’ (Rom. 16:20). We have the choice to walk the bridge between man and God – a chasm overcome by the wood of the cross – in confidence or by testing each and every step. While both get us across, one offers a more peaceful trip. But in the end, it is the bridge itself, and not our ability to walk, that preserves us. Even the spiritual hypochondriac makes it across…” (My First Exorcism, 30-31).
Simply put: do you trust that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, given in human flesh, to die on the cross for all your sins?
Good – you know who you are!
Rest in that knowledge – yes, real knowledge and not “fake news” – and build on that!
Demons, you see, show us the opposite: they, again, are not content with who they are.
A father forms.
They do not respect God’s order…
They too, worship the creation, namely Satan… and not the Creator….
Their view of the creation is twisted, and they attempt to sabotage it in accordance with this twistedness…
And they might feel like they are in control, but ultimately they know that they are not, for the Truth is on our side.
And our opponents, very much so, “can’t handle the truth.”[iv]
Don’t be deceived.
This world, this fallen world, is not all there is.
This world is passing away, it is disintegrating, dissolving, devolving…
The veil that separates the visible and the invisible will be stripped away, and the O so glorious new heavens and earth will come!
Jesus Christ, the Victor over sin, death, and the devil… the “Prince of [this] World,” has seen to that!
And so, I think it is fitting to end with one more story from Pastor Ristau…
He tells us about the aftermath of his first exorcism, after he cast a demon out of a woman named Debby.
“The Christian struggle is occasionally interrupted with moment of jubilation. When I left Debby’s place, I was on an emotional and spiritual ‘high.’ The whole afternoon was an adrenaline rush, I bashfully admit. Like an athlete flaunting a newly gained prize, I felt on top of the world. As seventy-two joyful disciples conveyed to the Lord, ‘Even the demons are subject to us in your name!’ (Luke 10:17), I now shared in that satisfying sensation. Astonished at the majesty of God, I too was utterly amazed at the power of God’s Word in achieving its goals. I had always believed, but now I saw. As doubting Thomas was told, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed’ (John 20:29). Only the weak in faith require a miracle. I am not ashamed to admit that I fall under that category. But still, such a glimpse into His might is an uncommon occurrence; an invitation to place one’s hand into the side of the Lord is not to be shunned. Miracles are gifts, not rewards. Still Jesus warns that He has given ‘authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’ (Luke 10:19-20) since much of life can be characterized by suffering. The greatest miracles are unseen.
Meanwhile, what ascends descends. This one plummeted with a crash. The giddy excitement quickly spiraled down into utter exhaustion. I just wanted to sleep. That day I felt as I would years later, when as a military chaplain and parachutist, I would tumble out of airplanes using out-dated WWWII training equipment: while beginning on a high, hitting the ground hurts. The impact is severe. Every bone ached and every nerve shook. But despite the pain, it was worth it.”
It is worth it.
Know God is by your side always.
You have the Truth. Real knowledge – and hence real Authority – on your side.
So seek spiritual victories in this world!
For Satan, and all those who follow in his train, will bow before you.
You might not cast out demons with one word like Jesus, but you too will see victories like Pastor Ristau did…
And he, you, and me will see even greater victories – and feel even greater elation – as well.
…For our Lord is coming again!
Come Lord Jesus!
[i] As I mentioned a few weeks ago, when it comes to the devil’s work in America today, I think a former student of mine had it right when he said:
“When considering the impact public demonic displays would have, it would be counter-productive to keeping our minds off of religion.”
[ii] And, of course, more so then ever today, with our increasingly interconnected world, complete with devices that “talk to each other…” and constantly take in data…
Many of us were even really impressed with the iPhone… even as some experts told us the accumulation of scientific knowledge which had made it possible was actually slowing down…
[iii] Fuller quote: “The typical Western city of today is the most effective environment to encourage sin. It is able to generate immoral behaviors so effectively that the task of corrupting your soul becomes one of demonic auto-pilot.
If the opportunity to commit evil is all around you, and you have already chosen for that evil, why do demons need to get involved? Demons must labor to influence you to choose wrong, but if you voluntarily place yourself in an evil environment with the purpose of satisfying a wish list of sinful desires, you make their job effortless. A good example is someone who moves from a small, traditional town to a city like New York or Los Angeles. A man or woman uprooted themselves and went to the big city because they desire to gorge themselves on money, sex, and fame. When a hungry child is in a candy store, do you need to convince him to eat candy? He simply dives in until he gets sick, and during that time of eating, he needs no convincing from a being or external force to keep going until his belly is full of sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
I suspect that there are not many demons residing in the major cities. The evil you may feel while in one may not come from the presence of demons but the mass quantity of people who have chosen evil. The city is actually a platform for evil, one that Satan has constructed and optimized over hundreds of years to lower the barrier for you to commit severe sins. To engage in pride or fornication within a modern city involves no debate or consternation—they’re so normalized that you are looked at as an oddball if you decide against them. You don’t have Instagram? You’re anti-social. You don’t want to hook up after a night of drinking? You’re sexually inadequate. Your friends and acquaintances play the role of the demons by tempting you to sin, and they do that work for free….”
Interestingly, this same week, I had a student who talked about this in the readings for the class I’m teaching:
“In the readings of, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?”, by Philip Yancey, I found two stories that stood out to me and had significant meaning as Christian because they describe the way love is supposed to be dished out, with compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. The first story, involved the girl from a small town who was seduced by the allures of the big city; bright lights, opportunities, and on her own without her parents restrictions. She ends up getting involved with evil characters who are not in her corner, who have lied to her, abused her, and basically threw her away like trash. She eventually remembers who is actually in her corner, who loves her unconditionally, and will always accept her, so she hopes. She returns home to a welcome of endless love, a party for her return, and complete acceptance. This is the parable of the prodigal son, except told in modern times of prostitution and deceit. I like this story because it reminds us that the devil is a liar, and wants our demise (the world/her pimps), and God wants us to return to Him knowing He never lied to us and never forsaken us for anything. He also never rubs our faces in our guilt, He tells us to hush and not speak on the past, but thankful we returned home to safety. It’s man listening to the deceitful talk of the devil telling us how unworthy of love and forgiveness we are that brings in the doubt and the guilt.”
[iv] When recounting his first exorcism, Pastor Harold Ristau said that when a demon tells you its’ real name that is “a sign of submission… defeat.” This is what many exorcists say, evidently. One recalls when Jesus asked the Gerasene demoniac his name. Also, in the ancient world, the idea was that if you knew the name of a spirit, you had power over it. Pastor Ristau told me in an email though that he is no longer convinced that this idea is true.