Fight the Demons
January 29, 2012
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we have Jesus ridding a man of demons (Mark 1:25-27). This is a startling – and even embarrassing – report, because in our industrial and technological world we think demons are mythological creatures. And so we relegate them to the movies (The Exorcist, 1973; The Amityville Horror, 1979; The Exorcist III, 1990).
A Second Look
But maybe we’ve dismissed the reality of demons too quickly. Maybe the Biblical account deserves a second look – that we’re fighting with “the spiritual hosts of wickedness” (Ephesians 6:12).
The practical, commonsensical view holds that, quite differently from this Biblical account, if we are suffering, for instance, from the malady of depression – or what in a past era was called melancholy (Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621) – it is to be treated with discussion, rest and maybe some medicines to right a chemical imbalance within the complicated processes of our brains. But maybe this simpler view doesn’t quite exhaust the human phenomenon – as we experience it. And that’s because most of us know about someone suffering from a psychological ailment who doesn’t get much relief from psycho-analytic therapy or psycho-tropic drugs. And so they languish – much to our chagrin. All who know them would love to help them, but alas, everyone seems to come up short in that department. It seems as if we are all up against something mightier than we imagine we are.
In Andrew Solomon’s massive, and critically acclaimed winner of the National Book Award, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (2001), he argues that anger is often what’s behind depression – unresolved anger, chewing us up from the inside. And so he says we’ve learned that “depression can easily erupt as rage” (p. 180)! But what if this isn’t the case? What then?
Well, if we were to move beyond the practical, commonsensical view of ourselves, what do you suppose we would learn about demons from our Gospel lesson for today? First, I would think, we would learn that we’re vulnerable to the demons. That’s because we’re partial to their wiles – for our father is the devil and our will is to do what he desires (John 8:44, 3:19). So there’s an inherent darkness within us, upon which the devil and his demons, capitalize – and regularly do so. The Lutheran Confessions put it this way, that the image of God, which first marked our being (Genesis 1:26), has now been replaced by a “wicked stamp” which is “a deep [and] abominable, bottomless, inscrutable, and inexpressible corruption” within us [The Book of Concord (1580) ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 510]. So imagining that this isn’t the case, puts us at a huge disadvantage when trying to prevail against the demons.
And secondly we would learn that we’re not in some Manichean
standoff, whereby good and evil are polarized against each other, locked
in a dead-heat with each other. No, instead what we have is God and the
forces of good prevailing over the devil and his dominion of darkness.
This is what gives us hope in the face of demons – something which does
very little for the weird plots dreamed up for those
For Mrs. John Korner’s afflicted husband, I know of no worldly help to give. If the physicians are at a loss to find a remedy, you may be sure that it is not a case of ordinary melancholy. It must, rather, be an affliction that comes from the devil, and this must be countered by the power of Christ and with the prayer of faith. This is what… we have been accustomed to do, for a cabinetmaker here was similarly afflicted with madness and we cured him…. Accordingly you should…. go to him with the deacon and two or three good men. Confident that you, [the Rev. S. Schulze], as the pastor of the place, are clothed with the authority of the ministerial office, lay your hands on him and say, ‘Peace be with you, dear brother, from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Thereupon repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer over him in a clear voice, and close with these words:…. ‘Call upon me in the day the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me’ [Psalm 50:15]…. Do this three times, once on each of three successive days. Meanwhile let prayers be said from the cancel of the church, publicly, until God hears them [Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. T. Tappert (Letter dated June 1, 1545) (1965) p. 52].
Notice here three daring – but sane – elements in Luther’s method of exorcism, that saves us from the demons that plague us:
Last Resort. First, note that Luther doesn’t rush to exorcism! With all of the power manifest in this rite, you’d think he might do just that – but he doesn’t. He resists the spiritual glitz – and so should we who stand in that same great Lutheran tradition! Therefore go to a doctor first and see what therapy and medicine can do. Medicine isn’t evil, after all! God uses it for our own good (Leviticus 14:4; John 9:6). So using proven medical techniques isn’t a sign that you don’t believe in exorcisms. No, it’s just that we hold to a gradualist view – beginning with the least exotic first. But if that doesn’t work, then it’s time for the exorcism. For some problems, we’re told, require a stronger treatment (Matthew 17:21)!
Being Leisurely. Finally, the whole exorcism is quite leisurely – if you can believe it! Luther wasn’t harried and didn’t hurry to get it done. He cared about the possessed, but wasn’t frantic and obsessed over them. Instead he patiently waits on the Lord to heal them. For indeed, our deliverance rests on God (Psalm 62:7)!
How then shall we move ahead, taking up this two-step plan for healing? Well, we’ll surely need to begin with repentance (Luke 13:3) – admitting that we’ve been operating with a faulty, practical view of ourselves and a cheap, sensationalist view of exorcism. So repent of these awful, sinful views! But when you do, don’t trust in your repentance, as Luther famously warned (Luther’s Works 40:345). Instead imbed your repentance in the cross of Christ – knowing that Christ died for us (1 Corinthians 8:11, 15:3). And he died for us because “only Christ, the mediator, can be pitted against God’s wrath” (BC, p. 136)! By dying for us he then is punished for our sins, so that we won’t be punished for them for all of eternity (LW 26:284)! So rejoice and be glad – and not embarrassed (Mark 8:38) by this most unusual and offensive method of salvation (BC, p. 139). And then receive Christ today – for he who died for your sins has also been raised from the dead to prove that his death conquered death, being the first fruits of our redemption (1 Corinthians 15:20). So he indeed is here – in and under the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper (BC, pp. 575, 447). He is here to give you life through this sacrament – the abundant life or zoe [ζωη] (John 6:53, 10:10) – kept for those who believe in him.
But once you’re set free by Christ through the forgiveness of sins and given this abundant life – you’re then called as well “to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5). In Deuteronomy 18:20 we’re told to do that by striving to accomplish what God has commanded us to do. So in a by-gone era when Christians were told to refrain from chewing tobacco, playing cards and dancing, that was wide of the mark. For nowhere does God command us to stop doing these things. God gives us many commands – but at the heart of them all stands the great Ten Commandments. So all of these lesser crimes – while they may be derivative from the big ten – are distractions from what God commanded from the heights of Mt. Sinai long ago in those grand ten words (Exodus 20:1-17)!
Let us then cling to these Ten Commandments from God – which Luther called “the greatest treasure God has given us” (BC, p.411) –  not to have any other gods,  not to take the one true God’s name in vain but only use it to glorify his greatness,  to worship him on His Day,  to honor our parents even when we don’t like them,  not to kill or even hate other people,  not to break our marriage vows,  not to steal,  not to hurt others by lying, and [9 & 10] not to want what others have. Call on God to help you keep these commandments, and he will surely answer your prayers. For he wants you to be fervent disciples of his dear Son, Christ Jesus – which includes keeping these commandments, which, as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) pointed out long ago, is how God “rules over” us [Journals, ed. Hong & Hong, 1:733], and thereby gives us strength – even – to fight the demons! Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)