Sunday, June 24, 2007
Possession: a Sermon for for Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 42; Luke 8:26-39
June 24, 2007
One thing people learn pretty quickly about my children and me is this: we absolutely adore the movies. We love new films. We scour the reviews and wait for the movies that sound wonderful, and then we see them, and then we endlessly debate their finer points as well as their disappointments after the fact. We love old films. We rent and purchase them and have theme-inspired film festivals and wax nostalgic for stars who were dead even before some of us were born. We love the movies.
This week I finally sat down with my son to watch a film he’d been trying to get me to see for a while. [This is not a necessarily pastoral recommendation.] “28 Days Later.” For those of you unfamiliar with it, this has been described as a “post-apocalyptic science fiction horror film.” It’s about a highly infectious virus that causes people to be filled with a horrible rage, making them incredibly violent, committing murder and mayhem. The infected people look like zombies, with red eyes and no language except for horrible screams and grunts. It’s absolutely terrifying. These people are possessed—possession by virus—and in the world of the film, they are utterly evil and have to be destroyed.
As I pondered the movie I remembered another movie about possession, a Denzel Washington film called “Fallen.” In that film a demon possesses both human beings and animals, traveling from creature to creature in order to, again, cause them to become incredibly violent, committing murder and mayhem.
Scientific and rational as our society supposes itself to be, we are still fascinated by evil. Evil is clearly real: we see its effects in our world every day. And I think it’s important for us to recognize that human beings have been trying to explain evil for as long as evil has existed… which, apparently, is pretty much from the beginning. In one of the films I have mentioned, the outbreak of evil is explained by science—it is a virus that has broken loose that causes all the murder and mayhem. In the other film, the outbreak of evil is explained by religion. It is the devil who causes all the murder and mayhem.
Of course, our gospel text for today is about Jesus’ encounter with a particular man possessed by demons. When we read about demon possession in scripture, I wonder what we think. I will confess that, more often than not, I look to a scientific explanation to for demon possession. I tend to imagine that the man who is described by Luke as being possessed by demons was probably a victim of schizophrenia, perhaps someone suffering from multiple personality disorder. But I recognize that in Jesus’ day, people didn’t think about things like blood chemistry and major mental illness when confronted with someone who was clearly not in his right mind. People in Jesus’ day looked at a man like this and said, “The demons have him.” And I also recognize that we have to be careful what we claim to believe and not to believe. C. S. Lewis said, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was in convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
With that in mind, I believe it’s always a good idea to read this kind of story on its own terms, to understand as best we can the worldview that informs it. And one thing we can say with confidence about this passage is that it’s not about the question of whether the devil is responsible for possession or whether there is some other scientific, medical explanation. Demon possession is a given for Jesus and all first century Palestinian Jews. So, given that, what is this passage ultimately about? What is the good news to be found in this selection from the gospel of Luke?
I think the first thing we need to see, which Luke depicts so vividly, is the absolute devastation of the man’s life. He is a vision of loss, of misery, of disconnectedness from community. He has lived for a long time, Luke tells us, naked, among the tombs. Tombs were places that were unclean according to Jewish practice, so we know that the man is cut off from his community: no one would want to become unclean by associating with him. The man has been living like an animal, needing to be guarded and shackled, presumably to protect either himself or others. But his bursts of seemingly superhuman strength—the strength of the demons, mind you, not the man—can cause him to break his chains, and allow him to escape into the wilds. The man is a picture of devastation, of ruin. In his day and age, for those like him, there is little or no hope.
Along comes Jesus—fresh off the boat, our text tell us, the boat in which he rebuked the waves, and calmed the stormy seas. Here is Jesus, of whom the disciples are, right now, asking one another, “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” [Luke 8:25] The demons know who Jesus is. The man falls to the ground at the sight of Jesus, and screams, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” The demons know they have met their match. Jesus asks the demons their name, and the response is one chilling word: “Legion.”
Jesus and the man possessed by demons live in occupied territory. The Roman Empire dominates most of the known world, and ancient Palestine is all too familiar with signs of Roman presence—well made roads to allow the flow of trade and aqueducts to enable irrigation go hand in hand with countless crucifixes lining those well made roads, and legions of Roman soldiers. A Roman legion was composed of five or six thousand men.
When asked their name, the demons said, “Legion.”
The story we are reading this morning has been set up as a battle of powers. The tremendous, destructive power of the legions of demons, inhabiting this man’s body and soul, are being pitted against the power of Jesus, Son of the Most High God, of whom it has been said, “Who is this, that even the winds and the water obey him?” This is a story about the power of God, expressed in Jesus, confronting the power of evil, expressed in the demons, wreaking havoc in the life of one, poor human being. From the moment Jesus comes on the scene, the demons know that whatever happens to them is within his control. They beg him to be permitted to go into a herd of swine—another image, for Jews, of uncleanness—and they end off careening down a steep embankment and drowning themselves. Possession ends, for the swine, as it does in the movies I’ve been watching with my family—with violence, murder—swine murder, at any rate—and mayhem.
I’ve never met anyone who claims to have been possessed by a demon or demons, as our scripture understands possession. But I do know people who are and have been “possessed” by other kinds of demons—people who suffer from addiction, to all kinds of activities and substances. There are currently 12-Step Programs to help people to recover from addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling, debt, and dozens of other painful and debilitating conditions. And I personally know people whose struggles with these addictions are certainly matters of life and death, matters of trying to end a cycle of doing violence to themselves, struggles with powers that feel, at times, superhuman.
And do you know what people in those 12-step programs say, each and every time they get together to advance their recovery just a little further? They say the 12 Steps. Here are the first three:
1. We admitted we were powerless over [the substance or activity], and that our lives were unmanageable.
2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
In this consummately scientific and rational age, there is hardly a doctor or a psychologist or a social worker who does not refer addicts to twelve step programs. It’s not that science has given up on seeking to find other interventions and cures. But science, at least in the area of addiction has, for about the last 70 years, has come to admit that it is powerless… but that 12-Step recovery programs, with their emphasis on, God, are not.
Jesus, filled with the power of God, confronts the demons. Clearly God is the higher power. The witnesses to this amazing event run off to inform all the locals about what they have seen, and when they return with the locals, they find the man, in his right mind, clothed, sitting at Jesus’ feet. “Sitting at Jesus’ feet” is another way of saying, the man is now a disciple. Not only is back in his right mind, he is ready to learn what Jesus has to teach. The man who was possessed by the legion of demons has given his heart into the possession of God.
It’s telling to see how the locals react. Their response to this display of God’s power in Jesus is terror. They don’t have any way to incorporate it into their understanding of how the world works, and they’d rather not think about it any longer. So they ask Jesus to leave and never come back As for the man, he asks to be with Jesus—to follow him and continue to learn from him, to join with his band of disciples. But Jesus has another plan for the man. For this man, formerly the image of devastation and loss, Jesus has another commission. Jesus tells him, Go home. Go back to the people who rejected you when you were possessed and show them the marvelous, mysterious power of God that possesses you now.
This is a story about a battle of powers. One power is determined to isolate, to fragment, to devastate. It turns the human being into a miserable object, capable only of violence and mayhem. It cuts off the individual from family, from community, from love. We can explain this power however we like—we can turn to science, we can turn to the social sciences, we can turn to scripture. But we have to recognize that this power is real.
There is another power, and this is the greater, the higher, the Most High power. It is the power of God. And this power is determined to heal, to make whole, to knit back together what was torn apart. This power makes the human being more fully human—capable of rational discourse, thirsty for knowledge, ready for love. This power brings the individual back into the human family—whether that is the literal family of birth, or the fellowship of other believers. There is really only one way to explain this power: it’s the power of God. And it may work in us in the rooms of 12-step recovery, or through the fellowship and learning of a bible study. It may do its work in the action of being baptized or in the gathering around the table of the Lord’s Supper. And who among us can say it is not God’s work when we receive healing at the hands of a skilled surgeon or a gentle marriage counselor? God’s power to knit back together what was broken takes many forms, but we know it by its fruits: healing, restoration to community, readiness to be a disciple.
God wants to be with us in our battles against our demons, however we understand them. And for our part, as we experience healing, we are commissioned to declare how much God has done for us. Amen.