The devil made me do it
SERMON: 4 Epiphany B 1 28 18
On the cover of our 10 am bulletin we have a picture of Jesus ridding the man with the unclean spirits of his demon. To be sure this is a striking image. To soften your sense of demons I have some information you might appreciate.
Can you tell me what demons' favorite hockey team is? The New Jersey Devils. Which demon has been in a cartoon? The Tasmanian Devil. What time do demons eat dinner? 6:66 of course. And why should you always read the fine print? Because the devil is in the details.
Pretty silly. Here's a serious question. Who in the Gospels best understands Jesus' role on earth? Yes, it's the demons.
Two thousand years ago people accepted demons as the cause of many human disturbances and conditions. Demons explained many behaviors that we would now attribute to psychiatric conditions. But it is interesting that it was the people possessed by demons who most clearly perceived Jesus' role. They knew what he was about.
In today's reading the man with the unclean spirit cried out,
"What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
I read an interpretation of this short piece of Mark's Gospel which explained that the original manuscript of Mark's Gospel did not demonstrate that "Have you come to destroy us" was a question. Instead, considering the demon's understanding of Jesus (which followed when it said, "I know who you are, the Holy One of God") indicates that Have you come to destroy us was a statement, not a question. "You have come to destroy us" is arguably what the Gospel should actually say.
However, because the demon Jesus expelled from the man understood Jesus' heavenly calling and was proclaiming it loudly, how should we look at the demons? And for that matter, how do we look at demons today? I think this lesson is really helpful for us because it shows us a few things about ourselves.
But first, how should we look at the demons? As I said earlier, Bible scholars have concluded that the demons Jesus encounters in the Gospels know him, understand him and communicate with him on a spiritual plane better than the ordinary people Jesus interacts with. We should interpret that as a sign that demons are from the spiritual world, since they have such a clear picture of our savior.
But if they are spiritual beings which understand Jesus, why do they torment the people whose bodies they inhabit? I think that the answer to that question lies in contemporary psychology. If you'll permit me, the demons enable the people they inhabit to express the truth about Jesus even though the people can't actually handle the information consciously. If Carl Jung were here he would say that the demons represent the shadow side of the people's personality, the side they don't show to the world.
Last weekend while I was soaking my hands in vegetable oil because of my chili pepper burns I watched a terrible Eddie Murphy movie. I won't get into the plot, but Professor Klump, Eddie Murphy in a fat suit, discarded his shadow self and become nothing but good. He was polite, well spoken, courteous, and so on. His shadow side, however, played by Eddie Murphy without a fat suit, had become a separate person who was coarse, unpleasant and rude, crude and socially unacceptable. Anyone who knows about Eddie Murphy's struggles knows about the two sides of his personality. So did Carl Jung. The split personality made the movie appear somewhat autobiographical.
But if the demons recognized Jesus' holy cause, why did he silence them? I think the answer to this is so obvious it's funny. First, Jesus wasn't trying to call demons; he was trying to call people. Demons and their understanding of Jesus were not helpful in getting his message across. Also, Jesus was trying to reach people by what he said, by his healings, and by the miracles he performed. Chatter from demons was unhelpful. Demons upset people. Look at the cover of the bulletin.
We also know Jesus was trying to stay under the radar of the religious authorities. If the word got out that demons were proclaiming his mighty power it wouldn't help Jesus stay under the radar, for sure.
Perhaps we should also look at how we view demons today. We talk about people being oppressed by or coming to terms with their demons. We talk about how the devil made us do this or that. And of course there's demon rum which explains how people misbehave under the influence.
Demons, no matter how good their spiritual vision, are blamed for a lot of unhappiness in the world. And yet they know, perhaps as we all know at some deep level, serious spiritual truths.
When I encounter someone in the Bible blurting out something outrageous or disturbing the crowd in some way I think of Tourette's syndrome, the psychiatric disorder that leaves sufferers incapable of controlling their speech. Even when they tell the truth.
As Jesus silenced the demons in the Bible he did, indeed, destroy them. He destroyed the need to camouflage belief in himself and he freed one and all to observe, to experience and to tell others of his godly powers. This is what Jesus does for people. He gives them the sense that he loves them, that he is on their side. So they can see that there is hope for the future.
The truth need not be hidden behind a costume of demonic despair. There is enough of Jesus to heal the wounds that render someone incapable of openly speaking of their pain and their struggle.
And that is where you and I come in. We are called to comfort people. They don't have demons. They have problems. A little help, perhaps some food, an indication that people at St. Paul's care about them, and the time and attention to them that we try to offer can heal much that weighs down those who visit here.
For many that's enough. For us it is our calling.
As Jesus said, "
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger
and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me...j
ust as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."
This is a perfect place to end a sermon, but on the Sunday of the Annual General Meeting I think is especially apt to reiterate this is what we consider our calling here at St. Paul's. Thanks be to God.
A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, Jan. 28, 2018 by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector