notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Good Shepherd 20/6/2004
Isaiah 65:1-9, Luke 8:26-39
Did you hear the recent news story about the identical twins from Manchester who broke the same arm on the same day in two separate incidents in the garden:
Their mum Sarah said: "They wear the same clothes and have the same haircut. Now they have broken their left arms together. When we found out Mitchell had broken the same arm as Elliott I couldn't believe it. The hospital staff were rubbing their eyes in disbelief."
We live in a world full of things we can't explain and don't understand...
There are the stories which are odd, like that one, and others which are odd but a bit more disturbing. Like the news that Jim Caviezel, the actor who played Jesus in Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, escaped injury after being struck by lightning during filming. Smoke was seen coming out of his ears. The bolt also hit the umbrella of assistant director Jan Michelini, who had already suffered light burns on the tips of his fingers when struck by another bolt during filming on a hilltop months earlier.
And then there are those stories which seriously disturb us. Tales from the dark side, of madness and murder. Our cinemas are full of them. In my last parish there lives a man who is obsessed with them - Tom Slemen, who writes for Merseymart and broadcasts on Radio Merseyside and who never seems to fail to find another gruesome tale about something sinister that's happened here in Liverpool over the years.
We are very aware and almost obsessed by 'the dark side'. On TV a couple of weeks ago an enormous amount of viewers watched Derren Brown's seance, and an enormous amount of people complained - many because it turned out in the end to be a spoof, a wind-up, a trick.
Today's gospel story is a tale of 'the dark side'. About a man possessed by evil spirits, a raving madman, the stuff of horror movies but precisely the sort of story which we remember and repeat and which affects us; the sort of story which we might hear today and ask, are demons real? Should we be scared by stories of 'the dark side'?
As Christians we have a helper with us, the Holy Spirit, who can guide us in our thinking about these things. He's also the comforter, who can reassure us if these things make us anxious. We have the scriptures. And we have the example of Jesus to show us the way. So, with this comforting presence with us let's take a look at the story to see how Jesus dealt with 'the dark side'.
1. He took it seriously
When the man who had demons came up to him (v27) there was no doubt in Jesus' mind that this man was suffering some sort of possession; he believed what the man was saying.
This is important because it says to us, these things can and do exist. There is a spiritual reality which can be full of love and light, but can also be full of darkness. And more often than not, both live side by side.
Some people deny these things exist, deny that there is a spiritual side to life. Now, modern psychiatry has taught us that that most mental illness is not caused by demonic possession. If we think that it is then we're misguided.
But we might also agree with the writer C.S. Lewis who once said, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was in convincing the world he didn't exist." As Christians we believe that he does, in some shape or form, and there are times when he has to be dealt with.
2. He took it calmly
The man came up to Jesus shouting and yelling and throwing himself onto the ground, but Jesus' first words to the man (v30) were these: "What is your name?"
With Jesus there was no hysteria, just a gentle question. Jesus transformed a moment of madness into into a time of calm.
This is important to remember because most of what we hear about exorcisms make them sound terrifying and chaotic. I haven't actually seen The Exorcist but it would appear in that story when the demons encounter the holy men, literally all hell breaks loose, it's out of control. The same thing happens in real life where self-appointed exorcists perform ceremonies which are often full of dramatic and disturbing behaviour by those involved.
By contrast, Jesus was calm, and no doubt that calmness helped the man and everyone who was watching.
And by contrast, it shows that Jesus was interested in the man - the first thing he did was ask him his name - the man, not the drama or the fear or the thrill, the man was what Jesus cared about.
3. He took authority over the demons
Jesus commanded the unclean spirits to come out of the man (v29-32) and they had to do as he told them. They begged him to have mercy on him. Which he did.
We should remember this, because it means that anyone acting in Jesus name will carry his authority over evil spirits. This is the power of the cross and resurrection in action.
In The Exorcist and in lots of other horror stories the priests fail to overcome the evil one, they become possessed themselves, and so on. But the reality is that if they're acting in Jesus' name, if Jesus is there with them, then anything evil which they're facing will be at God's mercy.
This is true for us if we pray in Jesus' name against any darkness we might encounter.
In the face of evil spirits, Jesus is calm; Jesus is caring; and Jesus is in control: over the centuries the church has taken these lessons and worked out ways of how to apply them. We know that in the year 253 there were official exorcists in the church, and for centuries in the Roman Catholic church the minor order of exorcism was a part of the regular training of priests for ordination.
These days the church acknowledges that many of the conditions that once were thought to result from demonic possession now are recognized as mental disorders. On the other hand church rules still say quite clearly that the devil is at work in the world and Christians must be aware.
Nowadays the bishop of each Catholic diocese appoints an exorcist, as does the Church of England, someone who can advise and help clergy and lay people with these issues. They're not kept too busy but they do have situations to deal with, and they go about this with wisdom and calmness and grace.
What were the consequences of Jesus' actions?
1. For the pigs ....
(Let's save that for another sermon on animals in scripture!)
2. For the people - fear
(v. 35-37) They were seized with fear ... because of what they'd seen him do, they wanted Jesus to go away.
We can relate to their fear: a horror story like this one does scare us.
But rather than send him away, if they could only have had faith in Jesus as the one in authority over the darkness - their fears would subside....
3. For the man - restored to health, and wholeness
(v. 27) He had been naked and living among tombs .... like a homeless person (eg, the man who lived in Holy Trinity churchyard), or a goth (clothed in black) - outside society ...
(v.35) ... now clothed and in his right mind ... a normal person again, able to relate to people normally again.
(v.39) ... and told to return home ... home, a place of safety and security, of acceptance and loving. A long way from fear and doom.
This is the outcome when Jesus confronts evil for us and with us. We may be disturbed by the unknown and distressed by the dark side but I hope we can also see that with prayer, with Jesus on our side, darkness will lose its hold.
Psalm 139: Even the darkness is not dark to You, And the night is as bright as the day.
Strange stories from the Fortean Times;
Historical and factual notes from John M. Powers: Are They Demons or Just Delusions? in Insight magazine, November 2003