[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
I was a young pastor. I’d received what I thought was a solid seminary education. I believed in the Bible. And I accepted the Lordship of Jesus with all my heart. But whenever I ran across passages in the Gospels telling about Jesus casting out demons, I didn’t know what to make of them.
I had never met anyone that I thought to be demon-possessed. And many Bible scholars who comment on such passages say confidently that those people the Bible describes as having demons really were mentally ill or suffering from some other affliction.
Then, I met a husband and wife missionary team supported by the first congregation I served. The couple was in the States on furlough and had come to speak at our church’s annual outdoor mission festival. They served in India and most of their work was with a leper colony they had founded there. One day, while speaking with them privately though, I was surprised when, after they told me about worship services, many conversions to Christ, and the medical clinic they ran, this couple also said that occasionally, they performed exorcisms.
I tried to conceal my shock behind a poker face. “Exorcisms?” I thought. “You mean, like in the Gospels, like in the movies, you cast out demons?”
I guess that they could see my unspoken questions and began to explain that sometimes, people would be brought to them who displayed a cluster of symptoms that might include depression, violence, self-destructiveness, convulsions, or explosive rage. When medical treatment and counseling proved ineffective, the missionaries told me, they were fairly certain that the problem wasn’t psychological or medical; they were dealing with demons.
It was then that they would call on the Name of Jesus to cast evil from the people brought to them. They told me about people whose lives were totally turned around, all their former disturbing symptoms gone, because their demons were exorcised or removed by the power of Jesus Christ.
I found that I had to believe them. They weren’t nut cases. They were well-known to all the people of my first parish; the wife, a nurse, had been raised there. And they claimed to have met demon-possessed people and seen Jesus cast the demons out.
So, I thought, trying to make sense of it all, demon possession and the possibility of exorcising demons from people must be real. But, I reasoned, this whole phenomenon must be something that in today’s world only happens in primitive settings more like first-century Judea where the Bible tells us that Jesus cast out demons. The teeming, impoverished section of India where those two missionaries served would have been more like that than would the United States.
That line of reasoning, I suppose, was comforting for me. Nobody wants to run into a demon. So, I told myself that they weren’t to be found in the good old US of A.
But truth be told, I think I was only whistling in the dark. If you believe in the existence of evil—and who can watch a TV news report or read the news online and not believe that there is evil?—then how can you deny the possibility that evil may so fill a person’s mind and life that they become possessed by that evil?
And besides, if I believed in the Bible and if, when reading it, I ran across incidents like the one recounted in today’s Gospel lesson, in which a desperate woman asks Jesus to cast out a demon from her daughter and Jesus, in response to her faith, does just that, how could I keep whistling in the dark?
I soon learned that it isn’t just Christian preachers who wrestle with such issues. Psychotherapist R.D. Laing gained prominence in the late-1960s with his cutting edge thoughts on human psychology—some of it kooky, some of it right on. In his book, The Divided Self, published in 1964, Laing noted “a…curious phenomenon of the personality…is that in which the individual seems to be the vehicle of a personality that is not his own. Someone else’s personality seems to ‘possess’ him, finding expression through his words and actions, whereas the individual’s own personality is temporarily ‘lost’ or gone…”
But even if references to demon-possession sound like way-out psychobabble or kooky preacher talk to you, I think you’ll agree that evil—active opposition to the will and commands of God, refusal to reverence God, and resistance to loving others—is increasing in our world today.
That’s because evil fills up the vacuums, the empty places of our lives, our institutions, and even our churches.
In the New Testament’s last book, Revelation, the risen and ascended Jesus tells one church that though their congregation is commendable in lots of ways, the members had forgotten their first love.
In other words, that congregation had become a social club, not a family of believers who sought to give God thanks for Jesus’ death and resurrection through changed lives.
It didn't seek to share Christ with others.
Churches that forget that Christ is to be their first love stop being churches and seem not to pray, “Change my heart, God,”* but, “God, You need to change with the times.”
We leave room for evil when we put ourselves first in life and when we forget that Christ is to be our first love.
People also leave room for evil when they fail to maintain personal contact with God.
Week before last, I went to Columbus to have lunch with my best friend from high school, a fellow I’ve known since the fourth grade, who lives in Arizona and only gets back this way once a year. On the way up to Columbus, I wondered what his mood would be. He’s going through the breakup of his marriage of thirty years.
“I’m keeping my life simple right now,” he told me. “No TV. A one-room apartment. I go to work. I read my Bible and pray every day. I go to men’s Bible study at church. I go to worship on Sunday. [And pulling out a card, he told me] I’m an agent of the FBIC, Mark: Fully Believing in Christ.”
When I left Bill that day, I knew he would be OK. He had invited Jesus to participate in his life. His relationship with God is personal.
Evil goes where Jesus Christ has not been invited. That’s why it’s so critically important for you and me to pray for our spiritually-disconnected friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates.
That’s why it’s central to who we are as Christians to invite those who aren’t in relationship with Christ and the Church to get to know Jesus Christ, to worship with us, to dig into God’s Word with us.
It’s why you and I need, in the words of Martin Luther which you’ve heard me cite many times, to live in daily repentance and renewal, daily surrendering to Christ so that evil cannot get a decisive foothold in our lives or in the lives of those for whom we pray.
And it’s essential that we pay attention to who hasn’t been worshiping with us lately, to pray for them, and, in simple Christian love and friendship, call them up and find out how they’re doing.
Just how the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman in today’s Gospel lesson came to be possessed by evil isn’t said. Of course, she was, like the deaf mute man Jesus also heals in the lesson, a Gentile, a non-Jew, who may never have heard the story of the God of all creation who had made the Jews His chosen people and, over long centuries, had prepared them for the arrival of the Messiah, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.
But the actions of this mother should be a lesson to all of us. She didn’t give up hope. She went to Jesus on behalf of her demon-possessed daughter. As Luther reminds us in A Mighty Fortress is Our God, “hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us.” But we can, as the hymn also says, “tremble not, unmoved we stand,” knowing that evil cannot overpower us.**
Once, I met a Lutheran pastor who told me about his childhood and youth lived in North Dakota, near a small town that had little for young people to do and offered few opportunities for the future. He had more than a few run-ins with the law and his life seemed to be spinning inevitably toward dysfunction and evil.
One day, he passed the bedroom of his grandfather, in his nineties, then living with his family. The old man was praying for children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and neighbors. He prayed for blessings, guidance, and healing.
Then this troubled teenager heard his grandfather begin to pray for him. The grandfather’s voice choked and the boy could see that he was sobbing softly as he asked God to intervene in the young man’s life, to guide him, to help the boy follow Jesus and live, rather than give in to the sin of this dying world.
At that moment, the teen thought his grandfather was silly. But, as the years went by, increasingly, when he contemplated doing wrong or stupid things, something or Someone, seemed to steer him elsewhere. His grandfather’s prayers were answered. That’s how that felow ended up following Christ, ended up in seminary, ended up a pastor.
The power of evil is huge in our world today. But as the Syrophoenician woman in our Gospel lesson learned when she prayed for her daughter, Jesus is able to overcome all and give us new life.
Today, tomorrow, everyday, put your life—put the life of the world—in the hands of Jesus.
When we fall, Jesus lifts us.
When we die, Jesus gives us life.
When we can’t, Jesus can. Always.
*"Change my heart, O God" is the opening line of the praise song featured in the video below. It's based on imagery of God as the potter to whom the believer is called to willingly submit, allowing God to make them new. Check out this list of Scripture passages (and their contexts) to see how the terms "potter" and "clay" are used in both the Old and New Testaments.
**Below is a performance of A Mighty Fortress is Our God by the Pacific Lutheran University Choir of the West.