“And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
We’ve run into a lot of demons in the lessons in recent weeks. Many of us, I think, are not entirely sure what to make of it all. Perhaps there’s good reason for that. Few of us have first-hand encounters with demonic possession as it shows up in the movies. I have occasionally heard stories from colleagues and acquaintances who have encountered the inexplicably evil, stories that give me chills, but none of those experiences have been mine. The head-spinning, convulsion-causing, hysterical sort of demonic possession just doesn’t seem to happen so often in modern-day central New York.
But we shouldn’t be surprised that it does happen often in the gospels.
Why? The demonic powers are drawn to Jesus like a moth drawn to flame. Is it any wonder that they want a glimpse of their enemy? Is it any wonder that they want a chance to destroy Him, to tempt him, to overpower this man of perfect goodness—Jesus would be the ultimate prize?
Maybe they know that they won’t be able to destroy Jesus. Maybe they know that they won’t win in any confrontation with “the Holy One of God.” But the forces of evil never go down without a fight. Their goal is simply to do as much damage as they can do in whatever time they have left. I suspect that Mark also wants us to read these stories of demon possession and conflict with the powers of evil as a prelude to the greatest battle, which moves towards its climax when Judas betrays his master with a kiss.
What these lessons teach us is not just that sometimes there is this thing called demon possession, though the gospel accounts and the witness of other Christians suggest that such things can happen, even today. The most important lesson is a reminder that there is a spiritual world around us that we cannot see. It is every bit as real as this pulpit, this light, my hand, your eyes. In this world, a battle continues to rage, while the defeated forces of evil vow to fight to the very death, wreaking as much havoc as possible as they go. Evil continues to be a force to be reckoned with in this world, even when it isn’t making a Hollywood-worthy scene.
The forces of evil fight over you and over me.
A whisper in the ear or a temptation placed in our path is usually all it takes. We really aren’t strong enough to fight them on our own. “We are in bondage to sin,” we say every Sunday, and “we cannot free ourselves.” We can’t seem to uncurve our inwardly curved souls. We can’t seem to shake the selfishness which makes us bristle at interruptions. We cannot un-possess ourselves of the powers that have a hold of us.
And yet, we so often act like this problem is simply a failure of will or a character defect. If only I had a few sessions with a psychologist, I wouldn’t worry so much. If only I tried harder, I wouldn’t lose my temper. If only I changed my situation, I wouldn’t be so bitter. If only I freeze the credit cards. If only I pour the liquor down the drain. If only I had someone here to help me stay on track. If only… Sometimes these strategies do help keep us from doing the things that we most desperately want to stop doing. We can come up with ways that make it harder for ourselves to do what we know we should not do, and that’s great. Great. Use whatever tools you can.
But do not forget that willpower alone will not ever solve the root problem, which is that fallen human nature is selfish and self-seeking. When we forget that, the forces of evil can take our very best intentions and lead us straight to self-destruction.
If we succeed in doing better, and we think we’ve done it all on our own, we become like Pharisees and hypocrites. We start to look down on our neighbors and pride will eat away at any faith that we have. “At least I’m not like that tax collector over there.” “At least I’m not lazy” “At least I try to give my children what they need”
If we don’t succeed in doing better when we try to do it on our own, then we may be tempted to despair and give up all hope of change. I don’t know about you, but sometimes the days I try the hardest are the very same days I crash and burn most spectacularly. Those are the days when we sometimes wonder, “why bother trying if I’m never going to get this right?”
My own willpower doesn’t hold up very well against the powers of evil.
If you saw an enemy tank coming towards you, I hope you wouldn’t be fool enough to think you take it on with only your fists. That’s exactly what we do when we turn life and faith into nothing more than a moral self-improvement project. Our fists don’t hold up very well against tanks. Our willpower doesn’t hold up very well against the demons of this world.
But there is someone who can and does stand up to the powers around us. In Luther’s hymn paraphrase of Psalm 49:
Though hordes of devils fill the land
All threat’ning to devour us,
We tremble not, unmoved we stand;
They cannot overpow’r us.
Let this world’s tyrant rage,
In battle we’ll engage.
His might is doomed to fail;
God’s judgement must prevail!
One little word subdues him.
Jesus did not come to the demon-possessed to tell them to try harder. You can’t make yourself a better person. You can’t pull yourselves up by your own moral bootstraps. No program or strategy will straighten out the crookedness of your heart. You can’t free yourself of whatever demons haunt you.
But Jesus can. Jesus makes us better. On the last day, he will make us perfect. Jesus can pull us up out of the mire. Jesus casts out our demons and will even call on us to cast out demons in his name.
The Rev. Allison Zbicz Michael is assistant pastor for Christian formation at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Maryland. When she first preached this sermon in 2015, she was pastor of Zion St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Seward, New York.