Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I think we can all agree that God the Father wants us to talk about Him, to believe in Him, and to trust in Jesus Christ, God the Son, as our only Savior. Scripture repeatedly supports this position. As an example, look to Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Or in Deuteronomy 4:12: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” We could spend days reading scripture to support this view. It is meet, right, and salutary for Christians to talk about Christ.
Satan and his legions, on the other hand, want you to forget that they even exist, so that they can work their evil and tempt you to sin against God and other people with no one being the wiser. They would like for me to stand here this morning and rationalize that it wasn’t really a demon that Jesus drove out of the man; that he merely had mental illness.
They’d prefer I give you the latest medical information about dopamine, serotonin, or nor-epinephrine receptors in the brain, and explain away the man’s condition as nothing more than a chemical imbalance that Jesus “tweaked” back to normal.
Certainly through the gifts of curiosity and intellect that God has given us, many harmful human behaviors can now be better understood and explained. We are learning more and more about the conditions and causes of mental illness all the time. These damaging behaviors are the residual effects of our fall into sin, every bit as much as cancer, or war, or hurricanes, or adultery, or corruption, or earthquakes, or abortion.
But to explain away that man in Capernaum’s condition as mental illness that was not understood in that age is to deny the witness of the Holy Spirit. It also rejects the authority of Scripture, for Luke was given what to write by a God who created and knows all things, and certainly knows the difference between the effects of chemistry and the presence of Satan.
Are you so omniscient that you can determine whether a person is deranged by chemicals or deranged by demons? Even with a toxicology screen, you can’t be sure you know it all.
Fast forward to Luke 8. Demons there ask to be transferred to the herd of pigs. Would a chemical imbalance ask not to be destroyed? These were, in fact, demons, and today’s lesson is talking about demons—not about unsentient chemicals, not about mental illness. There are real evil spirits subordinate to Satan, who would like us to forget that they do exist.
Look at what St Paul says in Ephesians 6:12: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Jesus tells us to pray for deliverance from the evil one. The evil one—an entity, not an abstraction. Not a condition. Satan and his demons are real, an ever present threat to our walk with Christ.
The good news is that when Christ was crucified, Satan was crushed. When Jesus rose again, Satan was defeated. We know his final outcome. However, never underestimate power of a dying enemy. He is defeated but able to lie and deceive and flatter you into being self centered and forgetting about Christ.
Satan wants you to think that there is a secular life and a spiritual life. He wants you to compartmentalize God; to give Him just an hour or so once a week, or when it’s convenient for you, or when there’s nothing more seemingly interesting to do on Sunday morning. C.S. Lewis once wrote: “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” We live in a battlefield, even when in tranquil meadows, on calm waters, or among whispering trees.
We are in a spiritual struggle. Both God and Satan want to rule your life. Every person on Planet Earth serves, worships, witnesses to, and supports either the work of God or the work of the demonic—sometimes in alternating episodes, and even from one moment to the next. This struggle should not upset us; its absence should. Its presence indicates that your faith in Jesus as your Savior and Lord is alive and that you are fighting a genuine war against the satanic realm. If you feel no struggle, then you are under Satan’s control.
Saint Augustine, a bishop in North Africa in the early 5th century, rightly observed that every single person has a God shaped vacuum in his soul. You can attempt to fill this hole with a host of other things, but ultimately nothing satisfies your hunger for meaning and significance except Jesus and His saving Gospel.
We try to fill this God-shaped hole with money, power, fun, alcohol, food, violence, gambling, sex, sports cars, Super Bowl parties, and an endless list of glittering distractions that in the end leave us still empty. Some of these things, in balance and in the proper circumstances, can be quite harmless or even beneficial. Yet the pursuit of them can also become your personal demons. Ask any admitted alcoholic, drug addict, or compulsive gambler, if you want verification.
Jesus drove out this man’s demon—He can drive out your demons, too. Are you willing, though? Do you actually want them driven out, or do you like your demon-infested life? The master liar, Satan, tells you that you deserve to fill your spiritual void with pleasure. Things. Chemicals. Excitement. Living on the edge, or especially outside of, God’s protective boundaries. He tells you that when your current activities no longer satisfy, just up the dose. Take more. Use more. Party more. Drink more. Eat more. Flaunt more.
Without your realizing what is happening or how it happens, suddenly Satan is totally in control. You soon are living exclusively for yourself, addicted to a substance or a behavior, and have no idea why your soul still feels so empty.
These things are progressive—you start out small and require higher and higher doses to achieve momentary pleasure, but inevitably it gets replaced with permanent misery.
St. Paul, in 2nd Corinthians 11:14, describes how Satan operates as an angel of light. He approaches you with a pleasant smile on his face, and says, “Come on; let me teach you how to live life to the fullest. Be number one. Why, it’s all perfectly legal and acceptable to others. You owe it to yourself. You deserve this. Enjoy the fruits of your success. God had nothing to do with it; it was your hard work.”
To gain control, Satan does not need to persuade you to live an openly wicked life. He needs only to persuade you to live a self-centered life. You are not here to live comfortably, though, but to live usefully to the glory of God in the service of others in all that you do—daily work, education, family life, leisure activities, use of money, and in service to the body of Christ.
Sometimes Satan is less subtle, though. He lures many into the dark world of horoscopes, mediums, psychic readers, transcendental meditation, and even worship of him. Remember, it is all progressive—it sneaks up on you.
Thanks be to God, though, our sanctification is also progressive. Consider our namesake, St. Paul. We first meet him in Acts 7:58. Still called Saul, he is present at the murder of St. Stephen, and soon began to persecute the church. He had believers arrested and imprisoned. He threatened the followers of Christ. He asked the High Priest for authority to go to Damascus so he could capture and bring back any believers.
Talk about being over-zealous for the wrong team! On the road to Damascus, of course, he is met by the risen and ascended Christ, and three days later has his dramatic conversion as he was baptized and received the Gospel from Ananias. Soon Saul was publicly preaching that Jesus is the Son of God. He had been moved from the camp of Satan to the camp of Christ, making himself an enemy of the unbelieving Jews in the process. Nevertheless, Paul escaped and came to meet the disciples whom he had once persecuted. He spoke boldly in the name of the Lord. When his life was again endangered, the Jerusalem disciples helped him escape to Tarsus. In a very short time, by becoming a believer, the hunter became the hunted.
Paul laid low for a while in Arabia, intensely studying the scriptures that he already knew well as a Pharisee, but from a whole new perspective—empowered by the Holy Spirit. Then Barnabas found Paul, and his ministry shifted into active mode.
From Paul’s receiving faith in Christ came spiritual growth and sanctification. He learned contentment, as his words in Philippians 4:11-12 convey: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” He instructs us in 1st Thessalonians 5: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil. Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul was not free from the struggle with evil. His words in Romans 7 verify this. “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” The answer, of course, is Christ Jesus, the only one who can save you from your wretchedness; from your imprisonment to sin; from your warfare with Satan, and from your body of death. Jesus Christ, crucified for Paul’s sins and for yours.
We could spend days studying the life of Paul, giving thanks to God for Paul’s conversion and sanctification. But you might also find it productive to study your own life, recollecting and repenting of all you’ve done to aid the devil’s cause.
On the heels of that, though, you are to turn in faith and give thanks for your rescue in the waters of baptism and your sanctification by the Spirit’s work in your heart.
You can use these gifts and the strength God gives you to the fullest extent possible. You can daily turn your will and your life over to the care of God, resisting less and making fuller use of the Holy Spirit to be freed of your controlling sinful behaviors of mind and body—your own personal demons. A mind filled with wrong beliefs and negative thoughts generates harmful feelings and actions.
Ephesians 4:22-24 says “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Paul also tells us in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
God himself renews your mind. The Holy Spirit working through word and sacrament renews and strengthens you. As God gives you these gifts, you can anticipate receiving the fruits of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
This renewal will be a work in progress in this life, of course, and will only come to completion and perfection in the world to come. But trust in God always—He does make powerful changes in the lives of sinful people like you and me. Your part in this is nothing more than to receive God’s gifts and not fight against Him.
So do not receive the grace of God in vain. Make fuller use of His gift of the Holy Spirit. Put into practice the life the Holy Spirit inspires and enables. Surrender yourself to God, and ask Him to do what you cannot do for yourself. By the Spirit’s power, you can turn your will over to God and His life-transforming power. By His strength and Word, you can experience freedom from your demons.
There will be setbacks, for Satan still prowls the earth. You may, like Paul, at times find yourself doing what you do not want to do. Yet, as you daily repent and turn your life over to God, a new person will emerge, strengthened against your demons of sin and temptation. May He teach you with astonishing words and power on the Sabbath, and every day. May He drive out all your demons, and may they do you no harm. And may reports of Him flow from your lips to all the surrounding region. For with authority and power Jesus commands your unclean spirits, and they come out!
In His holy name, Amen.