Psalm 20 (all)
Rev. Kit Billings
September 26, 2004
There are many individual words we might bring to mind to characterize the Lord's entrance onto the public scene, no longer as a journeyman carpenter but as God Himself taking upon Himself our flesh and natural humanity. What words might come into your mind to sum up who and what Jesus was, stepping into the public and causing a stir wherever He went?
Maybe you're thinking of words like charismatic, or wonderful, or wise, or perhaps powerful? And ya know something, I would likely think of those words too. There is another word that comes into my mind, which is brought out in our lesson in Mark this morning, and the word is “authority.” Christ took first-century Palestine by storm, you might say, because whatever He did or said He did it with genuine authority.
The Lord spoke with authority. He cleansed people of demon possession with authority. And He healed with authority. The bottom line was back then, that the hellish spirits' day of triumph was over. Their days were numbered and now their cards were up. There is clearly a sense that Jesus was indeed a man on a mission, and He was simply going to do everything He did allowing the authority of Divine life working in Him to send its magnificence into every corner of a dark and desperate world—very much like when you or I might have the joy of walking into a dark and dingy cellar somewhere that hasn't seen the light of day for many years, and then it is our job to go over and bust out the painted-over foundation window on the east end of the basement! Wouldn't that be a great experience, to let the awesome glory of morning sunshine into a dark, musty cellar after the dark dampness has had its way down there for many years?
Well, that is essentially what Jesus Christ was—He was a visible, Divine-Human window through which God's infinite love and light might shine into our natural plane of life. I believe this is why wherever Christ went to unleash Divine love, truth and power into all of those various towns and backwater villages in Palestine the people clamored with excitement and joy! The people could feel something different about this special man. They could sense a very deep and intense energy of bright, new life emanating from Jesus, which must have made some of them tremble at times with delight and a profound sense of new hope, not unlike the powerful meaning we glean from the opening verbal blast of confident goodness and truth Christ sent with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Lk. 4:18,19)
Your typical Jewish synagogue experience back then would be something of what we may call religious education. The most important aspect of Judaism was God's Law, also known as Torah. This was the five books of Moses, which the orthodox Jew was taught was God's words given to His people through Moses. The core of the Law of God was the Ten Commandments, but then many more religious and spiritual laws were given as well, such as how to build and construct the Tabernacle, for example. The scribes were the men of Judaism whose role it was to completely memorize the five books of Moses and teach from them. The scribes were the experts in the law. The title of the greatest of them was Rabbi. Scribes had three essential duties. William Barclay summarizes them this way:
(i) They set themselves, out of the great moral principles of the Torah, to extract rules and regulations for every possible situation in life. Obviously this was a task that was endless. Jewish religion began with the great moral laws; it ended with an infinity of rules and regulations. It began as religion; it ended as legalism.
(ii) It was the task of the scribes to transmit and to teach this law and its developments. These deduced and extracted rules and regulations were never written down; they are known as the Oral Law. Although never written down they were considered to be even more binding than the written law. From generation to generation of scribes they were taught and committed to memory. A good student had a memory that was like "a well lined with lime which loses not one drop."
(iii) The scribes had the duty of giving judgment in individual cases; and, in the nature of things, practically every individual case must have produced a new law. (Daily Bible Study Series on disk, exposition on Mark 1).
Thus, as you can imagine, it was normal for a scribe to begin every one of his teachings with the words, “There is a teaching that reads…” and then he would support his thoughts from so many sources, being sure to quote carefully from each of them. So, what was so unique about what Christ did when He went into those various synagogues back then and taught the people too? The difference was that every word He spoke was given from personal authority. He would have quoted scriptures indeed, here and there. But the vast majority of His words were simply from His Divine soul into His heart and mind and out from His mouth. They were Divine truth pouring into our natural time and space, letting Divine sunlight into our world. Jesus was the living power and Divine truth of God breaking forth into a desperate world, as the Infinite Itself assumed our natural humanity. Back then our world was being overcome by the demonic, malignant spirits of hell, who had been having their way for too long.
Not only did Christ teach with authority, He also healed people possessed by demonic spirits with authority. The Lord demonstrated His authority over evil spirits by demonstrating His control of them. And so we read in our Gospel lesson this morning: “Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, `What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God!' `Be quiet!' said Jesus sternly. `Come out of him!' The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.”
Some people may read these verses in the Gospels as mere fantasy. But clearly the Lord's intention by having these stark exorcism accounts kept in the Gospel narrative to remind us that demons are real and serious, and not mere fantasy. They are indeed real, personal, and dangerous. All through Scripture evil spirits are presented as actual persons, definitely individual as the angels are, but also capable of acting in league with one another.
Our helpful New Church theology informs us that we humans on earth, as to our spirits, are accompanied at all times by at least two satanic and two angelic spirits, and we closely associate with either group by the quality and character of the kind of intentions and thoughts we choose to enjoy. Swedenborg learned that there are two angels and two demonic spirits because one is focused on our will and the other upon our understanding. Ultimately, for us to really choose goodness and truth or evil and falsity our whole personhood must go along—both the will and understanding must finally cooperate. And so, we closely associate with spirits from the spiritual realm by means of that spiritual gravity axiom: “like attracts like.” A more poetic version of this spiritual law would be a different famous phrase: “birds of a feather flock together.” Whichever kind of spiritual companionship we prefer, these spiritual beings or persons influence us as to our affections, thoughts and feelings by the energetic spiritual sphere they produce.
One of the greatest tools or means through which folks like you and me have to resist and shun the influence of evil spirits is to first of all try to understand them as they truly are—that is, to personify them as the Lord did. Notice how Christ spoke directly to the demon in our lesson this morning, as He directed that hellish spirit to depart, and out that devil went! Remember how we read that the evil spirit possessing that poor man cried out: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Notice here how that demon reasoned, thought and conversed. They understood who the Lord was and what His mission was.
The devils around us want anything but for us to recognize and understand them for what they really are. They would much prefer that we count them only as psychological neuroses (which are real as well, but truly distinct from the evil spirits themselves). A devil's preference, in fact, is that we do not understand his or her presence and work upon our lives, so that all of the evil thoughts and promptings we experience might be attributed to ourselves, which tends to lead people to taking ownership of their own evil and getting all caught up and ensnared in it. Our choice to go in a heavenly or hellish direction is ours, but not the originating forces that flow from heaven and hell.
However, when we choose to get real and mature about the reality of evil and also of evil spirits, who use such great wile and subtlety to lure us away from what is good and true, then we can do some things that make it impossible for these devils to have their way with us. We can imagine them for what they are (evil, lost, forlorn beings of selfishness and hatred) and pray for them. That is, to pray that God would move toward them and help them. And as you know, they want nothing to do with the Lord, nothing to do with His Divine love, truth and power. They simply run for the hills and scatter. We can invite the Lord and His beautifully loving angels to move back around us and help us with any selfish affections we may be tempted to entertain and enjoy.
Two young boys were walking home from Sunday School and sharing their reflections on the lesson. They had been studying the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. Little Peter said to his friend Billy, “Do you believe that stuff about the devil Billy? Do you think there really is a devil?” Billy looked at him and said, “Naah—it's just like Santa Claus—it's your dad.”
The Jews, and indeed the whole ancient world, believed strongly in demons and devils. As Harnack once put it, “The whole world and the circumambient atmosphere were fined with devils; not merely idolatry, but every phase and form of life was ruled by them. They sat on thrones; they hovered around cradles. The earth was literally a hell.”
Dr. A. Rendle Short cites a fact that shows the intensity with which the ancient world believed in demons. In many ancient cemeteries skulls were found which had been trepanned. That is to say, a hole had been bored in the skull by a large, rock-boring tool called a trepan. In one cemetery, out of one hundred and twenty skulls, six had been trepanned with the limited surgical technique available, which was no small operation. Further, it was clear from the bone growth prior to death that the trepanning had been done during life. It was also clear that the hole in the skull was too small to be of any physical or surgical value; and it is known that the removed disc of bone was often worn as an amulet around the neck. The reason for the trepanning was to allow the demon to escape from the body of the man, supposedly releasing its hold of him. If primitive surgeons were prepared to undertake that operation, and if men were prepared to undergo it, the belief in demon-possession must have been intensely real.
Our theology helps us to understand a vital meaning within these real stories of the Lord, God-incarnate, entering our world with Divine power and authority, teaching and exorcising demons as He did. Simply, that you and I are born with many real affections within the natural degree of our minds for ungodliness and selfishness, and we will be tempted regularly to embrace these energies flowing from evil spirits. However, we need not be too afraid of them. We need to understand that we were born to rise above them and shun them, in favor of angelic purpose and pleasure in serving the will of God. We simply must turn our minds toward the truth in God's Word as we regard it this morning, that indeed the Lord is squarely against them and has authority over evil spirits who want us to join them in their way of life. When tempted by selfish spirits, remember Christ's words here this morning: “Be quiet!” He said to them…“Come out of him!”
Evil spirits are simply under the control and authority of the Lord. The Lord will always help you achieve victory over their influence.
And just as important as this, remember that in the incarnation of Jesus, God Almighty fully brought the full weight and measure of Divine love and truth into this level of life, here in the natural world. God-in-Christ brought, and has forever woven into the fabric of natural human existence, Divine love and Light! The glorification of Christ has made both the Lord and His love accessible to us all. We need not fear. We need not worry. We simply must pray and act, and trust in the Lord's ministry powerfully active in our hearts and minds every day.
Without calling upon God to personally cast evil spirits (and their sphere of influence) away from us, we cannot beat them. For while it is true that part of the battle happens when we resist hellish thoughts and feelings “as if” we resisted them on our own, the truth we must adhere to is that all goodness and truth come from God—everything good really belongs to the Lord, yet He loves to share His love and wisdom with you, now and always. Thus we read about Jesus Christ walking from town to town sharing His power of goodness with all who needed Him. And our daily acknowledgement of this great truth maintains our greater invulnerability to the hells and their crafty methods of inspiring us to move their way.
May your confidence and your faith be like that of King David when he prayed: “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you.” Amen.