Sunday, June 23, 2013

Demons within

Leviticus 11:1-12
Ephesians 4:17-32
Luke 8:26-39

It should say a lot to us that "Legion", those many demons who had possession of this poor man, "begged Jesus not to order them to go back into the abyss" (Luke 8:31); in this context the abyss meaning "abode of the dead" or "abode of evil spirits, hell" (  Billy Graham once remarked, "Even the demons of hell did not want to be sent back to hell!"

Though there are varying accounts of "Gerasenes" (Luke NRSV) or "Gadarenes" (Luke NKJV) or even "Gergesenes" (Matthew NKJV or "Gadarenes" NRSV), the story itself is not strictly about a specific location.  We should also not mistake what is being offered as a strictly "historical" account of Jesus' ministry (Matthew has two demon-possessed men, while Mark and Luke refer to only one man). 

An entire region to the east of the Sea of Galilee is the "country" to which the gospels refer, a region called the "Decapolis" the demographic of which is more Greek than Semitic and thus Gentile and not Jewish.  This should be understood especially in the Levitical context because not only is swine not to be consumed by the people of the Lord, one is rendered unclean for even touching swine flesh.  So it would make no sense that there would have been Jewish swineherds.  Swine exist, of course, but the people of the Covenant are prohibited from even touching, let alone eating, swine.

Some suggest this passage may also point to the future Church's mission to the Gentiles, but it might be notable that when "Legion" destroyed these people's livelihood by driving the swine into the sea - even though Jesus had healed the demon-possessed man by casting out "Legion" - the people asked Jesus to leave.  Though this demoniac was obviously a royal pain and perceived as a threat to the people, they had gotten used to it; they had learned to live with it over time.  Maybe it even became "normal".  It never seemed to occur to them there could be another way, a better way to live - without fear.  So when they rushed out to see after having been told of what had happened, rather than notice the "healed" man "sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind", they only noticed the missing herd; that is, they noticed only what was apparently more important to them.

Demonic figures in the New Testament are typically associated with physical ailments.  It may also be noted that such afflictions are not "caused" by the Lord when these afflictions are assigned to demonic activity.  In fact, it would make no sense that the Lord would inflict us with demons only to cast them out later just to make a point; as the Pharisees had accused Jesus of doing (Matthew 12:24).  Whether these afflictions can be directly attributed to demonic activity today may be debatable, but there is one thing throughout the Scriptures NOT attributed specifically to demonic activity: sin.  That is the one thing that has always been - and always will be - attributed to our human nature and free will when we freely choose to violate the Lord's standards and Law. 

We cannot help how we are born and we cannot always help being overcome by sickness or disease, but we are always - ALWAYS - responsible for the choices we make regardless of how we may choose to classify our own impulses.  And the choices made by the faithful must always - ALWAYS - take into account Divine Will according to what is written in the Scriptures ... BEFORE we act or speak. 

Perhaps especially reading this passage in Luke, we might do well to consider that any "snap" decisions we make without any real thought will almost always be more attuned to our own desires (how we will be directly affected, like the people of the Decapolis).  If someone is standing nearby whom eye witnesses say is to blame, we will likely react just as they did.  Send Him away or have Him arrested for interfering with our choices, our livelihoods, our lifestyles - our "rights"; pretty much what happened to Jesus in the end.

So if we cannot blame the devil for the sin in our lives, who can we blame?  Clearly we would like someone besides ourselves to be responsible for our bad choices because we would not deliberately grieve the Lord, would we?  What is the underlying cause for us to act contrary to what is written in the Scriptures (and we cannot claim ignorance of what is written)?  How do we come to the conclusion that the Scriptures, especially those parts that say "thou shalt not" always mean "them" but never "us"?  How have we been somehow led to believe that sin and temptations are no longer threats to us?  How has "sanctification" - that life-long commitment to discipleship and the pursuit of spiritual perfection, the staple of the Methodist movement - been cast aside in favor of "one-and-done"?

The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, once wrote: "We may repent; however, there will be need of much time to conquer an evil habit, and even after repentance one's whole life must be guarded with great care and diligence" ("Discourse on Hades").  In other words, Josephus rightly acknowledges Divine Mercy in sincere repentance, but he also insists that human sin comes as the result of human activity.  Our bad choices and "evil habits", once learned, have to be un-learned - by young and old alike.  It becomes, as has been said before, not a new life but rather a new way of being.  Individual effort and the mutual support of the Church is not merely suggested but put forth as necessary - IF we are to successfully overcome our own "evil habits"; our own "demons within" - the "demons" we actually have control over.

There is nothing distinctly "Jewish" about Josephus' insight; it is consistent throughout the Scriptures when we are reminded to cling to one another, pray for one another, correct and (yes) discipline one another as necessary, and mutually support one another especially in our weakest moments and darkest days.  It is possible to make such a commitment to perfection by sheer will and individual effort, but we must never underestimate the raw power of evil to overcome us if we choose to go it alone, when there is no one to support us and hold us accountable to the faith - including proper doctrine. 

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul partly quotes from the prophet Zechariah: "These are the things you shall do; speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true, and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for these are things I hate, says the Lord" (Zechariah 8:16-17).  Re-emphasizing the point made by the prophet to the people of Judah, St. Paul thus says, "for we are members of one another".  We are connected by faith through the "ekklesia", the assembly of the faithful.

St. Paul refers to many "evil habits" it is not hard to ascertain too many of us are still captured by.  We go to bed angry, we take what does not belong to us (our tithes and the abundance of our excess while the needy go without), we curse those we think may have done us harm and due to our pride, we refuse to apologize or take a part in making it right.  We refuse humility, but we demand it of others.  These are not the acts of the "righteous" nor of those who have been "justified" before the Lord; those who claim to know what it truly means to have been "forgiven".  These are those "demons within" we often make no effort to resist because "God loves me anyway".  Besides, if these are truly "demons" within us, our sin is no longer our own fault.  Right?  Wrong!

Shame on us.  Shame on us for allowing such things to go on in our lives unchecked and unchallenged.  Shame on us for failing to live up to what we have been called, set apart, and equipped to do.  Shame on us for failing to live up to and into the blessings in our lives.  Shame on us for not embracing all that has been granted to us by living up to our truest and divinely appointed potential.  Above all else, shame on us for "getting used to" anything that clearly harms our neighbors, offends our Lord, grieves His Holy Spirit, blatantly violates His Divine Law, and ultimately diminishes the quality of our divinely appointed life. 

We are not done, however, nor is the Lord done with us.  Above all, the Lord is not done with our neighbors (you know, the guy or girl whom we "can't stand")!  That is the entire point of "sanctification", discipleship, and the Church.  If the Lord did not care about us AND our neighbors, the Church would never have been called forth to "preach the Gospel to the poor ... to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Matthew 4:18, 19).

Let us work together to overcome these "demons within" so that we may go about our Lord's work - together; and stop leaving it to "someone" - who never seems to show up.  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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