A Costly Miracle


MATTHEW 8:28-34



I know this will surprise many of you since I am such a physically imposing and tough figure (sarcasm) but I have never actually been in a physical altercation.  However, there was one time in my life that I came close. One time that I could not stand by and do nothing.

It was back in Richmond, VA. I had taken some time off from seeking an ordained call to study nonprofit management and work for a nonprofit. I was walking on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) ,through one of the gathering spaces, which was sort of like a mini amphitheater between buildings. There were some picnic tables there and often students would hang out at the picnic tables or take naps on the walls of the little amphitheater.  It was normally a quiet place to relax between classes. But this particular day was different. As I walked through the little amphitheater I noticed a guy and a girl sitting at one of the picnic tables. The girl was in obvious distress and was trying to get away from this guy. But the guy kept grabbing her and pulling her back to him, yelling at her, throwing insults at her. This was obviously an unhealthy relationship being expressed in public for all to see. The man was maybe slightly taller than myself but very well built. He was obviously angry, dangerous, and in my opinion a jerk and a block head. I walked past them, keeping my distance, and then I stopped on the edge of the amphitheater. Everyone around was watching them, but no one was doing anything. One girl shouted that the guy needed to stop doing what he was doing. But the guy told her to mind her own business, using language that was far less kind than what I am using to describe what he said. I looked around, trying to see if anyone would intervene, but there was no one. Every one seemed paralyzed by this unexpected and frankly evil behavior that defied public norms. I sized the guy up. I had studied martial arts for years, but as I mentioned I had never actually gotten in a street fight. And the man seemed willing to fight if anyone intervened. I thought about calling the police. But I was worried the guy would drag the girl away before they got there. I thought about confronting the man and getting into a fight, but I didn’t know if I could win, I didn’t know if anyone would come to my aid, and I was pretty sure that if I lost, he would take it out on this woman. But I couldn’t stand by and do nothing when evil was staring me in the face.

So I went out into the crowded central square of the university, near the library, a couple of feet away from the amphitheater, which was tucked away between two buildings. I found the two tallest guys I could in the crowd, both of them were at least six foot. And I pointed out to them what this guy was doing to this girl. The girl had put a little distance between her and the guy by that time. But the guy was still watching her like a hawk. I told them to watch the guy while I went into the library and called campus police.  When I returned from calling the police I asked the two guardians I had recruited if anything had changed. Just as I asked that question the man rushed at the girl again and the girl began to run. The three of us jumped into action. We ran across the square and charged the guy. The guy fled in one direction and the girl fled into one of the campus buildings. One of the guys I recruited went after the girl to make sure she was okay. That was the last I saw of all of those folks. I don’t know if the campus police found the guy.  But I believe we changed the course of events that day. We challenged behavior that was by all accounts evil. It was a costly miracle. It required that we assert ourselves into a dangerous situation. It required that we not negotiate with the guy but push him out of there.

This nearly physical altercation in my life is a good parable for how Jesus teaches us to confront the demonic in today’s passage.  Now I have already preached a sermon about Angels entitled, “Angels in the Desert.” That sermon wasn’t awkward at all. Because everyone wants to believe in Angels. But talking about the Devil and demons, seriously and openly, well that has sort of fallen out of fashion in the modern world and in the church. And believe me I don’t want to believe in the Devil.  I want to leave the Devil as a metaphor for human evil. It would be better if we could explain away stories like today’s story as primitive people trying to explain mental illness. But the more I have delved into the Christian life, the more I have learned about the power of prayer, the more I have experienced in my own life a power that is not equal to God, but is against everything God is for.

In the Screwtape Letters, well known Christian author C.S Lewis tries to imagine what a conversation between two demons, their names being Screwtape and Wormwood, who are trying to tempt a human being, would be like. In the preface to his book Lewis writes this, “ There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” The word occult comes from the Latin meaning “clandestine” or “hidden”. The central Truth of the Gospel is that Jesus is the light of the world and he brings the Truth to light. Satan wants to remain hidden. So we must talk about him in the light of the Son, in the light of Jesus Christ. What can today’s passage, and other passages teach us about the demonic and evil and how Jesus deals with the demonic and evil in our lives? Today I want us to understand three main points;

  1. The Character of the Demonic
  2. How Jesus deals with the Demonic
  3. The cost when Jesus deals with the Demonic.

First, what can we learn about the character of the demonic from the scriptures? There seems to be three broad characteristics of the demonic that we can draw out from this and other passages.

  1. The Demonic accuses
  2. The Demonic Divides
  3. The Demonic Lies

It is true that in the Old Testament the scriptures do not have a well defined view of evil spirits and the Devil. Christian theology generally interprets the snake in the Garden of Eden as the Devil, and I believe that is true, but that is not explicitly stated in the text.  Our text from 1 Samuel suggests that the LORD sent an evil spirit to punish Saul. The antagonistic relationship between God and the Devil is not developed in that text. The Devil makes his main appearance in the Book of Job where he is called the Satan, a Hebrew word for accuser. Here he is pictured as a chief prosecutor for the LORD’s court.  But through the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ the nature of the Devil has now been revealed as something fully against the purposes of God. In Revelation 12:10 John calls the Devil the accuser of the brethren. And that is how many of us experience the demonic. Not through extreme cases like we see in today’s passage or in dramatized Hollywood movies like The Exorcist, but through inner thoughts that are not our own that accuse us.

Modern psychology basically affirms what the Bible has taught for thousands of years, that our minds are a battlefield and not every thought we experience is our own.  The NPR show Invisibilia in an episode entitled Dark Thoughts tells the story of a man who after watching a violent movie, started being bombarded by violent thoughts. He would think about throwing himself in front of a train, strangling and stabbing his wife, and other horrible things that genuinely frightened him. He thought he was going crazy. He even suggested that his wife might want to commit him to a mental institution. He decided to go see a psychologist.

Now for a long time the mental health world had followed the teachings of Freud who taught that thoughts have meaning. If I have a violent thought that must suggest something about me as a person.  And sometimes our thoughts are rooted in deeper personal issues.  But then in the 1980’s a psychologist named Aaron Beck came up with a different theory. He was counseling a patient who had thoughts that she was worthless, that no one loved her. Instead of exploring these thoughts as Freud would suggest, Beck told her to fight these thoughts. And to his surprise she got better. This is the approach the psychologist who treated the man with violent thoughts we first mentioned took. And the man got better too. Therapist call this Cognitive Behavior Therapy. The Apostle Paul calls it taking every thought captive for Christ. To quote Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” The Devil is excellent at counterfeiting God’s gifts. Accusation is a counter fit of being convicted of our sin by the Holy Spirit. The truth is we have done wrong. But we are not unlovable. Because there is one who died for us who loves us and his name is Jesus Christ.

Next we see that the Demonic divides and isolates us.  We see that these oppressed men in this passage are cut off from society. They live among the dead and thus are ritually unclean. Under Jewish tradition no one should go near them. And their torment is so great that they lash out, they won’t even let anyone near them. In a broader sense the demonic is set on dividing the body of Christ. The scriptures tell us that when the Holy Spirit is present He brings unity to believers of diverse backgrounds. This is Paul’s opening appeal to the church at Corinth, “ I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”  Jesus’ prayer for the church in John 17 is this, “ I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

N. Graham Standish, author of Becoming a Blessed Church, argues that demonic forces act out like they do in today’s passage or say in horrific events like the holocaust to distract us from subtler works of evil he calls “mini-obsessions”. To quote Standish, “ a mini-obsession does not incapacitate or otherwise interfere with one’s ability to function in everyday life. Rather, it causes one to become so obsessed with an issue, event, ideal, or ideology that all who do not agree are regarded as the enemy. For example, a mini-obsession may be at work in the church when a person or group has legitimate concern to address, but in the process the member or group becomes so obsessed with it that the matter begins to bring division into the body of Christ. People may obsess over the church budget, a mission of the church, the use of contemporary or traditional hymns, a perceived slight by the pastor, abortion, homosexuality, or orthodoxy.” There are many difficult issues that the church as a whole faces today. We as Presbyterians believe in the doctrine of Mutual Forbearance. That’s difference than tolerance. Tolerance says there is no Truth. So let’s agree to disagree and get on with it. Mutual Forbearance says there is Truth, God through the scriptures and the Holy Spirit can reveal that Truth. And in faith we stick together till we have discerned that Truth. Spiritual unity is hard. Our flesh fights against it. The Devil fights against it. It is not natural. But as the book Grounded in God points out, “When people are bonded together in the Spirit, they develop mutual respect that honors the integrity of each person’s point of view. Unity does not require uniformity.” (Farnham, 34)

Finally, we see that the demonic lies.  Listen to what the demons say in this passage, “ What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Notice that the best lies always have some truth to them. These demons have a leg up on many characters in the Gospels in that they recognize that Jesus is the Son of God. They also recognize that they and Jesus really have nothing in common. But they try to argue to Jesus Christ that he can’t do anything about them till Judgment Day. The demons try to tell the judge that he can’t judge them. That is just a bold and desperate lie. And Jesus is not having any part of it.

Lying, to ourselves, and to others, is symptomatic of demonic influence.  Jesus says this about the Devil in John 8:44, “ He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” We participate in the demonic when we deny our sin, when we do not admit to the truth.While the Holy Spirit wants the church to be unified, unity at the expense of the truth is not unity, it is a lie. Just recently, I went to a Presbytery meeting where we approved for ordination a candidate who openly denied the doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, the idea that God is all powerful and in control. This is a basic Reformed Doctrine. Yet everyone, even myself, voted to approve him.  I voted for him because I didn’t want to stand out, because I didn’t want to give a sense of disunity, and because I wouldn’t want to be given a hard time if I was being examined for ordination. But the scriptures tell us that we must preach the truth in love. I think the love part means that you can belong you can participate in Christian community before you know the truth. But you still have to know the truth at some point. Not every interpretation of scripture is equally valid. The Lord shall judge us for dividing his church. He will also judge us for false doctrine. It is a fine line to walk. I can’t say I have mastered it yet.

So that is the character of the demonic. How then does Jesus deal with the demonic? I think it is helpful to compare how Jesus dealt with sickness and sin and compare that with how Jesus dealt with the demonic. With sickness Jesus healed all who came to him. With sin Jesus graciously called people to repentance and offered forgiveness. But with the demonic he went to war with it. He cast it out. He didn’t negotiate. I don’t care how much of the Bible you know or don’t know, we all know that making a deal with the Devil is never a good idea.

Finally, what is the cost when Jesus deals with the demonic in our lives? This scripture is clear. Sometimes it can cost us or livelihood. Jesus apparently has no problem with drowning a whole heard of pigs, and putting a bunch of people out of work, if that means people are freed from the clutches of the Devil. Matthew’s version of this event is much shorter than Mark’s. Mark focuses on how the demoniac was freed from oppression. Matthew focuses on how the town begged Jesus to leave after this costly miracle.  Challenging the demonic in our lives and in our nation will often cost us dearly. There is no greater example of a demonic institution than that of American Chattel slavery. Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote, “all men are created equal,” believed that slavery was wrong, and yet he owned slaves. He couldn’t give it up because to do so would mean he would be destitute. I lived in the former Capital of the Confederacy for eight years. I lived in a retreat center where one of our main missions was to learn about and pray for the healing of the scars of the Civil War. Down the Hill from where I lived used to be the second largest slave market on the East Coast. After Richmond was liberated by the Union Army do you know what the people of Richmond did? They buried it. They buried it because they were ashamed. They buried it because they knew slavery was wrong and there was no excuse for it but to make money. My prayer for all of us today is that when the Lord presents to us a costly miracle that we will welcome Jesus instead of turning him away.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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