the devil

Even Demons Know

Mark 1:21-39

I think I’m as rational and grounded as the next person. Despite being a person of faith, a believer in Jesus Christ’s work in this world, my default way of thinking is to trust what I can see and measure, and be skeptical about what I cannot validate.

That makes me a typical 21st century citizen of the developed world, a product of a place where science and reason are held in high esteem. That sense of being “modern,” however, also can make it more difficult for me and for you to appreciate the truths in what can seem like a primitive story, a story including demon possession and exorcism.

The story itself is told in a straightforward manner—this is, after all, the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had just gathered his disciples, and he headed to the synagogue in Capernaum, the town which would be his ministry’s home base for the next three years.

An Exorcism, Jesus-Style

First, a little regarding Jesus teaching with “authority,” as this becomes important to us later. The declaration of the worshipers about Jesus was not a slap at the scribes, whose job it was to look to the law and provide guidance. When the worshipers said Jesus taught as “one having authority,” they meant he spoke as God would speak, with the voice of a prophet, declaring God’s will directly.

Apparently, that holy authority bothered a demon occupying some part of one worshiper’s soul. I wonder if the man had ever done anything to indicate his problem before; he was allowed in the synagogue, rather than having been driven away from society, as possessed people often were. The resident demon declared loudly who Jesus is, and its fear of Jesus also was evident. Jesus silenced it and exorcised it, presumably freeing this man from some terrible burdens in the process.

To grasp the significance of the demon in this and other exorcism stories, we do have to believe there are evil powers at work but not directly observable in this world. As Christians, there’s really not much reason to reject such an idea. Think what we have accepted already.

Spirits Everywhere

We believe there is a personal spiritual force called God who made all things and stands outside all creation. We believe God’s Spirit fully occupies human flesh as Jesus Christ, and we believe that same Spirit occupies us when we accept Christ as Savior.

Few of us struggle with the idea of angels occupying a heavenly realm. So, It really shouldn’t be a stretch to imagine their evil variant, influencing us in a very personal way. As we hear in Revelation 12:7-9:

And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

In recent years, I’ve found it easier and easier to accept that those evil beings among us take control of people. While working in prison ministry, I’ve had inmates tell me of their own personal experiences of losing control.

Certainly, these people did certain things to open the door to evil spiritual influences—drug abuse in particular seems to increase the risk of possession. But there is an element to their stories that goes beyond the simple rewiring of their brains through drugs or pornography. Something wicked was present. (By the time they told me these stories, they had been freed by Christ.)

Complete Victory

Here’s the good news: Christians who cling to their beliefs and guard themselves spiritually have nothing to fear. Our story today shows us demons tremble at the very idea of Jesus Christ. And they were trembling even before Christ had gone to the cross, defeated death and sin, and demonstrated his victory in the Resurrection.

If you’ll back up a few verses in Mark, you can see why demons feared Christ from the start of his ministry. Satan already had made one run at Jesus in the wilderness, testing him, vetting his identity, and badly losing a battle of wits. The entire spirit world must have taken note.

Why can I say we have nothing to fear? When we stay close to Christ, Christ’s Spirit remains in us, and those wicked forces see Christ in us. Evil may damage our bodies, but our souls are never in danger.

All this makes me wonder why people would dabble in New Age spiritualism or witchcraft. Have they not figured out they’re siding with the losing team? After the victory on the cross, the spiritual battle between good and evil is for all practical purposes over. If this were a basketball game, there would be a minute left in the fourth quarter, with Good up by 40 points over Evil.

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Knowing We Are Naked

Adam and Eve in Paradise, Lucas Cranach, 1532One of the weird things about sin is you sometimes find yourself committing it without having consciously thought, “I am now going to go against God.”

Oh, sure, there are people who revel in sin. But I feel certain even they achieved open defiance of God by first practicing an almost naive experiment, a slight turning away from the Creator to see what would happen.

The story of the first human sin is the classic example. Whether you read it literally or allegorically, you get to the same place: Sin begins with small, careful steps taken down a very slippery slope.

It doesn’t help that someone is looking for company as he slides down. Despite what Flip Wilson said, the devil doesn’t make us do it. He does, however, make right and wrong seem unclear, and suddenly it becomes easy to follow his lead.

Now, if you’ve read the story in Genesis, you know that Satan doesn’t actually make a formal appearance. The story of what we sometimes call “The Fall” is built around Eve’s encounter with a serpent. But Revelation refers to Satan as “that ancient serpent” for a reason. Both represent a very personal evil, a dark antagonist seeking to drive a wedge between God and humanity.

Eve was like a child in her innocence. She and Adam had just one rule to follow to stay right with God—don’t eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden—but the serpent was able to muddle even something that simple.

The serpent began by misstating the rule. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Eve rushed to correct him, but oddly enough, she followed the serpent’s lead in making the rule more restrictive than it actually was. She accurately said the humans were not supposed to eat of the fruit, but she added her own little twist, saying they would die if they merely touched it.

Why she did this isn’t completely clear. She had not yet been made when God gave Adam the rule; maybe Adam overstated the matter to keep the astonishing, treasured companion God had given him a safe distance from the tree. Or maybe her inaccurate gloss is just evidence of how quickly we begin to describe God as a harsh taskmaster when we let evil whisper to us.

The serpent then sowed further doubt about God, telling Eve she had been misled. God, he told her, was trying to keep the humans from being like their creator. We know where the story goes from there—she took the fruit, passed her self-devised “touch test” with flying colors, and proceeded to dig in, giving some to her husband, too.

That’s when they knew they were naked. Not that there was anything wrong with being naked before they ate the fruit. The problem was this fruit gave them knowledge of good and evil, and with all the possible choices in the universe suddenly before them, they felt vulnerable at the potential horrors they could see.

And, of course, they who defy God cannot exist for long in the presence of God, and they certainly cannot be allowed near the source of eternal life. Goodbye Paradise.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, saw a pattern in this story explaining how we step toward and finally slip into sin. It begins in a state of unbelief, a moment where we don’t trust that God is our loving Creator, the one to whom we owe complete allegiance.

Unbelief gives birth to pride, Wesley said, resulting in thoughts like “I know as well as God what to do” or even “I know better what to do.” From there, pride leads to self-will, that is, the decision to follow your own thoughts rather than God’s will. Finally, self-will leads to all sorts of foolish desires, wants unconnected to God, and a person ends up eating “forbidden fruit,” usually the indulgence in activities, possessions or people not part of God’s plan.

What is a weak, broken human to do? In the story of the fall, all we’re left with is the inevitability of sin, this sudden knowledge that we’re vulnerable.

We cannot do anything, of course. We remain dependent on God. Fortunately, God continues to love. God remains the source of grace. Even before banishing Adam and Eve to a world equally broken—a world where they could survive for at least a limited time—God sacrificed some of the precious animals of the garden so their skins could cover the humans’ shame. It was a precursor to the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, just as all the animal sacrifices to God in human history would be.

I find it poetic that Jesus Christ, God walking among us in our flesh, preceded his ministry to rescue us from sin by going toe to toe with Satan, in the process reversing the pattern of temptation we see in Genesis. From the story, it is obvious the devil was unsure of Jesus’ identity. Satan’s first strategy was to deal with Jesus as a fallen human, one already familiar with the pattern of temptation and rooted in sin.

Satan began by placing before the fasting, hungry Jesus a temptation based on foolish desire: Turn these stones into bread. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus replied.

The devil then appealed to Jesus’ pride, testing to see if he would willfully demonstrate holy power: Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, he told Jesus. “Again, it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’ ” Jesus said.

Finally, realizing this was a tough one to break, Satan tested Jesus’ belief, offering Jesus all the world if Jesus would worship Satan. “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus said. “For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”

Here is one who did not fall, one worthy of Paradise. And when we trust in the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, we know we can return to that blissful place, too.