I grew up in a household that was perfectly comfortable talking about demons and the devil, so I didn’t realize until I went to college that such talk wasn’t normal for modern day Lutherans! It never occurred to me not to take the demon-possession stories in the bible literally until I got to seminary. Now every time I come across a gospel reading on a Sunday like today, with demons and a Jesus who casts them out, I’m torn. Do I preach about demons in a way that sounds straight out of the horror movies my step-daughter Cameron likes so much? Or do I explain it away as mental illness, making the exorcism into a more palatable healing?
It turns out I wasn’t the only one struggling with this choice this week, when the volume of evil seemed suddenly turned up in our nation. All across my pastor circles and the internet, people are talking about evil forces and this gospel reading. And a lot of Lutherans are remembering suddenly how much our founder Martin Luther had to say about demons and the devil and power of evil in our lives. So, I’m choosing to do the uncomfortable thing (again!), and treat this text literally, as a demon possession and exorcism.
But first, a joke. One of the weirdest details in this gospel story is that Jesus sends the cast out demons into a herd of pigs. When asking my colleagues what they thought it means, one of them said this detail is historically important, because it is the first record we have of the existence of deviled ham. (groan, I know)
Okay, now back to the serious stuff! As Jesus comes into a new country, evil meets him face to face, and he wastes no time before commanding it to leave the man alone. The evil recognizes Jesus, evil is always the first to do so, and begins to negotiate, as evil always does. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” it asks, as if the whole of creation isn’t Christ’s. “I beg you, do not torment me,” It says, as if it hasn’t been tormenting the man it inhabits for years. The spirit names names here, calling upon the Jesus it knows has power over it, and begging for mercy.
Well, two can play this name game. “What is your name?” Jesus asks, and this is no innocent question. To know a thing’s name in ancient times was to have power over it. Remember when Jacob asks for the name of the creature he wrestles through the night in Genesis? When this demon answers, you get the feeling it’s trying to avoid Jesus’ question, since the answer it gives is not specific. “Legion” it says, for there were many demons within the man. And again, this demon begs Jesus for mercy, “please don’t send us back to the abyss from which we came”. And Jesus listens, who knows why, and sends the legion into a herd of pigs, who ironically charge right into a watery abyss where the demons will be trapped forever.
It’s a strange and creepy story, this conversation between Jesus and the Legion, and I’ve been literally dreaming about it this week. It’s the naming names that’s captured me in this story, because it parallels the conversation in our nation so well right now. On every news station and across social media this week, we’ve been trying to definitely name the evil that we know has infected our country, and there are a legion of possibilities. What is it exactly that caused yet another mass shooting, where 49 people died in a place that meant joy and sanctuary to them?
Is it too many guns? Is it lack of gun control? Is it evil people with guns? Is it homophobia? Is it radical Islam? Is it radical Christianity? Is it mental illness? Is it a macho masculinity? Is it a general godlessness in our society?
All of those and more have been suggested, and I get the impulse to try and discover the root of all this evil. Maybe if we can name it, as Jesus asks the demon it’s name, maybe we can exterminate it. Maybe if we can understand the cause, the solution will become apparent.
But here’s the scary truth about evil: it never takes just one form, or contains itself to one easily fixable problem. It is Legion, inhabiting the dark and hateful spaces within each of us and the neglected, moth-eaten spaces between us. It is individual and it is systemic. It is born of our human condition and taught by parents to their children. We think, like the Gerasene villagers, that if we just bind it with chains and put it away from the rest of society, we can contain it and reduce it’s power.
But like the possessed man, evil finds its way out of the cages we build for it, to wreak havoc in the world again and again. And as in this story, and the whole of Luke’s gospel, there is one name only that has the power to banish it for good. That name, of course, is Jesus. Every time a demon or legion of them is cast out in the gospels, it is cast out either by Jesus himself or in the name of Jesus, by people who have faith in him. It is Jesus who has the power to put this formerly possessed man in his right mind. It is Jesus who clothes him with dignity, and gives him new purpose.
It sounds simplistic sometimes for us to say that the name of Jesus, called upon by people of faith, can do all that. And I don’t want you to think I mean the name of Jesus is magic. What I mean to say is that when we are claimed by Christ in the waters of baptism, clothed with his love and mercy, we are also filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. In the face of evil and its legions, we need not be afraid, for the name that is upon our foreheads is greater than the name of any evil. Jesus is our hope, our defense, our only needed weapon as we live out our baptismal callings.
So, sure, we can continue to debate the names of the evil in our nation, in our world, in our selves, and the legion of names will continue to grow. But naming its names is not enough. We cannot simply call things what they are in all their horror and think that it will do enough good. That way leads to despair, because the evil will always be bigger than we are by ourselves.
The way that leads to hope begins in placing that legion of named evil at the mercy of Christ, and calling on his power, in and through his people, to banish it from our midst. That way that leads to freedom extends as we clothe ourselves with Christ, and remember that the barriers between us have already been demolished by his death and resurrection. That way that leads to restoration of our neighbors and our nation to its right mind finds completion as we proclaim throughout our cities and world how much Jesus has done for us.
There is evil in the world, brothers and sisters, and it is legion. But we bear the name of Jesus on our brows and on our hearts, so we have nothing to fear. For the name that is on us, and in us is that name of the one, the only one, who has power over every created thing, demons included.
I’m going to get a little evangelical on you now, and I’m going to ask you to place yourselves at the feet of Christ, just as the demon-possessed man did. Take a minute to name some of the evil that’s infected your life this week, whatever’s got you feeling possessed and afraid.
Now with those evils firmly fixed in your mind, I want you to pray with me. I’ve adapted this prayer from the Catholic rite of exorcism:
* After each petition, we’ll say: “Deliver us, Lord Jesus”
From all sin, deliver us, Lord Jesus. From fear of evil, deliver us, Lord Jesus. From fear of those who are different from us, deliver us, Lord Jesus. From anger that leads to hatred, deliver us, Lord Jesus. From divisive politics, deliver us, Lord Jesus. From violence and war, deliver us, Lord Jesus.By the mystery of your incarnation, deliver us, Lord Jesus.
By your death and resurrection, deliver us, Lord Jesus.
God, Creator and defender of the human race, who made humanity in your own image, look with mercy on your servants here, now in the toils of ungodly spirits, now caught up in the fearsome threats to our security and happiness, now confused in mind, weakened in body, or overwhelmed with fear and panic. Repel, O Lord, all ungodly powers, break asunder the snares and traps the bind us, put unholy temptations to flight. By the sign + of your name, let your servants be protected in mind and body. Keep watch over the inmost recesses of their hearts; rule over their emotions; strengthen their will. Graciously grant, 0 Lord, as we call on your holy name, that whatever possesses us may retreat in defeat, so that these servants of yours may be filled with your Holy Spirit, to love and serve you in newness of life; through Christ our Lord. Amen.