Luke 9: 37-43
I have just discovered a wonderful series of books which are nearly 20 years old, they are written by Phil Rickman, they are set in the Diocese of Hereford and the main protagonist is a female vicar by the name of Merrily Watkins. When I read the first book I was a little unsure as it dealt with the supernatural alongside more earthly problems. The reason I struggled at first was that I am not 100% sure exactly where my beliefs lie as far as that is concerned; however, by the second book our main character has been appointed as the Diocesan Exorcist, or to give it its more contemporary title, Deliverance Minister, and I got far more insight into that side of the Church of England. Now, before you start heading for the doors and muttering about strange readers from outside churches, I am not about preach a sermon on deliverance and the exorcism of demons. The belief or not in demonic possession is a theological area where each person will have their own thoughts and it is not for me to say whether they are right or wrong. This does, however, lead nicely on to this evening’s Gospel reading in which we hear one of the healing miracles. After the Transfiguration, they bring a boy to Jesus, shaking all over from an epileptic fit. At least, that’s what modern translations say. The Authorised version translates the original literally saying that the boy was a lunatic. We don’t use that word these days, but the description of the symptoms corresponds directly with what we call epilepsy. For modern readers we use a modern term that they will understand. Yet the people of 1st Century Palestine had never heard the word; so when Jesus cured him, he told them he had cast out a demon. And it is here we return to whether one believes in true demonic possession or not. It may well have truly been a malevolent, satanic spirit had inhabited the boy’s body and the power of Jesus cast it out; on the other hand it could well be that the presence of the Messiah and the power of prayer calmed the boy sufficiently and gave him such faith that the epilepsy was cured/improved; a case of mind over matter.
Returning to the Merrily Watkins novels for a moment, when she is appointed to her role as deliverance minister, one very traditional vicar who is opposed to women in the priesthood, sends her a note that simply read “Jesus was the first exorcist”. She takes this to mean that the role should only been undertaken by men. It transpires, however, that he is calling her to have complete and utter faith in the rites and rituals of deliverance as a relevant part of the modern Church – if it was good enough for Jesus, it is good enough for us. There is a reason that the name of this ministry was changed from exorcism to deliverance – deliverance has a far wider definition than exorcism – deliverance is to be rescued from a situation that is out of control. This can be of a far more earthly nature than the word exorcism would imply. It is no coincidence, for example, that alcohol is sometimes referred to as “the demon drink”; alcoholics, addicts of all kinds, and often those suffering with mental health issues are said to “wrestle their demons” (please don’t think I am saying here that all people who have mental illnesses are demonically possessed, I am not – my own daughter has OCD and, although there are occasions where she behaves like she has the devil in her, it is nothing more than the normal behaviour of an average 8 year old!) – and this is where our reading, and deliverance ministry as a whole, fits in to the modern world – there are demons of all sorts that plague people’s lives and we as Christians are in a position to help through the power of prayer and with our faith. Jesus himself tells the disciples as much after he has healed the boy and they ask him why they couldn’t cast out the demon. He says: “Because of your little faith. For I truly tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
That’s an astonishing statement! “Nothing’s impossible to those who have faith,” he said; but many people will disagree with that, saying for instance “My mother was sick, I prayed for her and truly believed that Jesus could save her, but she died anyway. How can you say anything is possible if your faith is strong enough?” Well, think of it like this, an electric motor can lift a battleship, but only if it is plugged in, if not, it is powerless. Similarly, human beings are powerless on their own; but if we are connected to the power of God and can draw on God’s energy and will, then we can do anything, or rather God can do anything he wants to through us. Of course we don’t always know what God wants us to do or not do. It is no good asking God to preserve the life of one of His children, for example, if he is calling them to the Kingdom. It is only through prayer and reflection that we can even begin to hope to know what God wants of us.
And so we return to deliverance and tonight’s reading, whether you believe in demonic possession or not, there is no disputing that the power of prayer and faith can be a powerful tool in the fight against the demons of the modern world. This is not to say that I don’t believe in a force called “evil”, I am just not entirely sure whether people who do evil things are full of satanic demons or just completely bereft of spirituality, either way praying with them may be of benefit and bring them peace and comfort.
I guess what I am really trying to say is that, even though on occasion Scripture can seem very alien to our contemporary society, it is as relevant now as it was 2000 years ago – we may not often hear of demonic possession in this day and age, but in the time of Jesus this was the explanation for many illnesses and conditions that we have now given labels to – epilepsy and paranoid schizophrenia being just two. And then we have the “demons” of modern society not mentioned in the Bible – addiction and violence being two among many.
So whether the thought world you inhabit has a place for true demons or just symbolic demons, the answer is the same – have faith in Christ Jesus, and in the power of prayer.