Sermon audio here.
We live in a world filled with violence. But there’s one story you never hear reported on the evening news. This despite the fact that it’s deadlier than all the World Wars and conflicts between nations in human history combined. The greatest—and perhaps most neglected—threat to your welfare is demon possession.
It’s a little odd that Christians talk so little about demon possession and exorcism given how much attention is given to it in Scripture. On the first Sunday in Lent, our Lord was under assault by Satan in the wilderness. When his efforts to tempt Christ failed, he began sending demons to do his dirty work for him. Last Sunday a demon had possession of a Canaanite woman’s daughter. Today we see Christ casting out demons, which resulted in a very tense conversation about possession and exorcism.
What you should learn from all this is that there’s more to life than you can see. When the psalms ask for protection from enemies, they aren’t just talking about people. Your greatest enemy isn’t a person. It’s Satan and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
If doing good works indicates possession by the Holy Spirit, sin indicates possession by demons. To sin is to give Satan control of your life.
He would love for you attribute your sin to minor lapses in judgment and your troubles to bad luck rather than to see them as evidence of demonic activity. The hymn says: “subtly [the devil] lies in wait to undermine both Church and state.”[i] The devil’s work is subtle. He likes to remain out of the spotlight as much as possible. But don’t be deceived—Satan and his demons are as real as the suffering and death they cause. Luther said,
“If there is a fire and a town or a house burns down, the devil is certainly hovering nearby, blowing upon the fire to make it flare up… it is the devil who harms us in body, possessions, and honor… If [the Lord’s holy angels] were not always there standing guard over and protecting us, we could well succumb to death ten times over in just one hour.”[ii]
We don’t talk much about the devil or angels. We think we’re too smart to believe in such “medieval fairy tales.” But the truth is, our conception of the world is far too small. In our lust to know everything, we’ve ended up limiting our knowledge to that which can be tested in a laboratory. But God doesn’t submit Himself to our experimentation. We can’t cage His creation up in our 2-by-4 conception of the world.[iii] God is Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible.
Learn your lesson from Thomas. He only wanted to believe in what he could see, and that didn’t go so well for him. Faith is the conviction of things not seen.
But acknowledging the reality of demons is only the first step. Knowing you have a problem does nothing to solve it. Mercifully, Christ doesn’t warn you about demons and say, “Good luck with that!” Instead, He takes great pains to teach you how to guard against their assaults.
Mary and Martha provide a nice illustration of this. Martha was having what is all too often a typical day for us. She was anxious and troubled about many things. The demons were having a field day with her. Mary, on the other hand, was as peaceful as could be. The demons couldn’t touch her. Why not? Martha was “distracted with much serving.” She was distracted from precisely the thing with which Mary was occupied: sitting at the Lord’s feet, hanging on His every Word.
Now this doesn’t mean working is sinful and you need to listen to God’s Word 24/7 and do nothing else. This is where monasticism went wrong. The devil is just as happy when you ignore the people around you as he is when you ignore God’s Word. God wants you to hear His Word so you can be Christ to your neighbor. Where God’s Word is firmly implanted in the heart, demons are nowhere to be found.
But when we, like Martha, get distracted from God’s Word, we roll out the red carpet for Satan and his demons. But just as the Holy Spirit and faith can be lost, it’s not “once possessed, always possessed.” Preaching in the Nae of Jesus chases the devil away. Exorcism happens by listening.
Our Lord describes Christians as a house from whom an evil spirit has been exorcised, which He does in Holy Baptism. But the house cannot remain empty. If the Holy Spirit doesn’t take up residence in you and make you into His Temple, the demon will come back with his seven ghastliest friends and make you into their haunted house. This is why our Lord says, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”
Hearing and keeping God’s Word isn’t always easy. Sometimes it might seem better to let it go and take your chances with the demons. Certainly that temptation was there for the Canaanite woman. Jesus’ words to her were harsh and couldn’t have been easy to hear.[i] But she received the Lord’s Word, painful though it was, because it was the Word of her Lord. If God’s Word casts out demons, we shouldn’t expect hearing it to always be pleasant. Satan won’t go down without a fight.
But when it came to the people of Judah, the demons prevailed. Like the Canaanite woman, they heard some harsh preaching. It wasn’t easy to hear. But they were sinning—which is to say, they were doing the work of Satan. Jeremiah had no choice but to warn them about the dangerous path they were on and call them to repentance. He said,
“Thus says the Lord: ‘If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to listen to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently, though you have not listened, then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.’”
Harsh words. The mere mention of Shiloh would have sent a shiver down the people’s spine. For a short while, Shiloh was home to the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was at the center of Israel’s religious life because that’s where God dwelt with His people in the Old Testament. But when the people started treating the Ark like a good luck charm and ignoring what God had to say, He allowed the Ark to be taken captive by pagans and Shiloh was destroyed.
Jeremiah warned the people this would happen to them, too, if they didn’t repent of their fascination with the demonic and focus their attention on His Word. This wasn’t easy for the people to hear, but unlike the Canaanite woman, they didn’t respond in faith. Satan’s grip on them was too strong. There was no “amen” at the end of Jeremiah’s sermon. Instead, the priests and prophets and people turned into an angry mob and started calling for the death penalty.
Getting you to stray from God’s Word is the devil’s only trick. It’s what he’s been doing since Eden. And though you’ve fallen for the devil’s lies again and again, God doesn’t sit idly by and let Satan and his demons have their way with you. Instead, He let Satan have his way with Christ. On the cross, the curse of sin, “You shall die,” was borne by Christ.
God steps in and lets the demons take Him captive instead. It’s what He did when He allowed the Ark, His dwelling place, to be carried off by the Philistines. It’s what He did when Judas showed up in Gethsemane with soldiers and weapons. It’s what He did when He allowed the bloodthirsty cries of the angry mob, “Crucify Him”, to prevail.
C. S. Lewis illustrated this beautifully in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when Aslan agreed to let the White Witch take him captive in the place of the traitor, Edmund.
It may not be pleasant to hear, but Christ preaches repentance because He loves you. He is the Great Physician, and surgery always begins with an incision. The call to repentance is like the surgeon’s scalpel. But God is no Charles Manson. He takes no pleasure in killing. He kills for the purpose of raising you up to new life. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.[v]
God’s Word is kryptonite to demons. It’s the armor which protects you against Satan. It’s a sharp, two-edged sword. Like the sword of Gryffindor which slayed Nagini in Harry Potter, the Word of God is the sword which puts an end to the ancient serpent and his lies.
God’s Word might not have looked like much while He hung there dying on the cross, but Satan’s most powerful ally lost its claim over you on the Third Day. By allowing His heel to be bruised, the Word made Flesh crushed the serpent’s head.
Devils all the world may fill, but fear not, little flock: God is for you. And if God is for you, who can be against you?
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] “Lord God, to Thee We Give All Praise” (LSB, 522; st. 5).
[ii] Luther, “House Postils,” (378, 389).
[iii] Nagel, “Complete Sermons,” (293).
[iv] He compares her to a dog who’s unworthy of His grace (Matthew 15:26).
[v] John 12:24