Last week our text outlined the challenges that face those who follow Jesus. This week we continue reading in Luke’s gospel as he recounts Jesus’ instructions to the seventy followers he sends out. Jesus says there is a plentiful harvest, but does that mean that the people they meet are a crop to be picked, put in a basket and sold? I’m not sure. He does tell his followers a great deal about how to be a good guest: don’t talk to strangers on the road, don’t roam from house to house, eat what is set before you and things of that sort. But he says little about what they are to do. He does say in passing “heal the sick” but there is nothing about preaching, praying, converting, church planting or doing the work of social justice, housing the homeless, feeding the hungry or visiting prisoners.
It is only after they return that we are told of the one concrete thing that the seventy do that brings them joy. “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us.” But what does that mean? How are we, in the age of science, to understand what demons are being referred to.
In the ancient world, demons were thought to be something like the opposite of angels. They were the messengers and henchmen of Satan. Misfortune was thought to be the work of demons. Sickness, mental illness, injury, financial hardship, bad relationships, even death were often attributed to demons. The mechanics of how this was thought to work are not easy for us to understand, so different is our way of looking at things now.
In some references, it almost sounds like demons invaded the human body or spirit and took over, sort of like a biblical invasion of the body snatchers. But when we read other references to them it is apparent that something more complex was going on, or was understood to be going on.
If the demons who submitted to the seventy disciples were the agents of Satan, it is really Satan we need to focus on, to understand, and this is an even greater mystery.
Rene Girard, a literary anthropologist who wrote a book that took its title from this text, “I saw Satan falling from heaven like lightening,” suggests that Satan is not so much a person, not a rival to God, as it is principle that keeps us from God. The meaning of the word Satan is often translated as “seducer or tempter.” Satan introduces us to the idea that we should follow our own desires if we want to be fully human. God, on the other hand, introduces us to the idea that we should be guided by the great commandment to love one another, if we want to be fully human.
In our day it is possible to argue that Satan has won, at least in terms of what the culture encourages us to aspire to. Last week, we recognized our graduates, and in preparation for that service, I spent a few hours looking through commencement addresses given at graduation ceremonies. Many of them urged students to follow their passions and assured them that they could be whatever they desired. The speakers accepted implicitly the modern notion that we are a society of individuals and that what we should aspire to is to be fulfilled as individuals, to do what will be best for me.
Now there is much that is admirable in that notion. It is surely a good thing to seek fulfillment and to pursue what brings you joy. But too often we have trouble actually knowing what it is that will do that. And this is where Satan comes in, not the guy in the red suit with horns, hooves and a tail, but the principle of focusing only on ourselves, our desires, our urges.
Jesus speaks often of the kingdom of heaven, or as I think it is better translated, the commonwealth of God. He is not referring to a physical location where we go when we die, but to the potential for the world we live in now to be organized in a way that achieves God’s aspiration for peace and justice, a world where, as Matthew’s gospel put it, the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed and the least well off are cared for by the more fortunate. The primary organizing principle of the commonwealth of God is the great commandment, to love God and your neighbour as yourself.
If Satan is the principle of selfishly pursuing one’s own desires, God is the principle that calls us to care for others, the principle of compassion. When Jesus says he saw Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening, he is asserting that the imbalance in God’s commonwealth, the imbalance in human affairs, can be put right – the satanic principle of self-indulgence can be cast out. Satan falls from heaven not when God wins a round in the heavenly wrestling match and throws the devil out of the ring; Satan falls from heaven every time that the demons of greed, meanness, bullying, envy, pride and the rest are defeated by ordinary men and women and children.
To be a follower of Jesus, then, is to be someone who seeks to defeat the demons that lure people away from the commonwealth of God. To follow Jesus means working to defeat those demons that are within us, or to help others to overcome their demons. To follow Jesus is to respond to his call to see the world as an opportunity for joy through participating in the lives of others, helping them to bear their burdens and to achieve their potential.
This is not a prescription for a life of misery and suffering where to be a Christian means you always sacrifice your own happiness for that of others. According to the scripture, to cast out demons in the name of God brings us great joy.
If you are still with me in this reading of the text, and I acknowledge that this passage is obscure enough that it can easily bear other meanings, or no meaning at all, let me offer a story that illustrates how I see this working.
Twenty-five years ago Clifford Elliott, who was my minister at the time, wrote a little book containing the stories of eight people and how they had experienced the commonwealth of God in very ordinary ways that were in fact quite extraordinary.
One of the people Cliff encountered was a First Nations man named Lorne, who was in his early fifties at the time. Lorne had lived a hard life, mostly working as a manual labourer. The abuse his body took in mines and lumber camps and factories was compounded by a life long struggle with alcoholism. As I re-read Lorne’s story a few days ago, what struck me was the rhythm it followed. Periods of heavy drinking were triggered when he found himself frustrated in achieving what he wanted, when the demands being made of him by his inner demons went unmet, or were unsatisfied even if he got what he thought he wanted.
When he and his wife found themselves unable to conceive children, he felt less a man and so hid his pain in the bottle. When he and his wife split up and she had children by another man, he drank even more. In time, however, he decided to make amends with his wife and began to contribute to the care of the children, even though they were not his. He set up funds to pay for their university education. But once the children’s tuition was paid, he took up drinking again. The pattern continued: times of sobriety coincided with times when he was looking after others – children, spouse, other alcoholics or people struggling with addiction; times of drunkenness were brought on when he pursued his own pleasures and desires and found life empty as a result of lost relationships.
What finally brought peace to Lorne, what finally caused Satan to fall from heaven for him, was when he gained the capacity to identify his demons – often this is a word that alcoholics will use to describe their relationship to the bottle – and to admit he was powerless over them. Naming them as demons meant they were not really who he was; he was not defined by his demons and neither is any of us. If we name them, then they lose power, because naming them makes it clear they are not part of God’s commonwealth and they fall away, like lightening falling from heaven.
Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.