Jesus was, among other things, a famous exorcist, a person who cast demons out of those who were possessed. And it’s a good thing too because it seems that there were demons everywhere in those days. In the gospel stories about Jesus’ ministry, there were demons in every town and city, in the houses of worship and in the waste-scapes of chaos beyond civilization’s reach. Everywhere Jesus went, some poor child of God was under the power and sway of a demon.
And those poor devils were the lowest of the low, the last of the last of the lost ones that even the hopeless had pity on. A person possessed by a demon was not considered fully human anymore because they were infested with something alive. Something was moving under their skin transforming them into something other than human, something uncontrollable and dangerous. A demon-possessed person can’t be reasoned with because it is the demon’s voice that answers in reply. A demon can’t be threatened because they are not afraid of human beings. Even the blunt instrument of violent coercion is no help because every blow lands squarely on the body of the poor infested wretch with the demon laughing unharmed through blood and fire.
So among the miracles that Jesus performed, few were as impressive—or important—as casting out a demon. It falls somewhere between healing the sick and raising the dead because a person possessed by a demon is barely even alive. Exorcising a demon is like giving someone their life back, giving someone their humanity back. And Jesus was well known as someone who had power over the demons.
In fact, Jesus was so well known as an exorcist that people began to use his name as a kind of magic word over demons, even if they weren’t followers of Jesus. Enter the Seven Sons of Sceva, stage right. They were travelling exorcists: scam artists really. I imagine them dressing very fancy, with slick matching outfits and having worked out some truly impressive hocus-pocus in their phony exorcism bit. Even their name is fancy, “the seven sons of Sceva.” Sceva is a Latin name and makes them sound like they’re coming from the big city. So when the story from Acts picks up with someone asking the seven sons of Sceva to cast out a demon, the front man of the operation flashes his thousand watt smile and says: sure thing, money down.
And with the wages of false hope already in their pockets the seven sons of Sceva walked into an ordinary house. But standing before these seven fake exorcists was one real demon. It was infesting a man who stared at them uncaringly, impassively. So they launched into their hocus pocus, doing their usual song and dance. They threw in foreign sounding words and carefully choreographed moves all leading up to the big finish, the new hot phrase that everyone thought was sure-fire demon repellant. With a flourish the seven sons of Sceva cried out together “we cast you out in the name of Jesus!”
At first … nothing. But then the thing started to move. Its limbs moved like a marionette, sinews pulled by some invisible string moving in lurching motions like it was pulled by something too powerful to create smaller movements. And its eyes. The eyes were flat and lifeless like a china doll’s but possessed of a hideous unblinking watchfulness. But the worst of all was the voice. It came from the thing’s throat like its belly and lungs were being worked as bellows, mouth and tongue moved by unseen fingers working in behind its teeth. The demon spoke: “Jesus I know, but who are you”? And then the demon was on them like a fury, arms becoming fist topped bone clubs, kneecap found groin and forehead smashed into eye socket, teeth working like leather shears tearing cloth and skin and vein. And the seven sons of Sceva, fancy matching outfits torn to shreds, fled naked and bloody into the night. They thought Jesus was a magic word, they didn’t understand the power of Jesus. They thought the power of Jesus could make them a buck off some poor and desperate people. Nothing could be further from the truth.
A good story, yes. A spooky story, sure, but it’s not really frightening. Perhaps it would frighten children or the very gullible, but we don’t believe in demons anymore. Demons have been banished from our world along with goblins and dragons and vampires. There are no demons possessing people, demons are just all superstition.
Well … well … I’ve said it before in this church and I’ll say it again. I believe in demons, but they aren’t what most people think. Demons aren’t monsters with goat feet and pitchforks in red pajamas, nor are they supernatural creatures floating through the air. The Bible never describes demons like that. In fact, a demon is never described at all except to say they that it is living inside of someone. A demon is a malevolent living force described by what it takes away from a person. A demon strips away humanity, it strips away dignity, it turns a family member into a stranger and a neighbor into a pariah. If left to their own devices a demon will hollow a person out, and leave them as something that is no longer fully human. That is how you can tell a demon. Demons take over people’s lives and leave them degraded, wounded in places a scalpel could never reach.
That’s what demons are like in the Bible, at least, and I believe in that. Because demonic activity, that is, dehumanizing activity, that is, the degradation of human beings into something lower than the dignity of a being made in the image of God: the demonic is everywhere around us today. Demons stalk through every town and city, they are in every house of worship and even in the waste-scapes of chaos beyond civilization’s reach. I can name a few demons, each of you could name more I am sure if you were apt to use that language. I’ll name a couple. There is the demon of massive and widespread addiction, utterly controlling countless people like marionettes. Addiction slips into our young people and into our elders and into our veterans. It slips in through pills and pipes and bottles, betting slips and web browsers and rented hotel rooms. Massive and widespread addiction infests us in this country. That demon comes to live inside of us, replacing bit by bit all of what is good in life. It takes health and family and career and love and trust and turns them into disease and loneliness and debt and lies. Addiction burns a person up from the inside until they hardly even feel human anymore, little more than a walking corpse not so secretly wishing for death.
And then there is the demon of unreasoning hatred, tingeing our vision blood red. Hatred slips into our bodies without our knowing. Sometimes it is passed like a hereditary infection from parent to child. Sometimes it is transmitted by wartime propaganda about what they will do if they ever get their chance. Sometimes hatred grows inside of us like a fungus, nurtured in secret places of our minds where it grows slow resentments of the other. And hatred is very clever, never claiming to be what it is. And hatred is everywhere in this country: racism masked as appeals for law and order, sexism warmed over as traditionalism, anti-LGBT bigotry dressed up with pretentions of piety. Hatred can be directed at people of other nations and people of other political beliefs and people who worship differently. But what doesn’t change is what hatred does. Hatred makes a person look at a child of God and see something vile, something ugly and sub human. But hatred is very clever, because it is in fact the one who hates who is becoming vile and ugly and sub human. It is the one who hates who finds the best gems of human nature pilfered one by one. Hatred takes diversity and knowledge and forbearance and peace and mercy and leaves in their place only uniformity and ignorance and cruelty and violence. Hatred rots our souls from within until they are barely recognizable as human, a vile thing wanting nothing more than to harm other children of God.
But why use the language of demons? Why call widespread addiction a demon, why call hatred a demon? Wouldn’t it be better to call them social trends, or cultural aberrations or even tragedies? Isn’t that better language? More reasonable language? Well, more reasonable perhaps. But not necessarily better. The language of demons is part of the Christian faith, and it is a helpful idea that expresses something true about the world: some evils have a life of their own. They take shape and become organized and powerful beyond any individual or group’s intentional control. Demons like hatred and addiction are not merely products of human will but rather are determinants of how people will behave. These things have a hideous life of their own, a demonic life that infests us generation after generation and will not go away. That is why as Christians we cannot call hatred or addiction or violence against women or mass incarceration trends, we should not call them trends or aberrations or even tragedies. Social trends come and go, cultural aberrations by definition will self-correct, tragedies pass and become memory. But a demon? A demon persists. A demon has to be cast out. It has to be named for what it is and cast out or it’s not going anywhere.
But how to do it? How am I supposed to cast out the demon of addiction from someone dying in its grip? Or how are you supposed to banish hatred from someone so angry that like Ahab if their chest were a mortar they would burst their hot heart’s shell upon the object of their hatred? Or how are we to free ourselves when we feel a shadow is growing within us? We cannot do it on our own, I can tell you that. We cannot confront the true demons of this world with our own strength alone, the seven sons of Sceva can tell you that. The true demonic forces of this world, they’re not afraid of you. They don’t even know who you are.
But they know who Jesus is.
There are two things the Bible tells us about demons. They live inside of people, and they know who Jesus is. Long before human beings understand Jesus, the demons of the Bible know. They know exactly who Jesus is and where he came from, and they know exactly in what his power consists. As soon as the demons saw Jesus, they knew that they were no longer the greatest power on earth. The demons saw that their power—to degrade human beings into something less—was nothing in the face of the power of Jesus—to lift human beings up and make of us something more. That is the power of Jesus, to seek good and love the stranger and cast out the demons that keep people in chains. The power of Jesus is in knowing that there are fates worse than death, because death has been broken in two.
When the seven sons of Sceva called out the name of Jesus, they did so as if it were a magic word. As if Jesus were a pathway to riches and an easy life. Nothing could be further from the truth. To bear the name of Jesus is to take up the power of Jesus itself, to carry on the work of Jesus himself, to be the very living body of Jesus still walking and teaching and healing and confronting the demons that stalk the world today.
We are not the foolish sons of Sceva, because it is not ourselves that we will rely on in our contest with the demons. With the power of Christ we can see through the veil of respectability which that demon addiction throws over itself and see through to the beloved child of God wasting away inside. We can take the hand of the possessed and show that they do not need to die and they do not deserve to die. And with the power of Christ healing—not our own—with the power of Christ the demon can be cast out and life can begin again.
We are not the foolish sons of Sceva going up against powers we can’t handle because it is not our own strength we rely on when we confront that demon hatred. With the bedrock certainty that Christ redeemed all people, we can unmask hatred in every form and call it what it is. We can reach the haters and the bigots with a word of comfort, a gesture of grace, one that shows them the light of God that lives within each person. And with the power of Christ’s forgiveness—not our own—with the power of forgiveness hatred can be cast out, love can begin to grow again.
You may not understand how it will work, you may not believe that it will work. But the demons understand, and the demons believe. And they tremble in terror at the power of the living Christ, in you.