“Satan Revisited”

Lk 13.10-17

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

A friend of mine is a novelist who sometimes does work in Hollywood. He recently wrote a film called Haunting Melissa that is being released in half-hour segments on the Internet.

Now I’m not particularly a fan of these “supernatural thrillers.” I don’t like the violence and the blood.

But I’m amazed at the power these films have. Even though they rely on a small number of filming techniques that are repeated in movie after movie, they still manage to evoke horror.

And they are scary – even though we don’t believe that what we’re seeing is scientifically possible. For example, a film might portray someone who is possessed by an evil spirit. We watch it and we’re scared, when at the same time we don’t believe that demons exist.

If someone came up to you in real life and claimed to be possessed by the Devil, you’d probably refer her to a psychiatrist! Modern people don’t believe there’s such a being as Satan. Nor do we believe that there are little demons who roam the earth and try to get into peoples’ souls.

But, then, what are we to make of today’s Second Lesson? In it, Jesus apparently heals a woman who is possessed by an evil spirit that caused her to be crippled. And in the text, Christ refers specifically to the Devil. He says that the sick woman is “a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years.”

Notice that the healing itself isn’t the main subject of this lesson; no one doubts that it occurs. Everyone who observes it believed that the miracle took place. For it wasn’t unusual in those days to encounter what people believed was demonic possession. There were healers in Judaism and the pagan religions who claimed to have power over evil spirits.

The issue was that Jesus wasn’t just healing—he was healing on the Sabbath. Christ was criticized by the Hebrew leaders, because healing was regarded as “work”–and Hebrew law didn’t allow work on the Sabbath day.

When modern literary criticism was first applied to the Bible in the 19th century, scholars took it for granted that such miracle stories were unbelievable. They couldn’t be acceptable to modern people.

Yet we still get chills on our spines when we watch a good horror movie. Another friend of mine who is a professor of film studies claims that these films tap into something deep in the human psyche. And that, I would argue, is where religion comes in.

For religion also touches the most profound parts of the soul. Every communion service contains the words, “Lift up your hearts.” God inspires and renews inner life.

So the chills we feel during a film about the supernatural might be tremors of our souls as we sense our mortality. And that same sense of mortality leads us to a faith that calms our fears. Our religion proclaims that just as God raised Jesus from the dead, so he will deliver us from the threat of death and give us the gift of eternal life.

And while we may think of the Devil as some cartoon figure with a tail and a pitchfork, we know that evil is as present today as it was in the past. Wars and mass murders continue to occur. Whether we believe in demons or not, the “demonic” hasn’t disappeared.

So I think that we should be wary of dispensing entirely with references to spiritual evil. If humans still do horrible things, how can we be sure that there are no negative supernatural forces out there?

I recognize that the main point of our faith is God. And I think that there is considerable evidence to suggest that the world was created by a benevolent God—the evidence may not be conclusive, but there is so much beauty and goodness that we may be confident that our belief is rational.

By contrast, I don’t think we have anywhere near as much reason to believe in Satan. What used to be considered evidence for metaphysical evil is now explained in other ways like mental illness.

Yet, whether there is a Devil or not, evil exists. And we have to take into account the reality of evil if we are going to resist it.

For, evil has a way of reinventing itself. It assumes force beyond human control. When we try to combat social evils such as extreme poverty or lawlessness, we can’t be sure that we will win. Even great sacrifices by well-meaning Christians don’t solve perennial problems.

We may strive, for example, to combat the evil of poverty. And yet it would not be cynical to predict that poverty will still endure. Jesus himself noted, “The poor you have always with you.”

That is one reason why Christians have personified evil with images like Satan and demons: so we remember that we encounter evil in an ongoing battle. As in the hymn we sang last week, “Onward, Christian soldiers,” we march “as to” war.

And the fact that we never win a total victory in the war against evil doesn’t mean we should give up the fight. Take programs like the Carpenter’s Kids project that we at Incarnation participated a couple of years ago.

Through our contributions and the work of the Diocese of New York, 50 AIDS orphans in Tanzania were assisted through five years of primary school. That was something good – the children got that much further ahead in life. In this one instance, we fought poverty, and we won.

Back home, we can also expect that we will encounter evil—here though even our best efforts won’t make it disappear.

Take the example of negative people, people for instance whose behavior regularly upsets us. They annoy us, or they make us angry or depressed.

We might hesitate to say that such persons are controlled by the Devil. But they certainly seem to be haunted by their personal “demons.” Whether their problems are mental, or moral, or spiritual, they bring darkness to those around them.

Ideally, we should try to find a way to help such folks. But sometimes we just have to admit defeat; we can’t understand them; we don’t know how to support them. Whatever their innate nature, they trigger the worst in us.

Even though we have good intentions, their bad intentions are stronger. In those cases, we may have to admit defeat and find other battles to fight. As Jesus advised his disciples before they took to the road to spread the Gospel: when we meet impossible opposition, we have to “shake the dust off our feet.” We have to leave these dark souls behind.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells us to ask God to “deliver us from evil.” The Bible stories about healing remind us whose side we are on. Whatever we believe about the nature of evil, we know that we want to be delivered from it, we want to be on God’s side.

And now, as you sit, let us pray.

“Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted of Satan: Make speed to help thy servants who are assaulted by manifold temptations; and, as thou knowest their several infirmities, let each of us find strength and peace in thy power; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Amen.


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