ANGELS AND DEMONS
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church, Middletown, NJ
June 28, 2020
Texts: Amos 5:7–24; Mark 5:1–20
We were all riveted as Guillaume told us his story: “I am telling you that the power of Voodoo is real. My enemies used it on me. One morning I could not rise up. My wife cried, ‘What is wrong? What have they done to you?’ She knew from the look in my eyes that a voodoo spell had been cast upon me.”
“She called for the pastor who upon seeing me called for a prayer circle.” Guillaume shook his head as he looked around the room. “You think this is superstition, but it is from the forces of evil.” I tried to keep a neutral expression not betraying my disbelief. And then he explained that the prayer circle calling on Jesus had overcome the power of the demon and he was saved. Demons? Now, what modern person believes in demons, I wondered. And Guillaume was an educated man, a teacher. He had been targeted as a supporter of Aristide.
It’s really easy to ascribe those kinds of motives to others, even those we know are against the side of truth and justice and all those other good things we believe in. For some of us, certain politicians became like demons, people considered beyond the pale. Often we don’t even think twice about it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I think certain politicians are pretty much beyond the pale, but I don’t know whether I would ascribe demonic powers to them.
Demonic beings and powers exist in the scriptures of most religions. Some take a dualistic approach, regarding them as real and rival powers to God while others consider them to be a manifestation of ignorance and ultimately unreal. The names of their leaders are well known to us: Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer, Iblis, one of the names for the Devil in the Qur’an; the beautiful Mara who tried to seduce Gautama Buddha, and the destructive spirit of Zoroastrianism Angra Mainyu, among others.
They are prominent in various scriptural accounts of human fall and the origin of evil; they are named as the source of evil, drawing people's hearts to do wickedness. Although we in this day and age may have difficulty accepting the reality of the traditional view of Satan, merely looking at the horrors of the twentieth century causes one to realize that the capability of human beings to inflict evil on one another transcends the realm of reason.
What is it that drives the human heart to such evil? It’s more than being merely “possessed” by a demon, as the Gospel puts it. We all have the capacity for evil as well as good. The question is how we handle our capacities for either––or both. The film “Long Night’s Journey into Day,” about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established by Archbishop Tutu in the belief that if people confess their sins, then not only God but their fellow human beings will forgive and then sinner and victim can be reconciled. One mother upon learning how her son was murdered, only wanted vengeance.
How do we deal with the demons of anger and hate? Of violence and revenge? Or of just holding a grudge? They’re the same demons. The only difference is intensity. It takes so little to turn a grudge into some deep abiding anger, then some deep abiding hate. Of course, when we start with a grudge, we don’t think of it in the same way. We feel justified in holding the grudge because we feel wronged. But grudges not only destroy relationships; they destroy people. And when the grudge gets institutionalized, it can even destroy a church.
Anger can also be a positive force. It can rouse us from apathy; it can fill us with new power to work for justice. The difference between positive anger and destructive anger is that the latter takes over our lives. The anger itself becomes the controlling force rather than the mission we are trying to accomplish. Once we are galvanized by the issue, we need to put the anger we feel in perspective so that we are able to put our energies toward solving the problem.
Physiologically, anger has two stages. First, there is the sudden surge of adrenaline, and our faces get flushed and our body temperature rises. That’s normal, but it’s the second stage that’s the dangerous part. It’s the long-term part. We hold onto the feeling and the emotions we experience color our response to pretty much everything else. At this point, we can make some choices: we can confront the source of our anger by telling the object of our anger what we think and feel.
At that point, we decide whether we’re going to work toward resolving the real cause, the issue then and there or just hang onto the feeling, which, by the way, usually makes us feel as if we are justified in our anger. This is where the problems start in both personal relationships and in institutions. In fact, holding onto anger and bitterness has probably destroyed more relationships and churches than we can even imagine.
Learning how to deal with the demons that can control us is really important so we are able to function effectively and lovingly with each other. We don’t have the simple expedient of a herd of swine to take on our demons. We need to remember that even Jesus got angry. The Gospels tell us Jesus stormed into the temple courtyard and turned over the tables and he spoke out against the injustices that he saw in his society. But after he stormed into the temple courtyard and spoke out against injustice, he turned that anger into positive steps of reconciliation between people. He used his parables and stories to show people how to resolve the issues in their lives in relation to each other and to God.
Amos, the sheepherder and dresser of sycamore trees, spoke of the Lord’s anger. The religious authorities were afraid of losing their power and he ended up paying the price for their fear of losing power. It’s clear from this passage that when people in power are fearful of losing their power, the demons of anger and hate take over. Those demons are the same ones that turned Serb against Bosnian, Hutu against Tutsi, and the regime in China against its own people.
Learning how to overcome the demon of destructive anger is not easy. It takes work, hard work. We need to learn how to let go of anger, to decide when anger is a positive force and when it can destroy.
Let us pray: Source of all strength, help us to use our emotions, especially anger, as a positive force in our lives. Empower us to let go of what hinders us and hurts others so that we may live the Gospel more fully. In the name of him who brought us a new vision of your love, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.