Possessed By Demons


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

June 30, 2019

Texts: 1 Kings 16:34-43; Luke 8:26-39

        The musical 1776 is about many of the conflicts and problems the Continental Congress faced in finally making the determination that the thirteen colonies under the thumb of Great Britain would indeed become a new Nation, free and independent. It reminds us that one of the most divisive issues in making that determination was the issue of slavery.

When we think of the Declaration of Independence and the Fourth of July we really do not think about the demon of slavery that almost deep-sixed the entire project so stren-uously pushed by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, among others.

        Based loosely on the minutes of the Continental Congress, 1776 shows us how deeply a demon can possess us and how difficult it is to loosen ourselves from it. When Adams berates Edward Rutledge of South Carolina for holding slaves, his response is the song known as “Molasses to Rum to Slaves,” asking “who sails the ships out of Boston laden with Bibles and rum?”  

         Are we all not possessed by the demons? The demons of our refusal to acknowledge our complicity in any denigra-tion of another human being whether by race or ethnic group, by education or the lack of it, or by sexual orientation?

        The delegates to that Continental Congress who strug-gled to create a document, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to affirm their consent,” had to learn to compromise even what they considered to be basic principles in order to get unanimity. 

        However, the demon of slavery, called “our peculiar institution” by the delegates from the South, threatened more than once to undo the project and, of course, almost destroy-ed the Union they all had worked so hard to create. There are so many ways that demons possess us. There are, of course, the obvious demons of fear and prejudice. There are also less obvious and more insidious demons, the ones we do not recognize, at least not until they have taken over our lives.

          The text we heard from 1 Kings at first glance just seems to be a recitation of several kings and their length of reigns, but if we look at it more closely, we see that the writers of this book were concerned with more than a listing of the kings of Israel and Judah. They listed the sins, the demons that took over the many kings.

           We know little about Omri of the northern kingdom of Israel except what is in Hebrew Scripture. A commander in the army of King Elah, he became king after another military commander Zimri murdered Elah and set himself up as king. Omri attacked him and Zimri was killed only seven days later. Enter Omri.

          Scholars dispute the exact dates of his reign but it was sometime during the tumultuous period of the 880s BCE. The one piece of archaeological evidence referring to Omri by name is called the Mesha Stele, a large stone tablet dated about 840 BCE describing how Omri was able to conquer Moab because Chemosh the god of Moab was angry with his people. Does this sound familiar?

         As Israel’s hegemony expanded into Sidon, however,  so did the influence of foreign gods from Phoenicia. As the text tells us, “Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” a phrase that indicates he worshiped a god other than the Lord or at least permitted such worship in his kingdom. The demons of power had possessed him and his successor Ahab paid for it. 

         As we well know the hunger for power is a terrible demon and possesses not just those who consider themselves leaders but a people as well. When a nation worships power above all flexing its military might, the consequences can be swift and terrible. We’ve certainly seen that in the history of our own nation.

         There are other demons that possess us as well. Luke’s Gospel tells us of a man so possessed that he was able to break the chains that bound him. In this story Jesus has just crossed the Sea of Galilee and arrives at a town called Gerasa, now known as Jerash in Jordan, one of the cities of what was called the Decapolis, a group of ten cities sharing a common language and Hellenistic culture.

          The presence of pigs in the area indicates that it was most likely a gentile area since pigs are considered to be unclean under Jewish law. There is a dispute between some scholars whether this story is allegorical since the word gerash means to expel; it is the verb used when God expels Adam and Eve from the garden. However, a city by that name did exist at that time. 

         The demons in the story actually engage Jesus in a conversation. And in demanding the demon’s name, Jesus exerts his authority. Calling a divine or even a semi-divine being by its name gave power over it. The response of “Legion”  is softened somewhat by the statement that many demons had entered the man.

         But the name “Legion” has another meaning, namely, a Roman army unit of between 5,000 to 6,000 men. And were not the Romans possessing Israel and Judah just as the man was possessed, stripping him of his very integrity? The hearers of this Gospel in Greek would have understood that this event was yet another sign of the breaking in of the kingdom in an eschatological sense.

        However, as we read this story in our time we’re cer-tainly not sitting on a mountain in New York waiting for the eschaton. So the question for us becomes how we can use this story in developing our faith. Perhaps the beginning point is where Jesus begins: he asks the man’s name.

         Now, for sure, the demon responds: My name is Legion. In other words the demon is one who would destroy all the different facts of his humanity. We have many parts to our humanity; even looking beyond what we may consider the three major components of our humanity, the spiritual, the mental, and the physiological, each of those parts are divided into so many parts, perhaps more parts than we can hopefully have some control. 

         The Gerasene demoniac had no control over his life. And that’s certainly how we often feel: we have no control. Or, the areas of our lies that seem to offer control are really pretty insignificant. Being healed of the demons that control our lives is no easy task, to say the least. We may not be physically stripping ourselves like the demoniac but we strip ourselves spiritually all the time.

          As one commentator ut it, the story tells us the truth about our hesitation in embracing freedom. The townspeople rather than welcoming Jesus want him to leave; they want to go back to their old ways. The old ways, the familiar ones, they are the ones that imprison us, that become our demons.

Breaking out of our old habits, our old ways  of being with others is what we are called to do and it is what is most difficult. Each of us has some demon, as it were, that controls how we respond to others. 

         At the end of the story, Jesus tells this nameless person to return to his home and to be a witness to God’s liberating power where he lives. And that is what we are called to do. Home is the most difficult place to be a witness because people there know us and what we have been. The task is to become something new so we are able to reflect God’s embrace of the world around us no matter how difficult that may be.

        Let us pray: Eternal One, help us to confront our own demons so we become true witnesses to the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.