The first clergy meeting I ever had, I made the mistake of attending.
I was a first-year student in Seminary. I had just begun pastoring a small congregation when I received an email notifying me of that month’s Clergy Meeting.
I was only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know any better. So, I actually went to the meeting.
It was held at a church in downtown Trenton, in a rough neighborhood. The church had chain-link fence covering the stained-glass windows.
A blue vinyl banner hung down against the stone wall of the church. On the banner was a photograph of a man in dreadlocks praying.
The banner read, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: The People of the United Methodist Church.”
An ironic slogan then as much as now.
Assembled for the clergy meeting were fifty or so, mostly older, pastors.
The agenda belonged to a woman who worked in the Office of United Methodist Communications.
She’d come to the meeting that day to preview for us some of the commercials the United Methodist Church was planning to air on television and on the radio.
The commercials were part of a multi-million dollar “Igniting Ministry” advertising campaign designed to attract new and younger members.
The woman was dressed like a Talbots mannequin. Her eyes lit up and her smile was wide. She was brimming with excitement to be the first to show us what she obviously thought were the best commercials we would ever see in our lives this side of the Super Bowl.
She rolled a TV cart out to the center aisle of the sanctuary. With much ado, she pressed “Play” on the VCR.
The opening shot of the commercial had rain dribbling down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. A voice-over narrator said, “Today is my fortieth birthday, and I don’t know where I’m going.”
And then, some more rain dribbled down a window set against a grey, gloomy sky. Then it said, “Come to the United Methodist Church. You’re welcome.”
When the commercial was over, she pressed “Pause.”
I looked around and, to my surprise, I saw pastors nodding their heads.
Nearly all of them were smiling.
“That’s great,” some of them said.
“That will really speak to young people.”
The woman from UM Communications was beaming. “Any other thoughts?” she asked.
I’d like to think that back then I wasn’t as cynical and contrary as I am now, but my wife, who was my fiancé at the time, says otherwise.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
And everyone turned and stared at me.
“What don’t you get?” she asked with a frown.
“Well, I mean, the commercial doesn’t mention, you know, Jesus.”
“Young man,” she said through a forced smile. “These commercials are designed to appeal to seekers, to people who are afraid that their lives don’t have meaning or significance.”
“But, what’s the problem with mentioning Jesus?” I asked.
She bit her bottom lip and said,“Our market research showed that specific references to Jesus would make the advertisements less effective.”
“Well, what happens if these commercials actually work?” I wondered aloud.
She just looked at me, confused.
“What happens if these commercials work and people show up at church looking for a little meaning in their lives and what they end up with, instead, is Jesus?”
“Why would that be a problem?”
“Any honest Jesus commercial should be like those pharmaceutical commercials,” I said. “You know— the ones that promise an amazing, life-changing medication, but then with rapid-fire warnings, side effects may include wheezing, vomiting, fever, diarrhea, memory loss, heart attack, stroke, and, maybe, death.”
Some of the pastors chuckled.
They all thought I was joking.
Take today’s Gospel—
Exactly how would you turn today’s scripture passage into an effective advertising campaign?
Instead of rain dribbling down a window, maybe you could film a pack of angry wolves with red stains on their teeth? Torn wisps of blood-spattered wool littering the ground?
“What are you doing this Sunday?” the voiceover narrator could ask, “Would you like to get crucified? Come to the United Methodist Church, we’ve got a cross that’ll fit your back.”
Would anyone show up if they knew ahead of time that Jesus intended to deploy them, without qualifications or training, to do battle with the devil?
You caught that part today, right?
The part where Jesus sends us, like Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, into the Upside Down.
“Cure the sick,” Jesus commissions His fishers of men. “Raise the dead and cast out demons.”
Lest you think that’s a one-off, the devil is implied again at the end of the passage where
Jesus says, “Behold, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
As much as we all love the comforting, pastoral imagery of the 23rd Psalm, that’s not the part of the Old Testament where Jesus gets the image of Himself as our Good Shepherd.
He takes it from the Book of Jeremiah, where the prophet says, “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’ For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.”
Redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
The word redeemed in both testaments is a martial term.
It presumes the existence of an enemy.
God’s People, says the Lord to Jeremiah, are in bondage to a Power who is not God that is too strong for them.
We’re sheep captive to a Wolf.
The Apostle Paul in our text today refers to that Power as “the rulers of this age.” And Paul just expects you to know he doesn’t mean Pontius Pilate or King Herod.
He means the Devil.
He means Satan, Lucifer— evil personified— what Paul calls in Ephesians the Principalities and Powers. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul calls it the Power of Sin and Death. At the end of this letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives it the overarching name, “The Enemy.”
“Cure the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons.”
“I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…”
Flannery O’ Connor, the Gothic Southern fiction writer, was an ardent Christian and an astute reader of scripture.
In a letter to a friend, she wrote: “Our salvation is played out with the devil, a devil who is not simply generalized evil but an evil intelligence— evil has an agency in the world— and is determined on its own supremacy.”
The reality of the one Jesus calls the Adversary is presupposed in every book of the New Testament. Quite literally, the story of Jesus Christ no longer makes sense once you’ve removed one of its main characters from the stage.
In all four Gospels, from the first day of Christ’s ministry to His last day on the Cross, Jesus is depicted as contending against the powers, demonic powers.
The Devil is all over the details in your Bible.
Luke mentions Satan twenty-five times in his Gospel, more than once per chapter.
Here in Matthew, for his one and only lesson on prayer, Jesus commands us whenever we pray to pray, “Deliver us ha poneros.”
Not from evil, from the Evil One.
John in his Gospel puts the mission of Jesus Christ as plain as the nose on your face.
John says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.” Period, full stop.
In the Book of Acts, when Peter explains who Jesus is and what Jesus does, he says to the Centurion, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who are under the power of the Devil.”
That’s the same Peter who writes in his first epistle, “Be sober, be watchful. Your Adversary, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
Even the Christmas carols most often describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of territory held by an Enemy.
How does the first verse of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” go?
God rest ye merry, gentlemen Let nothing you dismay Remember, Christ, our Saviour Was born on Christmas day To save us all from Satan’s power When we were gone astray
Some of us have so sentimentalized our Christianity while others of us have so politicized the Gospels, we hardly notice that the Biblical drama of salvation has three characters, not two.
It’s not God and Humanity.
It’s God vs. God’s Enemy for God’s Captive People.
The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament, you can’t speak proper Christian without it.
You end up with a Son of God who rescues us from his angry Father, instead of a loving Father who in the Son rescues us from the Enemy that has bound us in a grip too strong for us.
The exorcisms Jesus and the disciples perform— they’re not individual episodes within a different, larger story.
They’re episodes indicative of a single, larger captivity.
In case you think I’m overstating it— Jeffrey Burton Russell, an historian at the University of California, argues in his five-volume work on the Devil:
“The Devil of the New Testament is not tangential to the fundamental message, not a mere symbol. The saving mission of Christ can be fully understood only in terms of opposition to the Devil. That is the whole point of the New Testament: the world is full of grief and suffering, but beyond the power of Satan is a greater power…In the New Testament there is complete consistency on this essential point: the new age brought by Christ is at war with the old age ruled by Satan.”
Count the verses. More so than He was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so, than a prophet, a preacher, or a political revolutionary, Jesus is an exorcist.
C.S. Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.” In other words, Lewis would argue, the fact that the subject of this sermon today is a tough sell for a good many of you enlightened liberal Protestants is itself the Devil’s doing.
In his book, The Death of Satan, Andrew Delbanco says our culture is now in crisis, because with these terms we’ve cast aside as superstitious, the Bible names a bondage that remains an inescapable experience for all of us.
Yet now, we are without a common language to describe it.
Satan, Sin and Death, the Powers, the rulers of this age.
With these terms, the Bible names a bondage we all know.
A captivity from which Christ comes to set us free.
Let me talk about the Devil this way and in the first person:
Before the bishop appointed me to Annandale, in what turned out to be my last act of ministry in my previous parish, I confronted a parishioner— a good friend of mine, actually— about his addiction problem.
His wife had asked me to confront him. “Talk to him, please,” she texted me, “Maybe what’s got a hold of him will shake loose. If he isn’t freed…” She didn’t finish the sentence.
A bicycle accident a year or so earlier had led to surgeries on his shoulder and hip. With surgery came pain killers. And sooner than you’d ever guess, he was hooked.
“I see you driving,” I said, after I’d sat down at his kitchen table. “You shouldn’t be driving in your state, especially with the kids.”
“I’m fine,” he insisted. His speech slurred, he was bumping into drawers and cabinets as he unloaded the dishwasher.
“You’re not fine, and we’re all worried about you,” I said.
And he laughed like I was the dumbest person in the world— a laugh that didn’t sound like him at all. As if to demonstrate my stupidity, he pulled a bag of bottles of pills from deep inside the kitchen cabinet and showed them to me.
I spend enough time in hospitals, as a patient and a pastor, to know— they were all painkillers prescribed to him from at least three different doctors.
He then proceeded to tell me that he did not have a problem.
In fact, he had a tumor on his brain.
He told me the mass was what was causing his slurred speech, but he didn’t want to tell his family and worry them.
As soon as I’d called out his lies, he erupted like a man possessed and then stormed out (as best as he could).
A few minutes later, realizing he was in his own house instead of mine, he stormed back inside and threw me out.
Later, he lied and told his wife we’d never spoken.
“It’s like a monster has invaded him and is eating him from the inside,” she told me.
I still haven’t shaken the dust off of that one yet.
Sheriff Bell, the moral center and a sort of homespun theologian in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, says at one point in his fruitless struggle to contain the drug traffic along the border:
“I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.”
“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus promised his disciples when he called them.
“Fishers of men,” we’re so accustomed to hearing that phrase we don’t hear it.
There is no word in Hebrew for “fish.”
Hebrew has only a general word for all sea-creatures. There is no specific word for fish, fishing, or fishermen, because fishing was primarily a Gentile trade.
And because fishing was associated with Gentiles, it became a signifier for the end of history when the Gentiles would be brought into God’s People.
At the end of time, when God’s enemies were overthrown once for all, Jews believed the Dead Sea would be replenished and filled with fish.
Therefore, when Jesus calls his disciples and says he’s going to make them “fishers of men,” he’s using a loaded apocalyptic phrase.
He’s enlisting them into the very same work to which He dispatches them today, to cast out the demonic.
As we say at baptism, He’s recruiting them in the war effort against “the spiritual forces of wickedness and the evil Powers of this world.”
Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.
He’s drafting them— without any education or qualifications and less than five chapters worth of training— into an army.
And today, He sends them out into contested territory against an Enemy who will not easily yield His Position.
Lisa was in her forties. She’d had an abusive husband who’d left her. According to the grape vine in that church in the Blue Ridge, the jury was still out on Lisa’s new boyfriend.
I knew Lisa to be a quiet, pensive and timid person. She didn’t have any kids. She worked a clerical job, tucked away in a cubicle somewhere in an office park.
I felt sorry for her.
Leaving church one Sunday, she came up to me and said, “I need to talk.”
So later that week she came to my office.
Imagine my surprise when she began by asking me if we had any African Americans in the congregation.
“Uh, yeah… Why?” I asked.
“Because, I aim to start bringing my boyfriend to church. He’s good to me, but he’s racist as hell, just awful,” she said. “It’s like the Devil’s got him with hate and ain’t it our job to get it out of him? Doesn’t Jesus say that, preacher?”
“You mean, like an exorcism?
She nodded like an exhausted teacher.
“You mean, you don’t take that metaphorically?”
And she just squinted at me.
“Um, sure, okay…how do you propose we do that?
She looked at me like I was the sorriest excuse for a preacher she could imagine.
“You train some people of color to serve communion. I figure if anything can draw that demon out of him, it’ll be getting handed Jesus’ body and blood from hands darker than his.”
I looked at her and I marveled.
When she’d first stepped into my office, I’d seen a loser, a broken, frightened victim.
I saw someone whose life was unremarkable and whose potential was limited.
I saw someone who was probably afraid her life had no meaning or significance. But Jesus looks at people like her (people like us) and Jesus sees someone who can beat the Devil.
And that should scare the hell out of us.