Here’s this weekend’s sermon on the Gospel lection from Luke 13.10-17. The sermon below feels incomplete without the rendition of South Park‘s Satan song “Up There” that preceded the preaching in worship. I owe the Scooby Doo angle to my inter-webs friend Richard Beck and his awesome new book Reviving Old Scratch.
When the Comedy Central animated series South Park debuted in August 1997- after a pilot episode the year before became one of the internet’s first viral videos- it created much controversy and met with many indignant complaints for the way it parodied Christianity generally and Jesus particularly.
For example, in the Y2K episode titled “Are You There God? It’s Me, Jesus” (my personal favorite episode) Jesus worries that for the new millennium we may crucify him again and, turns out, Jesus wasn’t so crazy about being crucified the first time.
So Jesus decides to do something cool to distract for us from crucifying him. He organizes a Rod Stewart comeback concert.
And in the pilot episode, “Jesus vs. Santa,” Jesus challenges Santa to a cage fight to settle once and for all, to the theme song from Mortal Kombat, the real meaning of Christmas.
The carnage doesn’t cease until Jesus and Santa are pulled apart by the gay figure skater, Brian Boitano, who teaches them that the real point of Christmas is presents, to which Kyle, the lone Jewish boy in South Park, observes “If you’re Jewish you get presents for 8 days not just 1.”
Naturally, the episode ends with all the children of South Park converting to Judaism.
When South Park debuted 20 years ago this week, it sparked heated controversy. The Christian Childcare Action Project protested that “children’s ability to understand the Gospel would be hindered and corrupted” by South Park.
While the Christian Family Network complained that South Park impeded their work to restore morality to our nation and protect the American family.
Twenty years ago this week, for many Christians, an animated television series posed an ecclesial emergency, threatening to inoculate us against the Gospel.
And, of course, the single cultural force that has done more damage than any other to our ability to speak Christian is a long-running animated TV show.
It’s just not South Park.
It’s Scooby Doo.
I mean, that’s obvious, right?
I didn’t become a Christian until I was 17 and, even then, I only did so kicking and screaming. I think my being born again was every bit as painful and drawn out as my initial birth because of Scooby Doo.
I should’ve seen it coming. GI Joe, which came on every weekday before Scooby Doo, had warned me that “knowing is half the battle” and I knew how every episode of Scooby Doo was going to go. So I should’ve known Scooby Doo was forming me in such a way to make it impossible to read the Gospels rightly.
Scooby Doo has aired continuously on television since 1969. It’s spun off into dozens of series and 37 films, including three due out this year.
Scooby Doo has been everywhere for a long time so, chances are, you already know all about Scooby Doo. You could probably sing the theme song right now if prompted, and now you’re probably singing it in your heads instead of listening to me.
Chances are, you already know that “the gang” is led by Fred Jones, the blond Hardy Boy lookalike who apparently owned not one orange ascot and white v-neck sweater but an entire wardrobe full and that, despite being a detective, seemed clueless about Daphne, the hot red head in the miniskirt who always played not so hard to get.
Scooby Doo has been around a long time so I’m betting you already know all about it. You know that Vilma not Ellen was the first lesbian on TV. You know that Scooby and the gang drove around in a van decorated with flower-powered artwork, constantly complaining of having the munches…so, no mystery there.
And you probably know that Scooby Doo would often feature crossover guest stars, like the Harlem Globetrotters, and characters from other non-animated shows like the Andy Griffith Show, which is odd and just shows how baked they were because, otherwise, you’d think it would’ve occurred to a team of detectives that the real mystery in Mayberry is “Where are all the black people?”
But that’s the problem, the Gospel-corroding problem with Scooby Doo.
There’s never any mystery.
Not once. Not in any episode.
Is there any actual mystery.
* Every Scooby Doo episode follows the exact same pattern.
The sleuths of Mystery Inc. drive their psychedelic Mystery Machine van into a little town where a rattled resident lets slip how their quiet hamlet has recently been haunted by some ghost, spook, or monster.
Scooby and the gang then commence an investigation, examining clues and interviewing locals. Eventually- every time, every episode- contrary to common sense and all the previous episodes, Vilma will suggest the gang split up. Always a bad idea.
The gang will then encounter the ghost or monster in a hair-raising way, but eventually, after a suggestive hit or two of Scooby snacks and a comedic chase scene, they’ll nab the creature.
And always, every time, Scooby and his friends will unmask the monster, revealing- every episode, no exceptions- it to be not a ghost or a monster but someone from the town using the monster to scare people away from noticing their shady, criminal, very much human, activity.
At the end, unmasked, the crook will always walk off in cuffs grousing “…and I would’ve gotten away with too, if it weren’t…”
Fred, Vilma, Daphne, and Shaggy- they should drive a trippy van called the Secular Enlightenment Machine because there is never any mystery.
Every monster is just a man in a mask.
All Scooby Doo has to do, we’ve learned in every episode since 1969, is peek behind the spooky mask to learn what’s really going on.
Whether Scooby Doo has shaped us or whether Scooby Doo reflects us, we try to read the Gospel the same way.
We try to look behind the spooky, supernatural covering of a text to figure out what’s really going on.
And so when we came to the Gospel text where Jesus exorcises a Gerasene demoniac, who’s been left to wander a graveyard in chains, we pull away the spooky mask and we say that what’s really going on is that Jesus healed a man with a severe mental illness.
Or when we come to one of the many Gospel texts where Jesus heals someone of an unclean spirit, we try to pull away the mask and we conclude that what’s really going on is that Christ healed someone of epilepsy.
We try to pull away the mask on a text like today’s from Luke 13, where a daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, and we expect to discover that what’s really going on here is that Christ has healed her of an inexplicable paralysis.
Demons and devils- they’re just monster masks, we say.
And like in Scooby Doo if we but pull off the mask and peek behind it we’ll discover the human problem behind the spooky story, the mortality behind the mystery, the simple explanation behind what’s really going on.
Spirits and Satan- they’re just symbols, we say.
Except, by definition, symbols can never be pretend or make believe.
By definition, symbols (bread, chalice, cross,) always point to something real.
And that’s the problem with trying to pull away the spooky mask to see what’s really on in the Gospel behind it.
Because even if demons and devils, spirits and Satan, are just masks to you, even if you don’t think they’re real, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did.
“This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan [with a capital S no less] has bound for 18 long years.”
Go back and look at today’s text.
That’s not the Pharisees attributing Satan to her paralysis. That’s not the Chief Priests saying she’s been bound by Satan. That’s not the disciples or Luke implying it.
That’s Jesus saying that whatever has ailed this woman is because Satan has bound her in his captivity, and you don’t need me to point out that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to say that if it wasn’t also true, in less obvious ways, about all the rest of his listeners.
Which, includes us.
Thanks to Fred and Vilma, we think we have to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.
You can’t Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel.
Because when you pull away the monster mask, you tear off too much of the Gospel with it.
Call it what you will:
Death, as Paul does in Romans
The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does
Satan, as Jesus says here
Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere
Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point. “The Devil,” as Richard Beck says, “l is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together.”
The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him.
Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.
Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did.
To pull off the monster masks and to insist that something else is going on behind them is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him.
The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”
And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.”
When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”
You can count up the verses.
More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist.
And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary, the monster behind so many human masks.
Our impulse is to Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel, but we can’t.
The mask can’t come off because it does the Gospel comes off with it.
If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.
No Devil, no Gospel.
Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.
It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross.
According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.
The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place. The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place. It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.
According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story.
There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama.
We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.
And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan.
And the battlefield runs through every human heart. Obviously, I realize that likely sounds superstitious to you. Fantastical.
But you tell me-
Take a look at the suffering and poverty and violence, the oppression, the hate, the exploitation splayed out all over your newspaper pages every day. And you tell me it doesn’t require an almost willful fantasy not to believe the human race is captive to some other Power, in rebellion still against God.
Genocide isn’t wrong; it’s evil.
So, you tell me the monster masks scripture gives us aren’t the best explanation for what’s really going on in our world.
Look- we’ve all been watching Scooby Doo since 1969.
There’s no way I can convince you today to stop trying to look behind the monster masks in these spooky stories. There’s no way I can make you believe in the Devil if you don’t already.
But maybe, I can show you why we need him, why, without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.
When we Scooby Doo-ify the Gospel
When we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama
When we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us)
What happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.
Just a few weeks ago, I received an email in my inbox, from someone I do not know. Sometimes having a blog has its downsides. The fact that the sender still has a hotmail address tells me plenty about them.
Anyway, the sender felt compelled to email me to tell me that he believed “God gave me incurable cancer because of my ‘liberal views on gays and Muslims.”
After I dug my fingernails out of the wood of my desk, I snarled the same four-lettered expressions you’re wearing on your faces right now.
But step back from the nastiness of it and it’s not that unusual of an assumption. I have cancer and the sender of the email assumed there must be a reason (from God) that I do.
A few days after I received that email, a woman came up to me, here in the sanctuary, after the 9:45 service.
She’s has a kid my son’s age. She lost her husband a a couple of years ago after a long illness. Only weeks after her husband died, she found out she had a serious form cancer. After surgeries and treatments, she’d thought she’d beaten it.
She came up to me after worship a few weeks ago to tell me goodbye. Her cancer had come back and it had spread. She was going home to her family, she told me, so that they could care for her daughter after she died.
Crying, she wondered the same question she’d asked when she was first diagnosed: Why is God doing this to me?
Not nearly as nasty as the email but it was the same assumption.
After I hugged her, before I could even get out of the sanctuary, a man came up to me and wept in a stoic sort of way, telling me how his college-bound daughter had fallen into addiction yet again.
And he put it into different words, but it was the same question with the same assumption lurking behind it, like a face behind a mask: Why is God doing this to us?
We talk like this all the time.
The difficult pregnancy or the scary prognosis, the marriage that can’t heal or the dream that didn’t come true even though you prayed holes in the rug-
-and we think God must be punishing us.
That this is happening for a reason.
That this suffering is because of that sin.
That God is giving us what we deserve.
Life happens and we want to know why: why is God doing this to me?
We speak like this all the time, as if there must be a direct, causal, 1-to-1 correspondence between God’s will and every event on earth and in our lives.
There’s a reason for everything, we say.
But think about it- a world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world where there is no gap between the already of what Christ has done and the yet of what Christ promises still to do.
A world where there’s a reason [from God] for everything is a world already exactly as God would have it be.
But that’s not the world as scripture sees it.
But you can’t see that world when you reduce the cast of the Gospels’ salvation story to two, God and us.
If there’s only two characters in the drama, then of course God must doing X, Y, or Z to you. There’s no else to blame.
The world as the Gospels see it is not a world where everything is exactly as God would have it be or where everything that happens to you is because God willed it upon you.
There is a third character in the story.
The world as the Gospels see it is a world still in captivity to the Principalities and Powers, still in rebellion to Sin. Still in bondage under Satan. Creation is at best a shadow of what God intends.
The world of tumors and tragedies, addictions and atrocities, is NOT a world where everything is the unfolding of God’ will but a world still alienated from him because there is Another, an Adversary, always contending against God.
“This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan has bound for 18 long years.”
Notice, unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t say God gave her her illness. Unlike so many of us, Jesus doesn’t blame it on God.
You may not believe in the Devil, and I can’t convince you today.
But you need the him.
You need the Devil to remember that whatever you think God is doing to you God isn’t. God isn’t your Accuser. God isn’t a kind of Satan. God doesn’t cast blame upon you or dole out to you what you deserve.
You may not believe in the Devil, but, trust me, I hear enough people ask ‘Why is God doing this to me?’ to know that you need to recover that third cast member in the salvation story.
You need to get Satan back on the stage.
You need the Devil to remember that God never gives us what we deserve and always gives us more than we deserve- God responds to the crosses we build with resurrection.
You need Satan back on stage in order to remember that if there’s a reason for everything in our world and in our lives then, as often as not, those reasons are NOT God’s reasons but Another’s doing.
You may not believe in the Devil, but you need him.
You need him in order to remember that no matter what your life looks like, when God looks upon you God sees a prodigal child for whom he’ll never stop looking down the road, ready to celebrate.
You need to stop trying to look behind the mask.
You need to get Satan back on stage.
Your salvation drama is incomplete without a cast of three.
Because when you pull away the mask, you tear off the very best good news there is:
When you look upon a face of suffering you do not see the face of God.
You see the face of his Enemy.