Pentecost People - Darkness, fear him
Ephesians 6:10-18, Luke 8:26-39
This is the last of our sermons in the Pentecost People series - a series about the Holy Spirit and us.
So far the series has concentrated on the impact the Spirit can have on our lives as individual believers - how we can receive the Holy Spirit ourselves? How the Spirit can work in us to bring forgiveness and reconciliation. Today I want to think about what the reading from Ephesians called ‘the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’. I want to think about the spiritual forces of evil, and the role of the Holy Spirit.
And we’ll start back in the days of the Early Church; the time after Jesus’ resurrection, when the little communities of believers are first spreading around the Mediterranean. This was a Greek and Roman world, and it was home to many gods. There were household gods who influenced the everyday life of the home, and there were the ‘State gods’, who influenced the life of the nations. And these gods were really involved - what happened between them in heaven had a very real impact on what happened on earth. So, for instance, when Rome defeated Britain in war, it was because the goddess Roma was more powerful than the goddess Britannia.
Now the bible both agrees and disagrees with this. It agrees that what happens in heaven has a direct impact on the lives of people on earth. Heaven in the bible is not primarily the place that we go when we die - it is the place, or the sphere, where God dwells, and what is decided in heaven directly influences what happens on earth. Heaven is like the CEO’s office at the top of the building, where the decisions are made.
This is Psalm 2, as just one example of God’s heavenly rule over the earth, and there are many others I could have chosen:
Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?’ The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”“Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.”
God, enthroned in heaven, rules over the earth that he created - and the decisions made in heaven directly influence what happens on earth. On this the Scriptures agree with the world of the 1st Century.
Of course, the Scriptures also disagrees absolutely and profoundly with the Roman and Greek perspective. While the gentile world proclaimed that there were many gods, the Scriptures, radically and uniquely in the history of religion, said there is only One, and that the One true God is creator of the Universe and the one guiding and steering the world towards justice, peace and mercy.
And that’s what Jesus believes too. He entirely accepts the truth that God, seated in the heavenly throne room, is in charge, and that what’s decided in heaven has a direct influence on what happens on earth. Think of the great prayer - or way of praying - that he gave his disciples when they asked ‘Lord, teach us to pray’.
Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name, Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
Jesus own prayer is that the decisions made in heaven, where God is, should come to pass here on earth. And more than that, Jesus himself is the embodied will of God in action ‘on earth, as it is in heaven.’ Jesus is heaven’s will in a human body. It is heaven’s will - God’s will - that people are not ill, and so Jesus heals people; it is heaven’s will that the vulnerable, the poor and the excluded should not be cast aside, and so he restores people to their rightful place in society; it is God’s will that the hungry should be fed, and so he provides bread and fish in abundance.
But more than that. The claim of the gospels is that, in Jesus, the time has come for a new kind of heavenly rule on earth. Think of all the ‘kingdom’ language that the gospel uses. The Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of heaven. And a kingdom has a king. The High King of Heaven rules the heavenly kingdom, says Scripture - and in Jesus, his throne has been established here on earth. God’s rule and reign has come to earth. Heaven is no longer out there somewhere, making decisions about earth down here - heaven has come very close, and has made a decisive bid to rule the earth. The CEO has moved out of the office and onto the shop floor
But to do that, there is a battle to be won. God is the only God - capital ‘G’, but there are little lords who try to claim territory. These are the lords that create chaos, injustice, ill health and suffering. We met some of them in the gospel story we just heard. Demons who possessed the man Jesus heals. These demons didn’t just cause illness, they cut the man off from human relationship and dignity, driving him out to live in a graveyard where he is both feared and mocked.
And on the cross that almighty battle takes place, and on Easter Day, victory is declared. The cross isn’t just where Jesus takes on all our individual mess and broken-ness, it’s also where he defeated the powers of evil, injustice, sin and death. * This is how Paul puts it when he writes to the church in Colossae, ‘On the cross, Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it’
In Jesus, the rulers and authorities are disarmed. God’s rule and reign has begun - and it does not end when Jesus returns to heaven. It does not end when Jesus returns to heaven.
So what does any of that have to do with us? And what does it have to do with us as Pentecost People - people in whom the Holy Spirit lives and dwells?
For the last 150 years, here in the West, we have done away with worrying about gods, demons and all that mythology. We can explain things rationally and reasonably. Science has taught us much about ill health, economics tells us why some people are richer than others and sociology explains how societies operate and why injustice emerges. And it’s true, these things have brought us extraordinary benefits and gains, and we do understand things that our ancestors did not, and that is to our blessing.
But that perspective also comes with a rather superior attitude. We don’t need all that old fashioned, superstitious nonsense about gods and demons and heavenly places any more. We are smarter than the poor souls who came before us after all. And the church has bought into this perspective too - one very influential theologian of the last century, a man called Rudolph Bultmann, put it like this - ‘we cannot believe in the world of demons and spirits and the world of electric light at the same time’.
But I wonder. I wonder if it’s that simple. I wonder if, actually, we all know that there are powers that have influence over us which we cannot explain in scientific, economic or sociological terms. And we even speak about these things - think of the phrase Institutional racism - it describes a negative culture in an organisation that is far more than the sum of the individual parts. It’s a way of being that infects all those who are part of it, it’s a force that has a power over those that belong. Or, in local communities, we know that there are some places which have a spirit of depression or anxiety, or conflict - and where people move in and are themselves caught up in behaviours that they haven’t really chosen. And it’s true of individuals too - we are, all of us, caught up in behaviours and ways of doing things that damage others, and often they seem beyond our choosing. * St Paul describes it perfectly “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” There are powers that have an influence - even a control - over us.
C S Lewis understood the risks of ignoring those things which have power over us and which we do not understand. * He said this….There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.
While fascination with figuring out exactly which wicked power did what isn’t healthy, pretending they’re not there is dangerous. There are, even in our smart, rational and scientific age, ‘spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ that want to rule over us, and which we do not understand.
But we are God’s Pentecost People - we are the ones in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. The Spirit who draws us to the cross and the empty tomb and shows us who is in charge. The Spirit who was sent, after Jesus left earth, to a community who were to continue his work. The Spirit who lives and breathes in us, so that we can declare that there is a Lord, that he is ruling on earth as he is in heaven.
And because we are witnesses to that power, we are called to stand against these little lords; to notice and name them; to pray against them; to defeat them with love, mercy and grace.
The Spirit works through us, through our prayers, through our own struggles for holiness and unity, our refusal to obey rulers when they tell us to disobey God. The Spirit works through us as we name the little lords who seek to dominate, to divide and to draw eyes away from love. The Spirit works through us as sickness-healers, death-defeaters, community-builders, joy-singers, culture-creators, home-makers, wisdom-bringers, darkness brighteners.
We are God’s Pentecost People.
The Spirit is at work in us and through us.
We are witnesses to the One true Lord, who reigns on high, and who reigns on earth.
In the power of the Spirit we claim that truth and declare, Jesus is Lord; all you little lords of evil, sin, death and darkness, fear Him, fear us. His Kingdom has come. We are his Pentecost people.