Well, when I was a little boy, the movie “The Exorcist” came out. Now, I was way too little to see that movie at the time, but I remember being so scared just seeing the TV commercial for it. Whenever that commercial came on, my brother and I would go running out of the room in fear.
I, of course, got to see the movie years later, and it truly is one of the most frightening movies of all time. The writer of the movie claims that it is based on a true story, the story of a little girl supposedly possessed by the devil.
Now, I share this with you today because the Gospel reading from today’s lectionary is one in which Jesus appears to perform an exorcism, casting an unclean spirit from a man’s body.
So, I thought it would a good opportunity for us today to talk about our concept of the devil.
Now, most of us at Douglas UCC have grown in our concept of God over the years. Most of us no longer see God as an old, judgmental man up in the clouds with a long grey beard and sandals. We’ve come to understand God not as a PERSON, but as the Divine Light and Love of the Universe that makes Its dwelling place with us and within us.
So, since we’ve grown in our concept of God, I think it’s also time for us to grow in our concept of the DEVIL and of EVIL. The devil, of course, is not a red guy with horns and a pitchfork. He was never described that way in the Bible. In fact, he’s not described, at all.
Not one time.
And, that surprises a lot of Christians. You know, the majority of the world’s major faith traditions – Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, Native American Spiritually, and, yes, Judaism – the very religion of Jesus – none of them believe in the devil or in hell. These are concepts that were developed by the early Christian church.
They took a Greek god, Pan (who had hoofs and horns), and fashioned the Devil after him, because Pan represented the god of the wild.
Now, we know that Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wild, in the wilderness, where he wrestled with the devil. But, it wasn’t a red guy with horns and a pitchfork. So, who or what was Jesus wrestling with?
Well, the Hebrew word for Satan does not mean “red guy with horns.” It means “adversary, opponent, stumbling block,” something getting in the way of our spiritual growth and understanding, something that’s trying to keep us from fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives.
You may remember that Jesus also used the phrase, “Get behind me Satan!,” when speaking to Peter, his own disciple. The one he called his rock.
Obviously, Peter was a great apostle and a great friend of Jesus, so Jesus wasn’t saying that Peter was the personification of evil. Jesus called Peter “satan” because Peter was reacting in fear, trying to keep Jesus from going to Jerusalem and from fulfilling his purpose.
So, Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, for you are not setting your mind in God’s interest, but in man’s.”
During his time in the wilderness, Jesus had to face the adversary. He had to wrestle with his demons, to face the voice of temptation that sought to keep his mind on worldly things, that sought to keep him from fulfilling his divine purpose.
And, that voice: Was it coming from outside of him…or from within him?
Some Christians believe that Jesus as a baby in the manger already knew he was God. But, if that was so, then he would have no temptations to overcome, right?
No, Jesus – at the age of 30 – is awakening to his Divine Consciousness, to his understanding of his Oneness with
God. And, in doing so, he must overcome the voice of the human ego. That is what the spiritual journey is all about --overcoming the voice of ego, the voice that has its mind set on man’s interests, not God’s.
That’s why some contemporary spiritual teachers have referred to the word “ego” as an acronym standing for “edging God out.”
That’s what the adversary, the opponent, the ego does -- edges God out, tries to keep us from discovering our Oneness with God. Because once we discover it – the ego is defeated.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus called this adversary “the father of lies,” lies that are keeping you from discovering the Truth of your being. The truth of your being is that you are the light of the world, just as Jesus said. And the voice in your head that tells you differently is a liar, the adversary… is “the devil.”
This is not an outside force trying to tempt you. This is an inner, negative voice that tells us lies -- lies like “you’re not good enough,” “you’ll never have enough,” “you’re broken.” It’s the voice that tells you that you are limited and separate from God.
Jesus tells the “Father of Lies” to “get behind” him. Not in front of him, but behind him.
Maybe we can’t totally get rid of the ego while we’re in this human form, but we don’t have to put it in the driver’s seat. We don’t have to let it control our direction in life.
Don’t make those negative voices the driving force of your life. If you notice from his wilderness experiences, Jesus doesn’t fight the adversary. He simply confronts it with the truth.
From time-to-time here at Douglas UCC we read together the “Lord’s Prayer” translated from the original Aramaic, which was the language that Jesus spoke. And, the line that says, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” translated from the Aramaic means: “Don’t let surface things delude us. Free us from what holds us back from our true purpose.”
That’s what temptation is -- surface things that delude us. That’s what evil is, it’s what holds us back from our true purpose, keeps us from our light.
We sin when we are forgetful of our divine nature, and when we act against the interest of our true self, or as Jesus told Peter, it’s when we have our minds not on God’s interest, but on man’s interest.
Now, what of the word “Hell”? Well, again, it may surprise you, but Jesus never uttered the word, “Hell.” Never. Not one time. Jesus was Jewish. Jewish people do not believe in Hell. The word Jesus used was Gehenna. Gehenna was an actual place in Jerusalem that was a trash dump. It was a place on the outskirts of town where people burned garbage; a place where they burned anything that was unclean, including bodies. By using the example of Gehenna, Jesus, once again, was giving the people a metaphor, as he did often in his teachings. He was trying to tell them: “If you’re living outside of God’s purpose for your life (if you’re living outside of the Kingdom…on the outskirts of the Kingdom), then it’s like you’re living in a garbage dump that is continually burning.
Jesus (as he did in all of his teachings) was not talking about the next life. He was talking about this life. He wasn’t referring to hell as a place you go to after you die. This concept, once again, was created by the Church, hundreds of years after Jesus had died.
Bishop John Shelby Spong, who at 91 years old is one of the world’s leading theologians (a man who has devoted his life to studying the Bible) said this:
“I don’t believe hell exists. Religion is in the control business. If you have heaven as a place where you are rewarded and hell as a place you are punished, then you have control over the population. And, so, the church created this fiery place which quite literally scares the hell out of people…and it’s all part of control tactics.”
The title of my homily today is “Spiritual Freedom,” because when we break free of these control tactics (be they from the church or from the voice of the ego) we are liberated! We are emancipated! We are free! Jesus frees the man in today’s Gospel story, frees him of the “dis-ease” (the negativity) that has been controlling him, possessing him, keeping him bound.
So, my question for you today is: “What thoughts or beliefs are controlling you? What thoughts or beliefs are keeping you from living a life of spiritual freedom?”
The Good News is: You don’t have to be controlled by them anymore! Stop blaming your negative thoughts and circumstances on outside forces, when, in fact, you have the power within you to be free of them. As we heard in our “Words of Integration & Guidance” this morning: Heaven and Hell are not literal places. They are states of consciousness.
So, why are you living in Gehenna, when you could be living in the Kingdom? When you know this Truth – really know it and start living from it – you will be set free.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
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