Sermon: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Why the Devil Goes to Church
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This pericope is not the first time that the demonic have been in Church.
There was once a Church in rural Devon (where I’m from, of course) on the Dartmoor, and in the middle of the Mass, the devil appeared in the sanctuary in a puff of sulphur. Virtually everyone (including the priest) ran out of the little church screaming, except for one old lady, who remained in her pew praying.
“Don’t you know who I am” Satan bellowed “Aren’t you scared?”
The Old Lady looked up “Why should I… I’ve been married to your brother for 37 years!”
Spiritual warfare. There is real evil in this world: you only have to read the newspapers, see the TV news to see this. There is a force which actively seeks to separate itself and others from the goodness of God. If we want to wrap that idea up and give it a label, call it the Devil then fine.
The greatest accomplishment of the devil, said the French poet Baudelaire, was to convince people he didn’t exist.
If we label evil in the world, then we can have a handle on it. We can have power over it, for the power of evil is nothing compared to the power of Christ, as the demoniac in today’s Gospel knew.
Evil is present all around us, even in Church. Even in the synagogue, Christ had to confront and defeat the tangible presence of evil. This place, this body of Christ is not immune from the malevolent influence of that evil.
It may surprise you, but the devil has always been religious. Satan and his demons are even rather orthodox in some of their beliefs. American theologian A. W. Tozer said, “The devil is a better theologian than any of us and is a devil still.”
However, the sacraments of Word and Eucharist have power over the evil that seeks to undermine God’s work. By chipping away at tenants of faith, by underpinning the true moral meaning of the Church, the forces of evil try to undermine our worship of God by focussing on petty things.
Yes, the devil is monotheistic. He knows there is only one God. The problem is he doesn’t worship God. When he pitches up at church it isn’t for true worship but rather for false worship.
Satan’s religion is false religion but it is religion nonetheless. He doesn’t even mind if we come here for worship – just as long as its false worship.
He loves to see the body of Christ fall out with each other, remain unreconciled for year upon year. He loves to see us look down on others, exalt our own goodness. He loves it when we are preoccupied with other things – like who hurt our feelings recently, and what so and so thinks about us. He loves to hear our critical comments about the worship, the music, and oh yes, the preaching: not said openly, but always to others. Because if people expressed themselves directly, then those responsible could do something about it, and the Devil would have nothing more to play with.
The devil loves it when we don’t put our hearts into praising God. He likes seeing us just going through the motions, without thinking and seeking a comfortable retreat from reality. He can stand anything but worship of God in spirit and in truth. (John 4:24)
The devil is opposed to Christianity but he isn’t opposed to churchianity.
The demons know who Jesus is. The one in the synagogue did. He believed in the Incarnation of Christ – believed that he was both God and man at the same time.
The demon clearly identified Christ’s humanity by calling Him “Jesus of Nazareth”. But he also identified Christ’s deity by calling Him “the Holy One of God”. (verse 24)
So one of the lessons of this text is that the church continually be on guard against false doctrine.
There are those who think that the whole of the Gospel of Love pivots around a few select verses which they believe outlaw homosexuality from the book of Leviticus (and which in fact are usually taken quite out of context).
There are those who threaten schism in the church because they cannot accept the role of women called to be priests, and now Bishops – something which we in this parish celebrate.
There are those who seek to reject rather than embrace, and they my friends have clearly misunderstood the real meaning of Holy Scripture.
As well as False Doctrine, there is also that other tool of the Devil: False Worship. For False Worship leads to Dead Religion.
We cannot afford to become complacent and nonchalant about our worship of God! We should consistently re-evaluate why we worship and how we worship. Change is a constant, and if this Church is to grow, then it must continue to change, to re-order, to reappraise and restructure.
There is a vitality to worship which we must strive for: At the altar, from the pulpit, in the Choir, the pews, in our hearts. We should be open to the power of the Spirit in our worship and in our lives.
There have been a couple of copies of this book circulating the parish: The Church in the Marketplace by Bishop George Carey. It describes his experiences as the Vicar of St Nicholas, Durham, and the way the Holy Spirit transformed that community and made all sorts of things possible.
I think it’s a book we all, and I mean all ought to read. Get a copy. Order it from your local bookshop, from Amazon, from Abebooks if you want a cheap second-hand copy. It only costs a couple of quid. Borrow a copy, put your name on a list to get one of the circulating copies. Read it. And see how we can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s short, it’s cheap. It speaks honestly of a Church seeking to discern the will of God and I want to encourage you all to have a chance to engage with this book.
It has spoken already to some in this Church, and through it, we can be armed against the forces of evil, we can overcome the pernicious attempts of the devil to distract us.
“Oh, I am too tired”, you may say.
“I just want to come to Church and go home again”
“I don’t want to get involved”
Isn’t that just what the Devil wants to hear? Isn’t that just what he comes to Church for? To undermine your faith and prevent you, prevent others, prevent this whole parish from encountering God in the beauty of holiness.
God has power. The devil has none, unless he uses us.
Let us ask the Holy Spirit to descend upon us and help us to turn out the forces of evil from our worship, from our lives, from our churches and synagogues…
Come, Holy Spirit, our souls inspire,
and lighten us with celestial fire.
Come among us, as we pray
Fill our hearts with love today
Lead us on our journey, be here as our guide
Take this church to where you want us
Inspire us with your Word
Renew us with your Sacraments
Move among us and grant us your seven-fold gifts
May the Holy Spirit
Heal our wounds
Gift us with love and forgiveness
Transform our lives and relationships
Bring us into the presence of God
In a moment of silence, we attend on God
We ask for him to speak to us, to move in us
We offer ourselves…
God, you are here.
God, you are.