A few years ago at a mental health hospital in New York, the doctors there were not making much progress with a certain woman patient. So they decided to send her to a particular minister, thinking that perhaps counseling from a religious perspective might be better than what they were doing at the hospital.
When the doctors sent that woman to the minister, they assumed that the minister would bill the hospital the usual going rate for a counseling session. Based on the number of hours that the minister spent with her, they figured that the total bill should have amounted to about $500. But instead, the hospital received a bill for $12,000. When the hospital asked why the bill was so high, the minister explained that the extra charge was because he had to perform an exorcism on the woman. Exorcisms, he said, cost more than regular counseling. It might come as no surprise, but the hospital refused to pay.
A lot of people today are skeptical about talk of exorcisms. Many laugh at the very idea. Some time ago I read a joke that said, "Did you hear about the couple who couldn't afford to pay their exorcist? Their house was repossessed."
But consider what went on out in California several years ago. The San Jose State University football team wasn't doing so well. But instead of scheduling extra practice sessions, the head coach came up with a different idea to solve his team's problems. What they did was place ads looking for someone who could put a curse on their opponents. The head coach explained that they didn’t want to get anyone injured, but that they just wanted someone who could put a really good hex on the opposition.
But what's interesting to note is that even though for the most part we write off the idea of demons and devils, we have no problem today believing in angels. Does that really make sense? If we are willing to believe that there are good spiritual powers out there, wouldn't it make sense to believe that quite likely there are evil spiritual powers as well?
That's what we find in this story in the Gospel of Mark. As Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, all of a sudden, a man who was possessed with a demon started to shout at Jesus. The demon shouted, "What have you to do with us? What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?"
What has God to do with us? Isn't that basically the question that the serpent posed to Adam and Eve? Basically what the serpent said was, "Don't mind what God told you about that tree. God likes to run on at the mouth. Live your life like you want to. After all, what you make out of life is up to you. It's not up to God."
For a lot of people, they figure that that makes sense. What does God have to do with us? Sure, people believe in God. They believe that there is a God somewhere in the universe. It's just that a lot of people don't see God as being involved in the day to day realities of life. Instead, a lot of people see their lives as being determined by luck.
For example, consider how a lot of people talk. They say, "I had car trouble today, but someone stopped and helped me. Boy, today's my lucky day." Or "I have to thank my lucky stars. I didn't think it would happen, but I got that promotion at work." Or "I'm sure glad my surgery went well. I really lucked out."
Luck is really a way of saying that we don't believe that God is involved in our lives each day. Sure, people still believe that there is a God. Every time they take a Gallup poll on the subject, usually around 98% or more of all Americans say that they believe in God. But what we find here in this story in Mark is that even demons believe in God. Even demons believe in Jesus. But the demons try to draw a line. They try to say, "OK, you're God. But you stay over there. After all, God, what have you to do with us?"
Many people fall prey to that way of thinking. Instead of looking to God to rule their lives, people turn and put their trust in the power of luck. In this country, there are millions and millions of people who are devoted to the god of luck. For instance, it's estimated that each year Americans gamble more than $330 billion dollars. 39 states have lotteries, and sales of lottery tickets grow each year. Researchers believe that there are 6-10 million compulsive gamblers in the United States, people whose entire lives revolve around gambling.
It is safe to say that gambling is very much a demon. Because what does gambling do? It attracts people by getting them to believe they can have it all. But in the end, gambling destroys people. Just like a demon does.
Just look at the history of gambling. That demon comes along and promises to make life better for everyone. That was the promise that gambling made to Atlantic City back in the 1970's. The gambling demon said if Atlantic City would let it in, that it would make Atlantic City into a virtual heaven on earth, with money, jobs, and happiness for everyone.
But now more than 25 years later, Atlantic City is anything but a heaven on earth. If you dared to walk even a few blocks away from the casinos, all you would see is poverty, crime, drug use, and prostitution. That's the same thing you find in every other town that has legalized gambling. Every time gambling comes in, it brings with it an increase in unemployment, an increase in drunk driving, an increase in crime, an increase in suicide, and on and on.
People keep thinking that if they let the gambling demon into their town, that it'll be different. That's what the people who are pushing for riverboat casinos in Pennsylvania are saying. They are saying that if only there could be more gambling, our state would be so much better off.
If you stop and really think about it, you'll see that the whole idea of gambling is to make a loser out of you. People are in the casino business, because the games are set up so that in the long run you lose. That's even how our good wholesome Pennsylvania state lottery is set up. For example, in the daily lottery, you pick a number between 0 and 999. So your chances of winning are 1 in 1000. But if you win, you only get $500. So I have a bargain to offer you. I'll give you a $200 discount. If you give me just $800, I'll let you win $500. That's a better deal than the state of Pennsylvania is offering you. But I'm willing to do that for you, just because I like you.
There is no doubt that gambling is a demon. Gambling gets us to think that God is out of the picture, that the best thing we can do in life is put our faith in the power of luck. And the gambling demon is very convincing. A lot of people welcome him into their lives, thinking that he's offering the answers to all their problems. But once that gambling demon gets inside, his only real goal is to destroy us.
There are other demons that try to creep into our lives as well. There are other aspects of our lives where we're tempted to draw the line on God and say, "God, what have you to do with us?" For instance, there are demons that control us around the subject of money. God is concerned about what we do with our money: How much are we giving to others? How much are we spending on unnecessary things? But when God asks us those kinds of questions, the demons get us to think, "Hey, that's a private matter, what I do with my money. That's none of your business, God."
Or maybe demons control us around the subject of time: How much time do you spend at work? How much time are you spending with your family? How much time are you setting aside to rest? Those are all questions that God has an interest in. But when the demons get a hold of us, they get us to answer back by saying, "Those are personal matters, God. I don't have to tell you if I don't want to."
That is what demons are skilled at doing—at getting us to draw the line on God. You see, the goal of the demons is to get us to believe that we'd be better off without God, that God has no business butting into our personal lives. And so it's the demons that try to get us to say, "What have you to do with us, God? I'm doing just fine all by myself."
That's where the demons get us. That's where they start to destroy us. Because our happiness doesn't come by trying to cut loose from God, even though that's what the demons try to get us to believe. Instead, our happiness comes as we allow Jesus Christ to rule over every single part of our lives, from the great big decisions we make in life, right on down to the seemingly insignificant choices we make each day. So what are the demons that are trying to ruin your life? Allow Jesus Christ to set you free.
C. Edward Bowen
Crafton United Presbyterian Church