The presence of evil in our world has a spiritual dimension, and there is a battle between the forces of good manifested through God as revealed in Jesus, and “principalities and powers” that manifest the evil and demonic forces in the world. The principalities and powers act like “demons in disguise” which, according to Rich Villodas, “take root in individuals, ideologies, and institutions, with the goal of deception, division, and depersonalization.”
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Luke 8:26-39
Back when I was in college, the movie “The Exorcist” came out. There was a lot of hype about it, and it sounded similar to a horror movie, and horror movies aren’t really my thing,
But a bunch of my friends were going so I went along with them. Like I had imagined, it was scary and eerie and I spent most of the movie plugging my ears and covering my eyes!
So I would guess that I would have been pretty spooked if I was one of the disciples with Jesus when he encountered the man with the demon in the Gerasenes.
There were so many demons that tormented him and had penetrated him so deeply that when Jesus asked him his name, he said “Legion”, which in military terms was a word for 2000 troops.
Legion no longer could even remember his real name, his identity had been taken over so much by his demons.
And Jesus took all those unclean spirits inside of Legion and he sent them straight into a herd of pigs, just as those demons had requested, And those pigs acted like lemmings and went flying down the hillside into the lake and drowned.
The next day, the price of bacon in the area tripled due to problems with the supply chain! (We know about supply chain issues here, too!)
- Shane Claiborne talks about this story of the man known as Legion in a book that we’ve become familiar with here, Beating Guns. He said “Jesus healed people who had been made sick by a violent world.” (p. 186)
Now we don’t know the backstory of Legion’s life. There is no “prequel” that I know of, no story of how he got to the point where he became so tormented by demons and so ostracized by society.
But we do know that in the Roman Empire, like any other empire, violence is needed to preserve and expand the empire. And in some way Legion may have been a victim of the culture of violence around him that was controlled by the Roman Empire.
Claiborne addresses this by saying that there was something deeper going on beneath the surface, hidden, disguised powers, we can even say spiritual forces at work outside of the individual that contributed to Legion’s condition of being possessed by demons.
Back when I was growing up, Elvis Presley was really popular. Any Elvis fans here? I was in a band with some guys in my dorm at college, and one of the guys did a great Elvis impersonation.
He had the white outfit. He had the hairstyle, the voice, and he had the moves. So we sang a lot of Elvis songs.
One of the songs was the inspiration for the title of my sermon today. Let’s see if you can guess the song:
You look like an angel, walk like an angel, you talk like an angel, but I got wise, you’re the devil in disguise.
To Elvis, beneath the façade of his “angelic” girlfriend was a “devil in disguise” who he says:
You fooled me with your kisses, you cheated and you schemed, Heaven knows how you lied to me, you’re not the way you seemed.
In other words, there was more to her than what was easily visible on the surface. There were things that she was doing, forces at work within her and maybe forces from the outside that caused her to act more like a “devil” than an “angel”.
Now I know that in a highly sophisticated society like ours here in the United States, we can be uncomfortable with the idea of the devil, demons, and Satan.
And so we try to understand and explain the evil around us in scientific or medical or sociological or psychological terms. And that can be really useful in a lot of settings.
But I believe that there’s also a spiritual dimension that we cannot overlook, a dimension that is like a battle between the forces of good which are manifested through God as revealed in Jesus, and the forces of evil which are manifested through the devil, Satan, demonic forces. There is spiritual warfare going on in our world.
Now some people want to see a devil around every corner, attribute everything bad that people do to being possessed by demons. I’m not advocating that, but I also think it’s important to be aware of the existence of evil spiritual forces in the world.
- I like the way that S. Lewis says it in his book, The Screwtape Letters:
“There are two equal and opposite errors into which (humans) 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. (The devils) themselves are equally pleased by both errors.”
Looking at our man Legion in the gospel story, he may have done some things in his life, some choices he made that were destructive to him. He might have suffered from the consequences of his own individual sin.
We all can relate to that, right? Habits or attitudes or actions, or inactions, that cause us to suffer in some way, that are our own doing.
At the same time, Legion may have been subject to some sin and evil that were manifested in forces outside of himself that he got consumed by, powers which possessed him and caused him to act in ways that seemed downright demonic.
The Bible has a term for these “demons in disguise”, these kinds of corporate powers that are at work outside of individuals that are often beneath the surface and disguised in different ways so we don’t always recognize them.
They’re called “principalities and powers”. Paul in his letter to the church in Ephesus talks about them in relationship to a spiritual battle:
- 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:10-12)
If we fail to recognize that there are these deeper spiritual forces at work in the world, then they will find ways to influence us and the world around us in ways that fracture our relationships with ourselves, with God and with others.
I’m reading a book right now that is really helping me understand all of this. It’s a new book by Rich Villodas, author of the The Deeply Formed Life book that some of us went through in a Lent small group last year.
His new book is called Good and Beautiful and Kind: Becoming Whole in a Fractured World, and it’s not even out yet—it comes out sometime next month.
But I signed up to be on the Launch Team, which means I got an advance digital copy of the book in exchange for getting the word out about the book (which is what I’m doing right now!).
The basic premise of the book is that Jesus lived a life of goodness, beauty and kindness, showing us how to love God and love other people. Goodness, beauty and kindness are like the signs, the fruit of what love looks like in the world today.
But Villodas says that goodness, beauty and kindness are hard to come by because we live in a world that is fractured—its fractures are seen in areas like politics, race, religion and sexuality.
And he says that sin is at the root of our fractured world, and he defines sin as a failure to love as Jesus loved. And he says that sin affects us both individually, as something “inside us” as well as corporately, something “outside us”,
These outside forces are the “principalities and powers”, whose agenda runs counter to the way of God, and whose entire purpose is to cut us off from love. They are like the “thief who comes to destroy the sheep” that the gospel John talks about, preventing us from living the Abundant life.
Villodas takes a whole chapter in his book to talk about this, called “The Unseen Enemy”. I know that Walter Wink has done a lot of good work on this, and I also like Rich’s definition of the powers and principalities: (slide)
- “Powers and principalities are spiritual forces that become hostile, taking root in individuals, ideologies, and institutions, with the goal of deception, division, and depersonalization.” –Rich Villodas. (p. 28)
Let’s look briefly at each of these three goals or we could say “job description” of the powers and principalities: deception, division and depersonalization with some examples of how they are manifested in today’s world:
Deception: happens through getting people to believe that lies are true. Jesus calls Satan “the father of lies” (John 8:44), so this tells us that deception can have spiritual consequences.
It seems pretty clear to me that one of the evil powers at work in our American society right now is our fascination with guns and gun culture. The gun violence we hear about almost every day is directly related to our love affair with guns.
And it seems clear to me that the gun lobby and the NRA are institutions that have been infiltrated by this evil, demonic power that is causing so much suffering and death. And one way that they gain power over people and our society is by deception.
For example, the NRA and gun lobbyists have deceived us into believing that the solution to stopping gun violence and mass shootings is by arming more people. That more guns will make our schools, our workplaces and our homes safer.
But Statistics show that this is not the case. It’s pretty easy to see a correlation in that the country that has the most guns per capita has the highest gun violence rate in the world.
But the NRA and the gun stores are greedy for money and for power, so they play on people’s fears and lie to us that we need more guns.
So the principalities and powers create deception. And secondly, they create Division. Have we ever lived in a more polarized, divided time than right now?
I mean, 50 years ago, the entire country united around Watergate—we all wanted to find out the truth about the Nixon administration’s corruption. But now, we’re divided about the investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection.
I would think that we all would want to find out the truth about it, but many people mostly in one party are calling it a partisan politics. Frankly, this boggles my mind; to me it has to do with preserving our democracy, which seems fragile right now.
There’s so much division and hostility in politics, in the media, on school boards, and in families, everywhere. It’s so severe that it’s clear to me that there’s a deeper spiritual battle going on, powers and principalities trying to destroy us.
And one of the lies that’s fueling this division is this idea that if you don’t agree with someone on something, you have to hate them and treat them like an enemy.
I really like what longtime pastor Tim Keller says about this: (slide)
- “You can love without agreeing with someone. You can disagree without hating them” —Tim Keller
If we could just flesh this out we just might be able to have civil conversations and find some unity and common ground in the midst of our differences, while still holding on to our own convictions.
The third goal of the principalities and powers is Depersonalization. They like to have us see other people not as individual people, but as stereotypes with a label that dehumanizes and devalues people.
That’s exactly what the demons did to the man that Jesus encountered—he became an “it” a “Legion”, defined by things other than his own personal name.
Think of all the dehumanizing labels we hear all around us: “illegals”, “baby-killers”, “haters”, “libtards”, “homophobes”, “loser” just to name a few.
Villodas tells a powerful story from American history to illustrate how the powers can wreak havoc and even death through depersonalization.
About a hundred years ago, in Texas, there was a sweet, churchgoing, apple-pie making mom who was known for her southern hospitality. She was a model member of her church, leading Bible studies, prayer meetings, and giving generously to the Church.
One day this woman and her family were invited to a gathering of the community. They would all gather in the local park for fellowship and to witness an event familiar to many in the South at the time.
The event they were going to witness was the lynching of a black young man named Jesse Washington.
More than 10,000 people gathered to watch his public execution—civic leaders, police officers, children, and “good” religious people. And this was a common occurrence in those days.
Lynchings were public spectacles that were often announced in advance in newspapers and over the radio, they were on postcards that were mailed to friends across the country.
In reflecting on this story, Villodas says “When I think of this level of brutality and dehumanization mixed with a bewildering spirit of joyful celebration, I can arrive at only one conclusion: there’s something else going on. Something sinister beyond what we can see.”
He goes on to say: “How could this sweet, Bible-reading, pie-making, never-cursing mom bring her children to witness this abhorrent “family-friendly” act of evil? How did she reconcile her faith with this morally despicable act?”
She was deceived by an insidious power greater than and beyond herself. A power that led her and the majority of white Americans at the time to believe that brown-skinned people were less than human.
That’s the power, the demonic power of depersonalization.
So the principalities and powers are waging a spiritual battle through deception, division, and depersonalization.
Next week we will look at how we can respond as people of faith to these powers, through putting on the “armor of God” as described by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:10-18.