Tomorrow night I’m resuming a sermon series we’ve been doing on Revelation, picking up at chapter 8. So far, so straightforward, but next week it is chapter 9, and here we get into the whole area of devils and demons.
Now I’ve never had any trouble believing in the Devil, nor do I have any trouble with the idea of demons generally. In fact, on one or two occasions in my mininstry, I’ve found myself in situations where it has been reasonable to suppose that some kind of ‘personal’, but malevolent, spiritual influence has been at work.
My question, in the light of Revelation 9, is not “Do the Devil and demons exist?” Rather, it is, “What influence should we ascribe to them, and how should this enter into our thinking about mission and ministry?”
I am reminded of the two cautions given by CS Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, one that we should make too much of the devil, the other that we should make too little. Some time ago, I think I was really falling into the first error. Tonight, I find myself wondering if I, along with most of my Christian brothers and sisters, have been making far too little.
This was prompted partly by reading an online article by Matthew Parris, extolling the virtues of suicide, partly by reading and reflecting on the ‘Christian’ blogs. To take the latter first, I put the word ‘Christian’ in inverted commas, because the content and tone of many of these blogs would suggest to the outsider that Christianity is a fervent belief that other Christians have got something wrong and should be cast into the blogosphere equivalent of outer darkness.
All the dominical and apostolic warnings about judgement and urgings to love one another seem to be forgotten. And I would add that this is as true for so-called ‘Liberals’ as it is for Conservatives and Traditionalists. The sheer ‘unhealth’ of the Anglican church at present is so astonishing that I begin to wonder if the best term for it is ‘demonic’.
At the same time, going back to Parris’s article, the Western world seems to be sliding into a situation where what was unimagineable half a century ago is now being routinely touted. Who would have believed, in the aftermath of the destruction of Nazism, that our own Royal College of Nursing would take a step which everyone knows will pave the way for assisted suicides by the terminally ill? Surely the nursing profession saw itself then as a barrier to such developments, if not for the sake of the patient then as a necessary means of upholding civilization?
The point is not whether there are, or are not, circumstances in which taking a life might be a merciful act — doubtless there are. But what is at stake is something much bigger: the very nature of humanity and human society. It is surely not insignificant that Parris describes suicide as, “the supreme act of defiance, the final raspberry” we can blow at God.
It feels (at least to me) as if we are caught up in a redefining of nature, purpose and meaning. Yet what is emerging is not something greater, but rather something greatly diminished. Jacques Barzun wrote of the trend in Western society as being From Dawn to Decadence. Os Guiness wrote of The Dust of Death. Hans Rookmaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture paints a similar picture.
Meanwhile, the Church of England, which itself stood for centuries as something of a ‘buttress of the truth’ — albeit often an imperfect one — is emasculated and incompetent. The most popular question amongst Anglicans for some time has surely been that posed by a certain Pontius Pilate at the trial of our Lord: “What is truth?” — that, and the question asked by the serpent in the Garden: “Has God really said ...?”
This is surely a clue! But in any case, we have the specific warning delivered by the Holy Spirit himself: “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” That should be enough, except that we apparently can’t even decide whether the Spirit should be called He or She, and would more happily argue over that than look to see where these demonic doctrines might have entered the Church.
If the Devil can be pleased by anything, he must surely be quite pleased by the way things are going at the moment. His time may be short, but perhaps his view of existence is the same as that adopted by so many today. So long as it is fun, it is enough.
Revd John P Richardson
1 August 2009
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