It was just a couple of years ago, I was at coffee with another pastor from our community, and he was telling me about something that happened in his church. They had service this one Sunday, and a First Nations gentleman came and sat down in the front row in the church. The pastor noticed that there seemed to be something off with this gentleman, but continued preaching. Toward the end of his message, the man got up and began to move funny and was saying something under his breath as he went around. Everybody just ignored him for a bit, and then service ended, and he was still going through everything in their auditorium and saying things that did not make sense. Eventually, he left.
One of the congregants there went to visit his pastor afterwards and was worried because it seemed so strange that he had gone to another friend of his that he had on the Reserve, and was told that this guy must have been placing a curse on their congregation. He was freaking out, and my pastor friend, he tried to tell him, “You know, you don’t need to worry about this, we’re followers of Jesus. We’ve got something greater: you’re going to be okay.”
And, as this pastor told me, he came to the church a few days later, and he noticed that there was a line of ash on the ground all around their church. And so, he went, and he talked with this person, because he had a sneaking suspicion, and sure enough, he was right about what had happened. This congregant, this follower of Jesus, had sought out--I don’t know if it’s called a witch doctor, a Shaman, or whatever--had sought out a spiritist from the Reserve and brought them in to break the curse that had been pronounced over the church.
My pastor friend was furious. He confronted the individual and said, “Why do you think that we need to use the demonic to face the demonic? Do you not believe that there’s power enough in Jesus, in who we have, to overcome this?”
You see, there are two positions that many in Western culture take when it comes to paganism and spiritism and the occult and the demonic--the supernatural. The one side is to ignore it, and the other side is to idolize it. To become obsessed with it.
C. S. Lewis, writing in the ’40s, in his book, The Screwtape Letters, in the prologue, he writes this: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall into 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. They themselves (the devils) are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
How are we to treat this topic? ‘Cause for many of us, we think about the occult, or paganism or the demonic and we think, “Well, they’re nice stories. And we see them in biblical days, but none of that stuff is real. There’s nothing behind any of this stuff.”
For others of us, we think about these things, and we break into a cold sweat. Maybe we begin to seek the power that can be found in these things, or perhaps we think that there’s nothing that we can do to stand in front of these sorts of things. But what are we to do about these, because we can’t ignore them.
Especially in Pincher Creek and Southern Alberta, it’s prevalent in our community and our region. In fact, before I came here, I had a couple of other pastors who were familiar with the area take me to the side and just share with me that I’d better be ready for there to be a spiritual battle when I came in here because of the presence of the occult and the demonic in Pincher Creek.
Spiritism, paganism, occultic practices, demonic activity: how do we look at them, are they no biggie? Or do we tremble in fear?
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll generally just refer to the demonic in this message. The reason for that is that Scripture is clear that all of these things have their roots in the demonic. So, whether or not the morality that these people seem to claim that makes you feel like there couldn’t be anything wrong with these practices, no matter what your morality is, if it is derived from serving something other than God, it is wrong.
Elsewhere in The Screwtape Letters (if you’re not familiar with The Screwtape Letters, it’s essentially a fictional exploration of an experienced demon sharing with a young demon on how to effectively damn the soul of the person he is tasked with) one statement that is made presents the idea that demons are okay with you living a moral life, Satan is absolutely fine with you living a moral life if he can make you think that by living amoral life you don’t have to follow Jesus. Making you believe you are a good person; making you feel that your paganism, your faith, or whatever you’re doing is going to get you where you want to go--that you’re okay. He’s fine with that because he is ultimately worried about us not living with God for eternity.
Lord God, thank you that as believers in Jesus, we don’t need to fear. But Lord, I know that it’s easy to fear: it’s easy to write these things off. Right now, will you open our minds to what you want to say to us, and ready our hearts to hear from you. Lord God, take these things that I’m about to say--things that come out of a feebleness of humanity--and through your Holy Spirit Lord God, please implant these things in the right way as they need to come across to each person’s heart and mind and soul.
We’re in the middle of a series talking about the early Church, and that carries on to us as the Church of Jesus. We’ve seen that, after Jesus died on the cross and rose again, he spent some time with the disciples and continued to teach them. Just before he ascended into heaven, he told them: listen, I’m going to send the Holy Spirit of God to you, so wait around, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and when he does, he’ll give you the power to be my witnesses where you are and around the whole world. So we see time and time again, in the book of Acts that the HS of God enables the Church to do amazing things to advance the good news. Standing firm in the face of opposition, miracles being done, and words of wisdom that unwise people are suddenly enabled to speak.
Today, I’m going to encourage you to open up your Bibles to Acts chapter 13.
The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper. They travelled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:4-12 NIV).
I look at this passage here, and I see something very applicable for us, something that we can learn from the example of Paul and Barnabas. The first thing that I see here is that you need to Be Aware. You need to be aware. See, if you’re going around and thinking to yourself, “Well, the demonic doesn’t matter,” or you’re thinking, “I’m a naturalist: I don’t believe that there’s any real spiritual realm other than God--no miracles or nothing,” you’re not very aware to the fact that we are engaged in spiritual warfare. The Apostle Paul tells us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and rules of the unseen realm. So when things come against you, in the spiritual realm, if you’re not aware, you’re not going to have any kind of power or ability to stand strong against the thing that you’re facing. This is why the spiritual gifting of discernment is so necessary in the Church and in each one of us.
The ability to discern spirits--now, some people that I know have this in spades. They can walk into any situation or hear anyone speaking and immediately have something unsettled in their spirit and say, “That’s not from God.” Some of us struggle in this area. This is something that, as we seek it, we can grow in it. I’m not somebody that necessarily always has a strong sense of discernment in me. However, there have been times that I have walked into buildings or different situations and felt a weight--almost like it was hard to breathe--as I looked around and saw demonic paraphernalia that was there and that I hadn’t seen before I felt that feeling. It would become clear to me that there was definitely something going on there.
Paul and Barnabas, in this passage, recognized that something was going on. They didn’t fall prey to this Bar Jesus--Elymas--this false prophet and sorcerer saying, “O wow, look at this guy, he’s on our side.” They recognized there was something wrong. So be aware.
The second thing that you need to do and that we can learn from this is to Be Obedient. Paul and Barnabas were living obediently to God’s will. The Holy Spirit had said, “Set apart Paul and Barnabas for me and send them into this place.”
They didn’t say they’d rather go somewhere else instead. They agreed to go no matter the cost.
So as they stood before this sorcerer, this man who is calling upon himself power not from God but from Satan, they didn’t have to be afraid, because they were obedient to God. And living obediently in God’s will as followers of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit of God, they could stand confident knowing that God is their protector. Sure, maybe difficulties or trials could come at them. Maybe there’s some kind of outward pushback--it is a war in the spiritual realm--as you walk in what God wants as followers of Jesus, you can know that you are protected.
A number of years ago, my uncle went on a mission trip to Peru. As he tells the story, he and his group were walking along and shown a rock which they were told spiritualistic exercises were practised on for hundreds of years--sacrifices of human beings, and such. He could feel a presence on the rock. The group had to get somewhere, so the leaders said not to touch the stone and that they would carry on. But my uncle decided that he knew better than his leaders and as the group went on ahead he laid his hand on the rock and began to pray against all that spirituality and the demonic presence that was on that rock. Everything seemed fine, and he caught up with the group.
That night, as he was laying in bed, he suddenly woke up just shaking with a vision of an Incan shaman or witch doctor in ceremonial garb, standing over him holding a dagger. It freaked the living daylights out of him, so he went to see the leaders and they prayed together. As he fell asleep again, he felt this presence again and saw the apparition with the dagger held over him again. He had a feeling of danger-- something is going on here. So, a couple more times this happened, and they prayed, then finally they broke through, and everything seemed to be fine, and he was able to sleep the rest of the night.
The reason that I share this story is that I believe in my heart that the reason this was able to happen is not that he decided to pray for this rock, but because the act of doing so was an act of disobedience. Are we walking obediently in the will of God so that his hand of protection is fully over us?
Be aware, be obedient.
Thirdly, Be Brave.
Imagine this: you’re out there sharing the message of Jesus and then the most powerful guy in the region--the Roman proconsul (basically the governor of the entire province--says, “Hey, I want to hear from you.”
So you go in front of this Roman proconsul, and what do you do? Do you just nicely share the good news and then walk away? No, this is what they did: they saw the sorcerer who already had the proconsul’s ear. The proconsul likes this guy and keeps him around, and they decided that they would confront the sorcerer! They’re basically going to face this powerful man’s favourite advisor in front of him and call the sorcerer on who he is. That takes bravery. It takes the Holy Spirit’s power.
See, as Spirit-filled believers who are Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered to advance, we have strength within us. I believe that Paul and Barnabas, at that moment, were empowered to recognize, were empowered to have bravery, and empowered to call out Elymas.
Be aware, be obedient, be brave.
Finally, Be Bold.
You can be aware that there’s something wrong. And you can be obedient to a point. You can even have the bravery to say, “you know, I’m going to go ahead and go into this situation now,” but when the words are called for where you have to step out in faith and actually proclaim something that is putting your neck on the line, do you have the boldness actually to do it? Or is that where the obedience ends?
For us, it can be something as simple as being in a checkout line and feeling the prompting of the Holy Spirit to let someone know that Jesus loves them. We say, “That would be really weird God,” and we fight it and just walk away. Is that boldness? No, we’ve lost our boldness there. Be bold.
Can you imagine being Paul in this place? You’ve already demonstrated bravery and recognized the truth of the spiritual situation that’s at play here, and then what does he do? He calls Elymas out on it. But he doesn’t stop there: he says, “Oh, by the way, you’re now going to be struck with blindness to the point you won’t even be able to see the brightness of the sun.”
That takes boldness! You think that it’s nerve-wracking when you pray for someone to get healed and you’re like,,’ God, I really hope that you do this because right now I’m proclaiming healing over this person and if it doesn’t happen, o my goodness, they’re going to think I’m really dumb.” Well, he’s sitting there, and he’s like, “Right now, I’m basically proclaiming a curse over the curser.” In the power of Jesus Christ...and, it happened. See, we can be bold because Jesus has already won the victory.
Yes, we’re in a struggle not against flesh and blood but against all the unseen things. But we don’t have to shake in our boots about it. We don’t have to worry about it to that extent for the simple reason that the war is already won. Yes, the battle rages on for a time, it’s allowed to continue so that God, in his great mercy and grace can allow as many as he knows will come to follow him as possible. But the victory has been won.
When Jesus rose from the grave after dying on the cross to pay the price and the penalty for all the things that we had done that were not right, as he settled the debt that we owed the King of the universe and could not pay ourselves, spent three days in that grave and rose again--when he rose again he proclaimed victory over sin. He declared victory over death, saying, “Here is my divine life that I give to you.” And he declared victory over Satan and Satan’s forces. And he gives that victory to you. In the same breath as he gives you forgiveness and in the same breath as he adopts you as a child of God, he says “I have won the victory, and as a child of God, so have you.”
I remember as a child, I went to a private school, and some of my friends were mean. They would share stories about these things that they had heard about demonic confrontations. They would scare me to no end. I was just freaked out of my mind. For some reason, I ended up enjoying Frank Peretti books--a Christian author who writes about this kind of stuff too. And I would be freaked out of my mind as I read and hear this stuff. I still read it, but I was freaked out. I would get up at night and taking these long steps away from the edge of my bed because you never know: there might be a demon under there! And, as a follower of Jesus, it wasn’t’ the right thing to be afraid of. I didn’t actually recognize the power and authority I had as a follower of Jesus. But we do have to respect the power that Satan has. We’re told that he’s a lion that’s prowling around seeking whom he may devour. I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t go to the zoo with a big long stick and poke lions. It seems like a dumb thing to do. Even though you have power over them at the zoo--big cages and all--it seems really stupid to poke a lion. But at the same time, should we fear something that has already been chained? Should we fear something that has already been beaten? That has no true power over us? And the answer is no.
Now that said, sometimes hearing stories of these kind s of things does still give me the willies--it freaks me out just that little bit. But I know that my God is greater and that he’s with me.
Now on the flip side, we also have to recognize that relegating the demonic activity in this world and the spiritualities and spiritisms that we see being practised and paganism and all of it to being things of fiction and mythology, and just thinking they’re just stories or things that happen somewhere else or at a different time, is also not okay. Both are errors. Friends, if we’re truly active in what God commands for us as followers of Jesus, and is leading us into in Pincher Creek: wanting to share Christ’s love with 600 people and see 20 people give their lives to the Lord, becoming vibrant and fruitful followers born out of the fruit of the Gospel by the end of 2020, then guess what folks, we’re going to come up against spiritual things. And we have a few different options:
Option 1) Just ignore it: think, “No, all these things that are happening, I can just break through with the right strategy.”
Option 2) That we break down crying and trembling and pee our pants.
Option 3) Is that we recognize it, and we stand strong, and we proclaim that we have the victory: that we have God on our sides; that we are filled with and surrounded by the Holy Spirit of God, who leads us and empowers us and that the enemy cannot stand at the blood of Jesus.
So friends, know that we will face opposition--opposition in the spiritual realm whether it is overt or covert, it will come. It is here. Will we face it? And if we will choose to, then what we must remember is: be aware, be obedient, be brave, and be bold.
Of course, none of it applies if we don’t follow Jesus, so right now I’m going to provide an opportunity for anyone that wants to follow Jesus to commit their life to him. If you recognize who Jesus is and what he’s done for you and the importance of it all and you’re saying, “I want to follow Jesus,” will you pray this prayer proclaiming that you do believe and that you have chosen to follow Jesus? If you pray this prayer in your heart, then know that you are forgiven, that you are saved, that you are wonderfully loved.
Heavenly Father, I know that I’m a sinner, I know that I deserve the consequences of my sin, but I trust in your Son, Jesus Christ, as my master and as my saviour. Thank you for forgiving me. Thank you for saving me. Please fill me with your Holy Spirit, begin to wash me clean, and empower me to live not as I once lived, but to turn from those things and begin to follow you as you desire me to live. In Jesus’ name, I pray, Amen.
Friend, if you just prayed that prayer for the first time, I want to congratulate you in the knowledge that you have joined the family of God. And that we’re here for you. Whatever is going on, if you have questions, we’re here for you. As part of that, we want to make sure that you get Bible in your hands so you can be reading what God says to you and that you get partnered with someone that can begin to walk you through what it means to follow Jesus. You’ve taken the first step and now begins the life-long journey. So, please get in contact with us and let us know the decision you’ve made and how to get ahold of you so that we can follow up with you and make sure you have what you need to succeed.