The world of the Scriptures is full of spirits. Some are evil, some may be ambivalent, but they are all over and they are busy. Into this spiritually-charged world comes God’s Holy Spirit, to engage with, cast out, and destroy the evil spirits. To plant faith. To empower believers to do good works. To give gifts of perseverance, hope, and charity.
Today we hear the story of creation, when the Spirit from God hovers over the waters. If you grew up with the older translations, you might have heard that the Spirit “brooded” over the waters (don’t listen to our wimpy translators who insist on calling it “wind”). We hear the story of the baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan River, when he sees the sky opened and the Spirit descending on him. And we hear the story of some of John the Baptist’s followers who have received the baptism of repentance but not the indwelling of God’s Spirit. Paul baptizes them and they speak with tongues of fire.
The Holy Spirit gives order to primal chaos. The Holy Spirit anoints the Christ. The Holy Spirit takes hold of believers, casting out the evil spirits that have battled for their souls, and turning them to the true God.
On Friday I found myself reading a story about the woman from San Diego who was shot and killed by Capitol Police as she attempted with the large crowd to occupy the capitol and overturn the election. As is so often the case these days, much of her story was committed to social media. She journaled her transition from someone who had more or less normal beliefs about the world into someone completely captivated by the mass delusion that’s become known as QAnon.
It was very strange to me. I try to keep my distance from Facebook and the sites where this kind of delusion takes hold. But still we can see it happening around us. We probably all know people who’ve gradually allowed their minds to be taken over by conspiracy theories, brainworms, factually incorrect views that are never questioned or challenged within the online communities they find or make for themselves. Captivated. Perhaps literally: taken captive.
And while the whole spectacle on Wednesday left me feeling very anxious and angry, I ended up feeling something like pity for this woman who had died in a reckless attempt to overthrow the government under which both she and I are citizens. I find it hard to acknowledge this, as the actions of people like her led to the killing of a Capitol Police officer and the deaths of three other people. And there should be no such pity for the politicians and media figures who have encouraged this delusion and this recklessness, who know very well that the last election was not stolen and do not think the vice president of the United States is a traitor who should be executed on the capitol lawn, as many of these protesters were chanting on Wednesday. They just found it convenient to make use of people like the woman who was killed.
The truth is that we can’t be deluded or captivated like this without our own consent and participation. But evil spirits make the most of any opportunity they get. And it can be a very short trip from that first unhealthy fascination to becoming completely chained. It is frightening. This is the soil in which terrible destruction can grow. That’s the point of it, from the demons' point of view.
And it’s worth remembering that we’ve lost democracy in America before, in the 1870s. Democratically-elected state and local governments all over the southern United States were attacked, sometimes by nothing more than a few angry people who were able to raise an armed mob. They were not caught or punished, their actions inspired others, and pretty soon our brief experiment in universal male suffrage was over. It took almost 90 years to bring it back. And we can lose it again. Nothing to it.
The Church of Jesus has been through everything, and has endured and even flourished under every kind of government. But the promise of democracy--the idea that we all get to speak and vote with an equal voice--from a Christian point of view, is that it requires all of us to be citizens. It reflects the full humanity for which Jesus Christ shed his blood. It denies that fullness to no one. It requires us to want good things for each other, even when we disagree. It requires us to be responsible for each other, even when we imagine we have the power to destroy each other. It requires us to accept that sometimes we will lose and sometimes we will win, and it requires us to accept that both our wins and losses will come with limits that we all respect for our sake and for each others’. Without that, it will all be over, sooner or later. Democracy is not about specific institutions of government. At heart it’s about our relationship with each other. And if that relationship lacks charity, lacks responsibility, lacks prudence, it will fall apart.
This is why we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit--to do battle with the powers of hatred and madness and destruction that will crowd in wherever we give them space. To vanquish and expel them. To give us the power to believe, and to hope, and to love, and to resist the voices of violence that surround us. And we are probably not aware of how, daily, the grace, and indulgence, and strength of God sustains us and keeps us from falling into so much worse.
When we baptize a new believer, we lay our hands on their head, and we pray “GIve to [this person] the gift of your Holy Spirit: the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, the Spirit of joy at your presence.” We repeat these words at confirmation. Luther’s version of the baptism ritual has the priest saying over the one being baptized, “Depart O unclean spirit and give way to the Holy Spirit.” Over the gifts on the altar we pray “send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts.” Because we need the Holy Spirit to do anything pleasing to God. Every day that gift must come to us anew. It must lift us up from the powers that would consume us. It must equip us to do what we cannot do on our own. It must fight the battles we cannot win without it.
Because it is a constant struggle. We see that with horrible clarity when the seat of our elected government is overrun with people bent on destroying it. And it was only a matter of a minute or two between what happened and something much, much worse. This power must not reign in our hearts. The Holy Spirit must reign instead. We can argue, we can disagree, we can have different interests that create inevitable conflict. But we must not give ourselves over to destruction.
So we pray for the coming of that true, good, and Holy Spirit. We pray that it may guide us, keep us safe, and bind us together in love. Jesus came down to the Jordan with the crowd, unknown even to John the Baptist in this version of the story, to be baptized with this great mass of totally ordinary people from all Judea and Jerusalem--he came down, the one who brought forth the waters on the earth, who set the stars in their courses, who formed creation and lowered himself into the water, into his water, and was baptized in his ordinary humanity. God coming down to humanity, so that humanity could be lifted up to God. And heaven opened, and something new appeared and a new age began: that is the coming of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Jesus and in our own life as believers. May it be so for us, as we seek to love and serve this world that is under such constant threat and in need of such generous love.