This was the sermon I preached on February 1 at Community Lutheran Church.
Sitting here on a Sunday morning, maybe it’s hard to see what this morning’s story about casting out demons has to do with your life today. But can you imagine what it would be like if this passage was playing out before you? Shut your eyes for a moment. Imagine the stone walls of the synagogue. You hear a man speaking at the front of the room on a raised dais. He’s teaching about the Scriptures you’ve heard your whole life, but there’s something different in his voice. Instead of debating and discussing what these Scriptures mean, it sounds like he knows. There is a confidence and authority that carry his every word.
As you listen, all of a sudden you hear a cry – eerie and otherworldly, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” You see a man crying out in this voice, running to the front of the synagogue. The teacher speaking at the front of the room yells sternly, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Before your eyes, the man shakes violently and cries out loudly. You cannot believe what you’ve just seen and heard and you’re wondering who this teacher could be. Who is this man who carries such authority in his words and actions? You cannot wait to tell others.
Open your eyes. Welcome back. When we hear this story, I think we tend to lump it into a group of biblical stories that we feel may have been relevant to people thousands of years ago, but feel like they have little to say to us today. We hear about Jesus casting out unclean spirits – exorcising a man! – in the middle of a worship service and it makes us feel… well, maybe a little uncomfortable. Do we just ignore this story? I don’t think we should – I think we’d be foolish to do so.
Mark’s Gospel has been moving along with lightning speed. So far, God has torn open the sky at Jesus’ baptism, sending the Holy Spirit to dwell within and empower Jesus for his ministry. Then that Spirit drove him into the wilderness to be tested by Satan. And last week, we heard that Jesus called disciples to follow him. Today, we have Jesus’ first recorded ministerial act in Mark’s Gospel – and it’s an exorcism!
The Gospel tells us that Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath when all of this occurred. On a day when people are called to rest, take delight in God, worship and renew relationships with others, an unclean spirit causes chaos. But Jesus will have none of it – where chaos, destruction, and harm try to reign, Jesus ushers in God’s kingdom and restores the natural balance once more. Jesus brings healing to the possessed man and restores him to his place in his community. In essence, Jesus frees and allows him to once again enjoy the Sabbath given by God.
And while the spirit inhabits one man, it utters, “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” This spirit could be speaking on behalf of the forces of evil as a whole. But I also think this tells us that Jesus is not just engaging in a one time battle with one spirit, but in a fight against all that would seek to threaten, destroy or enslave creation.
This language may sound odd, but we actually hear it every time we celebrate a baptism. In the baptismal rite, which is basically an ancient form of exorcism, we are asked, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” and “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?” Three times we are asked to renounce sin, death and the devil, and three times we affirm our faith in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The unclean is washed away, and we are given the Holy Spirit – “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy” in God’s presence. From baptism on – often the very beginnings of our lives in the church – we are shaped by Jesus’ authority and power to drive out sin and the forces that defy God.
So why do we skirt these readings? Why do we relegate them to stories from the past? We write these stories off, but they have so much to teach us about God.
I think sometimes we tend to get comfortable with God. We forget what Mark’s Gospel is trying to tell us– that this is a God who tears apart the heavens to be with humanity. A God whose first act is to get rid of the dangerous spirit that is impeding a man’s ability to be a part of his community, his ability to worship God, and keeping him from enjoying life. A God who tears apart chaos, confusion and hurt in order to bring healing and wholeness. A God who will be broken and torn to bring redemption to all of creation.
We get a little too comfortable and settled, thinking we know what God is up to – that we’ve heard it all before and there’s nothing new. Maybe we even think God acted in the past, but we feel that it’s clear from the news that God is nowhere to be seen or powerless to act. I think we all do this, myself included. But I think when we find ourselves thinking this way, we end up selling God short. We don’t trust that God wants to be at work and is at work in the world and in our lives. Each of us has our own demons and unclean spirits we struggle with. Pride. Greed. Insecurity. Lack of trust. Judgmentalism. Lack of confidence. An inability to say no. Fear. Consumerism. All of these things can possess and paralyze us – making us unable to move forward as followers of Christ.
As Frederick Buechner wrote, “God knows we have our own demons to be cast out, our own uncleanness to be cleansed. Neurotic anxiety happens to be my own particular demon, a floating sense of doom that has ruined many of what could have been, should have been, the happiest days of my life, and more than a few times in my life I have been raised from such ruins, which is another way of saying that more than a few times in my life I have been raised from death – death of the spirit anyway, death of the heart – by the healing power that Jesus calls us both to heal with and to be healed by.”
Christ offered healing on the Sabbath to the man possessed and he offers healing to each of us today. Through the Word speaking to our lives, bread broken and wine poured out for us, and this incredible community of loving saints, Jesus offers us healing and a way forward through the confusion.
One thing that strikes me hearing this passage is that the unclean spirit Jesus cast out did not go quietly – it convulsed and cried out before finally departing. Sometimes the way to healing is going to be loud, messy, and confusing, but always, Jesus is at our side, working for our well-being. We are followers of the cross – and Jesus hasn’t promised that the road will be easy. The cross is at the heart of Mark’s Gospel – it is where Jesus will be revealed as the Messiah. And just as the sky ripped in two at Jesus’ baptism and God declared Jesus’ “Beloved Son,” on the cross, the curtain in the Temple will be torn in two, showing for once and all who Jesus is and that God’s people are no longer separated from God. The road may be difficult, but God is always with us.
As Buechner pointed out, the healing we experience is never just for us as individuals alone. Often, God uses others to heal us and uses us to heal those around us. We are blessed to be given the opportunity to walk with others in their difficulties, to pray for and encourage them, and to reassure them that God cares for them.
We think of some of these stories as meant for people far different from ourselves, but are they really that different? We hear of violence around the world or even in our own backyards, or struggle with addiction, chronic illness, or the memories and regrets of the past. There is evil in the world and there are real, undeniable difficulties in our lives. Why wouldn’t we say that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, crucified and risen from the dead, has the power to heal and make whole all that is wrong in this world?
So today, on this Sabbath, and in this house of worship, where do you desire healing in your life? Where do you feel broken and long for Jesus to put you back together again? What demons and past regrets would you have Jesus cast out?
Our healing may not be as dramatic as this morning’s reading or always look like what we were expecting, but Christ is working to bring healing in all areas of our lives. Healing in our relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, as well as physical, emotional and spiritual healing. Thanks be to God! Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.