Mark’s Gospel began with Jesus being baptized by John, acknowledged by the Holy Spirit as God’s beloved child. He is then driven by that same spirit into the wilderness, and when he returns, he preaches his first sermon. It was very short (“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near; repent and believe the Good News”). Then, as we heard in last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus chose a few followers. Today our reading describes Jesus’ first public act of ministry.
I confess, I wish Jesus had fed 5,000 people first. Or healed someone’s daughter. Or raised someone from the dead. I wish that Mark recorded what John recorded as Jesus’ first act—turning water into wine. But no. In Mark’s Gospel, the miracle Jesus performs is an exorcism. I don’t know about you, but the first image that springs into my mind when I think about an exorcism is Linda Blair throwing up pea soup, and her head spinning around. What in the world can I preach about that?
I could try to explain to our modern rational post-Enlightenment minds that Jesus is curing someone who with a mental illness, or to our poetic minds that Jesus is reacting to evil personified. I could say that Jesus did a magic trick, intending to awe and impress his audience. But I don’t know how helpful any of that would be. If my job, as today’s reading from Deuteronomy suggests, is to communicate God’s dream to all of you, I cannot imagine how any of those tactics would enlighten or encourage us.
Instead, I want us to enter into this text first by acknowledging that First Century people would not have struggled with the concept of interacting with the spirit world. They still believed that things we can now explain scientifically like thunder and disease were metaphysical in nature. So, instead of explaining away what happened, let’s consider what the action meant symbolically, and whether or not that symbolism is still relevant in our context.
First, it’s clear that whatever was going on literally, the point of the confrontation is “Who’s in charge here?” Jesus’ newly-minted disciples have no real understanding of who he is yet, or what their following him really means. But from the moment he enters the synagogue and begins teaching, it’s clear that other people do. Mark points out that Jesus marched right in and began teaching like someone who has authority, not like the scribes who usually taught and preached to the people. Imagine how shocking this must have been for everyone. Imagine how taken aback the scribes must have been, to find their power usurped by this unknown guy from Nazareth, which was the equivalent of the Nowheresville. Imagine how the people in the pews must have responded to hearing something new and challenging, when they had just come for their customary see-and-be-seen moment at worship! From his very first appearance on the public scene, Jesus takes on the status quo, announcing that a new kingdom was at hand, and rejecting those 7 Deadly Words of any church body: “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.”
In holiest place around—the synagogue—at the holiest time—the Sabbath—Jesus behaves as one with authority, and none of the forces that opposed Jesus were going to take that lying down. The demons began their opposition with one of their usual tricks—trying to control Jesus by naming him. In ancient times, to name something or someone was to control that thing or person. But Jesus had already learned what I shared with you a few weeks ago—that 80% of the time, when we are challenged by difficulties, the answer is baptism. So when he heard the demon call his name, he leaned back into the voice he heard calling his name when he emerged from the Jordan: “You are my beloved son. With you I am well-pleased.” So he was not taken in by the demon voice that challenged him. Instead, he was able to command the demon to shut up and get lost.
Others have used this technique as well. Martin Luther used to yell at the devil when he was plagued with doubt and fear. And it’s not a bad idea. But maybe you can’t imagine when you’d need to use that strategy, as you’ve never encountered a little red guy with horns and a forked tail. But I think it’s helpful to look at what we mean when we talk about demons. I suggest we start with the word associated with someone who is afflicted by unclean spirits: possession.
To be possessed is to belong to someone or something. To be demon-possessed is to be entrapped by a force that is not of God but of evil. It is to hear a voice that is clearly not God’s telling us the opposite of what God desires. God wants us to feel cherished and to share generously. So when we feel like we are no good, or act out of greed and selfishness, we could say we’ve been “possessed” by an demon. For some people, possession might look like an addiction to a chemical substance or to a destructive behavior. Sometimes a whole community is afflicted by demons—I think of the mob mentality that took over the good people of Salem and persuaded them to accuse and kill their neighbors as witches. Or of those videos we see almost every November of people trampling one another at Black Friday sales, trying to get to the latest trendy toy first. And we can probably all name families or churches or organizations that spend more time tearing each other apart than building one another up. It seems to me that such communities are possessed by a spirit that is anything but holy.
And how sneaky these unclean spirits often are! Did you notice that the demon Jesus meets in today’s story is not in a dark back alley, but seated in a pew at worship? And don’t we sometimes feel like what we are thinking or doing or saying is for a noble cause, until after the fact? So how do we know if the voice we are hearing, the Spirit nudging us, is from a Holy Spirit or a demonic one? It’s not always easy to know when a prophet is telling the truth, as our reading from Deut. tells us.
The usual standard for discerning God’s voice is this: our God is always a God of love, and never a God of hate. God’s voice will always prompt us to bless others and not to curse them. So ask yourself: is the voice you hear one that speaks of patience, generosity and hospitality? Or is it one of pride and exclusivism, of envy or of fear? Listen for echoes of this promise in the spirit’s message: “You are God’s beloved child.” God’s voice will always reinforce that assurance, and will always bend us toward loving the world God loves. If the spirit nudges you toward robbing God’s people of the hope that springs from trusting in God’s grace, it is not from God, but from Satan, the Great Deceiver.
I know it will be uncomfortable, but I’d like to encourage you this week to take some time to consider what possesses you, the kinds of things from which you long to escape. What keeps you from living freely into your identity as a beloved and loving person?
And I’d like to invite you to consider how the church can help you to become free from whatever it is. Because you need to know that, whatever possesses you, you are not alone. The church is entirely made up of people who are wrestling with demons, and who will walk with us while we battle our demons. We all benefit from someone praying with us and for us, a person or group that will hold us accountable for changes we say we want.
And beyond the built-in network you have here, the church has connections to all kinds of other resources that can help people who need to be freed from whatever possesses them. Although today’s story from Mark shows Jesus releasing the man from his demon in an instant, most of the time, demons don’t depart so easily. Sometimes being freed from what possesses us requires committed efforts through a support group like AA or Weight Watchers or parenting classes like those the Canopy Center offers. Sometimes a therapist or marriage counselor can help. Healing is different for different people, and can happen quickly, or in stages over a period of time. In any case, the church is here to facilitate healing.
Because the truth is that, at least according to Mark’s telling of the story, the first thing Jesus does to show people what the kingdom of God is about is to free a man who was possessed. And that says something about God’s priorities. Our being free of things that drag us down and hurt us matters to God. The Spirit of God communicates over and over to us that God’s deepest longing is for all of creation to be healed and whole. Let us live that dream any way we can.
~Pastor Susan Schneider