Jan31SunA sermon on Mark 1:21-28 January 31, 2021
Grace and peace…
You know, I haven’t seen the 1973 (classic horror) movie “the Exorcist”, but maybe one day I should.
I’ve never been a fan of horror movies, but there is something intriguing about a movie where priests get to play the starring role, and use their theology and seminary training to do battle with supernatural evil forces.
Usually priests and pastors are just portrayed in movies as bumbling fools at sappy weddings…
so it might be fun to see them as a leading character.
In general, Exorcisms have been the jurisdiction of certain trained Roman Catholic priests, although Lutheran pastoral handbooks from the 16th and 17th centuries included a chapter on exorcisms.
I certainly did not learn anything on the matter in seminary.
A few years ago I had a conversation with a man who told me about being tormented by a demon.
He described to me some horrendous stories about being skinned alive, and his eyelids being pulled off.
He obviously had been experiencing severe spiritual and mental torment.
A psychiatrist no doubt would have offered some form of diagnosis.
I just had a lot of sympathy,
and tried to listen to him carefully and with love,
and offered a prayer with him afterwards,
which he accepted with thanks.
The encounter definitely shook me,
but at the end left me with a sense of gratitude that I don’t personally know such mental pain,
And I had more compassion for those who suffer from severe mental illness, and torture by demons,
whether real or perceived.
Our Gospel text today from Mark deals with Jesus’s first miracle, which happens to be an exorcism.
As we hear the story, we remember that it comes from very different times,
and that the 1st century had a pre-modern worldview.
We know a lot more about causes of illness now.
Frankly, medicine has evolved a lot even over the last 20 years.
On the other hand, what we we don’t know about God is greater than what we do know.
And there are just things that can’t be proven or disproven either way.
Even modern experiences of exorcisms and demon-possession leave a lot of grey area for interpretation and differing perspectives.
In any case, what we have in our text is a rather matter-of-fact account of an important event early in Jesus’ ministry,
soon after he had called his first disciples to help him fish for people, to save the lost, the lonely and the hurting.
Jesus is in Caparnaum in Galilee, which becomes a central town for Jesus’ preaching and healing.
He enters the synagogue, the place for instruction of the Bible, and begins to teach.
And those who hear him are astounded.
And then, immediately just then, out of the crowd it seems,
an unnamed man interrupts the instruction,
and out of his voice,
perhaps it isn’t his natural voice, we’re not sure,
the challenge to Jesus comes forth:
“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!”
The man doesn’t exhibit any self-control here,
There’s no self-filter, normally you don’t just get up and interrupt a sermon and start spouting out accusations at the preacher unless there’s something really wrong.
But the man cannot help it, and the demons within are the first ones to see Jesus as he really is…the one with true power,
the Holy One of God, or in other words, the Messiah.
The unnamed man confesses Jesus as Lord.
Nobody has done this, not even John the Baptist.
Nobody has stated so clearly who Jesus is.
And Jesus rebukes him,
“Be silent! Come out of him!”
And just like that, the unclean spirit, convulsing, like an epileptic,
Crying with a loud voice, comes out of him.
Now any psychologist or counsellor has a wish to find that single insight, command, or question that might cause a light bulb to turn on in the person you’re helping,
and instantly change them, heal them, and solve their problem.
In my experience counselling people, a few times it’s happened,
Where I’ve asked one really good question,
or made one good observation,
and I could literally see the wheels turning in the person’s mind as they processed something.
I’d like to think it was what I said what made the difference,
but likely it was also just their act of sharing what they shared and doing the mental processing that caused the epiphany.
But in all those instances I felt like a million bucks.
It was an amazing and astounding experience,
where I felt validated and competent.
Jesus’ instantaneous healing surprised the bystanders,
who were filled with astonishment and amazement,
and kept on asking:
“what is this?
A new teacher with authority?
Who commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him?”
And honestly, it’s understandable that they are astonished.
It is a stunning showdown, and a great scene:
In one corner, Jesus possessed by the Spirit of God
and in the other, the unnamed man possessed by the demonic.
In the end, however, it is no contest.
The demons are clearly outmatched,
and they know it even before the exorcism begins.
As the Gospel of Mark will continue to explain, nothing demonic,
whether within people or within structures of power,
can survive their encounter with the
“demon-tossing, spirit-possessed Son of God.”
What is perhaps even more intriguing, is that there are no shouts of joy and thanksgiving at the man’s healing,
and at his redemption by the Son of Man.
It seems almost like a letdown that the bystanders were only amazed.
They should have been gobsmacked,
and cheering Jesus on, as if he was the Messiah.
Their should have been tears of rejoicing,
and giving thanks to God,
realizing that prophecies were coming to pass
in their very presence,
As Jesus began his ministry
to loose the bonds of injustice, …
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke (Isaiah 58:6)
But then it seems that the people were more astounded at his teaching than the exorcism.
The demon-smiting is almost an afterthought for them,
as if it were an everyday occurrence.
What they remark on a few times is Jesus’ teaching with authority,
On the fact that his words are powerful,
that his words are performative,
That what he speaks comes into being,
just like God at the beginning of creation who spoke the world and all existence into being with the words:
let there be … light… a dome… and so on.
Jesus entered the synagogue not to be taught but to teach.
And that is something astonishing, remember,
he was an uneducated poor labourer.
And he was facing off against the synagogue scribes,
the educated religious elites,
who were professional interpreters of the Bible.
Kind of like what I do.
Perhaps imagine next Sunday morning,
a random Construction worker walked up Benton Street
from the Arrow Lofts worksite, shoved me out of the pulpit
and proceeded to deliver a barnburner of a sermon that put me to shame.
Astounding. To say the least.
I wouldn’t be too pleased, I’d be jealous, maybe.
Anyway, not all my sermons are that great,
But getting upstaged by someone who didn’t attend seminary?
But also pretty interesting.
Where did that construction worker get that knowledge,
that insight, that connection to the divine to be able to preach and teach way better than the pastor?
Is it some kind of trick?
Where does he get the authority to chuck the pastor out of the pulpit?
The question of authority is definitely a big one for the bystanders.
How can Jesus just step up and do what he does?
Is he a charlatan, a liar, a devil-worshipper himself,
or does he perhaps have divine, God-given powers,
and could he be perhaps, the Messiah?
Authority is divisive, not only within families,
in congregations and other groups, but also of course in politics.
One of the most divisive, and ascending stars of the progressive left in the US is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, often AOC for short.
She is intelligent, self-assertive, and she speaks with authority,
and calls injustice out.
For example her Republican opponents who indirectly supported death threats against her.
Besides the fact that she is Woman of Colour in a prominent position,
it’s no wonder that there are extremists on the right who want her dead.
Strong authority generates opposition.
If you’re wishy-washy, who cares?
If my sermons are weak; parishioners fall asleep,
But when I make an authoritative claim or statement,
like “Donald is a wicked man”, I’ll get pushback.
That’s just to be expected.
Proper Authority, like Jesus demonstrates,
is not that of a narcissistic goon,
But rather comes with a willingness to see justice served,
and to right wrongs, especially when the poor and marginalized are concerned.
Proper authority has the courage to step out of comfort zones and act on behalf of the voiceless and nameless.
It’s easy enough to preach and teach, but to actually do something about it…
that’s where the rubber hits the road.
What authority can we muster to destroy racism and prejudice?
What authority can we claim to search out the white supremacy culture in our own hearts, in our own institutions?
What power can we summon to call out the evils of consumer capitalism that enrich the Wall Street gamblers
and the top 0.01%
while the have-nots and Black, Indigenous and People of Colour continue to be disproportionately affected by COVID?
Oh that we could echo Jesus’ words of
“Be silent! Come out of him!”
And immediately, injustice and bigotry would be exorcised.
Unfortunately, life isn’t that simple, and those silver bullets,
those easy fixes, like we hear of in our Gospel text,
are few and far between.
Even the Catholic exorcism manuals describe how exorcism can be a long and multi-stage process, and is rarely a one-time deal.
But we can take our Gospel story as an inspiration,
And examine how we can all become exorcists ourselves of the evils surrounding us, whether with a kind word, a friendly ear,
or sometimes, an angry, “be gone Satan!”
And in all things,
Take it to the Lord in prayer,
The healer of all ills,
the one who knows all fears and sadness,
Our God who knows all pain and all joy. Amen.