Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 28, 2018
Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1, Mark 1:21-28
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
So, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a real exorcism. Not one in the movies or other fictional story, a real, live exorcism. Nobody here has seen one. Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone who was possessed by a demon or unclean spirit. And, again, nobody including me has seen someone who was possessed by a demon. I mean, I’ve seen TV shows about demons and such, Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and such, but I’ve never seen one in real life. And most real-life cases I know of where someone has thought that they or someone else was possessed by a demon, the real cause turns out to be mental illness, or something like that, instead. No exorcisms necessary, just a good therapist, the appropriate medication, and understanding and support from family and friends. That’s why a lot of people today look at many of the exorcisms that Jesus performs and assume that what really happened was that the person was mentally ill, and Jesus healed them. Still a miracle far beyond anything modern medicine can even dream about, but not an exorcism.
There’s two problems with that. The first is that it’s not taking the witness of the Bible seriously—nor the witness of our ancestors in the faith, nor the witness of our Christian brothers and sisters of other cultures, who often tell of encountering demons. And, I mean, we believe in spirits. It’s one of the core parts of our faith that we confess every Sunday: we believe in the Holy Spirit of God, one person of the trinity. That is absolutely not up for debate. And if there’s a Holy Spirit, it’s not a big leap from that to wondering if there might be other spirits, too. Un-holy ones. Or, as the spirit in today’s lesson is called, “unclean” ones. Ones that don’t come from God, and don’t lead us closer to God, but rather lead us away.
Consider the liturgy we use in baptism. It’s ancient. Christians have been using that same liturgy since the very beginning of Christianity. Every generation puts their own spin on it, modifying it to fit their times, but the core of it is the same. Which is why so many churches from different traditions have baptismal rites that sound very similar, even if nothing in the rest of the worship service does. And part of that liturgy is to renounce all the evil spirits. “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” If the baptized is old enough to speak for themselves, they say it. If they’re too young, their parents say it for them, and when they are confirmed, they will renounce other spirits as part of the Confirmation rite. There would be no need to pointedly renounce evil spirits if they weren’t floating around. We may not talk about unclean spirits much, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the possibility they’re out there.
There’s a Christian spiritual practice called Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” where you pick a Bible passage and meditate on it. But before you start meditating, you pray. And one of my professors in seminary was very adamant that you had to specify, in that prayer, that you were asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for God to protect you from other spirits, because you don’t want to be opening yourself to just any old spirit that might be wandering by. You want to open to the Holy Spirit. Given all of these aspects of Christian worship and devotion that deal with spirits other than the Holy Spirit, I don’t want to assume that any “unclean spirit” or “demon” in the Bible is merely a mental illness described by people who don’t know what it is. I mean, it may be, but we don’t know.
The other problem with assuming that all Biblical exorcisms are actually healings of mental illness is that this guy is very different from the other people possessed by spirits in the Bible. See, I don’t think anybody knew he had an unclean spirit until Jesus cast it out of him. This guy seems like a normal guy. He’s going about his ordinary life just like everyone else in the village, and unclean spirit or not he’s in the synagogue, the place of worship. He’s a member of the congregation. Other people with “unclean spirits”—the ones who are visibly different, the ones who act like they have schizophrenia or other mental illness—they’re excluded, shoved out of the community, ignored, pushed aside. This guy isn’t. So his friends and family probably think he’s fine. They probably think he’s normal, ordinary. He’s got an unclean spirit so fully in control of him that it can speak through his mouth, and there he is, in the middle of the congregation, and not one person has noticed. Except Jesus.
I wonder what else the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice. I mean, it can’t have been outright blasphemy; these people know the Scriptures, they know the traditional interpretations, if this guy tried outright heresy they would have noticed. But there have always been people who twisted Scripture to fit their own desires. For example, the Bible repeatedly tells us that God is love, that the deepest core of God’s character is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” From the beginning of Genesis right on through to the last page of Scripture, we are told that God’s deepest concern is for the kind of justice where even the weakest person, even the outcast, receives good treatment, and the kind of mercy that works to reconcile people with God and with one another. But people have always taken pieces of Scripture out of that context and used them to rationalize unjust and unmerciful treatment, too harsh on the people they don’t like and too lenient of themselves. Maybe that’s the sort of thing the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.
Or maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe the unclean spirit didn’t say anything spiritual at all. Maybe it just sort of was there, stirring the pot. You know the type. The ones who add to the drama of any situation so that it’s harder to find a good solution because everyone’s so upset they can’t think straight. Or maybe the unclean spirit was the type to whisper poison in peoples’ ears, the sort of comment that sound innocuous on the surface but always has an edge that hurts. Someone like that can do a lot of damage, cutting people down and making them suspicious of one another. Or maybe the unclean spirit was the self-righteous type, filling the man full of the conviction that he was always right and therefore anyone who disagreed was wrong and the enemy, so he could treat them accordingly. If you think about it, there are a lot of ways an unclean spirit could have done serious damage not just to the person it possessed but to the whole community, if it managed to go undetected as this one evidently had.
I wonder what the man who was possessed thought. I wonder if he felt like a prisoner in his own body, helpless to stop the spirit from acting. But even more, I wonder if he even knew. If he just listened to the voice of that unclean spirit influence him and thought, “that sounds like a pretty good idea I just had.” And that may be the scariest thing of all.
Thank God Jesus was there to free him and cast out the unclean spirit. But it raises the question: what about unclean spirits here, now, today? I mean, Jesus isn’t walking around physically in the flesh any more. He’s not just going to walk I into one of our churches and command an unclean spirit to leave. And yet, we are not alone. We don’t face spirits or demons—whether actual entities or mental illness—alone, for God is with us. In our baptisms, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and that is the deepest reality of our lives. Even if other spirits trouble us, they cannot stand forever against the power of our Lord and Savior. We renounce the powers of the devil and of all unclean spirits, and we are right to do so, because they can do a lot of damage. But it is the power of the Holy Spirit that gives that renunciation a force greater than we could ever manage on our own. I don’t know what other sorts of spirits are out there, nor how often we might encounter them. But I know this, for certain and sure: the Holy Spirit is greater than they could ever hope to imagine, and the Holy Spirit is active in us and among us. Thanks be to God.