They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "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." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.(Mark 1:21-28)
I am not a big fan of horror movies. Back in high school, I remember clawing at a friend’s arm during the movie Scream, and feeling dismayed when my we decided to follow it up by watching watching I Know What You Did Last Summer…and I’m pretty sure that both of those movies qualify as “lightweights” in the scary movie genre. It turns out that I scare easily. In recent years, Hollywood has become a little obsessed with making movies about spirits and paranormal activity and people being possessed by evil…and I haven’t gone to see any of these movies, because, as we have established they freak me out. But it’s hard not to think about these sorts of movies when we read Mark’s gospel today.
We have before us this strange but illuminating encounter between Jesus and a man with an unclean spirit. Jesus has been teaching in the synagogue, and raising eyebrows with his wise and authoritative teaching. And in the middle of all of this, a man possessed by an unclean spirit stands up, and this spirit inside of him takes one look at Jesus and cries out, "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." And Jesus casts out this unclean spirit, which causes the poor man to convulse and shake on its way out. Without much else in the way of a frame of reference, maybe you are sitting here, pulling all of your mental images from the Exorcist, complete with head spinning and foaming at the mouth.
It would be easy, in our modern context, to brush over this story because we don’t talk much in the way of being demon-possessed, except in the realm of Hollywood and of superstition. But if we are too hasty to dismiss this story as fantastic or irrelevant, then we miss the point of the story. Because even if we aren’t sure about the idea of demons, isn’t it a truth of life that we are all, in our own ways, possessed?
I mean, aren’t we all possessed by something? How many of us have ever referred to our fears and temptations as our “demons?” And aren’t we all always in danger of being owned and controlled and gripped by things that aren’t of God, that aren’t life-giving? Possession is about ownership, and there are so many things out there that that grip us, that hold us, that replace our whole and holy innermost spirits with the spirit of darkness.
If I were to send a notepad up and down the pews, and have each of you write down one thing that possesses you, that owns you, we’d end up with a long and diverse list. Here are just a few of the things that might end up on that list:
- I am possessed by the knowledge that my cancer could come back.
- I am possessed by an overwhelming work schedule that keeps me from spending as much time with my family as I would like.
- I am possessed by an unsettling feeling that, despite what the doctors say, things are getting worse and not better.
- I am possessed by worry that my children are being bullied, hurt, or excluded.
- I am possessed by my addiction.
- I am possessed by a cloud of depression that keeps me from seeing any good in the world.
- I am possessed by my possessions.
- I am possessed by the uncertainty of my job situation and my financial future.
- I am possessed by the voices that tell me I am unlovable, unforgivable, and unworthy.
Maybe you found yourslef in that list. Or maybe there is something else that holds onto your spirit. But we are all possessed by something. And when we feel most troubled by these things that hold us in their grasp, we, like that demon-possessed man, seek out voices that can rescue our spirits.
I watched the State of the Union address last Tuesday evening, and watched the Republican response, and listened to the television interviews afterwards. And all of these voices tried to speak with authority about the things that possess us as individuals and as a nation. All of these voices offered ideas for driving out our uncertainty about the economy, and releasing us from the grasp of fear over war and terrorism, and rescuing us from worries about the environment. These voices all tried to speak with authority about whether our collective future is hopeful or doomed. And the problem is that there were all of these voices, and they were all speaking with authority, and they were all pretty credible voices, and certainly compelling ones…and none of them came to the same conclusion on anything. These voices, it turns out, did nothing to relieve us from our demons and give us healing and hope.
Today’s gospel makes it clear that there is only one voice that can really free us from the things that possess us, and only one voice that can calm our demons. As the apostle Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, “Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords [and many demons!] — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” Our authoritative voice of liberty and life is this voice of God in Jesus.
Jesus has the power to speak to our demons because he was himself “possessed,” as it were, by the Holy Spirit that descended upon him like a dove at his baptism. A voice from heaven declared Jesus God’s beloved son, and so the voice of Jesus can pierce through our dark spirits and bring them light.
Jesus is always on the side of the light; on the side of goodness and peace and healing and hope and wholeness. There are so many places in the gospels where Jesus says “Fear not,” and where he calms storms and where he says “you are forgiven,” and where he heals broken bodies and where he raises people from the dead. Jesus isn’t just a teacher, and his words aren’t just nice preaching. Jesus’ words always take action; they have the power to DO something. And Jesus didn’t stop acting in our world way back in Bible times. Jesus’ words still have the real power to release us from the grip of all that seeks to possess us, and the authority to replace fear with life.
My friends, this is such good news that it makes me get all excited and talk in run-on sentences. Because how can each one of us not be overwhelmed by the thought that nothing else in this world can have a permanent hold on us, and that nothing else in this world can hold us forever in its clutches, and that no darkness can overcome us, because we have in us the light of Christ which is a balm for even the most troubled parts of our souls?
Every time we read the scriptures together, we hear words that are more than words. They are words that point us to the living Word, Jesus Christ, Son of God. And the Word of God is an active Word of life, and can’t you feel your heart stirred within you?
Every time we gather for communion, we hear Jesus voice saying “Take and eat. This is my body broken for you. Take and drink from this, all of you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in these words, we know, in the depth of our hearts, that when we eat and when we drink, we are taking into our spirits the real body of Christ that gives us real forgiveness.
And every time that we gather at the font to celebrate the gift of baptism, we hear Christ’s promise that in those waters is a real death to sin and darkness, and a real rising to new life. And if that weren’t enough, in baptism, each of us, like Jesus, is possessed by a new spirit: the Spirit of God. In baptism, we hear the words, “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever,” and those words are as real and powerful as they get. Because they tell us that everything else that seeks to posses us is shoved out, and we are gripped and held by God’s own Spirit. This is possession in all senses of the word: God claims us, owns us, and his spirit takes us over.
Right here and right now, we can touch the swirling water in the font, and we can grasp the bread and taste the wine, and in all of this we can touch and be touched by the healing hand of Jesus. We cling to the hope of God’s spirit dwelling in us, and we listen for the voice of Jesus, who speaks to us with divine authority, casting out sin and fear and brokenness and even death itself. For Jesus himself is nothing other than the living, loving, life-changing Word of the Lord. And to this, we reply, “Thanks be to God.”