By The Rev. Sherry Deets
4 Epiphany – January 29, 2012
So, truthfully, don’t you just dread exorcism stories? I mean, if there’s one kind of biblical story we have a hard time relating to, it has to be this one. Miracle stories are hard enough in our post-Enlightenment, scientific age, but at least we have experience with longing for healing or a desire to feed those who are hungry. But demon-possession? This is simply beyond the experience and imagination of most of us. Or, if we have any imagination about exorcism, it’s been unhelpfully shaped by and Linda Blair.
Which presents something of a dilemma for us this week, since Mark tells the story of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. And not only does Mark tell this story, but he tells it right up front. In fact, this is the first miracle story Mark reports. Which should make us sit up and take notice, since “firsts” in any narrative usually aren’t by accident.
So what is Mark trying to tell us about Jesus and his significance for our lives through this story? I wonder if the opening chapters of Mark are meant to unpack Jesus’ first and very short sermon, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” So it might be helpful, as Karoline Lewis suggests, to see the series of miracles that Mark writes about as describing for us what this kingdom of God looks like. And right up front, Mark describes Jesus as what? An exorcist? Maybe, but I think it’s actually a whole lot more!
Keep in mind that earlier in the chapter, Jesus was blessed and baptized with the Holy Spirit as he heard the promise proclaimed to him, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased!” Now Mark contrasts this experience with that of the man possessed by an “unclean” spirit, a spirit that is most assuredly not telling him that he is beloved of God or God-pleasing in anyway. Indeed, we would be far better served to abandon our Hollywood-fed images of demons causing us to vomit and spin our heads (Exorcist-style) than as those forces that are diametrically opposed to God’ will. Rather than bless, they curse; rather than build up, they tear down; rather than encourage, they disparage; rather than promote love, they sow hate; rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart.
So maybe we could boil down the first chapter of Mark leading up to this story this way: Jesus has been baptized, tempted in the wilderness, and now comes to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth, and he does this by opposing the forces of evil which would rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for them.
Seen this way, I have to admit that not only is possession not quite as foreign an event as I might have thought, but that I actually have first hand experience with it. I have, that is, on occasion, been possessed by anger at a colleague or family member that has led me to say and do things I regret. I have been possessed by jealousy and envy that had led me to use my resources in ways I regret. And that’s just the beginning. And can you, honestly, tell me that you haven’t had these experiences also, when you feel possessed by something that is so clearly not the Spirit of God blessing us to be a blessing to others? There are others that have felt possessed by addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography. Or maybe it’s a hidden but pervasive prejudice that keeps them captive. Or maybe they’ve been possessed by more society-approved unclean spirits like workaholism, affluenza, or greed. Remember Gordon Gekko’s Wall Street speech that “greed is good” and, more recently, the way the attitude he represented has in recent years not just possessed but ravaged our economy and citizenry?
Jesus is still at work cleansing us from such spirits and that happens in many different ways. Is it as dramatic as the story here? Actually, sometimes it is. Ask around and you’ll soon find stories of people who have had dramatic and sudden encounters with grace and mercy. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the road to healing and restoration takes both time and company. Sometimes it’s not about a single pastoral visit but the steady support of a grief support network, or an AA group, or a prayer chain, or parenting group, or notices about anger-management classes, or whatever. God is at work in all these ways and so many more to free us from the unclean spirits that still possess us.
So I invite you to contemplate and even name some of the things that possess you. I believe that Jesus is still in the business of freeing us from those powers which seek to rob God’s children of all God hopes and intends for us.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Jesus is still in the business of freeing us. Amen. (heavily based on a preaching article by David Lose).
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