Jesus shut him up: “Quiet!  Get out of him!”

-Mark 1:25

(Preached on Sunday, January 28, 2018)

What was the matter with that man in the synagogue?  We may never know.  The Bible does not specify what the evil spirit is, but we can imagine some possibilities:

  • Depression, which runs rampant world-wide;
  • Bi-polar disorder, which tears apart home and families;
  • Addictions of all kinds, with devastating effects on work and self;
  • Alzheimer’s disease, with spiraling loss of memory and capacity;
  • Stroke, with tenacious loss of “muscle memory;”
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder, with crippling legacy.

The list could go on.  These are “our” scientific explanations for the maladies which afflict and bind us today.  Yet in truth, most of us don’t understand these descriptions any better than we do the idea of demon possession.

Demons were the “scientific explanation” of Jesus’ day for the maladies which afflict and bind people.  Theirs was a demon-haunted world.  Evil spirits were the cause of illness, especially mental illness.  They didn’t know about microbes and bacteria, viral infections and body chemistry.  But the point of the story is not to explain illness.  The point of the story is to demonstrate the authority and power of Jesus over the demons that enslaved and bound people in illness.

In all that he does, through both word and deed, Jesus demonstrates that he is opposed to evil.  Jesus sees his mission in Galilee as preaching the good news of the coming reign of God and casting out of demons.  In numerous places in the gospels Jesus confronts demons, defeats them, and casts them out of people’s lives.  We need to understand what that means in our context, but in so doing we modern, sophisticated people should not dismiss the reality of evil or its affect in our lives too quickly.  One need not look further than the daily newspaper to see the ancient struggle between good and evil.  One need not look far beyond the mirror to know that same battle rages in each one of us.

Just as that was Good News for that man, for the others in the synagogue and for the readers of Mark’s gospel, even so it is Good News for us today.  For our world too is a “demon-haunted” world.  We just don’t often speak of it in those terms.  We are too sophisticated for that language.  But think about it: we are haunted by many demons – fear, worry, anxiety, insecurity, inordinate self-concern.  Evil takes many forms in life.  Racism, prejudice, and bigotry, in any shape or size, are demonic.  To dehumanize any of God’s children, for any reason, is not something that we who follow Jesus do.  We are the ones called to speak evil’s name and cast it out.  We have been given the authority to do so.  We still contend with demons in our lives today: demons of lack – lack of courage, lack of hope, lack of trust, lack of love.  These are powerful forces which possess us, incapacitate us, bind us, and distort our humanity.

The demons in our lives are nourished by our lack of faith.  We too easily lose sight of the truth that we are God’s children, shaped in the image of God.  We forget that God wants for us what we want for our children: that we become the best person that we can be, that we become what we were created to be.  The demons keep us from fulfilling our human potential, our God-given purpose.  The demons keep us from fulfilling our human potential, our God-given purpose.  The demons pollute our souls with fear and envy, tempting us to despise those who dare to dance to a different tune and tear down those who would challenge our certainties and pretensions.  Perhaps the hysteria of the unclean spirit that possessed the man in the synagogue was the fear of self-discovery.  Jesus’ words had authority.  They brought peace to some but disturbed others.  One could agree or disagree, but never ignore what he had to say.  His words hit home and invariably provoked a response.  Sometimes we would rather hear a bland platitude, but that is not what Jesus brings.  His words have power.  As Simeon predicted when Jesus was brought to the Temple as an infant, he would be “the downfall and the rise of many … a sign that will be opposed … so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare.”  Perhaps that is why the unclean spirit reacted so violently.  We sometimes cannot stand the thought of our hearts being laid bare.  We are afraid of our own vulnerabilities.  So the unclean spirit was uncomfortable, threatened and convulsed the man violently before leaving.  Jesus’ presence threatens not its existence as much as its control of the possessed man.  Jesus’ successful rebuke and direct eviction of the unclean spirit signals who holds genuine power.  There is power in the naming of our demon.  As we name them, as we speak about them, they lose their control over us.

Jesus wants to confront the demons and cast them away.  And the way we most often experience Jesus doing that for us today is in the community of faith, the church.  It may seem strange that the man with an unclean spirit worships in the synagogue.  It really is not that uncommon to find people in worship who are possessed by addictions, denial, animosity, or simply have “unquiet” minds.  Even in the twenty-first century, many continue to stigmatize those who are labeled “mentally ill.”  We can watch most physical ailments improve and heal over time, but emotional trauma is altogether different and mysterious.

The human mind continues to be unexplored territory.  Unkind and thoughtless words have been spoken to and about those individuals who are plagued by mental disorders.  But what is normal?  Who is normal?  Who among us has grown up in a normal household?  Statistics tell that one-third of the population at some point during their lifetimes can be considered to have mental disorders.

The church is a hospital for sinners and for those who are hurting.  Even though possessed and bound by a demon, the man in the synagogue was present in the community of faith.  It was in that community that he found his healing and release.  It is still in the community of faith that Jesus reaches out to touch painful lives and assist in their healing.  He most often does that today through our own open arms, open hearts, and healing hands.

What Jesus does is to refuse to ignore this man.  Jesus listens to what he has to say – and even though it is something negative, something that jeopardizes his own ministry, Jesus shows that he really cares, and he delivers the man.  To put it differently, it is not about what Jesus says or how well he articulates it; it’s about what he actually does.  Since this man was already in the synagogue, I wonder if the religious leaders had seen him there before, screaming nonsense, and just kept teaching – rather than trying to determine what was keeping this man in such a state.

In this passage we see Jesus approach the unapproachable.  He shows us that we have to confront evil forces.  He makes it clear that we need to pay attention and listen, even to those who make us uncomfortable or who clearly want to harm us.  Jesus shows us in this text how important it is to care for those who are tormented and oppressed by evil.  Ultimately the challenge is to pay attention to the evil that surrounds us, in both its individual and social expression, and to confront it with compassion, just like Jesus did.

Ismael Ruiz-Millan, director of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, learned this truth powerfully on a mission trip to Tijuana , Mexico.  He was in El Parque del Mapa (the Park of the Map) and he approached a man to ask if he wanted a meal.  He introduced himself as a pastor.  In response the man screamed at him, “I killed several people just for fun, and if I want to, I can kill you right now in front of all these people!”  Ismael’s body shivered at this verbal assault and after what felt like a long pause, he responded like this: “I don’t know why you did all that, but please know that God loves you, and because I have experienced God’s love in my own life, I can tell you that I love you too.”  This made the man more upset.  He started screaming in despair, “No! No, that is not possible. I am a bad person; no one can love me!”  “Yes,” Ismael said, “God loves you, and I love you.”  Miraculously, the man’s demeanor changed drastically.  He held Ismael’s arms and then started to cry.  Ismael asked if he would allow him to pray for the man, and he consented.  Did he have a specific concern or request? “Pray for my family.  I have not seen them in years, and I don’t think I will see them again.”  Ismael prayed and when he finished the man left without a word.

The encounter with the man in Tijuana lasted about four minutes, but it felt to Ismael like 30 or more.  It sort of happened I slow motion.  The power of Jesus to bring release was at work in that brief time because Ismael paid attention to the man and he built a brief relationship with him and extended the love and compassion of God to him.  It is through our relationships with one another in the community of faith that the power of God is at work to bring release from fear.  This is the power of Jesus still at work in us today.  This is where the real power in our world lies: in Jesus, in God, and in the community of faith, where we stand together and support one another.  Together we can confront our demons and with Jesus, cast out all fear.