January 28 2018 Sermon
111:1 Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
111:2 Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who delight in them.
111:3 Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.
111:4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the LORD is gracious and merciful.
111:5 He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.
111:6 He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.
111:7 The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.
111:8 They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
111:9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.
111:10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.
1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.
1:22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,
1:24 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.”
1:25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”
1:26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
1:27 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.”
1:28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
In the church that I grew up in, I never knew anyone who was demon possessed or possessed by an unclean spirit. If anyone was possessed by an unclean spirit, I didn’t know about it. And I certainly don’t remember any good sermons about unclean spirits and demon possession. Biblical texts like the one that Nick just read for us don’t get very much attention in academic settings. The man didn’t have an unclean spirit. He was mentally ill and possession was the ancient world’s way of saying he had an undiagnosed mental health concern.
We look back at Jesus’ ministry and like to quickly move past the parts where he converses more easily and candidly with the demon named Legion than with some of his own disciples. The demons know who Jesus is as soon as he walks into the room or comes approaching down the country road. The disciples don’t have that same level of perception and clarity about his identity.
Exorcisms make up a notable, even significant part of Jesus’ public ministry. He heals, he casts out demons, he crosses boundaries long established by the religious tradition, and he demonstrates in his own ministry what the reign of God is and means for the world. I imagine that for most of you, there are no exorcism stories in your top 10 list of favorite Jesus moments. We much prefer Jesus breaking bread for 5000 or inviting the children to come and see him despite the resistance of the disciples. When we think of exorcisms, we conjure up images of exorcisms and demons in which head spins completely around and limbs break as the demon contorts the unwilling host.
Plain and simple: possession by demons and unclean spirits isn’t exactly a major part of our practice of faith together.
The story I’m about to tell you is true-I’m not exaggerating or taking creative liberties with it. To the best of my memory, this is how it happened.
During the summer of 2011, I was serving for a season as a clinical chaplain at Monroe Carrell Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Most of the time I would see families in the Emergency Room, Neonatal Unit, or Critical Care. Often these families were in the midst of great loss, tragic circumstances that brought them to the hospital, or facing diagnoses with a very bleak prognosis. Every once in a while a family on the 7th or 8th floor wanted to see a chaplain. My thought was that if you were on the 7th or 8th floor you might have broken your arm on the playground or were recovering from having your tonsils removed. The super serious and heartbreaking patient stories never made it to the 7th or 8th floor regular rooms. At least that was my perception.
That particular day was quite boring. Time was moving so slowly. A page came in over the printed and I was perplexed as to why the room number was on the 7th floor. I grabbed the elevator and headed on up, foaming in with antibacterial soap outside the door. I knocked and waited for a response before entering the room. Upon entering the room, a bright and bubbly high school girl was propped up in bed watching tv, two little girls played with dolls on the floor, mom sat far across the room, and dad was curled up sleeping on those uncomfortable bed sofas they have in hospital rooms.
I introduced myself and before I could talk to the girl propped up in the bed, her mom launched into a thorough and detailed history about what brought them to the hospital. The girl had been in a fender bender in the school parking lot and gotten whiplash in her neck. She took a couple of Ibuprofen to ease the pain and tenderness in her neck. Well within a few days, the girl felt quite cruddy and so they went to a nearby medical center to be seen. After several hours in the ER, the girl said all she could see looked like it was through rose colored lenses. Her mother demanded they leave that ER because her daughter’s vision picked up on the evil spirits lurking there. Then they went to Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.
As I listened to the story, I nodded and waited for the mom to get around to what the heart of the matter really was. When the girl was admitted at Vanderbilt, she complained of abdominal pain in addition to the neck pain. When radiology came in to scan her abdomen, her mother saw the face of two demons on the sonograph monitor.
I hope my jaw didn’t hit the floor when she told me that.
I asked about the location of the demons. They were possessing the appendix. She indicated that the demons entered her body when her daughter took the Ibuprofen for the whiplash. I then asked if the surgeon successfully treated the appendicitis by removing the appendix. She affirmed that the surgery was successful and that was why her daughter was doing so well recovering in the bed right before my eyes. Without missing a beat, she told me about how she had been possessed by a demon when she was pregnant with the patient. Again she told me the face of the demon was visible on the sonograph monitor. It was possessing her gallbladder which was then successfully removed by surgery.
As the conversation continued, she noted how all the females in the family had a spiritual gift of seeing visions. Even the little girls playing in the floor had visions, like seeing a black king cobra coiled up in an empty white room. That vision came the night before their grandma’s toy dog bit one of them in the face when they wouldn’t give the dog a pancake.
The woman shared quite a bit more about her extended family in which I was able to see a fuller picture. I never mocked or sought to kick out the stool legs of faith that helped her make sense of the world and the suffering in it that her family was experiencing. I don’t believe the world works the way her faith tradition had taught her to believe it did-but I’ve looked back at that experience with more clarity in which to take seriously the powers and spirits at work in the world exerting control over people.
In our gospel text, there was a spirit holding captive a man who had gone to the synagogue on the Sabbath for worship and to hear the scribes reiterate the tradition. There in the synagogue Jesus began teaching, more likely declaring what the reign of God was in their midst than parsing out the details of the tradition like the scribes. The man compelled by a power not entirely of himself cries out for Jesus’ attention, perhaps even mockingly having heard the declarative claims of Jesus. The man states clearly that he knows who Jesus is, long before any disciple of Jesus makes a similar claim.
Jesus commands the spirit to leave the man and it does after making the man convulse. I don’t know whether the man was a paranoid schizophrenic or had multiple personalities (or some other mental health item so that we can explain away his abrupt and intense outcry). I don’t think a diagnosis matters. Let’s not explain away this man’s episode with our present understanding of mental health-it sells short the reign of God breaking into creation to confront, disarm, undermine, and reign victorious over the powers that hold God’s people captive as seen in this exorcism.
There are “forces that are diametrically opposed to God’s 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.
As a result, Jesus the Exorcist seems the only logical first ministry act for Jesus in Mark — not a sermon, not a miracle, not even a healing. But stepping into the realm of opposing supremacies, the world of other spirits, the potent power of possession and saying, “God is here.”(http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3511)
Exorcism is a sign that the God of Israel reigns. Next time you read through part of one of the gospels and Jesus is driving demons from individuals into herds of farm animals, remember that is a sign that the God of Israel gives all authority on Heaven and Earth to Jesus the Christ to break the powers that hold God’s people captive.
“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.” From despair and grief, to addiction, to all consuming anger to unending feelings of self doubt or unworthiness, these powers don’t have the final hold. The God of Israel is here in Jesus the Christ. He is the Holy One of God that reigns-even when it may not seem like it, the God of Israel still reigns.
Bless you in the name of the Everlasting God. Amen.