Sermon text: Mark 1: 21-28
There’s no way around this, so I’ll just be blunt: often times I don’t know what to do with demons in scripture. There is something about evil personified, evil that falls out of people and speaks with a voice, that leads me down the path of horror entertainment like The Exorcist, Doom, The Devil’s Advocate, and Army of Darkness. That’s not to say demons aren’t real, in fact we are all too familiar with personal and societal demons that torment us, but I have a hard time getting past the rotating heads and projectile pea green vomit.
So what are demons? In scripture they are personified forces of evil that have the power to control human behavior. If we use that definition—forces of evil that have the power to control human behavior—these evil demons, or unclean spirits, are everywhere. We can all point to them. We simply get uncomfortable with the personification, the idea that they are in bodily form.
Withthat said, our Gospel today contains an exorcism. In fact, the exorcism is the main emphasis of the Gospel lesson, smack ab in the center of our story. And to take it one step further, this exorcism is the first story of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel. This event is important. It shapes Mark’s telling of who Jesus is and what Jesus is about.
Our Gospel begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath and the people were astounded. They are astounded because a craftsman’s son wasn’t expected to speak well in public, yet here he is, speaking with authority. He’s not simply interpreting the law like the scribes, he is teaching it in a way that forms and challenges his audience. By definition, authority is the ability to control the behavior of others.
It is while Jesus is speaking that the unclean spirit 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.”
Now we have a showdown in the synagogue. Jesus versus the demon. A battle of power. A rumble of authority. Remember the definitions: unclean spirits are personified forces of evil that have the power to control human behavior and Jesus is teaching with authority—his teachings have the ability to control others. Who will prevail in the showdown to shape and influence humanity?
The demon throws the first punch by naming Jesus in public. I know that sentence sounds silly, but in that society the namer had more authority than the one who is being named. It’s a cultural convention. It all goes back to the garden of Eden in Genesis. Adam has authority over the animals as he names them all. Here the demon names our savior, Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God. But Jesus plays defense like a biblical Mr. Miyagi and stops the demon in its tracks. He rebukes it. He silences it. For evil has to place and no power here.
Remember, this is Jesus’ first act of public ministry, this act will set the tone for the entire Gospel, and this story is all about God’s power. Jesus has come to oppose the forces of evil. Jesus will defeat anything that robs the children of God of life, anything that causes destruction and division, anything that brings death. Jesus is restoring creation to God’s original intention which is why he proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
I do not know how that unclean spirit afflicted the man in the synagogue, but I do know that Jesus named evil for what it was, he silenced it, he banished it, and the man was made whole. We catch a glimpse of what Jesus will do for the whole cosmos. But we also know that evil and brokenness still lurk in our world today, as we wait for Jesus to complete what he began. Do we have the courage to name our unclean spirits, both in ourselves and in our society?
I hold in my hand a segment of PVC pipe. More specifically I hold a segment of PVC pipe that has been sawn in half. While this pipe is no longer useful for transporting water, it is useful as a marble shoot. In my time as a camp counselor this was a part of my favorite team building activity to do with groups of campers.
Here’s how it works: every camper received a piece of PVC pipe. The group also receive one marble. A few dozen yards away was their objective—a cup on the ground. Using their segments of pipe the campers had to create a pipeline to carry the marble from the starting location to the cup. They could not touch the marble with their fingers once they dropped it in the shoot. They could not roll the marble backwards. They could not walk when the marble with in their piece of pipe.
It sounds pretty simple, but in practice the entire activity looks like a giant Chinese Fire Drill as campers peel off from the front of the line to build the shoot longer. It’s like a living Jacob’s ladder. Ideally, they keep rotating over and over until they reach their objective and drop the marble in the cup. If at any point they drop the marble on the ground or break a rule, the whole group would start over at the beginning.
And that happened. It happened a lot. The activity is not designed to be easy, often times I included obstacles like stairs and picnic tables and benches, and as the group starts there is usually a ton of chaos and failure as they discover the best practices. That’s the beauty of team building and challenge courses…pressure, adversity, and obstacles are overcome by the group to create better bonds and to improve group dynamics. However, the process comes at a cost.
When you create a challenging situation, even one as arbitrary as moving a marble in a PVC shoot, the worst can come out in a group before they achieve their best. Demons emerge. They are manifest in selfish behavior, poor communication, and aggression…especially at the beginning of the activity when campers tend to yell, shout, and talk over each other. They sometimes do not get their own way. They blame and scapegoat when something goes wrong. There is a lot of conflict. Lots of little demons.
Once the group has completed the task, once the marble is in the cup, you begin the most important step. You debrief the activity. Specifically, the campers name what they completed, what went wrong, how they felt, and how they overcame their challenges. The naming of the problems is how they come together as a more cohesive group. By identifying their shortcomings they know how to spot them the rest of the week and successfully work through them.
In life we must name our problems. We must name our demons. They exist. We can either recognize them and combat them, or we can allow them to lurk, name us, control us, and destroy us. As individuals we can name the unclean spirits—the shame, self-doubts, anxieties, fears, addictions, and the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual barriers we face—or they can name us. As a society we can name the “isms” and the systemic problems of equity, justice, and truth, or they can lurk, name us, control us, and destroy us.
In our scripture we see that it is all a matter of authority. Who will control and influence our behavior? The demons that seek to destroy or the God who seeks to give life?
Through the power of Jesus we can pull through our struggles. Jesus demonstrates that change can really happen. A better world is possible. We can be whole and peace-filled disciples. For in this first act of ministry we see that Jesus has the power to oppose and cast out every force of evil that can take hold of us.
In faith, let us name the demons, for Jesus will help. Let us name the demons that we too may respond. For the Kingdom of God has come near. May it give us courage to receive and reflect Jesus’ authoritative and life-giving teaching. AMEN