Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
We’re only twenty verses into the first chapter of Mark. Jesus is already collecting disciples and casting out demons. He collects neither in places you’d expect. He finds disciples from the hard-scrabble, unrefined, unlearned shores of the Sea of Galilee. He cast out demons from inside the synagogue. In the sanctuary. In the middle of worship. It makes you wonder. Could Jesus find a disciple in you? What would Jesus cast out from among us?
Scripture says the people were astounded. Literally, Jesus blew their minds. Their come-to-Jesus-meeting aroused curiosity. For some it set their lives on a new course. For others Jesus provoked fear and defensiveness.
The man with an unclean spirit asked, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (Mark 1:24). We have the same question. I suppose this is the question we ask ourselves every time we open the bible. It’s the central question of every sermon you’ve ever heard. Yet, what in the world do unclean spirits, demons, and an exorcism have to do with us? Modern people are less astounded and more likely befuddled. Plenty of people today claim to speak in God’s name, and to know what God is thinking. They all point to the same bible. ‘How can we know when a message has or has not been spoken by the Lord?’ (Deuteronomy 18:21).
The bible itself offers some answers. Deuteronomy, chapter 18, suggests two ways to test the spirits. We knock on wood to determine whether its solid or rings hallow. False preachers, prophets, and religious spokespersons fail the “presumptuous test” (18:20, 22). A true prophet is careful, guarded, discreet, humble to a fault, whereas a false prophet will claim special authority and attention solely to themselves. And second, you can always spot a false prophet because false prophets leave a trail behind them of hurt and damaged people. Their “detestable practices” give them away (18:9, 12). They are like ravenous wolves who come to you in sheep’s clothing. “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-20).
As Paul told the Corinthians, claims of divine knowledge are authenticated with concrete deeds of love: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Early Christians made a name for themselves by caring for widows and orphans—in other words—they cared for the people no one else cared for. Mark’s gospel said that people were “amazed” at Jesus’s “authority” and his “new teaching” in stark contrast to the religious leaders of the day. Jesus demonstrated that “authority” in fostering human wholeness by healing the man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21–28).
To hear the voice of our still-speaking God we must test the spirits. False religion is characterized by presumption, degradation, dehumanization, and detestable practices. True religion is marked by circumspection and compassion and fosters human health and wholeness. To hear what God demands of us we must distinguish between the signal and the noise. We must test the spirits. (Daniel Clendenin, “Test the Spirits,” Journey with Jesus 1/24/24) We must be ready to engage in spiritual warfare with the Devil and his empty promises.
Wait, what? We cannot just ignore the man with the unclean spirit in our gospel and walk away thinking we have understood its lesson. We modern people let the Devil off the hook when we think unclean spirits must be supernatural—in other words—that they don’t exist, or that they don’t happen, or that they are not a real part of our everyday lives.
Scripture calls Satan the accuser, the adversary, and the anti-Jesus (or anti-Christ). Rather than a scary, pitchfork wielding man with horns, the Devil in scripture is the name given to whatever is working in us and among us against the kingdom of God. Satan is that unseen, impersonal force, operating in the world perpetually pulling us into shadow in ways we don’t even notice or challenge. For example, we take it as gospel the economy must grow even if means the planet will die. Or we believe our privileged is earned and the suffering of others is their own fault. That’s just the way it is. Scripture warns, Satan is seductive. The Devil appears to us as an Angel of Light. That’s what Lucifer means, after all. Lucifer means Angel of Light.
There was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit. Some scholars say he had mental illness, or a medical condition like epilepsy. Others insist on it being an actual demon — a malevolent spiritual being that ensnares human souls. Others argue that it could be anything that might “possess” or “control” us — anger, fear, lust, greed, hatred, envy, etc. I don’t know which one of these explanations is true, and I don’t think it matters.
What is clear is that Jesus demonstrates his authority by caring about the man—and not whatever it is that afflicts him. Whatever the spirit was it utterly ravaged the poor man whose body and mind it possessed. The man had no voice of his own — the spirit spoke for him. The man had no control over his body — the spirit convulsed him. The man had no community — the spirit isolated him. And the man had no dignity — the spirit dehumanized him.
“Granted, this picture of “possession” is extreme. But all of us suffer (or have suffered) under the bondage of “spirits” that diminish, distort, and wound us. All of us know (or have known) what it’s like to lose agency, mobility, and dignity to forces too powerful for us to defeat on our own.” (Debi Thomas, “Astounded,” Journey with Jesus, 1/24/21)
“Sometimes our “unclean spirits” take up residence in our holy places. That is, we carry our destructive habits and tendencies right into our churches, our friendships, our families, and our workplaces. Sometimes our demons — our fears, our addictions, our sins, and our compulsions — recognize Jesus first because they know that an encounter with him will change everything.” (Thomas)
Notice, Jesus didn’t use his authority to self-aggrandize or to accrue power. He used it only to heal, to free, to serve, and to empower those around him. Second, “…Jesus stepped directly into the pain, rage, ugliness, and horror at the heart of this story. He wasn’t squeamish. He didn’t flinch. His brand of holiness didn’t require him to keep his hands clean. He was in the fear, in the sickness, in the nightmare, ready to engage anything that diminished the lives of those he loved.” (Thomas)
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Is it not to speak the truth in love? Insofar as our way of life dehumanizes life, Jesus will always challenge and defy it. As members of the body of Christ, and by his authority of Christ, see, you have power to heal and to be healed. It is power even to cast out demons. In the strong name of Jesus. Amen.