In today’s Gospel, we see and hear Jesus confronting an unclean spirit or what we might call a demon. While it sounds fitting in the Gospels, but it sounds odd in the culture. This is the kind of stuff of horror movies. For the most part, our culture has no interest in spirits unless they are haunting a house, possessing a teenager, or providing some fearful thrill.
The first church I served at took demons seriously. Every week you could hear a story of someone battling a dark power. Around that time, a series of novels appeared about people and angels battling the dark hoards of hell. We consumed those books. There was a radio show host back then who was fascinated in deliverance ministry, and once he claimed he was talking with the demons possessing a girl on the air. This was a time of high drama.
We prayed for a woman who had visited the church, and she wanted some people pray over her house. I couldn’t go, but one of my friends went. He came back and said sparks where jumping from her walls when he prayed. More than once, I would show up at a group and someone would say, “Doug, you just missed it. This guy was rolling around in the floor manifesting demons.” I always seemed to arrive just a few minutes after the big events.
Those colorful memories occupy the landscape of my imagination as I reflect on the encounters with the evil one. We’re familiar with the story of the temptation. Jesus goes out to the wilderness and faces the Satan and the wild beasts, and the angels minister to him. Just like a haunted house or a creepy old asylum, I would expect dark forces to be at work in the wilderness.
In today’s reading, Jesus enters the synagogue. The synagogue was probably something like part community center and part worshipping center. The people have gathered on a a Sabbath, to worship, pray, and reflect on the Torah. So let’s get the whole picture. Jesus is in the Holy Land, on a Holy Day, worshipping with God’s Holy People and studying God’s Holy Word when an unclean spirit appears. There is something wrong with this picture: an unholy spirit in a holy place. This isn’t the only place in the Gospels where the unholy or unclean shows up in the middle of the holy.
Jesus enters the Temple, the most Holy Place in Israel, with a whip and drives out the money changers. Jesus says that the Pharisees, the teachers of the Holy Word, are making disciples of hell. The priests and scribes conspiring to kill Jesus.
This story is telling us that there is something wrong in the Holy Land. All those who are supposed to be serving God as a holy priesthood appear to be slaves of the Evil One. In fact, at one point Jesus suggests the scribes and Pharisees are children of the devil. This is like a horror story or a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. Everybody that is supposed to be holy is in league with the evil one.
The Gospel peels back the veneer of this culture and reveals that the Holy Land and the Holy People are unclean. It makes me think of Isaiah who reveals that the righteousness of the people is really filthy rags. The Holy People and the Holy Land are unclean and judgment is at hand.
In Mark 1:39, we are told that, “He went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.” He teaches, he heals, and he casts out demons. He has come as the conquering King. Not to overthrow Rome, but to overthrow the power behind Rome. He passes judgment on Satan and his forces who have corrupted the hearts of humanity on individual and societal levels.
The dramatic battle of Good and Evil as pictured in the movies is not happening. Evil cannot stand before Him. The King is bringing all things in subjection to Himself. Our Psalm this week is Psalm 111, but in many ways we are hearing Psalm 110.
1 The Lord says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
2 The Lord sends forth from Zion
your mighty scepter.
Rule in the midst of your enemies!
3 Your people will offer themselves freely
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours.
4 The Lord has sworn
and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
after the order of Melchizedek.”
5 The Lord is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
6 He will execute judgment among the nations,
filling them with corpses;
he will shatter chiefs
over the wide earth.
7 He will drink from the brook by the way;
therefore he will lift up his head.
The most quoted verse from the Old Testament in the New Testament is Psalm 110:1:
The Lord says to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”
In dying and rising, Jesus passes judgment on all powers and principalities. Even death will die.
This defeat of evil is part of the Kingdom Come. Exorcism grows out of His teaching. In Mark 1:22, we see, that they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes (Mk 1:22). In our Old Testament reading today, Moses tells the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” (Dt 18:15).
Various prophets come to Israel over the centuries with the Word of the Lord in their mouth. But now The Prophet, Jesus has come. He is the Word at the foundation of all things, and He will be the Word at the restoration of all things. When he speaks, the waves and wind submit, the demons shudder and obey, and the people hear resounding authority of God reverberating through Him.
Jesus is bringing the world in subjection though His Word and deed. He proclaims the Kingdom of God is at hand, teaches the Scriptures, and then casts out demons and heals the sick. Teaching and exorcism seemed to go hand in hand. The strongholds of thought from the culture at large were challenged by Gospel teaching. The people were being reshaped in submission to the Word. Through teaching, fasting and prayer, the people were led through a time of exorcism or deliverance from the powers of darkness that had shaped their thoughts and behaviors. Baptism was a culminating moment and renouncing evil even as the people were welcomed into the new family through the death and birth waters of baptism.
In the early church, exorcism became a part of the liturgy. The person wanting to be baptized would be instructed in the Gospel (and this could last up to three years). At baptism, the Bishop or an exorcist designated by the Bishop would anoint the person for healing and deliverance. To this day, our baptismal liturgy contains a direct renunciation of the Evil One.
The proclaimed Gospel brings hope to those in darkness, but it is also a word of judgment upon the evil one. When the Gospel comes to a person or a culture, there is often an intense resistance through persecution, danger, and even martyrdom. The forces of evil are being defeated by the proclaimed Word. Though evil may flare up and people may even die, it has no power agains the Gospel of the King. The people of God are not the defeated. They have been caught up the conquering love of Christ. While most of us may not experience the same type of persecution, we will at time feel the attack of evil one in fear, anxiety, sometimes sickness, anger or even violence.
When a priest crosses us or when we cross ourselves, this is a physical way of rehearsing or remembering the work of Christ in redeeming us from the power of darkness. When we cross ourselves and dip our fingers in the baptismal font and cross ourselves, we remember our baptism and deliverance from the kingdom of darkness. This is not simply a mental remembrance, it is an active rehearsal of our redemption by God’s grace from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.
This is not our battle. We don’t have to think of tricks to battle the Evil One. Jesus is the King, is the Lover of my soul, and the deliverer of my life. We are reassured in multiple places that his love is sufficient for all that we might face in this life:
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Ro 8:38–39.
He who has called is faithful. The great battle we face is usually not sparks flying off the walls or zombies coming to eat us. Rather, it is to grow weary in well doing, to lose heart, to let our love grow cold, to yield to the bitter root. Ephesians reminds us that our strength is in the Lord. He is my armor and my righteousness. Peter reminds us that while we do face the threats and struggles and even persecutions from the Evil One, we find our safety in God’s faithfulness.
Instead of giving us techniques of spiritual combat, he calls us to humility and faith, trusting that God cares for us, that we are not alone, and that He will restore us in due time:
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. 8 Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. 9 Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. 10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Pe 5:6–11.
There will be times when we must press into this verse and pray it and cry out and find rest in it. But I know as many of you know these times of darkness do not last, the clouds, and we find peace in God’s love afresh.