Preached via Zoom for All Saints, King City, on the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany, Sunday, 31 January, 2021. Readings for this Sunday: Deuteronomy 18.15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8.1-13, Mark 1.21-28
“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” (Mk 1.24).
Today’s gospel reading invites us to ask Jesus to free us from the dark things that burden and oppress us.
If there is any category of Jesus’ miracles that makes us uncomfortable, I suspect that it is his exorcisms. We can make what we will of the seven times in the gospels that Jesus miraculously feeds crowds of people, or the times he shows command of nature such as stilling the storm or walking on water. We can accept that Jesus somehow suspends physical laws, or we can question them because naturalism is so deeply ingrained in us as dwellers in the post-Enlightenment disenchanted world. The exorcisms seem like something different.
The exorcisms, as in today’s gospel reading from Mark when Jesus confronts forces that are clearly named as spiritual beings, bring us face to face with a struggle between Jesus and hostile, invisible powers. That struggle was very real to three of the four evangelists (St. John does not mention any exorcisms) and to St. Paul. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6.12).
So what do we as educated, western Christians in the 21st century make of that passage from Ephesians, and how can we understand today’s gospel reading? Do we want to see our walk with God as part of a cosmic struggle between God and evil? While some Christian denominations are very comfortable speaking about spiritual warfare, we Anglicans tend to shy away from this sort of language. We tend to look for naturalistic expressions to explain the kinds of demonic possessions that we hear of today. I am sure that you have heard sermons about Jesus’ exorcisms that run along the following lines: psychology as a science didn’t exist in the ancient world, conditions such as schizophrenia were understood in terms of demonic possession, and by curing such people, Jesus shows his inclusiveness and love by freeing the mentally ill of their stigma and returning them to the community.
I am writing this sermon just after Bell Canada’s Let’s Talk Day, a national campaign with a focus on mental health. As a pastor and a former army chaplain, I’ve helped people struggling with mental illness and have done my best to refer them to counselors, psychologists, and doctors. One of the first steps in persuading people to seek help is to overcome the stigma of mental illness. Nobody wants to be labelled as crazy. As with the man in today’s gospel, there is something unclean, about mental illness in our society.
I also know something about the complexity of brain chemistry and how a wide variety of treatments, from cognitive behaviour therapy to pharmacological treatments, can restore people to health and happiness. However, as a pastor, I realize that mental health and wholeness have a spiritual dimension. Spiritual possession is a thing and it exists in many forms, even if we have trouble recognizing it. I’ve seen veterans drawn slowly to suicide, despite having loving families and bright futures. Some dark force gets into their mind and soul and pulls them down.
Likewise I’ve seen people struggle with addiction. While the approach of groups like AA to focus them on a higher power is helpful, it can be difficult for those who have never known God or who have lost their faith to believe in the existence of a higher power. In such conversations, I like to point out that if something like alcohol has become a hostile power that controls and ruins your life, then why would you not believe in a higher power? If we implicitly accept the existence of unclean things – alcohol, pornography, chronic rage, racism – that can possess us, then why would we refuse to accept the existence of a power that can make us whole and one with the God who created us? Why wouldn’t we want that?
With this framework in mind, let’s return to the confrontation between Jesus and the possessed man in the synagogue. What’s going on there and who can we understand it? Mark tells us that the force possessing the man is a “spirit”. The Greek word he uses, pneuma, is the same word he uses to describe the spirit that descends on Jesus at his baptism (Mk 1.10). In Mark a spirit can either be with God or against God. While the Spirit at Jesus’ baptism comes down from God like a dove, a symbol of purity, this spirit is described as being “unclean” and the word used, akathartos, is the word used to describe things that defile a person according to Jewish law (eg, Acts 11.8). So whatever the spirit is inside this man, it has literally polluted him, it is something toxic and foul that has invaded him. Even in the synagogue, on the holiest day of the week, the Sabbath, this man is possessed and set apart from the people of God.
Now let’s look at another spiritual possession that Mark has just described a few lines earlier. “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mk 1.10). It may seem odd to think of baptism as a possession, but what is it really but a sacrament by which shows that we belong to God? As I said a few weeks ago, baptism allows each one of us to be declared God’s beloved son or daughter? Having the spirit of God, the spirit that Jesus promises, confirms and sustains our identity as a child of God. Baptism is as much about wholeness as it is about holiness, it is about defining the person that God created us to be: social, just, loving, wise, curious, and fully alive.
In baptism, we ask the parents and sponsors to “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” (BAS 154). The baptismal liturgy does not name these evil powers – it is enough to acknowledge them – but it does recognize their existence and it reminds is that these powers exist to alienate us from God and bring us under their influence, marring and disfiguring the image of God within us that we were created to bear. Baptism also reminds us that through Jesus, God has “overcome sin and brought us to yourself”. Through Christ the evil spirits have been and will be defeated and rendered powerless. When the Spirit \in tbe man speaks to Jesus “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk 1.24), I imagine it as a howling wail of despair. The spirit knows Jesus and knows it is beaten. Mark includes this story to give us hope in the power of Jesus, who confronts and crushes the evil powers opposed to God.The evil powers are routed but like the remnants of a defeated army, they are still dangerous. They still have ways of ambushing and attacking the people of God. They can wear us down in many different and addictive ways. If you still feel that you are bondage to one of these unclean spirits, there are many forms of help that you can turn to – medical, psychological, addiction counselling, therapies – but always remember that spiritual help should be part of your recourse. Spiritual help comes only from Jesus. The evil spirits that seek to oppress us known him and fear him. Jesus stands ready to free us. Through the sacrament of reconciliation and absolution, through the prayers and encouragement of the faithful, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can find your way back to the God who has always known each of us for who you are.