The Holy Spirit, an unclean spirit, and the Reign of God: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B

January 29, 2012

I never know who or what I might encounter when I get the phone call from the fishbowl, the receptionist and hear the words, “there’s someone here who wants to talk to the pastor.” Well, I know a couple of things. Whoever it is, isn’t Episcopalian. And I also know that whatever their problem is, it’s likely I can’t do much to help. Usually, it’s a request for money for rent or utilities, or bus fare. Occasionally, they just want to talk, like the guy a few months ago whose lead question was something about human nature. Then there are those who have really serious problems.

In the past six months, I’ve had at least two people who came to see me because they were convinced they had been bewitched by former partners. A man complained that his ex-wife had cast a spell on him so he couldn’t begin a relationship with any woman; while a woman told me that her boyfriend had put some sort of evil substance on her and all of her clothes that was allowing the devil to possess her. In fact, she wanted me to get her new clothes that were unaffected by her boyfriend’s evil curse.

I tell you these stories, not to give you a sense of how interesting my job is—that it is, but because our tendency when we read stories of demonic possession in scripture is too approach them as fairy tales, as vestiges of vastly different, less-developed culture. We know better. People who think they are possessed by the devil or that someone has cursed them are probably mentally ill. They need medication and therapy, not exorcism.

That’s our worldview, but that’s not the world view of scripture. That’s not the worldview of the author of the gospel of Mark, who includes the presence of the demonic at the very beginning of his story of Jesus. Let me recap for you. Here’s what’s in chapter 1 of Mark. First comes John the Baptizer, preaching repentance of sins. He baptizes Jesus, who hears the voice from heaven telling him that he is God’s Son, the Beloved. Then the “spirit” drives Jesus out into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan.

After John is arrested, Jesus begins his own public ministry, and Mark makes clear that the content of his preaching is in continuity with what John had to say: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news. Next, Jesus calls his disciples, at least Peter and Andrew, James and John.

With this in mind, we come to today’s gospel, the first miracle story in the gospel of Mark. It’s doubly strange for us—miracle stories are always problematic for us in the twenty-first century. This one is especially strange, though, because it is an exorcism, Jesus’ casting a demon out of a possessed man. The fact of the matter is, what makes this story strange is neither of those things. What’s odd about this story, indeed what’s odd about almost all of Mark’s miracle stories is how they are used and interpreted.

Strange as they are, we think miracle stories are supposed to be comforting or reassuring. We often imagine that if only we saw clear evidence of a miracle, then we, and everyone else would believe in Jesus Christ. We think that on that level, Jesus’ disciples had it easier than we do. Man, Jesus performed this really cool exorcism—he’s gotta be the Son of God. But that’s not the way Mark uses this story.

The miracle, as important as it is, is used by Mark to underscore a point he has already made. Jesus enters the synagogue and begins teaching. Mark reports, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one with authority.” And after the exorcism, Mark writes, that they were all amazed and asked, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”

There is one other element in this story that deserves mention. The English translation obscures this somewhat, but three times, the Greek word immediately is repeated—in v. 21, it should read, immediately he entered the synagogue; in v. 23, just then, should read immediately, and then in v. 28, instead of “at once” we should read “immediately.” There might be aesthetic reasons for the translators’ reaching to synonyms in this passage, but in fact, immediately is one of the most common words in the gospel of Mark, and its repetition underscores the urgency with which the gospel writer is telling his story. There’s no dawdling, no wasted breath, or words, or time in this gospel. Jesus rushes from one episode to the next, and we rush with him because of the urgency of the good news that is being proclaimed.

Why the haste? Why the urgency? Because for Mark, this message is of utmost importance, the proclamation, “the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news” is itself of utmost importance. But there’s more. It’s pretty clear that as Mark constructs this first chapter, this synopsis of Jesus’ proclamation is filled out, given content by the miracles that Jesus’ performs. He heals the sick and casts out demons. You want to know what the Kingdom of God looks like? That’s what it looks like.

But still, we may wonder about this exorcism, this unclean spirit that Jesus casts out. There’s another structural element in Mark that may provide a clue to its meaning. When Jesus is baptized, Mark says that “the spirit descended on him like a dove.” There are two spirits in this chapter: The Holy Spirit that fills Jesus and empowers him for ministry, and this evil spirit that incapacitates the man in the synagogue. Two spirits, one that empowers, and one that debilitates. Two spirits, one that enables the coming of God’s reign and one that would prevent it.

In casting out the demon, Jesus spoke with authority just as he spoke with authority when he preached in the synagogue, and as he preached in the towns of Galilee. He taught with authority and introduced the Reign of God. Perhaps the most difficult thing in this passage for us to understand is not in fact the presence of a demon or spirit in someone. Perhaps the most difficult thing for us to understand is the opposite spirit, the opposing power, the power of God’s kingdom.

We are so focused on the struggles of daily life, the worries of whether we can make ends meet, or whether our kids are doing well enough in school, or indeed if we are doing well enough in school. We worry about today, tomorrow, the future. We worry about our health, the economy, the state of the world. We are caught up in the mundane matters of life in the twenty-first century. And we come to church, out of routine, but sometimes with the hope that something will break us out of this ho-hum existence.

I sometimes wonder whether the reason we find it so hard to believe in things like demons or evil spirits, is because we can’t or don’t believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, or of God. We don’t believe in God’s power to change our lives or the world. We don’t really believe in the good news of the Kingdom of God.

Maybe some of you are thinking, Well, Grieser, show me God’s power! Cast out an evil spirit, right here, right now. Then I’ll believe. But that’s precisely the wrong way to look at it. For the gospel of Mark, miracles do not create faith in Jesus Christ. Note the response Mark describes: They were astounded at his teaching, amazed by his power to cast out demons, and then, and his fame, or report, we might say word of him spread into the countryside. There’s nothing here about faith—not the faith of the one who is possessed, the faith of onlookers. There is power. That’s what miracles do, demonstrate power—and we will reading through the gospel of Mark, the power of miracles provides misleading clues to the power of God’s reign.

But still, where does that leave us? With an event that took place two thousand years ago, that may or may not be believable? Perhaps, but it also leaves us with the possibility that the important question does not have to do with the power of God, or the power of God’s reign. Rather, the important question is whether we can see and understand God’s power working in the world, God’s power working in us. In this season of Epiphany, as we reflect on God’s presence in our world, a presence made manifest in Jesus Christ, let us look for signs of God’s presence around us and in us, that we might recognize the coming of God’s reign, and dispel the gloom and darkness in the world.

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