Listen to the sermon from Sunday, January 28, 2018 titled “Unclean Spirits and Encountering Christ” by the Rev. Stephanie Cooper.
One day as a pastor sat in his study at the church, he had a call from front office that there was a man there to see him. The Office Manager said, “It’s not a church member or anyone we know, but he would like for you to bless him.”
As this sometimes happens our odd but wondrous calling, the pastor welcomed the young man into his office: A cleanly shaved and nicely dressed young man in his late twenties. The pastor invited him to sit down and began asking some questions trying to get to know the man and to find out what brought him in. The young man said that lately he has just felt like he had the devil on his back and he wanted the pastor to bless him in hopes that it would free him from the devil’s grasp.
Much like us more progressive-leaning Baptists, this Presbyterian pastor didn’t have any experience with exorcisms or anything of that nature, but could tell that’s really what the young man was seeking. So the pastor bumbled his way through some words about Presbyterians not really being in the practice of casting out demons and not having the power to heal in that way, but the young man insisted. He was convinced that something evil had a grasp on him and he wanted desperately to be blessed by a pastor.
So the pastor did what was within his training and prayed with the young man in the way he knew how. He thanked God for the gift of life, affirmed God’s continued concern for his life and prayed that God would take away this “devil” that was preventing the young man from being the kind of person God intended him to be.
After the prayer was over, the young man said, “Thanks,” and left. The pastor was honestly surprised that nothing else was requested of him. In the back of his mind he thought there must be some other reason this young man came in, but there wasn’t. He really just wanted a blessing to release him from this devil. The pastor said that he often thinks of this young man and wonders if his feeble attempt at an exorcism worked. I join this pastor in his wonder.
Our gospel lesson this morning comes from the first chapter of Mark’s gospel: The shortest of the gospels and oldest gospel record we have in our biblical canon. And today we meet Jesus in Capernaum on the Sabbath teaching in the synagogue. And as he teaches “as one with authority” he is interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit.
The Greek word here for “unclean” or “impure” is ak-a-thar-tō (ἀκαθάρτῳ) literally meaning not clean or not pure or not sacred; usually in the ritualistic sense in reference to Levitical Law.
The man interrupts Jesus and says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know you are the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebukes the Spirit saying, “Be Silent! Come out of him!” and with convulsion and a loud cry the spirit left the man and the crowd is left wondering, “What is this? A new teaching? And with authority that even the unclean spirits obey him.”
Now, these texts about possessions can sometimes trip up us modern readers as we have advances in medicine and sometimes have a difficult time dealing with Jesus’ miracles in the Bible.
Thirteen of Mark’s eighteen miracles are healing miracles and four of those have Jesus casting out some sort of demon or unclean spirit. And some have used Jesus’ healing miracles as grounds for proving that through Jesus you can overcome any sort of ailment, including mental illness. But that is a slippery slope of literalism that not only strips these stories of their rich meaning but at the same time puts the lives of real people at risk. People have been scammed and hurt at their most vulnerable time as they desperately seek answers. They are scammed by others who use the Bible for personal gain.
Others of us have an obsession with possession and could watch hours of Ghost Hunters and scary movies and totally want to know if Jesus really was coming face-to-face with real demons. While there are others in the room who would prefer to remain in the practically grounded physical world.
And some of are certain we have experienced a miracle: that strange place where the metaphysical world intersects the physical.
And we could probably sit here for hours having a rousing conversation about whether or not Jesus was exorcising demons and the nature of miracles, but I think we should heed the example of the very characters in Mark’s gospel story- the characters in this story do not focus on the probability of the realness of demons, but turn their attention to the power with which Jesus works. This is a demonstrative story, and the truth in this story filtrates beyond the literal.
The man with the unclean spirit interrupts Jesus and challenges Jesus as one who has come to destroy. I’m reminded of Plato’s allegory of the cave where from birth, people are chained in a cave and the only reality they know is within that cave. There is a fire behind them that projects shadows on the wall and the voices they hear from outside of the cave, they assume come from the shadow figures.
One day, one of the prisoners is freed and meanders around the cave to find the fire that causes the shadows. He is overwhelmed by the brightness of the fire that it temporarily blinds the man. And Plato says, suppose someone tells this man that the fire is actually real and the shadows are not. But for the man, the blinding light of the fire doesn’t feel like reality. It has skewed everything he knows, so he returns back to his chains and the shadows on the wall.
Plato’s allegory goes on to include the sun and and the the man being forced out of the cave, and if you’re a philosophy nut, we can expound upon that later. But what if you were confronted with the reality that there was a belief you had, or a way of doing things, or a reality that you lived into that was not completely truth, or for that matter, not true at all?
Can you imagine being that man possessed with the spirit? Coming face-to-face with Jesus: the way, the truth, and the life?
The saying goes that “The truth shall set you free”, but in my experience, the truth comes and smacks you in the face. You get that burning in your gut and something inside of you wants to cry out and convulse saying, “Why have you come here and what do you want? Have you come here to destroy us?”
Every one of us, at some point in our life, have harbored demons. Anger, resentment, lies, addiction. And they can be our reality, we can walk with them, and we get comfortable with how we function with them. Then, when the truth comes to stare those things in the eye, it can feel quite unsettling.
And that is this Jesus story. That we are invited to come face-to-face with truth and with the light and allow that to envelope us to exorcise our demons. And it is going to hurt. I’ve been there and sometimes it hurts like hell. And it is going to be uncomfortable but following the truth does indeed set you free.
We are all walking this healing journey. Some of us have it figured out better than others. Some of us are taking a deep look into our reality and seeing what difference we can make in our lives and in the world. Some of us aren’t quite there yet but have the inkling that there is something beyond the mundane of our lives. Some of us have fallen down on our faces this morning, back into old habits, but know the light is there and we are trying to let it inform our lives. But I tell you this: when you allow the light and the truth to transform you, you are more open and available to be a better you for those around you– your loved ones, your community. And you’re more in touch with the pulse of God in this world.
When you let your walls come down, and allow that light to flood in, that brief moment of extreme vulnerability is the place where transformation begins.
Thanks be to God.