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Mark 1:21-28 — Making sense of the Unclean Spirits

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 8:06 pm on Sunday, January 28, 2018

A sermon preached on January 28th, 2018 based upon Mark 1:21-28.

So Jesus and his first four disciples come to the town of Capernaum and on the Sabbath, they gather with the community in the synagogue.  As a visiting rabbi, Jesus is invited to teach.  People are amazed by his teaching but it doesn’t seem to be so much the particular words Jesus spoke because Mark doesn’t bother to tell us that.  Rather, they sensed the presence of the Spirit of God in him – an innate inner authority.

Suddenly there is a man – presumably just some guy who was there every Sabbath, who up to then had appeared normal enough — who begins to scream crazy stuff at Jesus.  Mark tells us that it’s not the man himself who is screaming – it’s an unclean spirit inside the man – an evil demon if you will.  Jesus sternly addresses the unclean spirit:  “Come out of him!”  The man convulses and screams, and suddenly he is calm – restored to his right mind.

What are we to make of this?

For most of us the notion of demon possession – so common in Mark, Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, but less so in other parts of the Bible – is very strange by our way of thinking – an idea long ago discarded as merely part of the superstition of primitive people.

But as I suggested last week although the human race has made incredible strides forward in all manner of realms of knowledge, the one realm in which we haven’t necessarily progressed is “soul wisdom”.  We may be smarter about many things, but often people today tend to be dumber when it comes to understanding the mystery of our souls.

Whether we take them literally or metaphorically, the language of unclean spirits calls our attention to questions we don’t usually give much thought to.  For instance, when we speak of ourselves, exactly who is this “self” of which we speak?  We assume we know ourselves – that there is a consistency to what we refer to as our “self” – but is there really?

The spiritual wisdom of Christianity says that each of us is made in the image of God – that there is an inherent goodness in all of us – a sacred value – which we often refer to as our “soul”.  But Christianity also speaks of the possibility of losing this soul – our essential selves.

Years ago I came across this story about a woman named Velma Barfield who was executed in a North Carolina Penitentiary.  At the time she was the first woman executed in 22 years in this country.   Her heinous crime was murdering four people with poison in an attempt to divert attention from some forged checks she’d written.

The article struck me so poignantly because it described a remarkable transformation that took place in Velma through meeting Jesus in prison during the time she spent awaiting execution. Many of her fellow inmates said that they didn’t know how they would have made survived life in prison if it weren’t for the support they received from Velma.  One inmate called her “a living demonstration of the grace of God.” In the words of the prison chaplain, “God reached out and touched and loved through Velma.  Lives were touched and lives were changed.”

Not surprisingly, Velma was no stranger to suffering.  She had an unhappy childhood growing up with a physically abusive father and a passive and emotionally distant mother.    Her first marriage deteriorated when Velma developed a serious back problem that led her to become addicted to pain medication.

In a letter written towards the end of her life Velma compared the accumulation of anger and frustration in her life to snow piling up on a roof, eventually causing to the house collapsing. She wrote, “How I wish I had shoveled my roof.  Instead, I drank from a bitter cup, which is Satan’s cup, and tried to drown my sorrow in a handful of pills.”

I am struck by these words.  As Velma looked back over the course of her life she could see the way evil found an entry way into her heart through the wounds she had suffered.  A point was reached where on her own she was powerless to choose right rather than wrong.  In saying this, she wasn’t absolving herself of responsibility for the evil acts she committed.  Well before she reached that point she should have “shoveled her roof” – reached out to find help in healing for her wounds. She made bad choices in regard to how she responded to her wounds – for instance, drowning her “sorrow in a handful of pills” — that allowed the evil to take possession of her.

In prison her soul – that innate goodness that had been locked up in the basement what she called her “self” emerged when she was set free through her encounter with Christ.

Velma is an extreme example of what happens to some extent in all of us.  To greater or lesser extent, unclean spirits can take possession of us as well.

It may be more of a male thing, but perhaps you’ve had an experience like mine:    I’m driving my car, feeling relatively sane when out of the blue somebody in a car behind me starts to tailgate, followed by a honk of his horn (it seems most often to be a man), or he cuts me off without the courtesy of using his turn signal.  Maybe he gives me a dirty look or a certain hand gesture.  Instantaneously a red hot anger rises up inside me which could aptly be described as “possessing” me.  I am consumed with a loathing for this person I’ve never met.

Fortunately, by the grace of God when this sort of thing happens I’ve always managed to reign in my anger enough to keep some kind of serious road rage incident from occurring.

Eventually when I calm down – when I return to myself — I realize the intensity of my response was wholly out of proportion to the slight done unto me by this stranger who doesn’t know me from Adam.

When I ask myself, “where did all my anger come from?” I can’t really provide a clear answer, but I suspect that in a similar though far less severe manner I too have wounds buried inside me from my distant past – experiences long forgotten by my conscious mind of interactions with people that left me feeling humiliated and worthless.  There’s an insecurity hidden inside me that most of the time I keep hidden away that is triggered in moments like this.  I trust that as time passes this insecurity – these wounds — are being healed as I strive to stay connected to Jesus who loves me unconditionally.

Now it isn’t that anger per se is bad or an indication we’ve strayed from our souls.  Anger against true injustice is appropriate, but somebody failing to use their turn signal doesn’t really qualify as injustice.

Anger can provide energy for taking action when action needs to be taken.  But when anger takes up permanent residence inside us – when we become our anger – that’s when we are in danger of losing our soul.

Last week I talked about Jonah, the guy who resisted God’s call to go preach to the Ninevites, the people Jonah utterly despised, leading him to spend three days in the belly of a whale. The language of “unclean spirits” is much less common in the Old Testament than in Matthew, Mark and Luke but Jonah could easily be described as having had an unclean spirit take possession of his heart. Jonah’s soul got buried under the anger, hatred and self-righteousness that has become his identity.  He has come to believe he is his hatred, and that to lose it would be to lose his very self.

The story about Jesus setting free the man with the unclean spirit reveals how radical his approach is.  The Holiness Code by which the Pharisees lived – the dominant expression of religion in those days, and still present in certain forms today – required people to avoid contact with everything that had been rendered “unclean.”  By this understanding, as soon as the unclean spirit began screaming, the man should have been cast out of the synagogue – a boundary set between him and all righteous people.

But Jesus rejected the notion of such a boundary.  Rather than move away from the man with the unclean spirit, he went towards him.  Jesus recognized that imprisoned inside that man there was something redeemable — a soul of infinite worth.  The same point is made in his parable about going in search of the one lost sheep.  Every one of God’s sheep are worthy of love even those whose behavior has rendered them truly bad company.

Only the powerful love of God can cast out the unclean spirits.  This is what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pointing out when he famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Dr. King emphasized that it couldn’t hate that motivated them in the movement against bigotry and racism. It had to be love, and this was for two reasons.

First, if the people in the movement gave themselves over to hatred, they themselves would succumb to the unclean spirit that is hatred.  They would be in danger of losing their souls.

And second, deep inside every Klansmen who was actively oppressing Black people there really was a soul imprisoned by the unclean spirit of racism. It was only by appealing to that soul with a fierce love – the love of Jesus – that they could hope to change the Klansmen.

This is a truth that unfortunately is largely missing in our prison system.  There are people who like Velma have their lives transformed in their time behind bars through the work of prison ministries and such.  But more often time spent in prison has the opposite effect.  With the focus on punishment, the wounds inside the prisoners never receive healing.  Their bondage to unclean spirits simply deepens.

It was within the life of a spiritual community – the synagogue in Capernaum – that Jesus set this poor man free from his personal demon.   I want to conclude by talking about what all this means for life lived inside a church, or in a family for that matter.

This is what we believe as Christians:  that within each of us there is a soul of infinite worth — a great capacity for goodness that makes us each worthy of love.  We also believe, however that in each of us the power of sin is at work which means we are all struggling with our own personal demons though to a large extent these unclean spirits are hidden from view.   These demons entered us through the wounds we have endured in the course of our lives.

There are a couple of things this means.  First off, there will be occasions when we will get stung by the unclean spirits with which somebody else is struggling, and there will also be times when our demons rise up to sting another. It happens, and it shouldn’t surprise us.

But the thoughtless, unkind acts we commit against one another do not define us.  When we get stung, however our temptation is judge them as though they did.  If we can hold onto our conviction that there is far more to each of us than our personal demons – that deep inside each of us there is an innate goodness – the healing that is forgiveness becomes possible.

And secondly, each of us is on a journey of healing, and it is within a community gathered in the name of Jesus that this healing can take place.  The wounds we carry around inside us limit our capacity to love, and wounds that are buried so deep they never see the light of day don’t have the opportunity to be healed.

But if we have come together in the presence of Jesus, then we can be trust one another enough to be vulnerable, acknowledging our wounds, and in doing so we can find the deep healing of our hearts we long for.

We come to church — to use the language of Velma – to shovel our roofs. We confess our brokenness, our bondage and in doing so we live into the freedom that allows us to love like Jesus.

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