Chetwynd Shared Ministry
January 28, 2018
Scripture: Mark 1:21-28
If I am being completely honest, I have to confess that stories about unclean spirits and demons are pretty close to the top of my list of bible stories that I’m not comfortable talking about. In our post-Enlightenment, scientific worldview, it’s difficult to read stories like the one we read today from Mark’s gospel and not start wondering what might have been going on in the man’s life, wonder what might have been possessing him. Did he have some sort of mental illness or addiction?
But if we start equating mental illness with demon possession that needs to be exorcised, rather than seeing mental illness as a biological condition that requires medical care just like physical illnesses do, then we risk doing great harm to many people.
And I don’t know about you, but when I think about possession by unclean spirits, my brain jumps to images from the movies, with heads spinning and bodies floating in the air, and computer-altered voices speaking.
And all of these thought spinning around my brain this week didn’t help me at all to prepare a sermon on the reading from today. I was stuck for most of the week figuring out what I could possibly have to say about a man with an unclean spirit crying out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” and Jesus responding by telling the unclean spirit to be silent and to leave the man.
It was only when I came across a quote from well-known preacher Fred Craddock that I finally had a way to see in to this story with my 21st Century worldview. Craddock wrote that “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.” It is probably safe to say that many of us don’t believe in the existence of demons of the type that we come across in books and movies; but there is still a problem of evil in the world.
This is something that we talked about last week in both bible study groups. On Monday morning, we found in the first 5 verses of the book of Ruth, a family that became refugees because of a famine, the death of the husband and sons of the family, and a widow who was left all alone. So much tragedy compressed into a short space. And then on Wednesday evening, we looked at the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and saw how quickly the perfection of God’s creation was spoiled by humans making bad choices. And it really didn’t take very much temptation for the humans to choose to disobey God. The snake said to them, “eat the fruit and you will be like God,” and the humans said, “OK.”
Even though we may not believe in demons, there is still so much evil in our world. There is evil that results from the choices that we humans make – wars and climate change and people who have been given power and authorized to have control over a button that could deploy nuclear weapons that would destroy the world that God created. The thing that I struggle with the most with this sort of evil is that the people who making the choices for evil are often not the people who are most affected by the decisions.
And then there is evil in the world that just happens – that isn’t a result of human choice. A young woman who never smoked develops lung cancer. A young man is killed in an avalanche leaving behind a young widow and a 2-year-old without a father. An earthquake triggers a tsunami and thousands of people drown. Even if we don’t believe in demons, evil is still a reality in our world.
Have you ever had someone say to you, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “Everything happens according to God’s will”? The thing is, I don’t believe that God’s will includes illness and suffering; I don’t believe that God’s will is for us to destroy one another and all of creation with wars; I don’t believe that it is God’s will for people to die of drug overdoses. So I’m not able believe that everything in this world happens according to the will of God who is love. Evil is real.
I wonder how the story from Mark’s gospel might read if it were told from the perspective of the man with an unclean spirit. We aren’t told what kind of spirit he has – only that it is unclean. It isn’t of God. It is a spirit that controls him that isn’t the Holy Spirit. There is some force or spirit that has power over this man, that is controlling this man, that doesn’t come from God.
I wonder how long this spirit had been controlling the man? I wonder what sorts of things this spirit had been making the man think or do? We know that the spirit was able to make him say things that he wouldn’t have said without the spirit. I wonder how much pain the man felt because of the impure spirit, how much loneliness and isolation?
I also can’t help but think of what some of the unclean spirits in our world are – the things that have power over us that are not of God. It is easy to name things like addiction as things that can control us that aren’t from God. But what about emotions like anger and fear. Have you ever done something out of anger that you regretted later on? Could that anger then be seen as an unclean spirit? And fear is a big one too – if we are afraid, we let the fear drive our decisions, and we are then in the power of that fear. Fear of change, fear of insecurity, fear of that which is different than us – all of these can be unclean spirits, things that control us that don’t come from God.
And then there are urges that we are subject to – the desire for power or for revenge. These can take over our lives to and control our words and our actions.
We are also living in a media-saturated culture. What do we absorb from TV or Netflix or Facebook or Twitter? How does the media have power over us and control us? Is the media acting like a spirit that doesn’t come from God?
And then, I think that maybe the least recognized unclean spirits are the voices that we carry around in our heads. The voices that tell us that we aren’t good enough, aren’t smart enough, aren’t pretty enough. This is one that I have struggled with personally. When I went back to school a couple of years ago after being away from school for 15 years, for my first semester and a half, every time I handed in a paper, there was a voice in the back of my head that said to me, “This is the paper that is going to prove that you are an academic fraud, that you don’t really belong here.” If you listen to these voices long enough, you come to believe them, and you begin to forget that you are a beloved child of God just because you are you.
So even though I can’t believe in Hollywood-style demons, I do have to admit that there are lots of unclean spirits in the world – things that have power over us that don’t come from God. Not everything in the world happens according to God’s will.
But the good news of the story is still the good news of today. God doesn’t want us to be controlled by these unclean spirits. When Jesus saw that the man was being controlled by an unclean spirit, he didn’t tell him, “I gave you that spirit so that you will learn to respect me.” No, Jesus saw that this man wasn’t able to be who God had called him to be, that he wasn’t living in to the fullness of life that God desires for each of us. Jesus tells the spirit to stop talking and to leave the man. And that is what happens. God’s power is greater than the power of the other spirits in the world.
The core of Jesus’ teaching all through Mark’s gospel, right from the very first words that he says, is that the kingdom of God has come near – it’s right at hand. It is so close that any of the powers or spirits other than God’s Holy Spirit no longer need to have the final word in our lives. The Holy Spirit is stronger than any of these.
The God who is love is not a god who sends out punishment or a god who likes to see us suffer for doing wrong or making bad choices. The God who is love is a God who is always reaching out to us in love, who is always calling us home, who is always calling us to fullness of life.
And so whatever unclean spirits might have control over our lives, I invite us to remind these spirits that God’s Spirit is stronger. That God’s love is the force that has ultimate control over our lives. I invite you to rest in God’s love until you can’t imagine any other way of being.
I want to finish by reading a story. It is the story of Max, a young boy who allows the forces of a wild rumpus control his actions, until love and a hot meal call him home again. Some of you might be familiar with it – it is called Where the Wild Things Are, and it is written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
(read Where the Wild Things Are)
God is love, and God is always calling us home from wherever we have wandered – home to the one who loves us best of all and a hot supper. Thanks be to God!
(This is a picture that says "home" to me - warmth and trust and love)
 Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, and Gene M. Tucker, Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B: A Comprehensive Commentary on the Lectionary (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1993), 92.
 Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are (New York: Harper Collins, 1963).