Greensboro United Church of Christ
January 28, 2018
Rev. Dr. Ed Sunday-Winters
What are we to make of this story about Jesus casting out demons. In first century Mediterranean culture, everything has a spiritual explanation. There is no scientific method. There is no understanding of cause and effect. If one is sick or suffering from disease, some troubling divine being or angry demon has caused it. Any Modern knowledge about disease, infection, or mental illness is a still in the distant future. In the hope of a cure, sacrifices are offered to the gods and rituals are performed to keep away the demons. Ailments and misfortunes come from the realm of the spirit. Therefore, the sensible thing to do is to look for relief in the same realm. That is how the first century world works.
What would it be like for those ancients to walk into a 21st century drug store or visit a doctor’s office? How would they respond to a ride in ambulance that resulted in an admission to one of our hospitals? Medicine has made significant progress since the first century. We have laboratories and tests. There are devices that can look inside of our bodies and tell medical school graduates exactly what is causing our discomfort. We have treatments and therapies that are the result of rigorous scientific research. Science enables us not only to explain our illness, but in many cases, do something to cure it.
We have made so many advances in our understanding of the world and how it works. Many wonder if we still need God. Maybe we wonder that ourselves sometime. Given enough time, is there any question that science will not be able to answer? Why bother with God at all? Just as the ancients could not make sense of their world without demons and spiritual beings, we are, at times, all to ready to make sense of our world without God. There is error in both directions. None of us would want to live in a world without the benefits of modern medicine and other scientific advances. At the same time, we recognize that the human experience is intertwined with a truth that cannot be measured or tested in a laboratory, that does not fit into the formulas and categories of science. Even in the 21st century, there is still mystery.
Therefore, as modern readers of a story about Jesus casting out demons, how do we make sense of it? Maybe we don’t make sense of it. Maybe we just skip it. The whole notion of demons and spiritual beings is just a bit much for us, so we move on to the next story. If do decide to give it a go, we start asking questions. Did this really happen? What was really wrong with this man? Was it a demon or was it a disease? We end up reading two thousand years of learning into a story that has no way of knowing all that we know. Disappointed that we cannot make it fit into our worldview, we move on to the next story.
A good question for us to ask when we encounter a miracle story in scripture is why here and why now? Why does Mark place this story at the very beginning of his account of the life and ministry of Jesus? Is it to tell something about God? Is it to tell us something about Jesus Christ? Is it to tell us something about how Jesus is continuing the Hebrew prophetic tradition? Is it to teach us something about what it means to be a follower of Christ? Is it to help us hear the magnitude of Jesus message? The Gospel writers use miracle stories for all these reasons.
In our text today, I believe Mark wants us to hear the power of Jesus’ message. In the face of a world where cruelty and suffering seemingly have no boundaries, “Be silent, and come out of him, of her, of them and of us!”
Jesus enters the synagogue and begins to teach. He does so with authority, an authority different than that of the scribes, presumably greater than that of the scribes. That is the feedback from the crowd who have heard him. Then a man with and unclean spirit speaks. For one who is introduced as not being in possession of all his faculties, he gives us two important pieces of information. First, he recognizes that Jesus is not just a good teacher, but the holy one of God. Second, he recognizes Jesus as a threat. He wants to know, “have you come to destroy us?” On whose behalf is this demon speaking? Who is the “us” in that inquiry? Could it be the demon referring to itself and the man it possesses as a pair? Could it be a reference to the whole crowd? Who knows, maybe the demon has a mouse in his pocket.
Those might be the obvious options to answer our question. However, there is another one hidden there in plain sight. Who possesses this crowd? Where are they gathered? In the Synagogue. That is the domain of the scribes. They benefit the most from maintaining things as they are. They have the most to lose from a reordering of things, from a new movement of God. In their minds, God has said all God is ever going to stay. Something new, someone like Jesus, only serves to diminish their power to control the population and to benefit from that control.
As Jesus says to the unclean spirit, so he also says to the scribes, “be silent, and come out.” Stop defining reality for these people. Stop telling who they are and what they can be. Stop telling them what they must endure and who they must obey. Most of all, stop telling them this is just the way things are, they have always been this way and they always will. Perhaps Jesus sees clearly that the scribes work daily to posses those in the crowd just as the unclean spirit posses the man in our story.
Maybe Mark places this story right up front at the beginning of his gospel to put the powers and principalities of this present darkness on notice. Jesus is here and he is here to free us from that which posses us, grips us, hold us back, holds us down and keeps us from living freely and fully as children of God. Jesus is coming into the world not simply to set God’s creation free from the power of sin and death, but also from sinful and deadly people. “Be silent and come out” is the nice way Mark wrote it, but it could be that “Shut up and get out” better expresses the passion and commitment that Jesus was feeling at the beginning of his ministry.
Between Jesus casting them out and modern science giving us better explanations for them, one would think that we would be rid of demons by now. Unfortunately, there are still episodes that defy explanation. There too many episodes and events in our world today for which demonic is as good of an explanation as any other.
How is it that one man, Larry Nasser, team doctor for USA Gymnastics, is able to sexually abuse 156 girls and young women over a span of 20 years without one responsible adult saying “No” or “Stop” or “This is not right?” How is it that in our country one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old?
How is it that there have already been 11 school shootings in our country this year? How is it that the 2nd Amendment to our constitution has become a protection for the rights of every disturbed, demented and hateful person who decides to load a gun and start shooting children?
Why do we have this seemingly never-ending need to hate some group of people? This week it is the Dreamers, they are children of those who came into our country illegally. If it were not them, it would be Muslims or people of middle eastern decent. At other times in our countries history, it has been the Irish, the Italians, the Germans. Of course, during WW II, Japanese-Americans bore the brunt of our scorn. We have even hated the people whose land we now occupy. There always seems to be some group for us to hate, some group for us to fear.
In short, there are still times and places where “Be silent, come out” needs to be spoken. There are times and places where we need to speak. There are people and situations for whom our silent support will not enough. We will need to speak if God is going to get what God wants.
At this point, we may start to hear our own demons. What do we have to say? Who would listen to us? We are so small? Someone younger should do that? Demons are nothing if not frustratingly creative in the ways they convince us that we are less than what is needed in this moment. God is just the opposite. When God looks at us, God always sees beloved children capable doing incredibly good and wonderful things in the world.
If you saw this week’s episode of “This is us” you saw Kate as senior in high school recording herself singing. She wants to study music and one of the colleges she has applied to has requested a tape of her singing. Her dad offered to do a video tape, but Kate adamantly refused the offer. Kate, like many of us, struggles with her body image. She looks at herself and she does not like what she sees.
While Kate is sitting in front of a mirror singing into a microphone that is attached to her cassette recorder, her dad appears in the doorway to her room with his video camera. Her eyes are closed while she sings otherwise she would see her dad in the mirror standing in the doorway to her room. When she does open her eyes, she screams angrily at her father. Stop, I told you not to do that. Her Dad tries to tell how good she sounds and how beautiful she is. He wants Kate to see herself the way he sees her, but Kate will hear none of it.
Later, she explains to her dad that when she was little she liked it when he would tell her how special she was and how beautiful she was. It is different now for her as young woman. Now, when he says the kinds of things a loving father is supposed to say it just hurts and makes her feel even worse. She tells him to stop trying to get her to see herself the way he sees her.
Back in her room, she puts the recording her dad made into the VCR. As the tape is playing, she sees her dad’s reflection in the mirror. Noticeably, she stops watching herself sing and starts watching her dad watching her sing. She notices the smile her singing brings to his face. She notices the pride and the pleasure in his eyes as he watches her sing. Slowly, she sees that he really does see her in a way that others do not.
Toward the end of the episode, she tells her father, “Don’t ever stop, don’t ever stop trying to make me see myself the way you see me.
The God who spoke long ago through his son, Jesus Christ, saying “Be Silent, come out” still speaks liberation, release and wholeness over each of us as only a loving parent can. We will not be left to have our lives defined by our fears and our failures, our regrets and our retreats or by our embarrassments and indignities. God will never stop trying get us to see ourselves and each other as God sees all of us. No demon, real or imagined, can withstand God’s eternally persistent “Be Silent, come out — of her, of him, of them and of us.” Amen.