Today’s demons – Jan 28, 2018
What demons haunt you? What evil spirits possess you, at least sometimes? What is it within you that fears Jesus might just destroy it?
Stories of demon possession, stories like the one we hear this morning from the Gospel of Mark, are particularly hard for us to hear. It has been the case for the many decades since modernity took hold. There are exceptions, but for the most part, we try to explain stories of possession in categories we are more familiar with or that we understand… categories like medicine or science. Or we dismiss them outright as an outdated vestige of premodern times.
The best recent description of demon possession that I’ve encountered is in Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s 2015 book Accidental Saints. It comes in a chapter titled “Frances,” after the name she gave to the evil presence in her life called depression. She writes: “… at one point in my life, my own depression had felt so present, so much like a character in my life, that it had actually felt right to go ahead and give her a name. I named my depression Frances… She finally just moved in… [but] she was a terrible roommate. She kept the place filthy and always told me devastating things about myself.” (85-6) As opposed to a relic of the past, in today’s world, Bolz-Weber wonders: “if [having a demon] is being taken over by something destructive, then possession really is less of an anachronism and more of an epidemic.” (85)
In our Gospel story today, we find ourselves in the synagogue on the Sabbath with Jesus and his first disciples: Simon and Andrew, James and John. Jesus is teaching and while the crowd is astounded at his words, the one who reacts the most is a man with an unclean spirit. This one speaks out against Jesus, crying: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Throughout the Gospels, it is always the demons, the unclean or evil spirits, who know most clearly who Jesus is. They know because Jesus is a threat to them: What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?
Nadia Bolz-Weber writes that the demons are right to be so afraid because “Jesus always has something to do with them.” She goes on: “Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them, and so they they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And those are lies that Jesus does not abide.” “Maybe my demon of anger knows to steer clear of the gospel, lest I end up forgiving some [jerk] who I really want to punch in the throat. Maybe your demon of inertia knows to avoid Jesus, lest it be cast off a cliff and you have to start showing up in life. Maybe your demon of compulsive eating knows to not listen to Jesus’s word of love, lest it find itself drowned in a lake and you clothed and fully in your body, sitting at Jesus’s feet. Maybe my demon of always, always, always having to prove myself fears Jesus since if I were to listen to Jesus and not that demon, I may start really believing that I am already good enough and then I’d have to stop overfunctioning.” (87) What demons within you fear that Jesus might just destroy them? What unclean spirit might be silenced by Jesus’ rebuke? What might happen in your life if Jesus banished the evil spirits that assail you?
In our Gospel today, Jesus exorcizes authority over an unclean spirit, silencing and banishing it. The unclean spirit doesn’t leave without a spectacle but it does leave. The story speaks to an unbelievable and yet real authority. What if that same authority were present and available to us too? Bolz-Weber is convinced that it is. She writes: “The authority to face the things that lie to us, to face the things that keep us shackled, to face the things that keep us out of control, alone, and in pain and tell them in the name of Jesus to [go away] is an authority that has been given to us all. Even babies.” (89)
She goes on to tell a story of her anger following a difficult parish meeting between the 2 services at her church. She asks a pregnant friend for prayer so she’ll be able to continue with the second service. It helped, but it was a tiny baby, only 5 weeks old, from whom she truly received healing. When she saw him during the service, she asked to hold him and did so until her anger had fully dissipated and she was fully in her right mind once more.
Unclean spirits… demons… always recognize Jesus for who he truly is, because in Jesus, evil meets its match. These forces are not, as Bolz-Weber writes, things “… human reason can put its finger on. Or that human faith can resolve.” She concludes, “I just know that demons, whether they be addictions or actual evil spirits, are not what Jesus wants for us, since basically every time he encounters them he tells them to [go away].” (88)
In just a few minutes, we will baptize little Kalinda and in doing so, we participate in God’s claiming of her as a beloved child, forever. As baptized children of God, this is true of all of us. It means that whatever evil we may encounter in our lives… whatever unclean spirits may visit us from time to time, we have access to the power of Christ to silence and banish them. Anxiety… depression… addictions… over-eating… fear… over-work… hatred of self or others… any and all striving to prove our worth… these and more are all lies of unclean spirits. Living possessed by them is not a life Jesus wants for us. Anytime Jesus encountered such demons, Jesus banished them, and the one possessed was freed to live abundantly.
This is our prayer for Kalinda today… that she may know abundant life in Christ Jesus: loved, forgiven, cherished as God’s own. As we welcome her to the family of Christ today, perhaps she will bring us the healing that only a baby can. May the power of Christ already present in her silence and banish any unclean spirits possessing us and our community. And may we be amazed at the abundance of life with which we are blessed.