He was a divided man. You could see it in his disheveled hair, his wild eyes, his fidgeting hands. He just couldn’t stop moving, correcting himself, going this direction then that trying to keep his body and his mind under some kind of control when all they wanted to do was race away just out of reach, where he couldn’t get a grasp of his own self. Sometimes it meant that he just couldn’t stop shaking, that man who was there in the synagogue. He couldn’t stop crying out, speaking at all the wrong moments, saying all the wrong things, shouting out when everyone else was composed, pulled together, perfectly…appropriate. The rest were calm and focused and attentive to the worship leader, but he was, he was, possessed.
Some people pitied him, sorry for whatever he had done to deserve this hell on earth. They looked down their noses at him, wished it would go away for his sake and for theirs, but never getting close enough to see if there was anything they could do. Everyone feared him. What held him was other-worldly. It was demonic. It was unclean. Was it contagious? Could they catch it? If they were near him would his fate jump from his life to theirs? Would they be infected? Would they be shunned the way they shunned him? Would they be relegated to a life divided, a mind divided between two wills, a body divided between two masters, a spirit divided from God?
He pitied and feared himself. He couldn’t remember a time that it wasn’t like this – so terrible, so horrific, so completely out of control. He longed for a way back to the way things used to be, knowing life wasn’t perfect, but at least it was one life, one mind, one spirit. When he could close his eyes to dream even just for a moment dreams that weren’t painted with demonic colors he could imagine his life without the spirit, even just for a moment, and it felt free. It felt light. It felt…divine.
Unclean spirits. Demons. Possession. Exorcisms.
We don’t quite know what to do with these things, do we? Maybe I should just speak for myself. I don’t quite know what to do with these things. It’s not every day conversation for me except when one of these difficult passages shows up on the preaching calendar. I knew a pastor once who claimed he could smell evil spirits when they came near, but that’s not the kind of thing you hear everyday, especially from us nice controlled, reasonable, level-headed Presbyterians. These sorts of things, these sorts of accounts feel just a bit outside of my reach, and when I come face to face with Jesus’ ministry of casting out demons I get a little squirmy, a little uncomfortable; I feel a little lost.
This report of an unclean spirit challenges my modern or post-modern sensibilities. It throws me for a loop, and then unfortunately, often, it gives us an excuse to just skip over this important act of God in Jesus – the first miracle Jesus performs in this gospel. While there must be something important here, there must be something incredible going on, it’s so foreign to my understanding it’s tempting to skip over it, ignore it, and stuff it in the back of the drawer.
Understandings of the demons in Scripture range from the literal to the symbolic. But however each of us understands the unclean spirit, there's one thing on which most of us can agree. The demon that possesses the man in the synagogue is disrupting the life God intended for him. The possession is in direct conflict with the will of God in his life. That’s what “unclean” means. Uncleanliness in the Jewish tradition was not a physical dirtiness, it was a spiritual corruption. It meant that the creation that God had made and called good had not suddenly turned bad, but that there was something that was marring it, something that was smudging it, something that was separating the good creation from the perfect Creator who had molded it. There was a layer of “ICK” between God and God’s beloved creature, and things were not as they were supposed to be.
In the case of an unclean spirit, however, you understand that, literally to metaphorically or somewhere in between or somewhere undecided, it means that something is holding onto the man before Jesus, something is vying for control of his thoughts, words, behaviors, and spirit. Something is working hard to distort the will of God, successfully it seems, and things are not as they should be in the kingdom that Jesus’ proclaims has come near. That’s a demon I can get my head around. That’s a demon I have seen and known.
I have been possessed by demons of jealousy. I have wanted what others have so badly that I have forgotten who I am and with my own thoughts and unquenchable desires have muddled and tarnished the image of God within me. I have tried too hard to be something other than what God created me to be, working against God’s impulses in my life.
I have been possessed by demons of pure anger. I have held grudges that built walls that restricted the flow of God’s love through me. They have artificially blocked my experience of God’s love flowing to me. They have held me back from reconciling. They have held me back from forgiving. They have divided my mind, body, and spirit so that as Paul says in the letter to the Romans, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Have you known these demons to possess you? Maybe your demons are other demons. Some people describe their unhealthy cravings for alcohol, drugs, or gambling as demons. Others speak of ungodly and all-consuming desires for money, for power, for prestige that contort their understanding of what God has said is important, the divinely-given vision for what leadership looks like, the Christ-like call to servanthood. Demons of deceit mar God’s will for openness and honesty. The demons we know from the inside or out threaten our relationship with God; they distort our understanding of the reality God has created, the kingdom Christ has brought near.
Going beyond the individual experience we can see demons in the world in attitudes and institutions that perpetuate racism. There are demons that possess society distorting God’s will for wholeness for all people, for abundant and healthful and grace-filled life for all of God’s creation. There are demons that we allow to divide our spirits, to compartmentalize our faith so that the church is all too silent on issues of fair wages, just working conditions, and accessible health care. There are demons that we allow to divide our witness as followers of the God who welcomed those who were cast aside, ignored, and even stoned by the rest of society. There are demons that possess our minds, convincing us that somehow someone else will take care of the poor, the lonely, the widow, the orphan, those far and those near who are enslaved by economics, enslaved by greed, even enslaved by real people not just overseas in deserts and jungles, but 20 miles down the road in the human trafficking trade and probably less than a mile down the road in our own town.
These demons are real. They are present in the world. They present among us. They are present in our lives. They have everything in common with the demon that held the man in the synagogue in that they grip us, they toss us around, they replace our impulse to live a life in close communion with God, in the realm of God, by the design of God, right here, right now. They separate us from God and from the created order as God intended it to be.
These demons are real, but they will not be tolerated. That’s what we see in the gospel according to Mark. Jesus doesn’t deny the demon’s existence. He doesn’t ignore its reality or smooth over its effects. But he also doesn’t accept that what he sees is the way it has to be. Jesus refuses to let the man live a divided life. He refuses to allow him to be held captive by anything that stands between a child and his God. He refuses to let this man’s world continue on the trajectory it is following and right there in the middle of the synagogue, surrounded by people who are watching, waiting, and wondering what he will do about this disturbance, this disruption, this denigration of God’s will and God’s creation, Jesus commands that unclean spirit to come out.
It isn’t pretty. It isn’t easy. It doesn’t come without convulsions and crying, but he does it. He sends the unclean spirit away with audacity and authority, and it works. He does the same for us. The demons that plague our lives, the demons with which we sometimes even conspire, are not a part of God’s will and desire for us. The demons in our neighborhoods and our nation are not a part of the reign of God that Jesus carries into the world, and he’s not afraid to cast them out. He does the same for us and he asks the same of us.
This is how God is on the loose. This is the One we commit to follow. It’s not safe. It’s not easy. It’s not comfortable. It’s rarely neat and tidy. It means letting Jesus cut out and throw out those things that grip us and hold us back from following him fully and completely, those things that stand between us and our God. It means taking a look at what’s right in front of us and calling the demons demons. It means, looking at those things in our lives, in our culture, in our society, in our community that hold us back from being a part of God’s kingdom of grace and welcome and justice and refusing to tolerate their existence in our midst. It means we can’t ignore hunger. It means we can’t deny the disparity between rich and poor. It means we can’t excuse corruption that holds people or corporations to different standards of decency. It means we can’t remain silent when we have gathered what we need, when we have moved on to what we want, when there are others lagging far, far behind.
This is how God is on the loose in Jesus our Christ. This is how God is on the loose in the world. So, if we really mean what we say when we say we want to follow him, if we really mean what we say when we say we want to be his disciples, then it means we have to stand up and take action. We have to be a part of the reign of God that counters everything that stands in the way of God’s grace, and love, and peace. We have to call demons “demons” and we have to be a part of casting them out, healing what divides, and letting the reign of God come pouring down. May it be so for us and for the world. May it be so.