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January 31, 2021
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Grace to you and peace from God, our Creator, and from our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last Sunday, I gave a quick rundown of everything that had happened in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel up to that point – it was a lot. And today, we’re still in chapter 1. Last week, we heard about Jesus’ first act of public ministry in Mark’s gospel – which was to proclaim the immanent reign of God and invite people to see the world differently.
This week, we hear about his first miracle, which was an exorcism.
When we read about demons in the Bible and hold those stories together with how we understand the world today, it’s tempting to want to explain them away as something else and distance ourselves from them. And in some cases, they probably can be explained away as something else. But not always. Sometimes they hit really close to home.
We don’t know what the “spirit” in today’s gospel story actually was. Whatever it was, though, it was malevolent – it was evil. It ravaged the poor man whose body and mind it possessed. According to Mark, the man was not his own person.
He had no voice of his own and no control over his body. He was isolated from his community and was dehumanized. The Spirit had completely overtaken him.
And that spirit recognized who Jesus was. Even before the people did.
And when Jesus confronted it, he didn’t say, “Go away” and brush it aside. Jesus stepped directly into the pain and ugliness at the heart of this story. He didn’t flinch or try to keep his hands clean. He was in the fear, the sickness, the nightmare – ready to deal with anything that diminished the lives of the people he loved.
And to do that right at the beginning of his ministry embodied what he’d proclaimed earlier about his mission. That the reign of God had come near. And what that tells us is that wherever pain and torment are, God is.
Through this miracle, Jesus showed that the battle he came to fight wasn’t against some imaginary fabrication of evil. He came to fight the stuff that’s beyond people’s control. The things we can’t fight on our own.
Even if you don’t believe in actual exorcisms, Jesus freed the person in today’s story from something holding him in bondage. If we think about it, we all know someone who has been in that type of situation – and maybe even we ourselves have been in it at one time.
We all know what it’s like to encounter forces too powerful for us to defeat on our own. We know what it’s like to have these “unclean spirits” rob us of life, or our loved ones, or our community.
Today’s gospel speaks the truth about those things and about where Jesus is when we’re dealing with them – and the truth is that he’s right there in it with us, fighting for us.
In Phoenix, in the summer, there are heat respite centers set up in various locations in the city. They’re places for people to go to escape the heat during the day, because dying of heat exposure happens there. Usually the people who come to those sites are experiencing homelessness, or they either don’t have air-conditioning or can’t afford to run it during the day.
The Lutheran church in downtown Phoenix is one of those sites. And one year, they had a program called “Chaplain of the Day” in which area pastors were on-site to talk with people and offer spiritual care if it was needed. And I participated in that. On one of the days I was there, I was chatting with the lead volunteer after she announced that I was available if people needed to talk.
As she and I chatted, a man came up and said, “Pastor? I’m possessed by demons.” And I said, “Okay. Let’s go have a seat and we’ll talk.” Because if it’s real for him, then it’s real.
After listening for a bit, I asked if he could name the demons that were possessing him. And he said, “Oh sure! Anger, jealousy, hatred, addiction….” And I said, “Yeah. Those are real things, aren’t they?”
We talked some more, and then I prayed with him. I have no idea if he was released from his demons that day or not. But I left that conversation with the assurance that demons and the grip they have on our lives are real.
We know what they are. The man I talked with that day named some of them. But there’s also racism. Homophobia. Transphobia. Perfectionism. Compulsive behavior. Individualism. The desire for power. The desire to be right all the time. Rage. Greed. The list goes on and there are too many to name.
And what one person might call a demon might sound ridiculous to someone else. But that doesn’t make it any less real or less painful or less destructive.
When we think about these demons and what they do to us, it’s clear that they don’t only affect one person. They show up in churches, friendships, families, and workplaces and affect everyone in their wake. So when Jesus fights them, he doesn’t only heal the individual he also heals the community. And he works through us, his followers, as he does it.
Think of the people today who call out the evils of racism, or discrimination against women or immigrants or people in the LGBTQ+ community. Think of the people who advocate for affordable housing and livable wages. And the ones who work to develop and implement sustainable alternative sources for fuel, energy, and agriculture.
Now think of the people who push back against each of those things. The ones who fight to keep the existing power structures in place. Who work to instill a sense of fear over any changes that might happen – no matter how beneficial they might be for everyone in the long run. Who get louder the more people push for a change in the status quo.
Unclean spirits fight the hardest when their time is up. But Jesus is right there fighting, too – and he never stops fighting for us.
Jesus fights these unclean spirits because the reign of God has come near and it’s time to see things in a new way. He fights these unclean spirits to save us from ourselves – so that we can live in a world that is equitable for everyone. He fights these unclean spirits because he loves us.
The powers-that-be in our society tell us that everything is fine just the way it is. But it isn’t fine for everyone. We know that. We know our society well enough to know what’s wrong, to know that things do need to change for everyone’s sake.
That’s what Jesus fights for. He fights for life that thrives here and now. And as he does, the possibilities of what God’s reign brings to us become visible, and we begin to see things differently and live in a new way. Thanks be to God. Amen.