Sermon January 28 2024 Begone! Mark 1:21-28 Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever had one of those weeks where it just seems like everything is a battle? I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the metaphorical militaristic language in the spiritual teachings of the Bible, but I do get why they’re there. Because sometimes we have one of those weeks where it just seems like everything is a battle, and apparently that’s been the case for people for lo these many millennia.
Like, people in the Bible are forever “girding their loins” to ready themselves for… whatever. Which all that means is basically securing all their bits and pieces so they’ll be marginally less vulnerable when they go in for the fight.
And the Apostle Paul famously construed in his letter to the Ephesians a whole matrix of spiritual equipment he called The Whole Armour of God – the breastplate of righteousness, the belt of truth, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation – strap them all on, head down, forward march. To do battle with… whatever.
Because sometimes it feels like everything is a battle with… whatever. Ice and snow. Bureaucracy. Shoelaces. The military industrial complex. I regularly ask pieces of furniture in my house whether it’s actually necessary for them to be in my way and cause me to smack into them when I really just want to get out the door. Because I’m late. Again.
We do battle. Metaphorically… for the most part. Sometimes it’s like we’re having one of those weeks.
As I did, in an extremely trivial way, with this reading from Mark’s gospel that Beverly read for us just now. This story of Jesus’ very first venturing out with his disciples in Capernaum, the town on the Sea of Galilee to which he relocates after being chased out of his hometown of Nazareth.
It’s a nice little fishing town, and it’s the day of Sabbath and so off they all go to the synagogue and Jesus begins to teach. Which is not in the least weird, by the way – it’s quite usual for different ones to get up and read from the Bible and then comment or teach about it, in the Rabbinical Jewish tradition –
And so up he gets and everyone’s terribly impressed with him and the authority with which he teaches –
And then a man comes into the synagogue who’s “possessed by an unclean spirit”, as Mark puts it. Which, we never quite know what that’s supposed to mean, when that phrase is used in the Bible, but it’s usually assumed to mean either that someone’s beset by a neurophysical illness like epilepsy that causes seizures at random, or that they’re beset by a mental illness or condition that manifests in outbursts or delusions or self-harm or even violence.
What it generally amounts to is that there’s something “in” them, “possessing” them, that makes them unpredictable. It can’t be controlled, so they’re ungovernable. And that means they could at any moment become dangerous – so they need to be kept apart.
That’s what the “unclean” bit means. “Clean” means basically “fit for community”. “Unclean” means not, and therefore ostracism, isolation, and please stay away.
The moment the man with the unclean spirit entered the synagogue, in fact, there’d have been red alerts going up in every direction. People keeping an eye on him, and ready to pounce. And chuck him out.
But in fact, they don’t get the chance. Because as soon as the man enters, the “unclean spirit” inside him immediately starts shouting at Jesus. The implication is of course that the unclean spirit RECOGNIZES Jesus’ holiness right away, and so gets reactive.
In response to which, Jesus simply rebukes the spirit in a very firm voice saying “BE SILENT, and come out of this man.” And with some rather dramatic convulsing and shrieking, the spirit does. And apparently just disappears.
There’s another Bible story about Jesus rebuking unclean spirits out of a man, and they ask to instead get put in a herd of swine, and then all the swine barrel down a hill and drown themselves in a lake – but in this case, the unclean spirit apparently just leaves. Which is at least somewhat more rationally accessible to us, in the scientific age, when we know quite well that the various illnesses theoretically identified in the Bible as “unclean spirits” aren’t actually little creatures that can move from body to body. Even if metaphorically we can concede the notion of it might feel like one is “possessed”.
The point is, Jesus has healed this man of his affliction. His “possession” by this unclean spirit. Jesus rebuked it and it’s gone.
Which is great. And also infuriating, like all the other healing miracles. Because at once, hooray! And at the same time, if only it were that easy.
I did battle all this week with this reading, in large measure because virtually ALL the commentary and reflections that I read about it, ALL spiritualized the notion of “being possessed” to a degree that I found infuriating.
Not because they were in any way wrong or even unhelpful. In fact, they were all REALLY helpful. Just lifting up out of this reading the notion of the things that “possess” us as being as name-able and identifiable as metaphorical “unclean spirits”. Like, not the real us, but inside us and making their presence known.
Metaphorical unclean spirits. The fears that we carry around in the pits of our stomachs. The past experiences that still shape who and how we are. The hurts or grudges or guilts that weigh us down. Or even from a slightly different angle, our greed for more more more. Or our need for power or feeling special or feeling superior or being right.
Any and all of these we can identify as unclean spirits, and bring before God our desire to be free of them, and let God do what God does to lift them up and lift them out and take them away. So they no longer possess us. So we’re healed.
A good friend of mine said recently, when there was just WAY TOO MUCH going on for her and her husband with various health things, so many things to worry about and be afraid about – and she said “I’m just handing it over to God”.
And a) she meant it, literally. Even if she probably had to repeat it every single day, I know she meant it quite literally. And b) I also know it helps. Because I’ve been watching for thirty years that it’s how she keeps on keeping on.
She couldn’t DO that if she were filled all the time, possessed by fear and by worry, so she hands it all over to God to get it out of her own self. And God says, got it – and throws it in the trash. While probably also making a little note to Godself to be ready to do it again, same time tomorrow.
It’s real, this sense of thinking of God as liberating us from the burdensome stuff that besets and possesses us. It’s real and it’s helpful and it’s true -- it IS the kind of healing power that Jesus demonstrates in this passage from Mark, when he rebukes the unclean spirit and it gets gone. And the man is liberated from it.
It’s just that it’s kind of that healing power… spiritualized. Domesticated. Like, what are our “personal demons”… that yes, are limiting our capacity for fullness of life – but that’s about ALL they’re doing unless we visit their effects with intent on the people around us.
Which of course we might do, via mood or temper or behaviour – but if so, there’s still always the sense that it was US that flicked the switch. That whatever these “personal demons” might be, we’re more or less in charge of them. We can work on them, God being our helper. There’s not that sense that we get in this passage from Mark that they’ve completely taken over, and they’re now in charge, and so everything’s become unpredictable. And maybe dangerous.
And so that’s what I was doing battle with. Because what Jesus confronts in our passage from Mark, it’s the real thing. It’s in no way spiritualized or domesticated -- it’s the terrifying unpredictability of something within that feels like it has a mind of its own. That needs zero flicking of any switch to go off on a tear, and it’s absolutely NOT just a matter of working at the spiritual discipline of letting go… and handing it over to God.
What I was doing battle over was the fact that this man in the synagogue – he’s really in a battle. It’s not someone and their personal demons. The man in the synagogue -- this is what pervasive mental illness is like. This is what pervasive emotional trauma and pain are like. This is what the addiction they foster is like. These things are hard core. And when they’re in charge? They’re in charge. Like they have a mind and a life of their own. The battle is real.
So where’s the good news in this story, in the absence of Jesus walking in our midst up and down the streets of Halifax and doing all his very best rebuking? They can be really frustrating, these healing miracles – no less when they’re casting out unclean spirits than when they’re saying “stand up, take your mat, and walk”.
But there’s always good news. There’s always something revealed in these stories about what God is like or what we’re made for as God’s people – to open our eyes or stretch our perspective.
And so I think what we get in this story is more than just the “hand it over to God” that’s manifestly good and helpful and real in a very broad and general way. I think we also get a glimpse into the real battle that’s about a billion steps deeper.
Because this is Jesus staring down the hard core monster that looks like it’s taken over completely, and saying no. It has edges. It has borders. It has edges and it has borders and I’m going to show you that, Jesus says to his disciples and to us.
This is a person. And the unclean spirit has edges and it has borders and I’m going to show you that, Jesus says, by scraping it out by those edges and borders and casting it out. This is a person. That is an unclean spirit.
There’s always a person. I think that’s the “more” in this story, that’s revealed to us in Jesus rebuking the unclean spirit and casting it out. It’s not just about the miracle. It’s not just about ‘healed is possible, God being our helper’. It’s not just about the fellow himself, restored to well-being. It’s ALSO about the disciples and the bystanders. It’s about us. It’s about Jesus casting out whatever unclean spirit has made us lose sight of the fact that there’s always a person.
They might be doing battle. They might be losing badly. They might barely be in charge, hard core, terrible decision-making, infuriating and heartbreaking. And come on, Jesus, rebuke that unclean spirit. And – oh. This is a person. This is my neighbour. This is someone I’m called to love. God being my helper. Amen.