Exorcizing Demons

+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on January 31, 2021 +

Text: Mark 1:21-29


Exorcisms? Demons? Unclean Spirits?
What are we supposed to do with that?

I don’t know about you, but this is one of those parts of the Bible that make me a little squeamish.
One of those parts that seem just a little too far-fetched to make sense.
One of those parts that, when someone reads it for the first time prompts them to skeptically ask, “You don’t really believe in that stuff…do you?”
I’m not always sure how to respond to those questions.
Because on the face of it, today’s reading from Mark sounds more like a horror movie than a gospel text.
Like Jesus walked in to find a man levitating in the air, head spinning, and shouted, “The power of Christ compels you!” or something.

I mean, what do you think of when you hear these types of readings? I’m guessing I’m not alone in my reaction, my hesitancy to embrace this talk of demonic possession and exorcisms and the like.
I feel like many modern, western, more progressive Christians don’t have time for such things.
We’re children of the Age of Enlightenment after all.
We rely on reason, not supernatural nonsense.
When we are confronted with awkward texts like today’s gospel, we nervously try to explain it away, suggesting that perhaps this man had a then undiagnosable mental illness that seemed like a demon.
Or he was battling his own personal demons like addiction, chronic pain, self-doubt and the like.
I know I’ve used these explanations for Biblical demons in the past—I’ve even preached on them.

But I was reminded this week that these reasonings tell us more about our own worldviews than they tell us about the gospel writer’s worldview.
That to understand what the gospel is trying to say, we have to set our prejudices and skepticism aside and allow the author to speak.
And it’s clear that for Mark especially, demons and exorcisms are an important part of the story.
The Gospel of Mark spends more time discussing the healing of demon possessed people than any other gospel does.
And when you remember that Mark is by far the shortest of the four gospels, it becomes all the clearer how important Jesus’ role as an exorcist is to Mark.

So, what were these demons in Mark’s worldview?
Why was it so important for Jesus to cast out demons and bring healing?

My late seminary professor, the Rev. Dr. Cheryl Pero argued that for Mark, there was nothing supernatural about demons at all.[1]
That these demons were not signs of mental illness or self-destructive behaviors, they were forces of evil that were plaguing the community.
They were the manifestations of the devil bent on causing harm and destruction to humanity and creation.
That the people experienced these demons through imperialism and oppression, violence and enmity.
That possession by a demon brought bondage and pain, hunger and brokenness, not just upon an individual, but on a whole society.
That they were bent on denying humanity, obscuring our identity as beloved children of God, and limiting the ability to form God’s beloved community.

So, then, the story we hear today is more than the healing of an individual.
We’ll see individual healings—we’ll hear about one next week in fact.
But this first act of Jesus’ ministry is something more, something bigger, something more declarative.
This is a collective healing of a community.
A liberation from divisive and evil forces, a repudiation of hatred and prejudice, an establishment of an outpost of the Kingdom of God which is at hand, and, according to Mark the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.

Now, if this is what Mark is calling a demon, I am completely on board.
These are demons that I have seen, that I have experienced and know to be true.
And I know I’m not alone.
This isn’t some made-up horror film, this is the reality of our broken world.
These are the demons we face, the forces of evil we battle, every day.
We may not say that a person has been possessed by a demon, but we sure recognize the demonic influences that surround us—we just call them different names, don’t we?
We call them things like racism and white supremacy.
Or greed and scarcity.
Or militarism and xenophobia.
Or homophobia and transphobia.
Or misogyny and patriarchy.
Or Christian Nationalism and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
We see these forces all around us, don’t we?
We see how they are working to shatter community.
To obscure humanity.
To replace love and harmony with hatred and fear.
To bring violence and chaos and discord.
To oppose God and God’s intentions for us and our world.

From Mark’s perspective, Jesus’ role as an exorcist, the one who destroys the demons of this world, the healer of communities is so important that it inaugurates Jesus’ ministry in this gospel.
This is Jesus’ first public act of ministry in Mark’s gospel.
And Biblical scholars tell us that each gospel writer reveals their core message, their foundational worldview, and their understanding of who Jesus is, through how Jesus starts his ministry.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus starts by gathering the people and teaching them from the mountainside which demonstrates how, in Matthew’s eyes, Jesus is the heir to Moses, the new teacher and lawgiver for the people.
In Luke, Jesus preaches in his hometown synagogue and quotes the Prophet Isaiah declaring that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him and he has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed.
And in John, Jesus demonstrates the goodness and abundance of life he brings through his first sign at the wedding at Cana by turning water into wine.
But in Mark, Jesus’ first public action is this exorcism, this liberation of the community by resisting evil itself and casting out dehumanizing forces—and this is essential to understanding Jesus and his ministry in Mark’s worldview.

It’s also worth noting that this action takes place within the worshiping community.
That on the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and found even there a demon, a reminder of how those evil forces are so insidious that they have invaded even our sacred spaces on our holy days doing their best to subvert our community and obscure our belovedness and inherent human worth.

And notice how Jesus casts out that demon.
He doesn’t throw holy water at it or brandish a cross, he confronts it and rebukes it.
He says that the demon has no place there anymore.
That its evil ways are fundamentally incompatible with the good news that he is bringing.
That love and liberation, healing and wholeness will triumph over demonic forces and will them cast out of our community.
And by Jesus’ power and authority, the demon is destroyed, the man is freed from his bondage, and the community experiences liberation.

My friends, as I’ve said, we know the forces that are at work within and around us that are doing all they can to wreak havoc and destruction, to disrupt community, and to obscure the belovedness of each person and all humanity.
We’ve seen how these demons have infiltrated our lives, our congregation, our country, and the whole Church.
How they’ve possessed us and our institutions, fomented division and mistrust, schism and violence, segregation and polarization.
But we also know that these demons will not have the final word.
That as strong as they may seem, they will fail.
Because Mark reminds us that Jesus’ ministry is centered in exorcizing these demons and bringing healing, wholeness, and liberation to our community.

Just a few weeks ago, when we renewed our baptismal vows, we once again renounced the devil and all the forces that defy God—a portion of the baptismal rite that is called the ‘little exorcism,’ by the way—and we promised “to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, …to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”
In the past two weeks, we’ve heard Jesus call his first followers and listened to how he invites us to join in his ministry and see what is possible when we join together in his work.
So, knowing what demons surround us and recognizing our call to join Jesus in his ministry, how do we go forward?
Well, we follow Jesus’ example by naming and confronting the evils that have infected our community and committing all that we have to live into Christ’s gospel that is stronger than any devil.
But it starts with naming what is afflicting us, my friends.
We must start there.
Because just as so-called colorblindness couldn’t solve racism, just as social programs can’t combat the root cause of poverty, just as tolerance of difference is no substitute for recognizing and celebrating our beautiful diversity, we can never hope to exorcize the demons that plague us if we don’t actually name them and confront them.
And I’m so proud that this congregation has made a major step in committing ourselves to following Jesus’ example.

Today we celebrate Reconciling in Christ Sunday for the first time as a congregation.
Over the past two years, Holy Cross recognized that Jesus was calling us to confront and denounce the demons of homophobia and transphobia in our congregation and the wider Church.
We boldly proclaimed that these evils are incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And, recognizing that we could not presume to welcome our LGBTQIA+ siblings without naming them, that an implied welcome was insufficient, we unanimously passed a statement that committed our congregation to offering a full and expansive welcome to all God’s beloved children.

As someone who has experienced the wicked power of those demonic forces throughout my life, it’s hard to overstate how important this public welcoming statement is.
That it brings liberation and healing not only to me as a gay man, not only to our little congregation, not only to the LGBTQIA+ community, but that it helps establish our congregation as a beacon of God’s reconciling love, a better image of God’ perfect kingdom, a fuller expression of God’s beloved community.

Today, on this RIC Sunday, we celebrate our congregation and the work we’ve done, we renew our commitment to welcoming all people in the name of Jesus, and we also recognize that we have more work to do.
That we cannot stop at merely stating that we are welcoming, but that we will use our welcome statement, use our partnership in Jesus’ ministry, use the gospel of Jesus Christ to guide our life together and direct our common mission.
That we will continue to name and confront homophobia and transphobia in our church, our institutions, and our society.
And that we will continue to partner with Jesus in rejecting, in expelling, in exorcizing the demons that dehumanize our neighbors, that disrupt our communities, that try to obscure the love of God.
That we will not rest while the forces of racism and greed, sexism and xenophobia, imperialism and militarism, oppression and injustice and more infect and possess our society.
That we will confront them by name and show that they cannot abide the love of God in Christ Jesus.
And that we will partner with Jesus for not only our own liberation, but the liberation of all.

Today we boldly proclaim again that we reject the power of these demons and instead wholly rely on the power and authority of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whose good news heralds love, whose presence brings healing, and whose justice builds community.

[1] The Rev. Priscilla Austin, “Authority over Demons: Epiphany 4B” http://www.disruptworshipproject.com/authority-over-demons/

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