We find ourselves at the beginning of a new year, hoping against hope that 2021 will be better than 2020 was. We hope that new leadership in the government will move us in a positive direction. We hope that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the gospel text we heard this morning, Jesus, too, was in a moment of beginning. As Mark tells us (and we have heard in our readings over the last few weeks,) Jesus was starting on the work of making God’s love known in a suffering world. He had been baptized by John and experienced temptation in the wilderness. He came into Galilee announcing that “The Kingdom of God has come near”, and called and invited disciples to join him to “fish for people”.
And now, in this morning’s gospel, Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. He was presumably proclaiming the same good news of God’s love that he had declared at the lakeshore, the message of a reign of justice and compassion that was beginning, the message of a power ready to transform the world.
And he was immediately accosted by an “unclean spirit” who, hearing Jesus’ teaching, asked “Have you come to destroy us?”
The unclean spirit recognized Jesus’ power and feared his message, feared the change that Jesus represented. The unclean spirit did not want the Reign of God, would not surrender to the power of love.
Pastor and theologian David Lose suggests that this first miracle in Mark’s gospel – because yes, of course, Jesus healed the possessed man by commanding the spirit to leave him – represents Mark’s fundamental message about Jesus’ ministry.
In Mark’s proclamation, Jesus “has come”, Lose observes, “to oppose the forces of evil, defined as anything and everything that robs God’s children of life.” (In the Meantime, Jan 26 2021)
And aren’t we in the same boat? Aren’t we surrounded – and indeed, possessed within ourselves – by forces that oppose the way of love that Jesus represents?
The exorcism stories in the gospels are somewhat hard to connect with. People in First Century Palestine believed in demons – evil spirits that had independent existence and were always on the lookout for human hosts in whom they could take up residence.
In the modern world we, of course, understand things differently. Most believe, in our time, that the people experiencing demonic possession in the biblical stories were suffering from what we now understand to be mental illness. In this sense, Jesus’ ability to “drive out” unclean spirits was much the same as his ability to restore sight to the blind or strength to limbs that had been paralyzed.
But perhaps we shouldn’t discount the notion of “unclean spirits” too easily.
To return to David’ Lose’s comment about “forces of evil…”, what can we observe to be the unclean spirits, the forces of evil that stand in the way of our wholehearted commitment to the way of Jesus and to the work of bringing about the Reign of God?
What is it in us that calls out to Jesus “Have you come to destroy us?”
Here are some things that occur to me; I’m sure that all of you can add to the list:
We’ve all experienced being possessed by anger or resentment. Sometimes there’s something very safe and comforting in actually nurturing the things that separate us from others, the things that allow us to avoid the hard work of reconciliation.
Likewise, it’s easy to allow ourselves to be possessed by fear. Fear and anxiety can immobilize us, can eliminate our ability to reach out, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. And in protecting ourselves from being vulnerable, we prevent ourselves from growing, and from doing gospel work.
The unclean spirits of depression, of addiction, of shame and guilt can also “rob (us) of life” by preventing us from loving others. Healing ourselves of so many of these unclean spirits calls for the help of others, including seeking professional help.
Similarly, we can trap ourselves in the rigidity of our assumptions and our prejudices, when we simply don’t want to hear or consider something that doesn’t fit with the way we view the world.
In this polarized time in which we find ourselves, I think we’re particularly susceptible to assuming the righteousness of our own convictions – politically, socially, ideologically – and to devaluing not only the views, but also the persons who see the world differently.
One of the “forces of evil” that calls very seductively in our time, as I suppose it always has, is the invitation to honor “my self”, my needs and my rights, over the wellbeing of the larger community.
To be human is to be complex. Just as Spirit of God calls us to be our best selves as God’s children, the other complicated dynamics that are a part of us all make it so very difficult to do so. But naming the unclean spirits is the first step.
One of the wonderful things about today’s gospel story is that Jesus doesn’t fix the whole world in one fell swoop. He heals one man with one evil spirit. He resists and banishes one particular evil that stands in his path in one moment and place.
We can do the same, together, can’t we?
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