A sermon, based on Mark 1.21-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, January 28, 2018
Jesus enters a synagogue. He teaches with authority. His interpretation of scripture, paradoxically, is both old, radical, going back to the heart, the seminal meaning of the word, and new, so radical as to fall freshly on hungry ears that have grown tired of the once-recorded, oft-repeated instructions of the scribes. The people are amazed.
Suddenly, a man possessed by a demon appears. Jesus, having demonstrated his authority to teach, now reveals his power o’er the realm of spirits; in the ancient worldview, a vast universe exercising dominion, largely malevolent, over humankind. Jesus commands the spirit to depart, and, kicking and screaming, it does.
The people, first amazed by what Jesus said, now are amazed by what Jesus does.(1) And here is where my postmodern biblical and theological sensibilities wrestle with the meaning of this story. Yes, Mark the evangelist wants us to behold this epiphany, this revelation of who Jesus is as one who has power over the spirit-world. Yet the exorcism, the exile of the unclean spirit has inspired and sustained generations of teaching throughout Christian history that the path to holiness, wholeness involves banishing one’s demons, fleeing all darkness to stand in sanctified light. Seen in that light, this story, when applied to Christian formation, indeed, human development has encouraged the suppression of the less than savory aspects of our natures; thus, not integration of one’s self, but rather segregation, compartmentalization, and, worse, disintegration.
My postmodern worldview isn’t overshadowed by ever-threatening spirits. However, I do believe in the existence of a vast spiritual world, not only outside of us, but also within us. And, in regard to the latter, it is an inner spirit-world of brilliant light, shadowy darkness, and ambiguous gray. A world that calls us to face and embrace, to name and claim our spirits, including our demons: all that is within us, our thoughts, feelings, and intentions that aren’t quite right, good, or holy. Therefore, a world, the real world of our real honest-to-God selves where we really can know the God, who, at the dawn of creation, said, “Let there be light”, but did not eliminate the darkness, calling it Night.(2)
This God who made this world and this world made by this God call us to live in light and darkness, our light and darkness. For only in embracing both can you and I, by the Holy Spirit, be changed and grow.
Illustration: Jesus casts out demon in Capernaum, James Tissot (1836-1902)
(1) As an aside, I marvel that it is the demon who knows who Jesus is. So, it is throughout the gospel accounts, the demons know Jesus while the people, even his disciples, though oft spellbound, usually are confused. They see, but do not perceive. They hear, but do not understand. Perhaps because identity and knowing are spirit-matters. Thus, it takes one spirit to know another.
(2) Genesis 1.3-5