Anglican Church of Canada
January 31, 2021 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Today’s gospel reading is another first. This year we are reading through Mark’s gospel in our Sunday readings, and several weeks in, we are still in chapter one. We have heard of Jesus’s first public appearance, as he is baptized by John; of the calling of the first disciples; and now we have Jesus’s first miracle (at least according to Mark), the driving out of an unclean spirit in the synagogue.
These stories in the gospels about demons and exorcisms are hard for us to know what to do with. They make us uncomfortable, because this kind of language feels like something we left behind centuries ago. Go up to someone at a social gathering and start talking about religion or politics and they’re likely to sidle away from you first chance they get. Start talking about demons and they’ll call the police.
But as weird and uncomfortable as it is, there is something worth listening to whenever the Bible starts using this kind of language. It’s not just crazy talk. It is called the language of the powers – and that’s what it’s about. It’s about how power is exercised in this world. It’s the language that ordinary people two thousand years ago, who didn’t know about modern political science, used to talk about the way the powers of this world influenced their lives. And not just the external power we can see – government and money and soldiers and law courts – but also the insidious way that powers get inside our heads: the values and attitudes and cultural assumptions that govern how we see the world, what we think is worth striving for, what we think is possible. Sometimes these powers can be good and life-giving, sometimes neutral, but often they can be quite harmful. They can distort the way we see the world, they can destroy social cohesion, they can keep us enslaved to thinking that is not healthy or life-giving. And if you don’t think those kind of evil powers are strong realities in our time – well, you haven’t been listening to the news lately.
Take this story we heard today. At first it sounds just like a personal story, about some poor guy with some kind of demonic possession – we might want to call it mental illness today – who gets healed by Jesus. That’s true, but when we look more closely, we see it stands for a lot more than that. Jesus, we are told, went into the synagogue and started teaching. And the people were astonished by his teaching, because he taught with authority, not like the scribes. This is important. Jesus wasn’t teaching them a new religion – he was teaching the faith of Israel. But he was doing so in a way that was fresh and compelling, so that they understood that God’s care was for each one of them. Unlike the teaching of the scribes, which served to enslave and belittle them, Jesus’s teaching set them free.
And it is then, in response to this teaching, that the evil spirit cries out: ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” This man is clearly threatened by Jesus’s teaching. Perhaps he has so internalized the teaching of the scribes that it scares him when Jesus comes to upset his worldview. He has, in the language of the day, been possessed by the spirit of the scribes, and reacts with anger and violent language.
Jesus commands it: “Be silent! Come out of him!”, and the man is sent into convulsions, crying out, until the spirit leaves him and he is left exhausted, quieted, but his mind free and at peace. And once more, just so we don’t miss the point, Mark speaks of Jesus’s authority. This is not just a personal healing of a weird mental illness. Mark is showing us, at the very beginning of his gospel, the shape of the struggle to come, as Jesus stands us against the spiritual powers of the religious authorities of his day, and how they make people smaller, less free, less alive.
Just to be perfectly clear: this is not about contrasting Jewish teaching with Christianity, as though Jesus was bringing a new and better teaching. What Jesus teaches is the essence of Jewish faith, richly proclaimed in the Old Testament. And the spirit of the scribes can take over any religion, including our own. How often do we hear of people who have experienced the church as oppressive or judgemental, the opposite of the freeing, joyful gospel Jesus intended. We can only pray, those of us with responsibility for preaching, that we do not slip into speaking with the spirit of the scribes, that Jesus will come afresh with his spirit and see that our words are life-giving.
Talking about evil spirits influencing people sounds crazy, and of course it can quickly become dangerous if we take it too literally. But actually I find this Biblical way of thinking quite helpful sometimes. For example, if I am reading through the comments section on the internet (always a bad idea!), it helps me make sense of some of the crazy stuff out there. I don’t mean people I disagree with, even strongly: I am referring to the seething anger and resentment so many people seem to have these days, the sometimes vile hatred of anyone who thinks differently, the inability to discuss a common set of facts, the lurid conspiracy theories that have completely lost touch with any reality. There is so much of that around these days, and the internet seems to conjure it up.
I find the Biblical language of evil spiritual powers actually helpful here. Not that I think I can deal with nasty people by performing an exorcism and driving out the spirit, as much as I may be tempted to try! But this language can help me remember that these people are not the enemy. The epistle to the Ephesians reminds us that: “. . .our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the . . . cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Our struggle is not with flesh and blood; other people are not the enemy, no matter how hatefully they may express themselves, and we cannot let ourselves respond with anger and hatred towards them. The real enemy is spiritual: it is the ideas and twisted thinking and ideologies that take over people’s minds and lead them to behave inappropriately.
And at the same time, speaking of spiritual powers reminds me that ideas do matter. We tend to be pretty laissez-faire about people’s opinions and ideas, and for the most part that’s a good thing: we don’t want to go back to policing people’s thoughts with heresy trials and the like. But just because we don’t police them, doesn’t mean that ideas are unimportant, that they don’t matter.
Ideas can have tremendous power for good or evil over us. I think that’s the point Paul is trying to make in the epistle reading, when he is talking about eating meat sacrificed to the pagan gods. These gods don’t exist, he says, they are just figments of the human imagination. But just because they don’t exist, doesn’t mean they don’t have power. They can still take over people’s imagination and influence them in a way that ruins them. And in just the same way today, the ideologies and conspiracy theories may not be real – some are patently nonsense – but they still have the power to ruin people and indeed entire societies – a danger they are wrestling with in Washington today.
There is an old belief, which comes into many old stories and folk tales, that one needs to know a spirit’s name in order to gain power over it. Behind this myth there is an important psychological truth: we can only come to terms with the demons that plague us when we can name them. And so part of our duty as Christians, perhaps the most powerful weapon we have in our struggle against the powers of darkness, is to name these powers for what they are.
What are the demons who plague our society? Some of the names, I think are obvious, because we have learned to look for them, demons like racism or sexism. They may be obvious to us, at least when we see them in others. But let’s not forget that a hundred years ago, they were not that evident. It was widespread and perfectly acceptable to dismiss women as unfit for serious thinking and responsibility, best suited to their own sphere within the home. Not only our grandfathers – many of our grandmothers believed this. We have learned to name these demons, finding out their names: sexism, patriarchy, chauvinism, and in naming them have begun to free ourselves from them, so that our daughters and granddaughters can live freer lives, full of possibility.
A hundred years ago it seemed self-evident to many otherwise perfectly nice people that Northern Europeans were simply superior to other races; but as we have come to name these demons – racism, colonialism – and begun to see the insidious ways in which they keep other people down, we have engaged the battle in earnest. But these demons are still powerful, and need to be called out and challenged whenever they arise. They are all around us, like invisible viruses in the air, and it is difficult for us to realize that even well-meaning people like ourselves can slip into this kind of thinking in small but hurtful ways, if we are not careful.
These are the demons we have learned to name. But what of those we don’t yet have names for, attitudes and patterns of thinking and behaving that may be harmful to our full flourishing as humans, but we don’t even see them clearly, because we just take them for granted. Sometimes the spiritual life feels to me like wrestling with an invisible enemy, that I can’t pin down because I can’t name it exactly. The best I can do are words like faithlessness or godlessness – but they are already misleading, because they sound like I think everyone should think and believe like I do, and that atheists and agnostics are bad, which I don’t mean. I am referring to an attitude of reverence and openness towards the world, towards life, towards reality; a deep respect towards other people; a joyful awe towards creation; a humility towards ourselves, that makes for a full and engaged human life. There is something around us and within us that fights against that and smothers it, a cynicism, a selfishness, that keeps hemming us in, trapped in the poverty of our own selves. Some ill spirit I sense so often in the world around us – and maybe don’t recognize often enough in myself.
We cannot, as they say, jump over our own shadow; we cannot really grapple with something we cannot see, because it blends in with so much we consider self-evident. But when we turn to Scripture, and the liturgy, the words of our tradition, we can begin to see ourselves from a different perspective, from the outside. We can begin to see ourselves with the eyes of God. And with those eyes, we can see so much about ourselves much more clearly: the sorry chains we have forged for ourselves, that keep us from being all we are meant to be; but also our true identity, infinitely precious, because beloved by God. And then we can invite Christ to speak those words of authority, to name and banish those demons that hold us back from the fullness of life, that we might be truly free.
This sermon is largely inspired by the sermon meditation by Osvaldo Vena, on workingpreacher.org.