I haven’t preached on exorcisms before. This likely does not come as a surprise – most preachers may not avoid the topic, but certainly don’t leap towards it. If you’ve heard a sermon on the topic, I’d love to hear about it later on.
But there’s something about the beginning of Mark’s gospel that calls us to pay attention to them. Before the words of the prophet Isaiah sink in as the gospel begins, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene, Jesus shows up and is baptized. He is tempted in the wilderness, John is arrested, Jesus’ public ministry begins. Disciples are called off their boats – they respond immediately (Mark uses this word 42 times). In last Sunday’s text Jesus and four disciples are in Capernaum on the Sabbath. Jesus walks right into the synagogue and begins preaching. The people are amazed, and so is a man with an unclean spirit. He cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The spirit that identifies Jesus. I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, THE HOLY ONE OF GOD.
Jesus casts this spirit out, and the people point to it to underline his quickly building authority. “He commands even the unclean spirits,” the people say, “and they obey him.” The spirit recognizing Jesus made a difference to them. This can be odd to think about, because we bring a different set of assumptions to the text than Mark’s original hearers. Lamar Williamson writes:
The prevalence of miracle in Mark raises for modern readers such questions as these: ‘Did those events really occur because of supernatural intervention?’ ‘Do demons really exist?’ ‘Do miracles happen today?’ These were not questions for the original readers, so the text does not address them. Supernatural intervention in human affairs was viewed as extraordinary, yet it was a feature common to Hellenistic religions.
Jesus did all sorts of amazing things. But the key question, according to Williamson again, is not, “What really happened?” but, “What did this happening really mean?” What is Mark trying to tell us? What does this help us understand about God?
It is too easy to skip over these sections, especially when they play as prominent a role as here in early Mark. It’s too easy to say that our scientific understand tells us these events could not have happened and they must have, therefore, been conjured up by the people or the author, their hyperbole trying to persuade us of Jesus’ identity and power. I have heard people dismiss these healings, like when Jesus’ walks into the house of Simon’s mother-in-law as today’s text begins – he took her hand and lifted her up, Mark says – as insignificant. The fact is is that we don’t know. But something MUST have happened. Mark wouldn’t have told us if nothing happened. And, maybe more importantly, people wouldn’t have started showing up to see Jesus. Crowds of people who were sick or possessed with demons wouldn’t have come all that way to see someone who was simply an interesting preacher. They must have had some reason to think he could DO SOMETHING. That he had a power beyond this world, beyond our physical reality in ways that mattered. He healed many with various diseases, cast out many demons, and would not permit them to speak, Mark says, because they knew him.
These spirits, these demons, bodies from beyond the tangible, saw Jesus. They saw something, Mark implies, that we don’t. That others didn’t see. These people who had unclean spirits I have heard dismissed as people with mental illness, which misses the point of the text and is a crude and cruel way of thinking about mental illness, I think. What we can say, regardless of the much we can’t know, is that it is indisputable that there is power beyond what we can see and hear and measure. I cannot feel God’s love all the time, but when I do, when I notice it in my heart and my gut, it is powerful. Our love for the people most dear isn’t rational, but it’s as real as it gets. The same with evil, forces of hurt in this world. I don’t believe in a devil with a red tail and a pitchfork, but when I saw those videos from Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, that Friday evening and those young white men with torches chanting Nazi slogans, you feel an evil in your bones that is more than just the product of misguided young men making poor choices.
And sometimes we need to look at that evil among us, and call on Jesus to cast those spirits out.
We need to cast out the demons that whisper to us to keep things to ourselves because there will never be enough.
We need to cast out the demons of anxiety and fear. We should never try anything, never be bold. Don’t take a risk or leave your comfort zone. Bad things happen, the spirits say.
We need to cast out the demons that tell us that we can’t do it. That we aren’t worth it. That how we feel like we measure up to ourselves and the people around us is what matters. Those comparisons are insidious. I bet you’ve got some demons in your life, spirits from your past. Hurt that claims you still.
We need to cast out the demons that tell us that problems are too big, that suffering is too real, that we can’t deal with gun violence because of the politics around it, that we can’t engage poverty in real ways because it’s too big, that we can’t cure cancer, can’t start a relationship over, can’t quit the job we hate and go do something real. That we must always be bound to the realities of this world. My gosh we’d never do anything worth doing, would we?
Steve Hartman’s ‘On The Road,’ segment on the evening news began a few week ago at the Mount Airy Resort in the Poconos of Pennsylvania. Reverend Gilbert Caldwell and his wife, Grace, arrived recently for their second honeymoon. They were greeted warmly — a sharp contrast to their first visit, 60 years earlier. Back in 1957 they drove eight hours from their wedding to the resort, only to be turned away for being black. “First they pretended I didn’t have a reservation, when I actually brought a copy,” Gilbert said. “Then of course they said, ‘but if we said yes, our guests would be very unhappy.'” They found a black-owned hunting lodge nearby. Prodded partly by that experience, Gilbert immersed himself in the civil rights movement, working side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Today he speaks about the movement, which is how he ended up at Bear Tavern Elementary in Titusville, New Jersey, last year. He told the honeymoon story, as he’d done a hundred times before. But for whatever reason, a group of fifth graders really took it to heart. “At the end of the story I was like, ‘that’s just terrible,'” one student said. “It was really heartbreaking,” added another. “I feel like this is the worst thing that someone could do to someone.” Another girl cried on camera telling the story months later.
So, they decided, each fifth grader wrote a letter to Mount Airy. One said the Caldwell’s, “made me think about not only standing up for myself, but standing up for others and fixing mistakes that were made in the world.” In closing, the kids requested an all-expense-paid honeymoon redo — which they got. They presented it to them at a tear-filled assembly at the school. The original Mount Airy was torn down years ago, so the couple went to a new building with new owners, who were so impressed with the kids that they wanted to help make it right. Obviously, Hartman says at the end of the piece, this does not make up for decades of racial injustice. But it’s a step, and a sign, that we might get there. I’d just say it slightly differently, that those kids, and that couple, and the new owners, cast those demons right out. Set them behind them. So that a new story might be written.
After this Jesus paused, and ducked away to pray. When they tracked him down he was ready to get to work again. “And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.” Acknowledging that the power we see and we know is not all there is. That, with Jesus’ help, we can exorcise some of those demons that grasp us and our world. And live with hope. May it be so for you and for me. All praise be to God. Amen.
 Lamar Williamson, Interpretation: Mark, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1983), p 20.