What to do about Demons?
Sermon from Feb. 4, 2018
Church of the Advent, Cincinnati
If you’ve been paying attention to our gospels for the last few weeks, you’ve noticed that this is the second week in a row in which we encounter Jesus, in rather dramatic fearsome detail, talking about - and healing people from - the grip of horrifying demons. They appear like monsters in our scripture, leaping out at Jesus, speaking to him in gruesome voices pointing to him, even calling out his name!
On top of it, remember that not long ago Jesus called these four fishermen out of the boat to come follow him, and in the very first city they visit as new disciples of Jesus, here they are face to face in the grip of a physical one-to-one battle with demons in the flesh! Not exactly the way I’d want to start my first day on the job! Have you ever had a day like that, where you decide to start something new, and as soon as you walk into the door on day 1, you’re thrown right into the deep end, thrashing around trying to figure out what to do & how in the world you’re supposed to stay afloat. I hate to tell you, but sometimes following Jesus is like that!
Now - before I get too much further, I know this subject of demons is a very tricky one in the church. Generations of bad theologies and painful teaching in some traditions has have pushed some awful ideas, often identifying anyone or anything they didn’t like as “demonic” and even making good people to believe that they themselves were possessed by demons for thinking, feeling, or behaving a little different from what those in positions of power would have wanted. So often the victims of this theological mistreatment have been the marginalized, who because of who they are are made to believe that they are demons or posessed by demons just for being a little bit different. And other times it’s those we disagree with politically who in this age of political extremes and abject division, we on both the right and the left characterize one another’s beliefs not just as disagreement but as demonic - leaving us virtually no way to move toward reconciliation and to move forward together.
Maybe in a reaction to that sort of awful theology coming out of the extremes of the Christian faith, we “mainline protestants” sometimes overreact in the opposite direction, failing to talk about that which is truly evil in this world at all. Instead we paint pictures of flowers and roses, but shy away from doing what Jesus did - confronting the demonic powers of this world head-on and bringing about healing as in our gospel today. We know that what was considered “demon possession” in Jesus’ time was what we would call severe mental illness today, rendering people unable to speak, or to speak non-sensically, making its victims pariahs cast out of society or left on the street in an era long before therapies or modern concepts of mental health.
What are some of the demons (problems, not people) you see in our society? In our city, country, our world? What are some demons we see within?
In last week’s gospel, just a few verses earlier than what we’ve read today, the demon 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 demon calls out Jesus by name and proclaims his holiness even before the disciples do! And at that, he uses nearly the same words This demon recognizes Jesus’ authority and so do the crowds around them, as Jesus commands the demon to be silent and casts it out of the man who was possessed.
Immediately afterward, as we begin this weeks story, the disciples seeing Jesus’ healing power take him to the mother of Simon (Peter) and whom he heals - or in the Greek “raised up” from a fever, which in those days was a seriously life-threatening condition. This, we are told, was a physical illness and certainly not a demon, but Jesus goes out and immediately back to casting out more demons, and we get this fascinating line at the end: “and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
What do you think this means - that the demons knew him? Where do you see that reflected in the world today?
That takes us right back to the beginning of that story from last week where the demon calls out “Jesus if Nazareth” “Holy one of God” and Jesus commands him to “be silent”. That is one of the primary ways Jesus confronts evil in the Gospel of Mark. “Jesus commands the spirit to “be silent” with the same word as he commands the sea to “be still” “be silent” (Mark 4:39). He rebukes the unclean spirit, the sea (Mark 4:30) and even Peter (Mark 8:33).
I have to say I really like Jesus’ approach - in an era when we see so much pain and degradation from the demons at hand in our society - when there’s so much grief that you don’t even want to pick up a newspaper or turn on the tv for fear of finding out what horrific acts of human violence have taken place today - It feels good to tell those demons to be silent.
What are some ways in which we might be called to bring silence to the evils of this world?
It’s a whole lot harder to do in real life than for us to imagine in our heads. It’s a lot harder to confront the racism or the sexism or the mean-spiritedness in the voice of someone you know or even love, and to tell that mean-spiritedness lovingly to be silent. It’s a lot harder to stand up against the threat of physical force to tell the oppressive powers and authorities of this world to “be silent”.
But I really do believe that’s what we’re called to do as the people of Jesus Christ in this world. But first, I’m going to watch a football game.