Deuteronomy 18: 15-20: Mark 1: 21-28
Today’s Gospel story tells of Jesus’ first public act. In Luke, it’s a sermon in his home synagogue. In Matthew, it’s the Sermon on the Mount. In John, Jesus makes very fine wine.
- But here in Mark, Jesus’ first public act is a healing and a confrontation with the evil forces. Four times in Mark’s sixteen chapters Jesus confronts evil or unclean spirits and wins. Jesus brings a new teaching and not everyone is happy with what he has to say.
Mark tells us Jesus taught in the synagogue, but he doesn’t often tell us what Jesus taught. Usually, the rabbis and scribes quoted other rabbis. They based their decisions for new situations on what has been said in the past. In legal terms, they are careful to not set a new precedent. They do not have the authority to make such changes in interpretation.
Mark says Jesus teaches with authority – not needing to refer to other rabbis for the interpretation of a scripture passage. He interprets the passage of the day with his own – God’s own – understanding of it.
The people know Jesus is different and comment on it. Perhaps the people are worried about Jesus. They may wonder if he is a false prophet, warned against in Deuteronomy. Or perhaps they are excited, wondering if Jesus is the prophet like Moses.
In Mark, the people, including the disciples, are slow to recognize who Jesus is. They see Jesus as a prophet, but don’t go any further than that. It’s the unclean spirits and the Gentiles who recognize Jesus as the Son of Man, the Messiah, and the Son of God.
And then, after Jesus has finished speaking, he does the unthinkable. A man possessed by an unclean spirit enters the room. Jesus speaks with the spirit, and sends the spirit back to wherever such spirits belong.
Unclean spirits in scripture cause disease, disability, mental illness, and anti-social behavior. Their hosts suffer because of the unclean spirit’s presence. When the spirit has been removed, the person returns to normal and once again takes their place in society. They are healed physically, mentally, and socially.
… Today, we know that disease – often a chemical imbalance – causes mental illness. We know too that life experiences cause us to behave in certain ways that are not normal.
Soldiers suffering with PTSD face sometimes debilitating terrors, caused by their experiences in war zones. Returning to the safety of home is not enough to erase the damage done to the brain and psyche of our military heroes. They need treatment to be cleansed of unclean spirits.
What childhood traumas or training did people such as Richard Dahmer, Adolph Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden face to make them such killers? What experiences filled their brains with hatred? Were they possessed by unclean spirits?
What was it that made Bernie Madoff make off with so much money? Why did he think he would never get caught? Was it the unclean spirit of greed?
What experiences make us afraid of public speaking, or trying new things, or making changes? Do the experiences fill us with unclean spirits?
Addictions are like unclean spirits. They gradually possess the body then the mind of the victim. We can be addicted to drugs and alcohol, caffeine, food, money, power, busy-ness, exercise, physical appearance, sleep, TV, music, video games, and more. Addictions take over our spirits and cause us to focus our attention on the addictive substance instead of our families, our health, and our relationship with God.
Getting rid of unclean spirits of any kind takes work. Jesus doesn’t often appear in our midst and call the spirit out of us, so we have to ask for his help in other ways.
Twelve-step programs work by causing us to admit that we have an unclean spirit within us and by calling us to recognize that we are powerless to defeat the spirit without the help of a higher power – whom we Christians would call God, or Father, or Jesus, or Spirit.
Prayer works, too, if we let it. Here’s a story.
I was just getting used to being single after my divorce. I was paying my bills, but there was no room in the budget for anything extra. At the same time, my sister Pat was in an abusive relationship. I invited her to come and live with me.
She promised to get a job, but had a hard time getting one. She didn’t seem to be trying very hard! We were both feeling the stress, and one night it came to a head. Pat said some very hurtful things, and moved out the next day.
I treasured our relationship as sisters, but had a hard time dealing with the pain of our argument. I was filled with anger and grief. I wanted the pain to be gone. I began to pray daily to be able to forgive Pat. Eventually, I also began to pray that she would be able to forgive me.
It took two years, but finally, I felt the relief of forgiveness fill me. Soon afterwards, Pat sent me a note apologizing for her behavior. We don’t have a close relationship today, but we keep in touch. We both refer to that time as “that summer.” Looking back, I can see that we were both filled with unclean spirits and needed cleansing.
Jesus has the power to cast out unclean spirits. It is not always with a wave of his hand or a conversation with the spirit, but he still does it, through the simple, powerful act of understanding that we need help and asking for it through prayer.
What unclean spirits do you battle? How do you deal with them? This week, I suggest you try prayer – daily, ongoing, heartfelt, prayer.
Please pray with me. God of healing, wrap your arms around us and heal us. Cast out our unclean spirits, and fill us with your love and grace. Amen