"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sunday Sermon: Jesus and the Demoniac (Mark 1. 21-28

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

This is a difficult passage: what am I to make of this? Demon possession? Really?

As a general principle I try to imagine my way into Gospel stories. I try to see myself as an anonymous member of the crowd as I try to walk through the story. Who do I most identify with? Who do I sympathise with? Who irritates me? What if I stood here or over by him? What if I couldn’t hear properly because of the crowd? What if I didn’t actually trust this man Jesus? What if I was a Pharisee? What if I was a woman?

I have to do this because I am almost always disappointed by the brevity of the gospel stories and their lack of background detail: they seem so clinical and succinct. I want to know that there was someone there who kept coughing at inopportune moments, or that there were children playing nearby, or that there were cooking smells or that it had just rained or that there was a runaway donkey! (Oh how I love that runaway donkey!)

Of course, to what extent can someone like me, a product of my own times truly enter into the experience, the sights, the sounds, the smells and, most importantly, the theological and social conventions of the first century? I can’t. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try and sometimes I am surprised by the insights I get.

So I am standing in this crowded room surrounded by men – it was a first century synagogue after all – and, pleasant surprise, we have a guest preacher. It’s hot, I’m hungry and I tend to have a limited concentration span: my mind wanders if I’m not gripped early on and I end up following the patterns of the cracks in the plaster or watching a beetle work its way across the floor.

But this man does grip. Oh yes, he’s good. He’s very good and he’s not just hooked me in: as I look around the room its clear that he’s holding every other man there in rapt attention, hanging on his every word. Oh yes, he’s very good. I would go as far as to say that I’m stunned – we’re all stunned, in fact – by what we’re hearing and seeing. Who is he again? Some carpenter from Nazareth apparently. Really? Such charisma. Such calm authority. What a wordsmith. It’s quite astonishing; I’ve never heard a sermon like it before. I truly feel as if the word of God is being explained to me in a way that I could never have imagined before. That’s not to say that the usual teachers are bad as such (although now that I come to think of it some of them are – and some of them can be a bit full of themselves) but they don’t speak to my heart like this man.

You could hear a pin drop.

And then it’s all spoilt: in comes some nutter shouting the odds and waving his arms about. How did he get past the ushers? (Apparently, he’d just let someone’s donkey off the leash outside.)

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.

These people are a pain. How dare they come in here making a nuisance of themselves? Someone should really do something about it: it’s not on. What a debacle. Is nothing sacred?

Nevertheless the reaction of the new man is quite interesting: there’s chaos and consternation all around but he seems pretty unfazed by it all. I can’t be doing with these people, they make me feel uncomfortable and I don’t know how to deal with them but this man Jesus points to him and says – but not to him as such – “Come out.” Just like that. Not “Get out” as in “Get out you nuisance. Push off you’ve spoilt my sermon.” But “Come out”, something quite different. Actually, now that I think about it, it was “Be silent and come out.”

Now, of course everyone’s watching to see how this is going to be resolved. I can see the elders gathering together, presumably trying to come up with some abject apology. “I’m terribly sorry that this should’ve happened in our synagogue. I can’t think how it happened. We normally have a very strict policy about keeping drunks and crazies out.” That sort of thing.

And then the man stops his ranting and raving and has a sort of convulsion thing which is really quite unpleasant and disturbing. And then he stands up – perfectly calm and returned to his senses.

I think I may have just watched something very profound – although I’m not entirely clear what happened, and, again as I look around the room it’s clear that everyone else is pretty gobsmacked too.

It’s a real turn up for the books this, because he was pretty impressive before, but now – it’s this authority thing again – that he could turn around a situation like that, without getting all heavy about it, or all hurt pride or whatever and maintain that persona. So impressive. That’s …. that’s a different sort of authority, and what’s absolutely certain is that the man is profoundly changed.

Everyone else is crowding around Jesus and I wanted to press the flesh too but then that bloody donkey came stampeding through …….

Demon possession. I don’t know about you but the rational me struggles with the idea. I remember hearing a sermon on “Powers and Principalities” from Ephesians and the preacher spoke with a real conviction of the realities of spiritual warfare. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

I don’t often think about spiritual forces of evil. Evil, yes, absolutely but I don’t tend to tie that in with a concept of spiritual warfare. My understanding of evil sits fairly and squarely within the doctrine of free will. Evil is what we do to each other and we don’t need any help with that from outside forces. Demons? It’s the stuff of Hammer Horror and I’m sorry, I’m going to have to defer. I’m not prepared to dismiss it out of hand but it’s outside my experience and I need to look into it more but the Jews of that day believed, without reservation, that human beings could be possessed by demons.

There is, of course, a body of thought which argues that there was no medical understanding of mental illness in the first century: no understanding of epilepsy, autism or a range of psychological disorders and I find that a very compelling argument. What modern medicine diagnoses fairly easily, the first century could only account for as demon possession. I don’t doubt that that’s true to a greater extent but it still seems too easy an explanation. But the point is: healing is healing. The man was healed. Does it really matter what his condition was? We know that it was acute and we know that Jesus healed him and maybe that’s the key element of this incident in the life of Jesus. However we understand exorcisms, those reported from the ancient world or from present day cultures unlike our own, something real is happening. People are being set free. Physical contortions and hugely dramatic moments will occur in many different therapies, whether the frame of thought is demonology or psychotherapy.

Notice that the unclean spirit begins by using public information to identify that it knows who Jesus is – knows Jesus’ origins: “I know who you are (socially)” – Jesus of Nazareth. But then it goes on to reveal hidden information, “I know who you are (spiritually)” – the Holy One of God. It’s this spiritual status that is the source of Jesus' authority.

The actions of the unclean spirit are actually provoked by the teaching of Jesus - they are an immediate response to his teaching with authority. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often but most of us have been in situations where the demonic in its broadest sense has manifested itself in some outburst or disagreement within the church family and that can be very disturbing and distressing as people we have known and loved seem to act suddenly completely out of character - to say nothing of the stranger who may invade our space and cause mayhem because of their personal demons: we may not count alcoholism, for instance, as demon possession in the first century sense but such people are just as surely bound by their addictions – as is Mick, the crack addict in “Rev”. I’ve thought a lot about him this week and the poignant episode where Adam - and a rather more reluctant Alex, almost succeed in getting him clean before he is overwhelmed again. Once again Adam, against all the advice of others tries to do the “right” thing by Mick and offer that unconditional love and support that might eventually lead Mick to healing, and those of us watching are rooting for Adam while probably secretly agreeing with the Archdeacon that his actions are probably not that wise. We want Adam to succeed because Adam is our Jesus in that situation dealing with his own domestic demoniac.

Is that the lesson for us today from this story? It might be for some of us but who wants to get involved with drunks and druggies? What was it that Augustine said? “Make me holy Lord, but not yet!” This Gospel story is inspiring: but the modern application, which we should be looking for, is very challenging.

I once found myself being interviewed by a man who insisted on using my name … no, overusing my name. It was very clever and very subtle and, actually, it had quite the opposite effect to the one he wanted. Rather than winning me over (to what I wondered afterwards) he made me feel uncomfortable and irritated by his overfamiliarity. It was a power play. Claiming knowledge seems to have been a power game then among demons – as it is now! Naming is supposed to allow one to control what or who is named. This demon got his Christology right but as I think most of have discovered he wouldn’t by any means be the last to think that getting the theology right is a fine way to silence Jesus – or in our terms, perhaps, authentic religion or theological discussion.

Is that our lesson from today’s reading? Are we to be on our guard for those who misuse scripture or twist Christian teaching for their own agendas? Perhaps so, for some of us. After all aren’t there plenty of people out there who preach a gospel we don’t recognise? And shouldn’t they be challenged? Have you listened to some of the street preachers, perhaps the ones outside Debenham’s on a Saturday, with their Old Testament Gospel of wrath and judgement which says nothing of the love of God? Inauthentic religion.

Or is today’s lesson for us related to the authority with which Jesus speaks? It’s much remarked on in the passage. This is the first episode in Jesus’ ministry following the call of the disciples. Following the conventions of such ancient ways of writing we would expect the passage to hold important clues about what is to come. Authority is also the first main theme in the collection of controversy stories that follow over the next couple of chapters of Mark.

It certainly looks as if the people’s amazement wasn’t so much in relation to the content of Jesus’ teaching as it was in relation to the authority with which he taught. (I missed that the first time round.) And it’s really frustrating that Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was teaching, preferring to tell us more about the effects of his teaching. Come on Mark. Get a grip!

However, we do know that Jesus has been teaching about the Kingdom. We can only speculate about what Jesus taught on this occasion but maybe it’s not too fanciful to imagine he continued with the theme of the Kingdom with its emphasis on liberation and the disempowering of oppression. ‘And not as the scribes’ in v22 is an important clue. How did they teach? From Mark’s gospel we would have to conclude that much of their teaching was concerned with the finer points of religious Law. Could there be a connection between his teaching being "new" and its "authority"? The scribes taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means and his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scriptures or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes. The important thing is liberation, setting people free.

Am I speaking with that authority when I speak to others of Jesus? In the context of this passage my own attempts at witness sound pathetically apologetic. Am I offering something new when I speak of Jesus? There’s a big part of me which thinks, as I consider this passage, that Jesus’ teaching was prophetic in contrast with what must have seemed stale and formulaic. To speak with authority today shouldn’t we be moving away from the tried and tested and not be apologetic to speak to the people of our own generation about liberation from the structures of oppression? I just wonder how many of you, when you heard the news that the Archbishop of York spoke out against the legislation to pave the way for marriage equality, felt that he had spoken in the old legalistic way of the scribes, whereas our own Bishop has spoken in favour of disempowering oppression when he challenged the government over child benefit.

In terms of liberating the soul of the church, then: Archbishop Tutu or Archbishop Carey? Which is the voice of the old way and which the voice of the new? The Anglican Covenant: the legalism of the old way or the prophetic way of the new?

So, three ideas which struck me from today’s gospel:

• Is the challenge to meet and work with the demoniacs?
• Is the challenge to confront inauthentic religion wherever we find it?
• Is the challenge to be less apologetic and to speak with prophetic authority?

There may be others but three’s enough to be occupying our thoughts.

Oh ... and watch out for the donkey.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Sir. Thought provoking for sure!!

  2. I love the donkey too. It just goes to show - there's a jackass in every crowd. Good job here.

  3. Well put together and what the others said. I enjoyed it.