The Devil made me do it.
It’s a famous catch phrase from Flip Wilson, an icon in the comedy world. This phrase became a part of our American culture very quickly. When he talked of a woman buying a dress at the store, the third one that week, she used the excuse “The devil made me do it.” And we laughed.
It has become a very common theme in our thoughts, comedy, even children’s cartoons. You all remember the angle and devil siting on Tom or Jerry’s shoulders influencing their behavior? Would they listen to the saccharin sweet voice of the angel or the gruff fun-loving guy in red? And we laughed.
Because its easier to laugh at those things that make us uncomfortable. Because we deep down don’t want to admit that evil is real, that bad things happen to good people, that demons don’t always dress in red. To quote author Tucker Max “The devil doesn’t show up dressed in a red cape with pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for.”
In our world, yes even in the world of the church, it is easier to poke fun at evil than to address its reality. We Presbyterians like to do things decently and in order, we don’t have time for this “supernatural stuff.” I remember discussing whether spirits/demons still existed with a fellow seminary student. He told me that demons or unclean spirits were just the way that ancient people dealt with things like epilepsy, cancer, migraine headache and mental illness. It was a catch all to explain the unexplained. After sitting there for a while I asked, “Then why does Jesus waste time talking to them?”
In the gospel of Mark Jesus spends a good deal of time dealing with these unclean spirits. Specifically casting them out of the people they have held captive. And while I do believe that some of these instances are probable explained by some of our modern medical issues, that doesn’t make them any less real. And I think we still encounter them today.
In our scripture this morning, Jesus has gone into Capernaum and is teaching in the synagogue. Mark moves his narrative of Jesus along very quickly, with a heavy use of the word immediately. In Mark Jesus’ public ministry only lasts a year, so he keeps things a quick pace.
We are not given the details of his teaching, this teaching with authority. In Matthew and Luke, we get detailed notes on Jesus’ teachings, like the sermon on the mount and sermon on the plain, but Mark doesn’t take time to do that. Instead he tells us Jesus taught with authority. Then he shows us what that authority looked like.
Jesus is on the synagogue, the center of worship and faith for the local people of Israel. This is where they came to learn, to discuss, to worship, to celebrate, to mourn, to question. It was the place where the faithful gathered to hear the word of God interpreted and to seek guidance. Sound familiar?
It was the church, the local community of believers doing the best they could to follow the rules of the faith in a world oppressed by the romans and filled with all sorts of potholes. SO, the faithful gathered, in theory, to keep one another accountable, to encourage one another. But the leaders of the day had gone from encouragement to perfectionism. It had become a museum for saints instead of a hospital for sinners. It became a place to show how holy you were, instead of how holy God is.
I can’t imagine the wonder people would have felt to hear Jesus teaching, a new teaching, with authority. He wasn’t quoting the past leaders of the synagogue, or the great former priests. Instead he spoke with his own level of authority- interpreting the scriptures directly. If this was a shock, what happened next was unbelievable.
There amid the people of God, immediately, Mark says, there is a man with an unclean spirit that 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."
Take a step back. There is an unclean spirit possessed man chilling in the synagogue? Say what? There were so many rules and regulations about who could and who could not worship, where people could sit, or stand, how they washed their hands, feet, even whole selves, so how did a known demon possessed man get into the synagogue?
I read several commentaries about this lesson and without fail they said that someone with an unclean spirit, even a suspected demon possessed person, would have been ostracized. They would have been shunned, considered unclean. People, respectable people at least, would not associate with them. They speak as if this well-known demon possessed man just happened to sneak into the worship service without notice.
That doesn’t ring true to me, or to my reading of the scripture. I think something much different, and perhaps more disturbing is happening here.
The man is in the community, a part of the community. Possibly even an upstanding part of the community of faith. From the outside he looks pulled together, righteous even. But within him is an unclean spirit, a spirit contrary to the will and works of God. Faced with the real honest truth of the word of God he can no longer hide his possession. The unclean spirit is threatened and 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."
When Jesus shows up in church it is challenging. When Jesus shows up at church it is life changing. When Jesus shows up at church, even there he exposes the spirits that are contrary to the work and will of God.
Throughout the remainder of the Gospel of Mark Jesus will encounter unclean spirits, demons. He will call them out, he will cast them into the abyss or into the swine herds. He will not let the people of God to remain infected with these spirits. But the first one he calls out is in the house of worship. This is important to Mark, and important to us.
When Jesus comes into your church he comes to set you free. This is good news, but it is not always welcome news. The liberating power of Jesus rubs against the powers that be in such a way as to cause disruption, fear, and push back.
"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."
Have you come to destroy us? The answer is a resounding yes, and step by step in the Gospel of Mark Jesus goes about destroying any and all unclean spirits that come into his path, whether they be in the church, or in the political sphere, in homes or by tombs.
What does this have to do with us today? Plenty. You see there are still unclean spirits around today. And just like in Jesus’ day they are not always easy to spot. You don’t always find them in expected places. They lurk in places that from the outside appear healthy, clean, even good- like places of leadership and power, schools, capitals, and yes, even churches. They can hide because as a society we have reduced them to a joke, a punch line “The devil made me do it.” But let me assure you all, they are not a punch line, they are real.
They manifest in many different forms. I don’t think that any of us can look at the current addictions crisis in the USA and honestly think there is not something more than meets the eye. These are not isolated individuals who were born bad and therefor some how deserve the pain and anguish caused by addictions.
I hope that none of us can look at the increase in mass shootings and school shootings in this country and think there is nothing more than bad parenting and poor security at its roots.
I hope that in this city, where just this month, at least 4 people have been killed and 4 others wounded by gun violence, one of whom is a member at our sister church, Church Street, and think that there isn’t more going on then living on the wrong side of the tracks.
Institutional demons or racism, poverty, sexism, they are real. I believe at my core that they are not just policies and procedures that have become bad or harmful, but that at their root there is an unclean spirit, a spirit against God and the will and work of God.
Demons are personal as well. Individuals face demons, created by others, created by hate or loss or pain of course. But also, those with an honest to goodness spiritual component.
I know, its not something we talk about, but its real. Just look at this scripture.
Jesus, who just verses before is confirmed as being possessed by the Spirit of God comes into the place of worship and the Spirit of God is so powerful it causes the demon to cry out, to expose itself.
If I could talk to each of you, one on one, I could tell stories of encounters with unclean spirits, with demons. Those where I have witnessed the power of the holy spirit to cast them out. I could tell you of places where you walked in and knew something was not right. I can tell you of thin places, where the space between heaven and earth seemed to all but disappear.
And my guess is that many of you have these same stories, you just don’t talk about them in polite conversation because our modern world is somehow above all of that spiritual non-sense.
But here is the truth, and we will hear it a lot in the gospel of Mark, just like the line between sacred and secular doesn’t exist, everything every aspect of our lives is sacred. Likewise, every aspect of our lives is spiritual. We are not just flesh and bone, but spiritual beings. To deny that reality is to enter into a type of dualism that winds up denying the power of God all together.
As Ephesians 6 v 12 tells us “12 For our[b] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
This new teaching with authority that Jesus brings about shook the foundations of not only the synagogue, not only the Roman empire, but the whole of the world. Its still shaking the powers that be, be they earthly or spiritual. The good news is that we know who wins, that the darkness cannot and will not put out the light of Christ. SO, let us carry that light with us into the darkest of places, casting out the demons, the unclean spirits, the things contrary to the work and will of God in Jesus name. Amen.