DEUTERONOMY 18:15-20; 1 CORINTHIANS 8:1-13; MARK 1:21-28
In the texts for today, we have a Lutheran friendly options and a less- friendly option. In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul is building up to his big chapter on love in community. He leads up to it with discussions about food and respecting those around. This is Lutheran-friendly. Be we German, Norwegian, Swede or some other Lutheran extraction, we know those who tout the spiritual dimensions of lutefisk and Jello salad and those who would rather avoid those foods. Lutherans know about food.
In the Deuteronomy text, God speaks through Moses to the Israelites one last time at the end of Moses’ life. God promises to raise up another prophet, an important promise for the Israelites and one that points us to the authority of the One who is to come. Certainly, this is a text that Lutherans can embrace.
But then we come to that Gospel passage and a section that causes some Lutheran nerves to jump. Is this an exorcism? The casting out of demons? That seems like it might involve some movement, some excitement, some touching. I honestly haven’t noticed this congregation as having a problem with any of those things, but until now I haven’t talked about exorcisms.
Let’s think about the context of today’s story. In Mark, Jesus appears suddenly, is baptized, is immediately driven into the wilderness to be tempted and comes out from that experience- calling disciples, healing and teaching all over the place. When he comes to the local synagogue in Capernaum, he goes in and starts teaching.
This wasn’t very unusual. There were many itinerant rabbis at the time who traveled around and who had specialized areas of knowledge. However, this particular rabbi did not sit down and begin speaking about what the Torah or the historical rabbis had to say about dietary laws or sacrifice. He sat down and started talking about what God had to say. About what God’s desires. About God’s expectations.
There wasn’t hemming and hawing. Here was clear authority and understanding of what the Creator expected of the created. Crowds were stunned and you can imagine them murmuring, “Who is this guy? How does he know this? How can he speak this way?”
But in the crowd, there are beings that know exactly why Jesus can speak with this authority. And it scares them. It terrifies them.
Why was the demon-possessed man in the crowd that day? Maybe his family had brought him to pray for healing. Maybe they could not leave him at home because he would hurt himself. Maybe he no longer had a home and wandered the streets of Capernaum, begging and struggling with his affliction. Whatever his circumstances, he appeared in that crowd and the demons within trembled at the name of Jesus.
So, why does the demon cry out and identify Jesus? If enough of a scene can be made, Jesus won’t have the chance to teach. He won’t be able to overcome the crowd’s offense at the idea that he is God. The people are only beginning to adjust to his new teaching style- the whys and wherefores may be beyond what they can grasp.
So Jesus silences the unclean spirit and commands it to release its parasitical hold on the man. Suddenly, in the midst of the crowd is the man they knew previously- their neighbor or brother, their father or their friend. He is recognizable and he recognizes him. They look at him and then they turn and look at Jesus in a new light. Something is a little different here. This rabbi is not the same as the others. And he’s not quite like the other faith healers or magicians. Something here is very, very different. This man’s power comes from somewhere, somewhere else.
What does this story mean for us? In our world today, some people believe demons to be the cause of autism, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, dementia or other illnesses. Each year people die because very well meaning family members and faithful church attendees try to cast the demons out of people with these and other various afflictions. And then there is additional pain because of the death of the child or adult and the possible legal ramifications that follow.
This brings us to some difficult questions. Does exorcism still have a place in Christian life? Are we called to do them? What would Jesus do- he would command the demons to leave? What can we do?
I’m going to put this out to you to consider. In the centuries since this story took place, our understanding of our bodies has increased in leaps and bounds. We know even more now about the miracles of our brains, our nervous system, our circulatory system, our skeletal system. We have come to understand even more that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. And we have come to know, as well, the depth of mystery that remains within us about how some things happen and some things work.
As we have become more sophisticated in our knowledge, the forces that oppose God and try to tempt us from faith have to increase their efforts as well. In our day and time, it is not demons that cause illnesses, but demons that accompany illnesses.
At the edge of our diagnoses are despair, loneliness, fear, doubt, guilt, grief, and a host of other little pulls that steal our joy in life, our hope in Christ and our faith in the truth of the Word of God.
These are precisely the demons that we are called to exorcise. You are. I am. We exorcise them by saying their name and banishing them. Despair is sent to hell through encouragement. Loneliness, through companionship. Fear, through prayer and information. And so it goes. By fervently exercising our faith through caring for our neighbor, we can exorcise their demons and ours.
I haven’t ever seen the Exorcist and I don’t want or need to, but I do know the most famous line from that movie is the priest saying to the demon inside the young woman, “The love of Christ compels you”- a verse from 2 Corinthians.
And so it does. Christ’s love for the man in the crowd compelled the unclean spirit to flee his presence. Christ’s own love for us compels our own demons to leave us. However, it is also Christ’s love for us that compels us to help the people around us deal with the negativity, the pain and the unclean spirits that torment them.
When we take a casserole, when we help someone deal with a disability, we speaks someone’s name and they recognize us through their cloud of confusion… in all these situations and more, we can exorcise the demons that plague their souls.
Embrace your Lutheran heritage- the faith that you have been saved by God’s grace and are free to love all those around you. Embrace that freedom and use it for the good of God’s whole creation. Reach out and touch somebody because daily exorcising is necessary for healthy faith. Christ has given you the authority through your baptism to all these things and more. And besides that, the love of Christ compels you.