21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 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.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
I’ve been watching a lot of the TV show Scandal recently. It is a show about a high-powered attorney, Olivia Pope, and how she fixes other people’s problems. A significant part of the story line is her connection to the White House.
The Vice President Sally Langston is an extremely conservative politician who has always spoken of her Christian values and her faith in Jesus Christ as the foundation for her life and her politics. Well, in a recent episode, Sally is running for President in the upcoming election, and just weeks before Election Day, she finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, and it is about to go public, potentially ruining her political campaign and career. After a nasty argument and after he has threaten to give a “tell-all” interview, in a sudden and swift fit of rage, Sally Langston murdered her husband.
Like so many political scandals, Sally and her friends did what they could to cover it up. They made it look like a heart attack in his sleep. A couple of days later, her campaign manager, who knows everything, made references to this grave sin of hers, and suddenly Sally Langston stiffens her spine, looks him in the eye, and says, “I did not murder my husband. The devil murdered my husband when he snuck inside me. And the reason that I was not vigilant, the reason I did not rise up and turn the devil away is that he distracted me. With pride…I let the devil inside of me and he used my hand as a vessel of murder, a vessel of sin.”
She was possessed, she says. The devil made her do it. I don’t know about you, but that always sounds like an easy excuse to me. An opportunity to not take responsibility for your actions, and blame it on someone else, and when there is no one else – blame the devil.
But it does raise an interesting question: is anyone possessed with the devil or demons anymore? Do we even believe in demon possession?
That’s the first thing that comes to my mind when I hear a text like our gospel reading for today. A text that involves being possessed by an evil spirit.
As the story goes, Jesus has just entered the town of Capernaum and he starts teaching in the synagogue, the church, one morning. And the people liked what they heard. It was a little different than their usual preacher and it was a nice change of pace. But then, suddenly, at the back of the room, a guy stands up mumbling a bunch of nonsense. He was clearly not in his right mind. Possessed by an unclean spirit, the text says. And as he gets closer and closer to Jesus, he gets louder and louder. “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 just yelled louder, telling this evil spirit to shut up and get the hell out. And it did. And everyone was amazed.
I never know what to do with stories like this in the Bible. I can’t help but wonder, how does this even matter to us today? Does that even still happen in this day an age? It seems like something that might still happen in a third world country where I arrogantly think they don’t know any better. But here in America, do we think people are possessed by demons and need an exorcism? I can honestly say that I have never been in a situation where someone did something out of the ordinary and my first thought was – they must be possessed by evil spirit. I have never thought that! Now, I might think someone is suffering from mental illness. Or a medical emergency. Some have said that perhaps those who were viewed as being possessed by a demon in the past, were simply having an epileptic seizure. They just didn’t know what to call it or what it was back then. Maybe that’s what was going on – a medical issue and not a spiritual one.
And I can tell you this – nowhere in my seminary training was there ever a class, or even the option of a class on how to perform an exorcism. So, clearly, seminaries and seminary professors are not that concerned with demon possession either. Therefore, I’m just saying, if you find yourself possessed with a demon, do not call me. I will have absolutely no idea what I am doing.
But maybe it doesn’t matter whether people are possessed by demons or whether it is mental illness or just a really bad day. Because the moment that I start to try to explain it away or make sense of it, the story loses all meaning and I have no use for it. When in fact, I think this story is trying to tell us something about ourselves and something about God. I may not be quick to believe in demon possession, but as preacher Fred Craddock has said, “(N)ot believing in demons has hardly (eliminated) evil in our world.”
We may not be sure what we think about demons, but I think we can all agree that evil is still alive and well, both in the world and in our own life.
I learned this past week that a group of police officers in Miami were using mug shots of black men for target practice at the shooting range. The way the story got out? A woman serving in the Florida National Guard was at the shooting range for her annual gun training, when she recognized that her own brother’s mug shot was being used for target practice. I think we can all agree that there is something wrong with that. And when I read stories like that, in 2015, I cannot help but think that our culture is still possessed by racism and fear of people who are different than us. And it is an evil possession.
Now, I would be arrogant and self-righteous if I didn’t look at my own life. Have I ever been possessed? Of course I have. I have done things, said things, behaved in certain ways, where afterwards I wondered, “Who was that guy? That wasn’t me.” There are still times in my life where I have felt held or controlled by a level of anger that I never knew was in me.
I’m sure all of us here in someway can relate. We all have our demons, if we can put it that way. All of us have suffered in someway from something that has taken ahold of us, and caused us to do something we didn’t want to do – whether it is an addiction, or depression, or an obsessive compulsion, or anger, or jealousy, or an overwhelming need for attention. We all have done things in our life that have been either destructive to ourselves or destructive to others, that has left us unrecognizable, even to ourselves.
So before I dismiss this story as something that is outdated and think that it has nothing to do with me, we had better think again. Because what we learn is that at some point in our life, all of us are the person with the unclean spirit in need of an exorcism.
But just as this text is meant, I think, to teach us something about ourselves, it is also meant to teach us something about the God revealed to us in Jesus.
A couple of things catch my attention. First, the evil spirit in the room is the only one who recognizes Jesus for who he really is. Sure, everyone in the synagogue is enthralled with the sermon that Jesus is giving them that morning in church, but that doesn’t mean that they understand who he is. Even after he casts out the demon, they still are a little unsure – what is this? A new teaching? Who is this guy?
But the evil spirit knows. 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. I know who you are, the Holy One of God. Have you come to destroy us?
The evil spirit in the room is the only one who really recognizes Jesus for who he is. Why? Because evil spirits always know when God is around, because God is there to destroy them.
One of my favorite parts about being a pastor is the opportunity to do pre-marital counseling with couples before their wedding. And whenever a couple asks if I will perform their wedding ceremony, I always tell them that I like to do pre-marital counseling before the wedding to give them the best chance at having a healthy and strong marriage. Now, some couples hear that and think, “Cool. Let’s do it. Sounds like fun.” But a lot of couples are suspicious of it. And some even say no to the counseling. And it is the ones who say no that are the ones who I think need it the most. You see, they say no, because they know that it will involve looking at the evil spirits within their relationship, the unhealthy and harmful parts of their relationship, and working to destroy them. But evil spirits don’t like to be destroyed.
I know who you are, Jesus, the Holy One of God. Have you come to destroy us? Yup, Jesus says.
Our demons always recognize who Jesus is and they are afraid of him, because they know that Jesus will try to destroy them. Jesus is always trying to destroy the things in our life that divide us rather than bring us together, or that plant seeds of hate and resentment instead of love and compassion, or the things that tear us down, rather than build us up. The things that curse us, rather than bless us.
Jesus is always coming to destroy the evil within us.
Now that might sound scary and frightening. But I noticed one more thing in the text.
Jesus doesn’t throw the person out of the synagogue. He throws the evil spirit out. You see, part of culture back in Jesus’ day was to keep the unclean away from those who were considered clean. So this poor man in the synagogue wouldn’t have lasted long, because he would have been quickly cast off into isolation with the others viewed as unclean and unworthy of being in the presence of God. And I think that is so true about our own lives. When our own demons grab a hold of us, the more and more isolated we become and the more and more unlovable we think we are. So often we want to cast out the person possessed by the evil. To demonize the person.
But unlike the culture of the day, Jesus doesn’t throw the man out. Only the evil spirit. You see, Jesus is coming not to destroy us, but to destroy the evil within us.
When we see someone possessed by their own demons, it’s always easy for us to want to just discard the person. It would be easy for me to think of those cops in Miami as clueless, racist men who should be fired from their jobs and run out of town. But Jesus won’t let me think that. Because Jesus does not cast out the person, he casts out the evil within the person. So I think God calls me to view those police officers as the children of God that they are, who have been gripped by an evil spirit of racism that Jesus wants to cast out once and for all.
Jesus is coming not to destroy us, but to destroy the evil within us.
And God will do that in all sorts of ways. Sometimes, God will destroy that evil in a quick and dramatic moment of grace and mercy. And sometimes it will take time. But I think one of God’s favorite ways to destroy the evil within us is through what happens right here at this table. By feeding you and blessing you and reminding you over and over again just how loved and valuable you are. So whatever that evil within you is, you can just leave it right up here. And let God throw it out. Because it no longer gets a say in your life. Only God gets a say in your life, and God says that you are never discardable. You are chosen as sons and daughters of God. Which means God will never leave us abandoned to our evil ways. But rather God will fight to the death to save us from ourselves. Amen.