Fourth Sunday of Epiphany Deuteronomy 18:15-22, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
I have to confess this morning something which has plagued my mind of late.
I think I might be an Atheist.
Or functionally one at least.
These habits of prayer and devotion that clearly come naturally to him are not unfamiliar to me. One might cross themselves with holy water when coming into a church to remind themselves of their baptism, as a witness that we come into the Church by being born again of water and Spirit. In a church where consecrated bread is reserved, usually in an ornate box called a Tabernacle or an Ambry, one might genuflect before it in recognition that Jesus is spiritually and uniquely present in the Sacrament. Showing reverence by bowing to the Lord’s Table is an anticipation that at that Table when God’s people are gathered, that Jesus will be present to give spiritual food and drink to his people.
It is one thing to know about these forms of devotion, bodily prayers if you will, and quite another to inhabit them as comfortably as my friend does. For it is not just knowledge of ritual or being shown by example that one comes to dwell in these spiritual habits, but by a pervading sense that the world is not just that which can be seen by our eyes or heard by our ears. No, the spiritual life depends partly on the deep sense that we participate in an enchanted world, shot through with the supernatural, invisible to those who have chosen not to see it, but real to those who believe what they read in their Bibles, and who are willing to let the saints of old tell their stories.
I confessed earlier to being functionally an Atheist. I say this because that sense of a unseen world, a mysterious world, a sacramental world, does not come naturally to me. Perhaps it is because of my generation or my background. Perhaps it is because I am a convert to Christianity. Nevertheless it means that when I am faced with a reading from scripture such as our Gospel this morning, I am at first inclined to search for some sensible, practical, moral application. Or worse still, the eyes of my intellect see the word “unclean spirit” and read instead “mental illness”.
But it is not as though those who wrote down the scriptures would have been unfamiliar with what we call mental illness. It clearly isn’t the case that “unclean spirit” or “demon” has always been a metaphor for mental illness, because then it would appear more frequently in the Bible. But as it is these incidents seem to appear mostly in the Gospels and Acts. If the Evangelists are in fact not simply making wildly ignorant and offensive remarks about people suffering mental illness, we must then contend with the idea that they are reporting what actually happened.
And suddenly I must reckon with a world filled with that which I do not understand.
In the apocalyptic retelling of the Birth of Christ in Revelation 12, the Seer reports the words of a heavenly voice “woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
Could this be how we make sense of the sudden appearance of demons in the pages of the Gospels? Is this a last stand from the great Enemy of all living things, who has come to earth in great wrath to oppose the Son of God to his face; to prevent if at all possible, the salvation of the world?
In Mark’s account of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the people marvel at Jesus’ teaching. They had become accustomed to speculation from the pulpit, with the other Rabbis rooting their teaching in a long tradition of teachers who preceded them, relying on their authority in much the same way a student might quote from renowned academic sources before venturing to offer their half-baked take about who exactly the Lion in “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” is supposed to represent.
But Jesus doesn’t sit in the teaching seat and give his best guess at what God’s word to his people is. He is the Word of God made flesh, the perfect image of the Invisible God, the creator of all things taking on human flesh. When he teaches, he teaches with authority. And it is when that cloud of confusion is lifted and the word of God presented clearly that the Unclean Spirit speaks up. Presumably this man possessed of the demon would sit patiently through other teachers, perhaps even praising their ability to preach at fellowship hour. But in the presence of Jesus it speaks up,
“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”
How long had this man been attending the Synagogue, possessed of this evil, and the evil had never been offended by anything that was taught? How many Rabbis had come through and preached to the devil himself, and had heard a hearty “Amen” in response?
The presence of these hitherto invisible enemies of God’s purposes is a witness to the futility and failure of the project of the Rabbis, Pharisees, and teachers of the Law. Though successful in bringing about a kind of almost radical observance of the Torah, as evidenced by their strict laws about hand washing, working on the Sabbath, and that they were able to keep themselves from the idolatrous practices of their Roman overlords, were nevertheless variously ignorant of, or powerless against, this most ancient of foes.
It seems they had taken the message of the Prophets very seriously, who had foretold the judgement of God for their disobedience. That judgement ultimately resulting in the Babylonian conquest of the promised land and the exile. Taking seriously that danger, these religious authorities of Jesus’ day had in many ways succeeded where their ancestors had failed.
And yet the people of God were beset by enemies innumerable and unseen.
Now these laws found in the Torah were given in ancient times through the great prophet Moses. Moses was the one through whom God liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, showing many signs of his power and might, and leading them through a wilderness into the promised land. The Torah, what we call Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, recounts how God purposed to save humanity from their sins and bring them back into the holy fellowship for which they were made. The exodus, or the liberation from slavery, is one of the clearest witnesses to this greater reality. As God chose a weak and suffering people to show his glory on the earth, so God has chosen to liberate all of creation from the bondage of sin and death. Yet even Moses was an imperfect prophet. It was his disobedience and faithlessness which meant that he did not lead the people into the Promised Land. God instead raised up another prophet, Joshua, to cross the Jordan river and dwell finally in the good land promised to their ancestors.
And it is by Joshua’s hand that the word spoken to Abraham in Genesis 15 would find its fulfillment. In that time God had said that the “iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”. Generations later Joshua crosses the Jordan river and, according to God’s pronouncement of judgement, drives the Amorites from the Canaan.
Freedom from captivity, the teaching of a new way to live, and overthrowing evil are all a sign of God’s saving work. Moses through his unbelief was not the one by whom this fuller vision of salvation came to be, but, as we read in our Old Testament lesson this morning, God promised to raise up for his people new Prophets who would carry on that work of furthering God’s good purposes.
And so we find ourselves in Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which is fed by the river Jordan, in a place of instruction in God’s ways, a Synagogue. Sitting in the place of the teacher is a new prophet, one like Moses who teaches not his best guess but the very word of God.
But that which besets God’s people, and indeed all of creation, is not simply a lack of knowledge. Knowing the right thing to do is no guarantee of such being done. This is a truism obvious to all of us. We are beleaguered not just by ignorance, but by evil. It is often invisible to us, but that the Word of God would bring it out into the open.
Jesus is the new Moses, and he is the new Joshua. When he speaks, God speaks, and his actions are God’s actions. He teaches, and he also conquers. But the enemy he has come to conquer is not some group of wrongdoers, perhaps as some had hoped the Messiah would do to the Romans, but the primal nemesis of all of God’s good purposes. Satan, the devil, the accuser, and all his horde.
With Jesus walking the earth the conflict between God and the enemies of God reaches a climax, and right at the start of his ministry we see that Jesus is in no way threatened, overcome, or confounded by the evil he finds dwelling in the midst of those who are called to be God’s holy people.
No, by his word he conquers. He frees those beset by evils they cannot overcome by themselves. What good news this is!
Even in a rational, sensible, and material world where many of us will believe only what our eyes see, who live day-to-day in an unsacramental world as functional athiests.
This ministry of banishing evil continues today. We often call this “exorcism”, and you can find a clear example of it in our service of Baptism in the Prayer Book. After the profession of faith, the Celebrant prays “Almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness and evil, and lead you into the light and obedience of the kingdom of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord”. If you’ve ever invited Steve to come and bless your house, which you really should if you have not, he will also pray an exorcism as part of the service.
These sorts of prayers are often written off as a little redundant, because we know that God works the miracle of new birth in Baptism, and wherever God’s word is proclaimed those invisible forces of spiritual evil are banished. But it is necessary for me to be reminded explicitly that I do not dwell in a world comprised only of what my eyes see.
Not so that I would be afraid of shadows or ghouls going bump in the night, but that I might more fully understand the world as it really is, and glimpse the cosmic, supernatural, and sacramental scope of Christ’s saving work.
Thanks be to God for sending his Son to save sinners, who are captive not to the chains of the Egyptians but the bondage of wickedness deep in the heart, and are assaulted on every side by enemies who desire nothing but their everlasting condemnation. Thanks be to God that Jesus vanquishes these foes for us, and leads us into the promised land of everlasting fellowship with him and all his saints. Thanks be to God for Jesus, who continues to overcome evil with good even now, through his people who are filled with his Spirit.