Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany — Tyler Hambley

“The Haunting, Holy One of God”

OT: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm: 111
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Gospel: Mark 1:21-28

I’ll never forget watching the movie, The Exorcist, late one evening while in high school. There’s nothing quite like a Hollywood take on demon-possession to keep you up all night clutching your pillowcase. For me, just the thought of a person’s agency – their ability to act on their own – being taken over by an unseen force is enough to send chills down my spine.

Likewise, I’m not sure there’s anything I’d rather avoid in a sermon than what we find in our gospel reading this morning – a man possessed by an unclean spirit. Of course, the safe thing to do here would be to leave this demon-possessed man at the arms-length distance of the text. After all, his role in the story alone is important, albeit in a negative sense: he ironically reveals the true identity of Jesus as “the Holy One of God” when no one else knew quite what to do with this new teacher of authority. Yes, we could stop there and let this afflicted man be, but what refuses to stay hidden in this text is the stark contrast of this unclean spirit challenging Jesus – not just anywhere – but right in the middle of the synagogue on the Sabbath day.

Two reactions are immediate for me concerning this encounter:

First, anger and repulsion. This is sacred space and time after all. The educated scribes and faithful onlookers belong there; this demon-possessed man does not! But my second reaction is one of sympathy and compassion, for whoever this man is, whatever small piece of him is left, he, too, belongs in the presence of God, does he not? Indeed, Christ himself says he did not come to heal those who are healthy, but those who are sick. Still, Jesus’ response seems to encompass both repulsion and compassion in the mere fact that he does not allow the demon to conflate itself with the man. “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!” No… there is no united “us” to be destroyed here. Instead, Jesus powerfully separates this demon from the man: “Be silent! Come out of him,” he tells the unclean spirit!

Clearly, Christ holds a deeper communion with the man than does this spirit, and perhaps that is the reason the crowd was so astounded by his authority, for the educated scribes representing the rulers of the world did not call forth such power on behalf of the people. Here already, we see that Jesus’ struggle against the demonic engages not just a purely spiritual reality, but also the political conflict between the King of Kings and the world’s authorities. Of course, as we know, this conflict will eventually culminate in the drama of the cross.

But that’s later. For now, this story gets us asking questions that liberate the possessed man from the page, bringing him a little closer to home for us. Why is this spirit or demon the one that identifies Christ first? Where and how do these spirits roam nowadays? And if the synagogue on a Sabbath day, which is hosting the very Son of God, was not safe from such a spirit, what does that tell us about our own sacred space, here, at this very moment? These are haunting questions to tackle, no doubt.

But the dangers don’t end there. The moment we try to pin down such powers of compulsion in this day-and-age we run the risk of misidentifying them. We all know our modern, scientific world carries sufficient medical answers for nearly any presenting symptom, leaving us little room for naming the enchanted world of ghosts and spirits. Talk of such things sounds quite silly to our enlightened ears, like medieval folklore or pagan superstition. And of course, any quick identification of a person’s illness or disability with spiritual evil is a dubious exercise usually made by those who want distance from – not intimacy with – those whose lives look different from there own.

Beyond personal afflictions, however, the Apostle Paul seems to indicate that the demonic reside in the principalities and powers of our world, those systems of political and social arrangements that divide and oppress people. But this, too, can be tricky to name or trace exactly because such systems are so impersonal. Who’s causing what to whom?

In any case, even if we sometimes do stomach spiritual notions of angels, the Holy Ghost, or the real presence of Christ in bread and wine, the belief that evil spirits can come to possess human beings usually signals a complete flight from reason – a confusion of the highest degree. Angels and Demons, Exorcisms, heaven being for real, pure good triumphing over pure evil – these are things better left to less enlightened folks, or at the very least, Hollywood make believe, are they not?

And finally, the very idea of evil itself, that there is an absolute hostility between some things in our world and our Savior Lord, seems to run up against the routine experiences of every day life in first world America. Most of the time, my imagination stops far short of seeing ghosts or demons hiding out in the corners of restaurants and grocery stores. The Dean Dome? Maybe there, but that’s about as far as I go with it. And while there are unfortunate circumstances, pain, sorrow, even death that we all face, these things, even if seen as fallen aspects of our humanity, can be viewed, perhaps with some effort, through the light of soul affirming life cycles. The Apostle Paul even goes so far as to say suffering builds character – hard to see anything demonic or evil in that. Even the great St. Augustine tells us that evil is nothing – literally, not a thing with any positive substance. Evil is only a graded depletion of goodness, only a perverted distortion of something more fundamentally good.

So you see, evil seems to carry this ironic truth: the minute we think we have it identified, we run the risk of self-deception.

No wonder we preachers, and perhaps all of us, would rather avoid this confusing matter altogether. Parsing out regular human fallenness, or even goodness, from spiritually evil forces is an exercise far above most of our pay grades. Still, there must be something to say of evil, however fading it may appear. We may not be able to put our finger directly on it, but if this passage is any indication, we seem to know that something deeper and darker creeps up on humanity every now and again. No matter how hard we try, we can’t fully explain or hideaway the shadowy elements of our existence.

Let me risk a somewhat clumsy, but nevertheless palpable, observation. I’d venture to guess that many of us here at St. Joseph’s have sensed an unclean spirit around here before, whether figuratively or quite literally. We see trash pile up on our grounds; we smell liquor and urine outside our doors; we note trespasses that occur, either by others or by ourselves against others; and we hear the reports of terrible violence upon the vulnerable, whether physically direct or socially indirect. We may even have endured firsthand a physical or emotional assault that leaves us longing for the mercy of Christ’s healing. Like the unclean spirit in our gospel text manifesting itself in the middle of sacred time and space, our very church grounds have become the site of spiritual hostility. We’ve become all too aware that such things do not just occur in a spiritualized vacuum far out of reach from our bodily existence. Even a second glance at our passage unveils how demon-possessions are nothing if not an attack on physical and material reality. The man in our story was convulsing and crying out loud. Many of us here have seen this same scene up close.

Yet with all of this in view, however loosely, we must ask: is there good news to receive from this passage today? I think there is, but it may be a haunting kind of good news. You see, if there is one thing we can take away from this story today, it is that the gathered people of God become the site not only for the poor, for they will always be among us as our Lord says, and not only for the sick and suffering, whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, but it is also the site for Christ’s direct confrontation with those parts of our existence that are hostile to him.

Now, for as long as I’ve been here at St. Joe’s, I’ve been pleased by – and haunted by – the fact that this is a place not so easily cleaned up. One look at our property, and one can see the after effects of great human torments. Like the synagogue in our gospel reading, our church has become a place where personal, economic, and political evils leave traces. This is not to say that we should welcome unclean spirits. It is rather just the case that there are aspects of our world that are hostile to God, and, here, we do our best not to pretend them away.

Unfortunately this makes for some awkward scenes: urine and beer bottles, typical and not so typical conflicts among friends, litter and trash build up, even violence. Again, I have two reactions to these things: first, repulsion and anger: second, sympathy and compassion. Obviously, there are behaviors, actions taken, and lies told that indicate unclean spirits are hard at work ready to torment whoever gathers here. It’s hard to parse out what or who causes them. The gentleman in our gospel seems to be in complete bondage to something that has taken him over. I hesitate to think I can spot that sort of possession in our midst, or even that it could be an indirect result of our new neighborhood buildings and businesses sanitizing and pushing out the socially unclean, but nevertheless, the demonic feels close at hand around here.

Still, in our gospel reading, sacred space and time becomes the very site of deep, healing surgery. Here, we are called to gather and meet whatever gets exposed – in ourselves and in others – and to confront it with love. Here, we assemble not merely to hide away from our Lord those things or those people that cause us shame, but to bring such things out into the light of Christ. More and more, we are being called to make clean, not to cover over, that which causes us discomfort and affliction.

It’s easy to let this fundamental encounter with our Lord slip by us. We are tempted to reduce our faith to sentimental feelings or pop-psychology. And taking a hard look at our selves and our gathered community does not seem to lend itself to our already depleted energy banks. But such honesty is itself what we are invited to lay before God in the fellowship of prayer and worship. We do not have to hide where we are right now. Communion with our Lord goes deeper than all the other taxing burdens we think we must carry in isolation. This is good news because only when we come together here do we as the church make it possible for Christ to greet the world.

Well… soon… the season of Lent will be upon us once again. We will be called to submit our time, our space, our bodies, and our souls to the examination of our God. We will turn again to those practices, however little, that move us just a bit more out of the shadows that surround us. For in the end, the God who commands even the demons to flee, has the power to cut away those things that torment our life together – our lives as husbands and wives, parents and children, rich and poor, clean and unclean.

So come to our Lord’s table today fearing only the one who loves us, since it is only when we lay ourselves completely bare, that the unclean things in all our lives can point us back to our savior, for there is nothing – no thing! – not death, nor life that can separate us from the one who longs to free us. No demon, no matter how terrible, can keep us from this God for all of eternity. That which torments us cannot help but call forth our Lord into action. So may this place continue to gather the unclean pieces of our lives. May we all be cleansed and loved by a Christ who chills us, haunts us, and heals us all the way down. Prepare to bring your whole self into the light, because it is only here in sacred space that we are compelled to confess:

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”