Freedom from the Demonic

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Psalm 111 | 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 | Mark 1:21-28

Jeremy Richards

The New Testament scholar Joel Marcus (one of Mitch’s favorite professors in seminary) says in his commentary on Mark that every Gospel writer has a story early in their Gospel that is meant to set the stage for what they want to say about Jesus. According to Joel Marcus, in Matthew it’s the Sermon on the Mount, in Luke it’s Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, and in John it’s the wedding feast in Cana. And in Mark, Joel Marcus says, it’s the story we read today. He says, “Each [Gospel writer]…tips his hand as to what, in his mind, Jesus was, and is, all about. In Mark’s case, it is ‘clearing the earth of demons’ (Kasemann, Jesus, 58); the whole mission of the Markan Jesus is encapsulated in [Jesus’ implicit ‘yes’] to the demon’s question, ‘Have you come to destroy us?’”[1]

This may make us all a bit uncomfortable. I’m guessing you don’t have a lot of experience with demon possession. Neither do I. Many of us may not even believe in it. But we are in Year B of the Lectionary, which means the majority – not all, but the majority – of our Gospel texts will come from Mark this year, which means we should probably get ready to hear more about demons and demon possession, if Joel Marcus is right that Mark’s Jesus is primarily concerned with “clearing the earth of demons.” This won’t be our last run in with a demon.

Growing up, I was taught to believe that demons were very much a part of the invisible world that surrounds us. They were everywhere, clouding our judgement, urging us to sin, whispering evil thoughts into our ears.

I remember watching a movie once, put out by a Christian film company, about a young man whose car breaks down. He gets picked up by another young man who gives him a ride home. The guy whose car broke down notices that there’s a Bible on the dashboard of the other guy’s car. They start talking about Jesus, and after he gets dropped off, he feels this pull to invite Jesus into his life. But as he thinks about it, suddenly, like in our Gospel reading from Mark, a demon appears.

The demon was this gross, kind of corny, but still pretty scary being who looked kind of like the emperor from Star Wars, with a cloak with a hood, and sagging skin. Only the demon’s skin was a bluish color and was even saggier, and he was even grosser looking. He leaned in, so close he was almost touching the man’s ear, trying to turn him away from following Jesus. All this time the man can’t see the demon, he doesn’t know he’s there, but the demon is influencing him. It isn’t until some angels show up and drive the demon away that the man kneels and accepts Jesus as his Lord and Savior.

To some of you, this story doesn’t sound shocking. Maybe you were taught the same things growing up. You may have even seen this video. Others of you may be horrified that such a film exists, and that some little boy was led to believe that there were essentially invisible monsters all around him, looking like something from a horror movie, whispering in his ear, influencing his thoughts though he couldn’t see them.

Who and what demons are, and how they act isn’t clear. Some of us may believe in demons as real, autonomous beings, who answer to their leader, Satan. Others of us may see demons and Satan as a kind of personification of powers that are contrary to the will of God – maybe you believe there isn’t really a single Satan, leading a horde of demons, but there are forces of evil, and Satan and demons kind of stand in for these forces – they work as a metaphor.

I don’t think it’s important that we nail down exactly what demons are. What’s important is that we recognize that in one way or another, there are forces that influence us that are contrary to God. We see them all the time, in the public sphere as much as the personal. They’re greed and lust and selfishness. They’re racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. They’re impatience and malice and cruelty. They rule by fear. And Scripture calls them demons. They turn us inward, instead of outward, as Britt Carlson preached about back in November.

They convince us to hate others, to hate God, and even to hate ourselves. They are behind self-hatred as much as they are behind hatred of the other.

Jesus came to bring wholeness to us, to our communities, to nature, to the cosmos. But while Jesus brings wholeness, the demonic divides, negates, empties, and kills.

Genesis tells us that God creates, and that creation is good. But while God creates good things, the demonic destroys and perverts, and what it can’t destroy and pervert it labels as bad, incomplete, broken, or dangerous.

The demonic tells us that we are irredeemable. That we are a waste, that parts of our lives and our pasts are too broken, too ugly, to be saved. That there is no room for God in us.

The demonic also tells us that other people are irredeemable. That some people are disqualified because of where they’re from, or the color of their skin, or their sexuality, or their political leanings, or their gender, or their intellectual abilities, or their past mistakes, or their failure to “contribute to society.”

The demonic tells us that creation is irredeemable, as well. That the earth is here for us to exploit and abuse. That God doesn’t care about clean water and clean air and rainforests.

But Jesus’ incarnation – God becoming human – turns all that on its head. If we are too far gone, if the physical world is inherently evil, then how can God become one of us? How can God take on a body like ours? How can God live amongst us?

Jesus’ incarnation is an affront to the demonic forces that thought they ruled this world. And Jesus has come to cast them out, to make it clear that he has authority, not them.

Jesus came to cast out all that is not of God – all that denies God’s good creation the abundant life it has been granted by its Creator. And we know that that abundant life is a life lived in harmony and community with God and one another. A life that is consumed, all of it – our past, our present, our future, our bodies as well as our souls – by the life of God.

The abundant life Jesus came to bring us, we have said over and over again, is a life that catches us up and pulls us into the life of the Trinity, so that we are swept up into the very relationship that Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit share with one another. And, once again, I want to stress: God takes all of us. There is no part of us that God cannot save, redeem, restore.

And our way into that life with God is through the Son, Jesus, who entered the world, who entered a synagogue in Capernaum and began to teach – “the Holy one” as the demon calls him, who enters a world that the demonic has been trying to convince people is unholy, is bad, is unsavable, is void of God – a world ruled by the demonic.

Mark calls the demon in this story “an unclean spirit” and the demon identifies Jesus as “the Holy One of God.” “Holy” basically means clean. In naming Jesus as “clean,” the “unclean” spirit is making an argument. He’s asking, what business does the clean have to do with the unclean? What does the divine have to do with the human? What business does Jesus have with humans, who the demon sees as under not the power of God but under the power of Satan.

The demon’s question to Jesus, which can be translated a number of ways, “What do we have to do with you?” or “What do we have in common?” or “What have you to do with us?” gets to the very heart of the demonic. Just as this early story from Mark encapsulates Jesus’ mission according to Mark: to “clear the earth of demons,” so this story encapsulates the mission of the demonic: to carve out spaces in the world where Jesus has no authority. The demon is actually making a statement with his question. He is saying, “There are places where you belong, Jesus, and there are places where we, the demons, belong. What are you doing in our space (we would do well to notice that the demon is claiming a place of worship as his place)? Where is our common ground?” the demon asks. “We have no common ground. You stay in your place and we’ll stay in ours.”

But Jesus doesn’t like that, and he responds angrily. Joel Marcus says Jesus’ answer is “slangy and rude,” and basically can be translated “Shut up!” or “Shut your trap!”[2] Jesus says, “Shut up! And come out of him!” “Shut up! You have no authority here anymore.”

Jesus has come to show that he has authority over all places, all spaces, all times, and realms. Jesus’ authority is what this passage is all about. It’s mentioned twice at both beginning and end. Jesus’ authority bookends our reading today. This exorcism in Capernaum makes clear that Jesus has authority everywhere, there is no place carved out for the demonic. There is no room for them in this world anymore. 

Jesus has come to remind everyone – demons, humans, angels, plants and animals – that creation is good, and creation is God’s. Christ has authority over all of life, every corner. There is no place too “unclean” for Christ to enter. There is no person so far absorbed by the demonic that Christ cannot pull them back - like the man in our story.

Most translations of this passage describe the possessed man as “a man with an unclean spirit,” but the Greek word en, which can mean “with”, more often means “in.” If the proper translation is “in” and not “with,” then it should read, “a man in an unclean spirit,” which is a terrifying picture. We usually think of possession as an indwelling, but in Mark’s story the man is consumed, lost within this demonic spirit.

But Jesus reaches into that space. Finds the man. Sees him. Frees him.

Jesus came to free all of creation from the demonic, to free us from the demonic. In the words of Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free” (5:1).

This is, of course, a great comfort – that Jesus has come to free us from the demonic, that there’s no place Jesus doesn’t have authority, but it’s also, like most stories about Jesus, a challenge as well.

If this story is meant to tell us that Jesus has authority in all places, then there’s no part of our lives that we can carve out for ourselves. It means we must really hand over all authority to him. It means we can’t set aside the teachings of Jesus ever, in any place, which means that unlike our government, which has a separation of church and state, there is no separation between our lives and the call of Jesus on our lives.

We cannot set aside the teachings of Jesus when it comes to our work, our relationships, our politics, or even our road rage. There is no place where we can say, “The teachings of Jesus don’t apply here,” which means Jesus has something to say about everything we see in our world, as well as ourselves: that Jesus has as much to say about healthcare, and immigration, and refugees, and gun control, and war, as he does about personal virtues like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I’m not saying it’s always easy to discern what Jesus has to say, but Jesus does have something to say. That’s why we meditate on Scripture, pray, and seek God as a community, because we want to know what Jesus is calling us to in every area of our lives.

Whenever someone says or implies that our faith belongs only in the realm of personal piety, that it doesn’t apply to the social and political, then they are echoing the argument of the demon from Mark. They are saying, “What do you have to do here, Jesus? You don’t have any power in this realm. You belong over there, and we belong over here. Stay in your place.” Jesus had harsh words for such an argument, and so should we (“Shut up!”).

In the Gospel reading from last week, which Mitch preached on, Jesus calls his first disciples: Simon, Andrew, James, and John, and all of them leave everything behind to follow him. They drop their nets. This is interesting, right, because nets are meant to trap things, but Jesus came for freedom. “It is for freedom Christ has set us free.”

What are the nets in our lives? What are the nets in your life? What are the things you think you’re holding on to, but are actually holding on to you, as the demon held on to the man in our story? What’s keeping you from following Jesus completely? What are those parts of your life that you’ve failed to give Jesus authority in, thinking he has no place there?

When I was in high school, I went to a Young Life camp in central California. I’d been a Christian my whole life, and Young Life usually taught pretty elementary stuff when it came to faith, so I wasn’t really there so much for spiritual edification as I was for the zip line, the blob, the high ropes course, and, of course, the cute girls.

The last night of the camp was the finale of the teaching series, when, as always (I’d been to a few Young Life camps at this point) the speaker would urge everyone who hadn’t already done so to give their lives to Christ.

And sure enough, that’s what happened. When the speaker was really driving his point home he said, “When someone gives you a $15 birthday present, you feel like you have to give them a $15 birthday present on their birthday too, right? You’d feel cheap if you only gave them a $5 birthday present. Well, Jesus gave me his life, so the only thing I can think to give back to him is my life.”

While I think it’s a little problematic to make salvation into such an oversimplified transaction, the speaker’s argument struck me that night. I hadn’t anticipated hearing anything new at this Young Life camp, but I did. All of us were sent out to find a place to sit by ourselves and think about giving our lives to Christ. I had already done so, I thought, I’d already been baptized, but I realized that I had only given Jesus a very small corner of my life to inhabit. I had not given him all of my life. In the words of Mark, I hadn’t given him authority in everything.

I decided that night to drop everything…or, at least to try to drop everything…like Simon, Andrew, James, and John, to follow Jesus. And ever since then, as I’ve tried my best to follow him, I keep realizing there are things clenched in my fists, tucked under my arms, jingling in my pockets, that I thought I’d let go of but haven’t. Pieces of the net that I think I’m holding, but are really still holding me.

I haven’t handed over everything yet. Jesus keeps shining a light on the areas I haven’t given to him – parts of my life I haven’t let him heal, transform, redeem, but that’s ok.

I have faith that we’ll get there one day together.

Lord Jesus, in your mercy, may it be so. Amen.

[1] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, 190.

[2] Ibid 189.