My sermon from January 28, 2018 is below. It focuses on the gospel reading from Mark 1, the story of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit. As I touch on in the sermon, we don’t think about things like illness, trauma, and struggles the same way people did thousands of years ago. We don’t personify our demons in quite the same way. But we do still struggle with many things. Do you find it helpful or unhelpful to think about things as “demons” or “unclean spirits”? Why?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s said that a first impression—good or bad—has serious and lasting consequences. It’s partly because, as humans, we have to process so much information that our brains make decisions without us even realizing it. We have to make judgments quickly, sort people we’re meeting for the first time into categories: a person we can trust or not, worth our time and attention or not, good for the job or not.
When we learn more about someone, when we have a second and third and fourth impression, we can learn to change that initial judgment, but from a psychological standpoint, it takes a lot of work to rethink our first impression. First impressions matter.
Our reading from the Gospel of Mark today, in a way, is Jesus’ first impression. It is the first public act of ministry that he performs. He is baptized by John in the Jordan River, is led out into the desert where he is tempted by the devil, and then this moment at the synagogue on sabbath occurs.
His very first act of ministry, the first impression that he gives to his new disciples, to the crowds who are astounded at his teachings, is to cast out an unclean spirit. It’s hard for us to know what to make of this phrase “unclean spirit.” After all we don’t think about illness and medicine or psychology the way people in first century Palestine did.
But we can easily imagine the impact and effect of suffering with such a spirit, from other passages in the gospel. This man is at the synagogue today, but he will likely become ostracized if his condition persists. Those who love him must be in great distress—agonized over his current situation and afraid for his future. And this is the very first thing Jesus does: free this man from the hold of the unclean spirit and restore him to himself and his community.
I don’t know much about these unclean spirits, or demons as they are often called. I don’t know where they come from, whether they come from inside or outside us, I don’t know whether they are actual demons or human darkness. But before we are tempted to dismiss this story as inconsequential, a relic of a different way of thinking, we should think about what we do know.
I do know things like addiction and compulsion and anxiety and despair can take a hold of us and make us do things we don’t want to do. I know that evil and darkness and destructive forces are real. Jesus takes away this man’s unclean spirit and restores him to abundant life in the community.
What are the things that rob us, that rob our loved ones, of abundant life? Addiction? Loss of gainful employment? Unsafe working conditions? Situations where power is abused or harassment and discrimination are tolerated? Lack of access to housing, education, or medical treatment?
God is not simply against these things in some theoretical way, rather God stands completely opposed to them and the way that they seek to limit and control us. And there’s an interesting thing about this—the demons know it. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the demons always recognize Jesus’ authority and the demons are afraid.
Which is exactly why our demons—those things that keep us from abundant life—our demons try to keep us away from people who remind us how loved we are. Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God.
And what is Jesus’ response to that? In our reading in English it seems kind of tame: Jesus rebukes the demon and says, “Be silent!” If we wanted to retranslate the original Greek, though, Jesus essentially yells and tells the spirit to shut up!
I learned early as kid that we don’t tell people to shut up, because that isn’t a nice thing to say. And Jesus is all about being nice, right? But Jesus isn’t wishy-washy or quiet when it comes to things like this. Jesus isn’t tame. He tells that unclean spirit to shut up about its lies, to shut up trying to convince this man that this is all he is and that this is all he is worth.
Jesus tells the demon to take a hike so that this man may reclaim his dignity, so that this man might know the truth of who and whose he is. Jesus defiantly reminds us of our own worth and value even when we can’t see it ourselves. Jesus persistently and unfailingly reminds us of our dignity as children of God until we can at last see that dignity in ourselves and in others.
Alex Hampson is going to be baptized in a few minutes, and it will be proclaimed once again that God loves Alex as a beloved child and that nothing will ever change that love. Like the Spirit descended on Jesus in his baptism, God will say: this is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased. And it’s not just Alex, but all of us who are claimed and loved by God just as we are.
The truth is that all of us, including Alex, are going to hear other messages in our lives. Messages that tell us we are not good enough. That we do not have anything to offer, that we need to be better in order to be worthy of love. We hear these messages everywhere, from commercials and billboards, our own insecurities, to more some more difficult demons to fight, like addiction and depression.
And to those messages, to those voices, who tell us that we are not enough, we can say: Shut up! Because Jesus tells them to be quiet and get the heck out of here. When those voices, those thoughts come to you—to your loved ones—remember that at the end of the day there is always a louder voice. The voice of God. Which sends those voices of insecurity and doubt running away scared. The voice of God which declares loudly for all to hear that you are loved and you are worthy. You are beloved. Amen.