Mark 1: 21-34
January 28, 2018
Epworth United Methodist Church, Berkeley
Rev. Kristin Stoneking
I’m sure it’s not news to you that this has been one of the worst flu seasons that California has seen in several years. Several of our number have had some version of it, I came down with it after Christmas but fortunately I was already on vacation. I don’t know about you but when I’m sick, I reach a point when I can’t fully remember what it feels like to be well.
One of the names we have for Jesus is the Great Physician. The first chapter of Mark demonstrates one of the sources of that name as it takes us through the opening movements of Jesus’ public ministry. These opening verses of Mark establish Jesus’ authority and give account of the kinds of things he did that began to convince people that he was indeed the Messiah. In our scripture for today, we encounter Jesus the healer.
In the middle of the passage, Jesus is healing Simon's mother in law. Immediately upon hearing about her need, Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand and lifts her up. In so doing, he heals her. Hers is a physical healing; she is said to have a fever that has taken over her body, she is unable to get out of bed, and, significantly, she is healed by Jesus’ physical touch. Bodily illness is healed by the body, the flesh and bones, the literal hand, of God.
But before and after this physical healing, a different kind of healing is taking place. As the scripture opens, Jesus is healing a man who is described as “having an unclean spirit” and as the text for today closes, he is dealing with a man who is said to be possessed with a demon.
Now the word “demon” can be a little off-putting to our modern ears. It can make us think of scenes of frenzied shaking wherein people are hit on the forehead by a preacher and are instantly “healed.” Or old horror movies. Or maybe even cartoons. While we may reject these scenes as fabricated, we must deal with the fact that demons are named throughout the accounts of Jesus’ ministry, and the healing of persons from these demons is given as evidence of Jesus’ authority.
So, who, or what, are these demons? Well, first, they seem to be a loquacious bunch. They are always talking! They cry out, they yell, they challenge Jesus. In the verses in our text for today, Jesus seems to be in a shouting match with a demon. The scripture tells us that upon seeing Jesus, the demon, or unclean spirit called 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.”
And Jesus rebuked the demon saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And our scripture for today reads, “And they (the demons) were not permitted to speak, because they knew him.” Unlike the physical healing and illness of Simon’s mother-in-law, where the woman's body was sick and Jesus touched her to heal her, this illness and healing was one of words, a crying out by the demons and a rebuking by Jesus.
It seems to me that what the scripture is telling us is that the demons were voices. They were voices that were so powerful that they seemed to be embodied, to have a life of their own, to be able to walk, talk and confront even Jesus. My guess is that there is not a single person here who is not familiar with these kinds of demonic voices. I’m talking about the voices that say, “You’re not good enough, you can’t, you shouldn’t, it’s not going to happen.” They keep us from taking chances to further love and create justice and beauty by shackling us with self-doubt, or regret, or shame.
Maybe the voices whisper, and maybe they only drop by every now and then, or maybe they shout and prevent us from leaving the house, or risking a new relationship, or speaking our own truth. They are demons who possess us, plain and simple, and keep us from living out of our best selves. They prey upon our weaknesses, our regrets and our mistakes.
In her best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Mitchell tells the story of her quest to shake her voices, to recover her own best self through beauty, spirituality and relationship. At first she is able to quell the voices, but after a short time they return. She writes, “Depression and Loneliness track me down after about ten days in Italy…They come upon me all silent and menacing like Pinkerton Detectives and they flank me—Depression on my left, Loneliness on my right. I say to them, “How did you find me here? Who told you I had come to Rome?”
Depression, always the wise guy, says, “What—you’re not happy to see us?”
“Go away,” I tell him.
Loneliness, the more sensitive cop, says, “I’m sorry, ma’am. But I might have to tail you the whole time you’re travelling. It’s my assignment.”
“I’d really rather you didn’t,”
I tell him, and he shrugs almost apologetically, but only moves closer.
Then they frisk me. They empty my pockets of any joy I had been carrying there. Depression even confiscates my identity; but he always does that. Then Loneliness starts interrogating me, which I dread because it always goes on for hours. He’s polite but relentless. He asks if I have any reason to be happy that I know of. He asks, (though we’ve been through this line of questioning hundreds of times already) why I can’t keep a relationship going, why I ruined my marriage…why I can’t get my act together…”
…and on and on the voices go until Mitchell is reduced to a shadow of the strong and confident self that was emerging. The voices fracture Mitchell’s identity, causing her to believe she is nothing more than the sum of her mistakes.
But Mitchell, and we, are much more than the sum of our mistakes, and, the demons also know this is true. Ironically, it is what makes them so successful. Demons pinpoint our gifts then proceed to hide them from us. They thrive on silencing all that is good in us, all that is holy and beautiful. These demons know everything about us, but they only allow that which is not of God to speak by warping our experience. They exist in shadows and want to keep us there also.
And so it is not surprising that when they encounter Jesus, they recognize immediately the threat that he poses to their existence. Hear these words that the demons speak again: “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.” The demons know that if those who they possess recover the sense of divine in themselves that they don’t have a chance. They know if persons are able to see all that they have experienced, all they have been through in the light of the grace and mercy of God, the power of the demon is conquered. If they can only keep us from seeing our own lives as sources of wisdom, if they can keep us from feeling the grace and mercy of God that might lead us to compassion for ourselves, they can keep talking. The demons know that as persons encounter God in Christ, the image of God in each of us, the imago dei, will be reflected, and the demonic voices will be silenced. Our scripture for today says, “And he (meaning Jesus) would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”
Because they knew him. And by extension, because we know him, our demonic voices can be silenced, and we can begin to listen to that other voice, our voice, the voice in us that is of God. Though she doesn’t exactly use these words, the poet Mary Oliver speaks of the movement from demon possession to the embracing of the image of God in us in her poem The Journey. Oliver writes,
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.
One of the most insidious effects of the demonic voices is that they can convince us we have nothing to offer the world. They keep us focused on ourselves, on our issues, our inadequacies and prevent us from serving. These demons are the original bushel to our proverbial lamps. It’s not surprising to me that the evidence of healing in the story of Simon’s mother-in-law is that “she got up and served them”, which we need to understand not in a patriarchal way, though this was the expectation in that time that a woman would attend to the needs of all the men in her household, but in a theological way, that Jesus healed her, offering her new life so that she could take part in the community around him with purpose and with strength.
So how can we in these later days distinguish between the voice of God, and the voice of the demons? What is true in what we hear? First, we must ask if the voice leads us into community or into isolation. In the healings from demons, Jesus is never working in private. Always, a community surrounds him, and calls for his voice. It is in isolation that the demonic voices can be most effective; in being amidst the community we can see the imago dei of others and this in turn can help us get back in touch with our own goodness and holiness.
When I was a campus minister, each week before worship, the community shared a simple meal and answered a question, each in turn around the table that allowed us to know one another and go a little deeper than we might otherwise. One week, the question was, “How do you deal with feelings of inadequacy?” Almost all of the students gathered described a process of reaching out, and either allowing a friend to help in exposing what was lie and what was truth, or surrounding themselves with the blessed community that could reflect God’s image and uncover it in themselves.
As we begin to hear God’s voice in our own voices, we must keep speaking. We live not in times where Jesus walks among us as one of us, but in times wherein we are the body of Christ. If the voices are to be silenced, the demonic spirits and voice must look at us and say, I know you, you are the Holy One of God. As we recover and reclaim that imago dei in ourselves, we must remember that we are healed not for our own sakes alone but for the sake of the world. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
The Good News for us this morning is that the Word is in us, too. The voice is in us, too, and indeed we are parts of the whole, and in our community, in our reaching out, in uncovering and sharing our own giftedness, in our own healing, the voice of Jesus the Word who calls us into wholeness will be heard and spoken. Amen.