(Sermon for Sunday, January 29, 2012 || Epiphany 4B || Mark 1:21-28 )
I don’t know about you, but if I were the unclean spirit in today’s Gospel reading, I probably would have kept a lower profile. I would have lain low, kept my mouth shut, perhaps donned a pair of those Groucho Marx glasses with the big eyebrows and moustache. Then, after Jesus left the synagogue, I would have slunk home, incessantly cackling and cajoling, coercing and enticing, whispering, persuading, coaxing, craving, swaying, squeezing, luring. I would have slunk home, still embedded within my “patient,” as C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape calls you delicious people. I mean, us delicious people. I mean, us people.
*shakes head vigorously*
What I’m trying to say is this unclean spirit doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of self-preservation. If the unclean spirit knew that Jesus was “the Holy One of God,” and therefore had plenty of authority to command said spirit, then why did the spirit make a peep? And not just a peep, but a scene? And not just a scene, but a scene in the synagogue, which would be like the event taking place right now during this service. As I said before, I probably would have kept a lower profile.
However, maybe I’m not giving the unclean spirit enough credit for trying. Perhaps, this thing afflicting the guy in the synagogue did attempt to keep his lips zipped. Perhaps, the unclean spirit knew that Jesus would make the spirit’s existence rather uncomfortable if Jesus caught wind of the afflicting presence. And perhaps, the spirit just couldn’t help but cry out when Jesus was nearby.
The unclean spirit is caught in Jesus’ gravitational field. Like a satellite in a degraded orbit falling to earth, the spirit succumbs to Jesus’ gravity and reveals itself. The gravity – the authority – of Jesus’ presence compels the unclean spirit to cry out. And by this same authority, Jesus pulls the spirit from the man with the words: “Be silent, and come out of him!”
Now, I know that dismissing this kind of Biblical story is easy in our day and age. We look to psychology for a comfortable, modern lens with which to interpret unclean spirits. Demonic possession belongs to horror films and to currently popular fantasy worlds populated with vampires, zombies and werewolves. But for all the science and science fiction that we can use to explain away stories like today’s Gospel, the fact of the matter remains that Jesus took this man, who was afflicted by spiritual uncleanness, and made him well. The thought of unclean spirits may make you uncomfortable – sure makes me uncomfortable. But the reality of Jesus standing near and cleansing the filth within replaces my discomfort with wonder and awe and thanksgiving.
“Be silent, and come out of him!” says Jesus. He says this to the unclean spirit within the man at the synagogue, and he says this to the unclean spirits within us at St. Stephen’s church. Our afflictions may not look like the ones depicted in Renaissance frescos or horror film special effects, but that doesn’t make our unclean spirits any less real or damaging to our walks with God and one another. The question is: do we want to stand close enough to Jesus for his gravity to act on our uncleanness?
Whenever I ask myself this question, an overwhelming sense of lethargy strikes me out of nowhere. The status quo may not be perfect or even ideal, but I’ve gotten along well enough so far, I tell myself. May as well stay the course. “If it’s only somewhat broke, don’t fix it!” But honestly, this lethargy doesn’t strike out of nowhere. The lethargy comes from the unclean parts of me that want to be left well enough alone. I hear a voice within that sounds like mine, but I know deep down this voice is not the one I should listen to. The voice coaxes me back: back to bed, back to sleep, back away from the Holy One of God, whose gravity is always seeking to pull me to a closer orbit.
To this voice, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.” For me this voice belongs to pride and self-sufficiency and self-importance. Jesus calls the owner of this voice to leave me so that I can follow Jesus more closely. That’s mine. I wonder what your unclean voice is coaxing and coercing from you?
Perhaps, yours tells you that if you do just enough to get by, everything will work out. Your life might not be great, but your life will be easy, and that’s good, right? You don’t study for the test because you know you can scrape a C-minus, and that’s good enough. You don’t practice the piano piece because you can hit most of the notes most of the time, and that’s good enough. “Good enough, good enough” says the voice, which belongs to the indolent drifter within you, the slacker who’d rather just play video games all day. To this unclean spirit, Jesus says, “I never promised life would be easy, but I did promise life would be abundant, not just good enough. Be silent, and come out of him.”
Perhaps, your unclean voice tells you that working all those extra hours shows your dedication, and you never think to ask, “Dedication to what?” You stay late at the office most nights and the tonnage of missed dinners and little league games and ballet recitals piles up around you. You burned out a year ago, but you’re still plugging away because you’re no quitter. “You’re giving your family a better life, no matter if you’re not around,” says the voice, which belongs to the petrified consumer within you. To this unclean spirit, Jesus says, “Your relationships are more important than your money. Be silent, and come out of him.”
Perhaps, your unclean voice tells you that you are unattractive, unlovable, and doomed to a lonely existence; or that you should just shut yourself in your house so others won’t see that the years are taking their toll on your faculties; or that your challenges are too insignificant to ask others for help; or that others will laugh at whatever you say; or that whatever you do, nothing will be enough for God or anyone else to love you. To each and every one of these unclean spirits, Jesus says, “Be silent, and come out of him.”
These unclean spirits are familiar to us. They are comfortable, even though they demean and debase and shackle us. The overwhelming feeling of lethargy happens when they sense that we are moving nearer to Jesus Christ, when we are circling at a closer orbit. The unclean spirits feel the pull of his gravity, and they try to escape, to keep us for themselves. But they can never escape, because we were made not for them, but for God. And the Holy One of God has the authority, the mercy, and the grace to cleanse us.
When you give in to the unclean spirit within you, the enticing voice that speaks of lethargy or apathy or anger or fear, listen also for a second voice, the voice of Jesus Christ speaking from the depths of your soul. His is the voice of freedom from the filth that keeps us from living into the fullness that God desires for each of us. His is the voice filled with the gravity and authority of the Holy One of God. His is the voice that cries out: “Be silent, and come out of him.”