Let us pray: Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by evil; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This sermon comes with a warning. Often sermons focus on things such as grace, love, and salvation, but today our readings present us with the other side of the coin. This is a sermon about evil, demons, and sin. I had a professor in seminary who had a good friend that worked at the Holocaust museum in Washington. This friend was working on a thesis and spent a lot of time in the Holocaust archives, and they warned my professor- “when you are around so much evil, you must take care that it does not begin to absorb you.” And so I offer you this warning before we begin. Evil is like a solar eclipse, if you stare at it for too long, your vision will never be the same. So today, it is good and fitting to pay attention to evil, because any competent theology must account for it- but don’t spend your Sunday dwelling on it.
Evil is one of the most misunderstood and unexplored aspects of Christian theology, which I think is exactly how evil likes it. To talk about things such as demons and “unclean spirits,” as our text puts it, seems unscientific and old-fashioned. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has a demon say this- “that devils are predominately comic figures in the modern imagination is helpful to us. If any faint suspicion of our existence begins to arise in their minds, suggest a picture of something in red tights and persuade them that since they cannot believe in that, they therefore cannot believe in us.”
So what is evil you might ask? For the purpose of this sermon, I’m going to tie up evil, sin, Satan, and demons in the same bag. There are shades of difference between them, but we’re really talking about different sides of the same coin. An example of sin is found in our reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul tells people about their interconnectedness and warns them against eating meat, or doing anything, that strains that relationship. The act is the sin, the intent is the evil. Demons are the anthropomorphization of evil.
It’s worth pointing out that our images of hell, evil, and demons are not Biblical, rather what most people think of comes from either Paradise Lost by Milton or Dante’s Divine Comedy. Some have said that evil is the “privation of the good.” Others say that evil is that which is opposed to the will of God. Theologian Karl Barth postulated that evil is nothing, and this is contrary to God because God desires purpose and redemption for all things, so if evil is nothing, evil can never accomplish that. Some will talk about original sin, others will talk about distinctions between light and dark, and yet others will say that evil has to do with free-will. So the question remains, how do we reconcile an all-powerful and all-loving God with the existence of evil?
I don’t have an answer. But standing on the shoulders of theological giants- I’d say this about evil. Evil exists because love exists. God could have made a world full of evil without love, or full love without the room for evil. But God wanted the most amount of love, and there has to be the possibility for the lack of love, that is where evil creeps in. Evil is not a force that is opposed to the good. Christianity is not Star Wars, there is not a light side and a dark side, there is only the God side. Evil does not exist in any sense of the word, much in the same way that darkness does not exist, but rather is the absence of light. But we can choose to ignore God and live for ourselves, and that is evil. Evil and sin are the straining of the relationships of love to which we are called. And sadly, throughout time, people have chosen to ignore the love of God, and what we would call evil has happened. So what do we do with evil?
Each of the gospels paints Jesus in a different light. For Matthew, Jesus is the teacher; for Luke, Jesus is the preacher; for John, Jesus is the incarnate love of God. Remember where we are in Mark, our reading today starts at chapter 1, verse 21, so right at the beginning of the gospel. Mark is still introducing Jesus to the audience. So far in Mark Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist, tempted in the wilderness, and called his disciples. So this incident today is Jesus’ first public appearance, and in telling the story this way, Mark is defining Jesus as exorcist. That’s not a title we often claim for Jesus is it, exorcist? But it’s valid, and Mark invites us to explore that title today. Exorcise literally means to implore out; but it is often used to mean driving out evil or restoring health.
So as Jesus is beginning his ministry, a man with an unclean spirit approaches him and says “what do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That’s quite the profession. Not until after the crucifixion does anyway ever make such a bold claim about Jesus. And really, it’s a statement of faith, isn’t it? Somehow, this man knew more about Jesus than the disciples did, perhaps he had heard Jesus say “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Maybe this man didn’t want to hear the good news or have the Kingdom of God anywhere near him. Maybe he didn’t take kindly to being told that he needed to repent. Maybe he would not accept that fact that he is possessed. And aren’t we all a bit like this man?
How many of us would say that we are possessed? Can any of us say that something unclean doesn’t live in us? Are we free from jealously, selfishness, addiction, pride, unhealthy lifestyles, racism, homophobia, worry, unforgiving attitudes, sexism, elitism? Do any of us live without sin? Aren’t there issues that we don’t speak out against? Do we live as fully for God as we could? We are all possessed, and we this Jesus to be our exorcist.
Jesus says to the man “shut up and get out of him!” And the man cried and convulsed and became a new man. Now I know that the text says that the spirit convulsed and came out of him, but there are major problems with reading this text literally, with giving too much reality to demons and evil forces. For one, as I mentioned earlier, we are Christians, not dualists. Secondly, God is the sole source of Creation, not the Devil or Satan. To say that there is a source of evil opposed to God that creates twisted angels is to erroneously take the metaphorical and make it literal. And thirdly, it is to abandon all responsibility. For centuries, demons were the scapegoats for mental illness, addiction, murders, and many other unspeakable crimes. Demons aren’t behind those things, people are. Mental illness is not a curse from God, nor is addiction something over which a person is helpless to control. As Jesus later says, there is nothing outside the body which can defile it, but rather defilement comes from within. Responsibility is a Christian virtue, and to ascribe too much reality and power to demons and unclean spirits is to abdicate that sense of Christian duty. So was there really a demon in that man that day? You can decide for yourself what you think, but I think the greater evil is in ascribing too much power to a force other than God and leaving behind our accountability.
So Jesus exorcised this man of what was plaguing him. We don’t really know what it was, could have been fear, could have been some old resentment that he held on to, could have been prejudice towards Jews; the point is that Jesus exorcised it out of him, and Jesus can do the same for us. Jesus is the cure for our possessions and the sins which we commit.
Those gathered there that day were amazed and said “a new teaching, with authority!” Authority means both that Jesus had the ability and right to teach something new, but also that he has the power to do so. Jesus offers the new teaching- that evil is nothing to stop us from pursuing the Kingdom of God. Jesus shows us that we can be saved from the ills that plague us, we can be set free from that which possesses us. But like the man in this story, we have to acknowledge that Jesus has the power to do so. The man calls Jesus the Holy One of God, so you might say that he realizes that Jesus has this authority. So for us to embrace Jesus as exorcist, we must also stand with Jesus, as he alone has the authority.
We also stand with Jesus to resist evil when we encounter it. Jesus doesn’t ignore the evil that he encounters, which we so often tend to do. It’s easier to not think about the clothes we wear coming from a sweatshop. It’s easier to eat meat when we ignore the fact that unless we buy organic and free-range meat, those animals were very likely abused. It’s easier to invest in companies when we disregard their predatory lending business tactics. You all I’m sure have heard the quote from the pastor in Nazi Germany- “first they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I was Protestant. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Evil thrives not because it is a force in this world, but because we allow it to happen. Evil happens when we are silent, evil happens when we look the other way.
And of course, evil also happens when we ignore Jesus’ words that the Kingdom of God has come near. Sin happens when we live for our own sense of pride and greed instead of thinking about the Kingdom of God. We become the demons of our world when we say things such as “I earned mine, let them earn theirs,” things like “well, it’s not illegal,” phrases such as “I want this and I’m entitled to it.” Another CS Lewis quote- “like a good chess player, Satan is always trying to maneuver you into a position where you save your castle only by losing your bishop.” When we negotiate with our morals, when we ignore our ethics, when we focus on our kingdoms instead of God’s, then we do evil.
Our invitation today is to follow Jesus, our Exorcist, in standing up against evil, both in our own lives and in our world. There is a great story from Greek mythology that advances this point. Sea travelers had to be aware of many dangers as they sailed. One of these dangers was the Sirens who lived near Sicily. They were beautiful creatures, part-bird and part-woman. Sailors would be lured in by their sweet songs and their ships would crash and they would become the victims of the Sirens. In Greek lore, only two people ever evaded them. One was Odysseus, as his crew tied him to the mast and then put wax in their own ears. The other was Jason and the Argonauts on their search for the Golden Fleece. They took along with them, Orpheus, who was a musical hero in Greek mythology. As they passed the island of the Sirens, Orpheus began to sing with the most alluring and beautiful melody that one could ever imagine. Orpheus’ song was so sweet that it made the song of the Sirens sound like discordant chatter. And Jason and his crew sailed safely past the Sirens because they did not desire to go any closer.
This is how it is in standing with Jesus against evil. The songs of sin and evil are very tempting, as was the song of the Sirens. It can be rather fun to amass wealth, to ignore conscience, and do whatever we want. The results of sin can seem quite fun. Evil indeed knows how to sing a very sweet song. It can be quite hard to drown out the song of evil, because it can be rather loud and is heard is most places. But in our journeys, we have an Orpheus with us in the person of Jesus, a person who sings a different song- a song not of temptation and selfishness, but a song of grace and love. If we listen closely, if we learn the lyrics of the Kingdom of God, we will know that its song is much sweeter and doesn’t cause us to become shipwrecked.
One last caution- make sure that in resisting evil, you don’t focus on hating evil. The follower of Jesus should love good and hate evil. If you only love good and are indifferent towards evil, then you’re just a sentimentalist. And if you hate evil more than you love the good, then you’re just a good hater, and we have plenty of those already. Let us remember that the key to all of this is the love, the redemption, the grace of the ever-present Kingdom of God. That is how Jesus is our exorcist, he points us towards and strengthens us to live in the Kingdom of God. He shows us that there is a better way than evil, there are greater rewards to be found than those that possess us.
Evil is a dangerous thing. One the one hand, we don’t want to dismiss its effects, but on the other we shouldn’t ascribe too much power to it. As Mark introduces us to Jesus in the gospel, he introduces Jesus as the exorcist, the vanquisher of evil, the builder of the Kingdom of God. The encounter between Jesus and this man with an unclean spirit is an invitation to be exorcised, a call to hear a new song, a challenge to healthy living, an opportunity stand up with Jesus against evil. With our faith focused on Jesus, with our actions orientated on the Kingdom of God, and with the courage to proclaim the authority of Jesus that makes him the Holy One of God, we too can join the chorus of the saints and angels. The old saying is that no one ever leaves the church humming a sermon, but everyone leaves with a song on their lips. Let our song this day be that sweet song of Jesus the exorcist, whose song calls us to new life and resisting evil.