The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany – Year B
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus performs an exorcism. The gospel writers lived in pre-scientific times, so it is tempting to explain this away. After all, most biblical descriptions of demon possession look to us like epilepsy or mental illness.
In the introduction to his book, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.”
You may know Lewis as the author of the Narnia series, beginning with “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”
In “The Screwtape Letters,” each chapter is written as a letter of advice from a senior demon to his nephew. The nephew has been assigned his first human subject. He is supposed to keep his subject away from “the Enemy”, which is Screwtape’s name for God. The younger devil is supposed to lead his subject toward the one the demons call, “our father below.” If you have never read this book, I highly recommend it to you. It is short, entertaining, easy to read, and contains good Christian theology.
We know evil is real. People have explained the existence of evil in many ways throughout history. Luther mentions the devil throughout the small catechism and his other writings. People say he even threw an inkwell at the devil once.
Let’s look at what today’s lesson teaches us about evil and demons. Mark says the man has an unclean spirit within him. An unclean spirit is another name for a demon or devil.
One of the first things to notice about today’s gospel story is the location. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. That means people with demons attend worship. People who attend worship have demons.
The next thing to notice is that the demon recognizes Jesus. The demon knows Jesus is the Holy One of God. We know this is true, so we miss the shock value. It was blasphemy to say that a human was the Holy One. And it was certainly blasphemy to say it in the synagogue. Jesus tells him to be silent. Jesus isn’t ready yet for his true identity to be broadcast. He wants to do some teaching first.
Also, the demon fears Jesus. The demon recognizes Jesus as the only one with the power to destroy it. Jesus Christ has the authority and power to destroy demons and cast out unclean spirits.
So, we know people who attend worship have demons. These demons recognize that Jesus Christ has the power and authority to silence them and cast them out. The demons fear Jesus.
What kind of demons plague the people who come to worship today? What kind of demons plague you?
Many people with addictions talk about their problems as their demons. For some people, alcohol is their demon. For some it’s gambling, or pornography, or tobacco. For many of us, it is fattening foods.
There are other demons that possess us too. For some people, possessions are their demon. Their stuff possesses them. Some are held captive by this demon so strongly that they hoard everything. Most of us have way more than we need or even use. The greed and selfishness demons are very active among us because we have so many things.
One of the demons that possesses many of us is fear. We fear lots of things. I know what keeps me awake at night. You know what keeps you awake at night. Some of our fear demons are about rational things, meaning they could really happen, and some are not. The anxiety demon is related to the fear demon. It makes us worry about things, whether we can control them or not.
A demon that gets lots of us is guilt. We have a list of regrets. We hold onto that list and we keep reviewing it. The guilt demon has a partner in the anger demon. The anger demon won’t let us forget the things we think should be on someone else’s list of regrets.
Then there is the lazy demon. It helps you procrastinate. It supplies you with excuses not to do the things you should be doing.
Demons don’t just try to get us on the big issues though. One of the things the demon Screwtape, advises his nephew to do, is to focus on the small things. He advises distracting the human subject with the little things that annoy him about others. Don’t let him focus on how much he loves his mother. Remind him that she has these little habits that drive him crazy.
Screwtape says, “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
We all have problems with demons, whether they are big or small. Whether we see evil as a little monster with horns and a tail, or whether we think of it more abstractly, we know evil is real. Sin exists and holds us captive and we cannot free ourselves. And we know it.
There is very good news for us today. But it is very bad news for our demons. Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God. He has the authority to silence and cast out the demons. He does it in our worship service, every week, where the people with demons are.
Jesus Christ casts out the demons when I say to you: “Be cleansed, be healed, for in the name of Jesus Christ, I declare to you the forgiveness of your sins and the revealing of his reign.”
He casts out the unclean spirits when we sing our offering song and ask him to renew a right spirit within us. Jesus casts out the demons whenever we pray together, sing together, share the peace, and share the meal together.
Sometimes our demons are cast out as quickly as the one in today’s gospel story. Sometimes Jesus uses other means to cast them out – AA meetings, prayer chains, medical help, counseling. Christ is still in the business of casting out all that prevents us from being the people God intends us to be.
Often, we have to remind our demons of the power and authority of Christ.
But remember, Christ has won the final battle. In his death and resurrection, he destroyed the power of sin, death, and the devil and all the demons that possess us.
As Luther taught us to sing:
Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us,
We tremble not, unmoved we stand; they cannot overpower us.
Let this world’s tyrant rage; in battle we’ll engage!
His might is doomed to fail; God’s judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him.
Remember, the kingdom is ours forever. Amen.