One of my guilty pleasures is that I like to watch the TV show “Supernatural.” Supernatural is about two brothers who travel about the United States in a 1967 Chevy Impala and fight against monsters, ghosts and other things that go bump in the night. Now before you wonder how anything like this could be something worth watching, I would like to advise you this show is now in its tenth season. One of the more popular storylines is when the brothers battle actual demons from the pits of hell. When we think of demons or demon-possession, we immediately call to mind something like we see in the movie “The Exorcist” with scales, disfigured faces, horns growing out of their head while it spins around … but they look nothing like that. The demons which appear in the show look very human except for when their eyes turn jet black or they leave traces of sulphur as they pass by. You see, in the mythology of “Supernatural,” demons are not fallen angels as we normally imagine them to be … they used to be human, just like you and me. When they died, their souls became so warped and twisted that all of things that make up the worst parts of what it means to be human were amplified and the good parts were done away with. What is left is something not human at all, but a monster. In the many plot twists that happen over the course of the story, one of the brothers become twisted and warped into a demon himself.
All of this, of course, is just so much television and fiction. Back here in the real world, we do not attribute people’s irrational or even inhuman, monstrous behaviour to demon-possession or the work of an evil spirit. But sometimes, when we come across someone who is just not acting with any sense of sanity, or they are rambling for no reason at all to the point it makes you feel uncomfortable, it becomes easy for us to use that language as a way of describing what kind of person they are. Or if any of you have spent any length of time with someone suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction, you know that there is the normal person … until they start one of their episodes and then they quickly turn into someone not at all like the person you know and love. If things are really bad, you might even say they’ve become twisted … or monstrous. And given enough time, the marks of their state of mind become permanently reflected on their bodies and eventually they are nothing like the person they were. In the Gospel of Mark, just as Jesus and his disciples had set out and visited a synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus comes face to face with such as person.
Mark is a Gospel that is short, but packed to the brim with action. In the first chapter alone, we have Jesus being baptized by John, his sojourn in the wilderness where he was tempted by the Devil, and the calling of the disciples. Now Jesus is ready to begin his ministry in earnest, and he does it not by going to the halls of power in Jerusalem where Kings, Priests and Scribes hang their hats, but to villages and towns and among everyday, ordinary people like you and me. At his first stop in Capernaum, he visits a synagogue on the Sabbath like any observant Jewish man and when offered the chance, begins to teach. It says that everyone is amazed at not only what he taught, but how he taught it. (As the Son of God, the Word of God made Flesh, it is no wonder that everyone was blown off their feet!) In the middle of all of this comes a man who is said to have an unclean spirit. He starts to cause a ruckus in the middle of the service. challenges Jesus, and accuses him of coming to destroy.
I am sure all of us can relate to this scene in some way. There’s the family dinner whose laughter and merrymaking is disturbed by the crazy relative who makes everyone feel uncomfortable. Or maybe there’s that walk in the neighborhood when you pass by someone babbling to themselves in an incoherent fashion and you begin to feel a bit queasy. They are not so different from the man in the story are they? Or there may be those who are suffering in silence, maybe some here in this congregation, where the the troubles of the world are just too much you feel you just might break and collapse under the weight of it all.
The Gospels are full of healing miracles, and there is more than one instance of Jesus exorcising a demon or unclean spirit. One constant things in these stories is that the demons and Spirits recognize Jesus for who he is, as today he is called “The Holy One of God.” Another is that when he speaks, whatever was troubling the afflicted person leaves at the sound of Jesus’ voice. When dealing with miracle stories, it is very easy to make one of two mistakes. On one hand, people may begin to obsess over the details of what happened to the point where Jesus almost seems like he is performing a magic trick. On the other, people may try to explain away the experience of being trapped in the same room with a disturbed man by attempting to psychoanalyze him based on just the few verses we are told about him. In both of these case, the mistake likes in focusing on the problem … today’s man in the synagogue … instead of the solution, who is Jesus. By keeping the focus of the story on Jesus, you don’t get magic or medicine … you get a miracle.
It was widely held that in the New Testament that the things that happened on earth were reflections of the Spiritual Realm. When St Paul talks about the powers of this world, he is not only talking about the systems of government but he is also talking about the powers of Sin and Death which rule over our fallen planet just as much as he is talking about the Roman Empire. While Rome let the people it conquered have some degree of autonomy and gave certain privileges to its citizens, there was no mistake who was actually in charge. The religious authorities of Jesus’ day were allowed to go about their business of teaching the Torah and performing their rites in the temple, but they owed their position to the pleasure of the Emperor and his governors. I would even venture so far to say a big problem that Jesus had with the religious establishment was that in being dependent upon the powers of Empire for their position, the Pharisees and Sadduccees over time became more concerned with maintaining the status quo. They twisted the Law to their own ends to keep their privileged position. What was meant to life-saving, life-giving and life-fulfilling had been warped into a legalistic code that was reinforced their own self-serving ends. The depth of their selfishness is so great that when they see Jesus healing people, feeding them, setting them free from oppression, they see him as a threat and immediately set into motions the plans that bring Jesus to the cross. You might even say … they had become demonic, monstrous or unclean.
When Jesus arrives on the scene in today’s story, he speaks, and whatever is causing the man in the synagogue to act in such a disturbing way leaves him. And it is the same with every healing miracle. The language of being delivered from the bondage of physical and spiritual affliction pervades the Gospels. When Jesus speaks, people are not only released from the physical bondage of their sickness, but they are also offered deliverance from the powers of Sin and Death and Empire.
In exorcising the unclean spirit, Jesus is demonstrating the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God into a broken and fallen world. No longer will people have to suffer the things which torment us at every turn. The powers of Sin and Death are no match for the liberating power of Christ. We see nothing less than an all-powerful God reaching down with his all-powerful love to set things right at once and forever. Like in the story of Supernatural, the one who was twisted and warped into a demon becomes redeemed by the unconditional love of his brother, who never gives up on him.
Miracles serve to show us no matter what happens, no matter what monkeys we have on our backs, Jesus is there to set us free. Here in Key West, every day we see people who are under the grip of the things which make us inhuman whether its addiction to drugs or alcohol, or even homelessness or desperation from hunger. People at times can live so much on the edge of poverty they do things they normally would never do.
For the second time since I have been here, we are without a priest and it would be so, so easy to give into the demons of despair and anxiety and depression and wonder what will become of us. The Good News I have for you today that the One who cast out the unclean spirit is the same one who said, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest … you will find peace for your soul.” It is One who St Peter wrote about when he said “Cast your cares upon him because he cares for you … because he loves you.” For as many who suffer from disease or affliction or addiction, there are those who have recovered and look like they walked out of the grave compared to what they looked like before. If we keep our eyes on Jesus and listen to his words and reach out to the community to alleviate the demons of hunger and want as we are doing with our thrift shop and food pantry, we will thrive and be a beacon of hope to a city that is full of hurt and need as much as it is full of beauty and life.
These things are not magic. They are not simply medicine or a sure-fire program. They are nothing short of miracles just waiting to happen at the sound of Jesus’ voice.