The first big public act of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is to enter a synagogue to teach. And what a debut it is. When Jesus teaches, a man who is possessed by a demon cries out “I know who you are. I think you have come to destroy me.” Really, it sounds like the demon is crying out from within him.
It sounds like a scene out of a horror film, but this story is actually just telling us the most basic truth about how God acts in our lives. This awful exorcism is a blueprint for us. It’s a set of instructions for daily living. It’s very good news. Very solemn, painful, abundantly good, news.
In our daily living, we do our best to keep our world intact. We do our best to imagine that we are doing fine. We tell ourselves that we know how our world works and how to function in it. We are happy enough. There is enough order around us, most of the time, so that we can imagine that we are a-ok.
And when that illusion of control starts to slip away, we need a lot of help from God to face the truth. That’s what this story is. It’s help from God for times when our illusions crumble around us. When the evil in the world seeps through the cracks in our individual and collective façade.
So let me just come out and ask you: is disillusionment lurking somewhere in your worldview these days? Are you getting a little numb? Did you hear one hundred and fifty women in a courtroom this week, testifying to the most horrifying abuse? Wasn’t that more than you could take? Did you even think such a nightmare was possible in the perfect, clean, elite world of Olympic gymnastics?
Do you remember that hundreds of thousands of women and their allies took to the streets again last weekend out of an awareness that our national political life is a global disgrace? Sometimes the truth is too much to hold back, too much to silence. Neither the march nor the courtroom could be the perfect expression of God’s truth, but both were vivid scenes of something welling up and making itself plain. A solemn, painful truth.
In Mark’s story the arrival of Jesus and the authority of his teachings are the reason the painful truth speaks up. It’s ironic; the demon is the one who knows exactly who this Jesus of Nazareth is. It’s the demon who has the language. It’s the demon who calls Jesus the “Holy One of God.” And if we are willing to pay attention and use this story as our own blueprint we may gain tremendous courage. We may gain a willingness to confront the most painful truths in our world and in our own hearts. We may come to recognize these moments of welling up as a powerful sign that God has come close to us and is ready to set us free. We may be given the grace to understand shock and disillusionment as the last gasp of something that is being cast out.
We can think about it this way: the deepest hopes, the most powerful healings, may be the hardest ones for us to talk about. Jesus may work in us at times when we are completely dominated by what oppresses us. We may have no language for the sins and the fears and the addictions that matter the most. And the only way to measure their impact may be in the act of healing itself. Maybe it’s what happens when, for the first time in years, you can go for a day or an hour without a drink. When you finally understand, and are willing to say, that your idea of being loved is what others would call abuse. When it’s finally clear that nothing you have accomplished in life has ever made your deepest shame go away. Those moments of honesty are possible only as something deathly is losing its hold over you. Sometimes as the demon is leaving it finally, painfully, makes you tell the truth.
The powers that want to possess you know exactly who Jesus is in your life. They can measure his authority precisely, in a way you are normally too timid to do, at least if you are anything like me. I would even go so far as to say that sometimes, out of kindness, Jesus shields us from having to speak his name fully until we are ready. Until the healing has already begun and we can bear to know what salvation really means for us. That’s what happened to the man in the synagogue. In the presence of Jesus his most horrifying forms of bondage began to speak up and tell the truth.
Perhaps in light of this story and its revelations, you can retrace your own steps here to Saint Mark’s this morning. Maybe you came here on autopilot or in a bad mood, or with a sense of dread. Maybe you wake up with fear in the pit of your stomach every day, and today is no different. Or maybe you just imagine a thousand ways to spend your time that promise to be more rewarding or more useful or more restorative. You could be forgiven for imagining that the world’s troubles make faith seem like a childish fantasy. But you came here. Something broke its hold over you this morning and you came here. There was a small deliverance, barely worth remarking, but it was real, and you came here.
Now take that sense of deliverance, and consider the world in which we live. Certainly there are forms of depravity speaking their names loudly all around us. There is an awful lot of pain and injury seeping through the cracks of our collective façade. We seem to have woken up with a bad feeling.
Do we have the courage and the grace to recognize this moment as a moment of healing? When the news is very bad, can we see it as the last gasp of something that is leaving us? Can we allow the name of Jesus to be spoken by our fear?
This moment in history may feel like a scene out of a bad disaster film, but we have the Gospel for our blueprint. We know a basic truth about how God acts in our lives. God sets us free in Jesus, and we are taught in faith to expect that as the demons leave they will make the truth painfully manifest. Exorcism is a blueprint for us. The same forces that bind us are the ones that will speak the name of Jesus if we are willing to listen. When the worst in us comes out, deliverance is near at hand. And our deliverance will tell us who Jesus is. This grim and frightening story is our set of instructions for daily living. It’s very good news. Very solemn, painful, abundantly good, news.
Let’s not linger too long over the pain and fear. Let’s not be disheartened when we become disillusioned. The loss of our habitual illusions is a sign of healing. Let’s tell the world, as this gospel passage does, let’s tell the world through our actions and our courage and our strength, that Jesus is close to us and that deliverance is real.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
28 January 2018
Saint Mark's Church Philadelphia