Link to Service

Isaiah 35.1-7

Mark 1.21-28

Introducing The Exorcist

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Linda Blair turned 65 this week.  If you recognize the actress’ name it is most likely because she starred in the 1973 supernatural blockbuster The Exorcist, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.  Although she has since appeared in more than fifty other feature films, she will always be best remembered as Regan MacNeil, the little girl who was possessed by demonic spirits.  To this day, as she herself laments, fans will approach her and ask her if she can still spin her head around 360 degrees as she did in the film.  It is all she can do, she confessed, not to ask if they would like her to vomit on them as well.

It is telling that the writers of each of the four gospels tell a different story about Jesus to introduce his public ministry.  Mattthew opens this chapter of Jesus’ life with the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the peacemakers…”  In Luke, Jesus stands in the synagogue, reads Isaiah’s Old Testament vision of the coming Messiah and announces, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Or in other words, “That’s me, folks!”   John takes a different tack and tells the tale of Jesus attending a wedding in Cana, where the guests had so much to drink that the hosts ran out of wine, only to have Jesus replenish the supply.  But Mark uses a somewhat obscure yet memorable encounter with a man possessed by demons:  “Just then, there was…. A man with an unclean spirit… And Jesus rebuked him saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’  And the unclean spirit, throwing the man into convulsions and crying out, came out of him.”

Now that is a different how do you do!  What would you think if, on the very first day your brand new minister climbed into the pulpit, someone in the congregation began having a seizure and shouted curses at him or her?  There is a lot going on in these brief seven verses, not all of it immediately clear.  And what an odd way to begin the story of Jesus’ public ministry!  Mark thinks it is a good idea to introduce Jesus as the exorcist.  Granted, he went on to have a better career than Linda Blair, but given the choice, I think most of us would rather stick with John and have another glass of wine, thank you very much.

I first came across the word disambiguation reading Wikipedia.  From time to time, an article about one topic will refer to a different topic that could be confused with the original as a way of clearing up any confusion or ambiguity.  For example, an article about the planet Mercury might have a note that distinguishes it from an article about mercury the element, which might in turn have a note that distinguishes it from Mercury the wing-footed Roman messenger god, ironically enough, also the god of translators and interpreters.  Perhaps it is in this role that Mercury can help us with some disambiguation of our own, because there is a good deal of ambiguity about what is taking place in this story in Mark about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  There is confusion in the story itself, and there is no small degree of uncertainty in our own minds as we try to wrap our heads around what is going on here, and why Mark would choose this particular encounter to introduce us to Jesus.

While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, a man with what Mark calls an unclean spirit began shouting at Jesus, and we learn that he is actually possessed by multiple spirits:  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are:  the Holy One of God!”  And Jesus rebuked the spirits, and the man was healed and the rest of the congregation is astounded:  “What is this!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!”

And we read the story, and it may be that one of the things we ask ourselves is, From what, exactly, did the man suffer?  We don’t have much room in our contemporary psychology for demons and unclean spirits, so we are tempted to give the man’s condition a name we can understand.  I have heard more than one sermon, and you may have as well, that attribute the man’s affliction to some form of mental or emotional disorder.  Could it have been schizophrenia, or anxiety, maybe?  Perhaps he was dealing with PTSD, or depression or substance abuse.  What exactly was going on in that synagogue, anyway?  And what was he doing there in the first place?  Did he know Jesus was going to be speaking that day, did he come for a confrontation, or to cause a ruckus?  Maybe he just wanted to rattle Jesus and the rest of the congregation.  Whichever, he certainly caused a commotion.  I imagine the folks in that room were a little embarrassed that here, in their very own temple, the first day that the new guy gets up to speak, someone in the back pew decides to disrupt their carefully planned service.  How disrespectful!  Clearly he has no idea who this preacher is or what he is trying to say.

Or maybe – just maybe - he does.

Our Old Testament lesson this morning is one of my favorite parts of Isaiah, a passage I cannot hear without thinking of the recitatif in Handel’s Messiah:  “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the alme man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.”  Forgive my sexist and ableist language, but even when we read from the New Revised Standard Version, I cannot help but hear it in the King James.  Isaiah brings a vision of healing, a vision of someone who was afflicted being made whole.  It is a description of the glory of God, and what it will look like when the Messiah, the chosen one of God, comes to bring peace and order and to right the world’s wrongs.  The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the mute will sing and the lame will leap:  every hurt known to humanity will be healed when the presence of God touches the earth.  This is what the man with the unclean spirit seemed to know instinctively, and what the rest of the congregation should have known, but did not – yet.

Because the question of how the man’s illness might translate into a twenty-first century diagnosis is immaterial.  It is the wrong question and does nothing to clear up the ambiguity.  The point is not the nature of the disease, but rather the nature of the cure.  He came into the presence of God in Jesus Christ, he called out for help, and he was healed.  And he was healed. 

What is it you bring with you into the presence of God in Jesus Christ this morning?  Is it worry?  Is it illness?  Is it food insecurity or financial distress?  Is it a vague but gnawing sense that the world is teetering on war or anarchy?  It could be all of the above – it could be none of the above – and, God be blessed, maybe we come this morning with not a worry in the world.  But whatever it is we bring, whatever it is we need, whatever it is that holds us back and makes us feel less than whole, less than complete persons, this morning’s gospel story promises that God will bring healing, God will make us whole as individuals, and God will bring redemption and reconciliation to our lives and to our world.  The man was healed.  The Jesus of Mark’s gospel brings healing to humanity and healing to the world.  This is why Mark begins his story about Jesus’ earthly ministry with such a dramatic if unsettling episode.  If Jesus can heal this person, he can heal you, he can heal me.

Because another assumption this story invites in us is that this was some stranger who just happened to come into the synagogue and confront Jesus.  But the Bible neither suggests nor implies this.  The man with an unclean spirit could have been a regular member of the congregation who seized the moment when Jesus started speaking.    He could have been the temple president, or the church moderator, or the head of the parish council.  Our tendency is to read this story and see the man as a wild-eyed transient who barged into worship.  But for all that Mark has to say he could have been the Sunday deacon.  He could be any one of us.  There was nothing special about him save that he was hurting and he recognized in Jesus the possibility for healing.

Well, there is one thing that was special.  Did you notice?  He was the only person in the story who recognized and acknowledged who Jesus was and what he was about.  The rest of the congregation was clueless.  “Jesus of Nazareth,” he declared; “I know who you are:  the Holy One of God!”  Remember, this is the first moment of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark, and the afflicted man knew exactly who Jesus was.  While everyone else was asking themselves “What is this?”, one person knew right away – the person who needed Jesus the most.

What is broken in our world?  What makes us afraid?  What makes us worry?  What needs to be mended in us?  What is preventing us from becoming most fully human, from becoming the people God knows we can be?  By introducing Jesus’ career with a story about healing one person’s affliction, Mark is introducing you and me to the one who makes the wounded whole.  It could be any one of us.  It could be every one of us.  Let Matthew have the preacher on the mount.  Let Luke have the biblical interpreter.  Let John have the oenological alchemist.   Mark greets us with the physician of the soul. 

The doctor will see you now.

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