Message: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
There’s the story of some folks taking a casual look at today’s gospel reading of Jesus going to church and pulling an unclean spirit from a deeply disturbed man. One gentleman in the group, perplexed by the passage in Mark’s gospel says, “I’m sorry but, this story is too much. How many people do you know who have unclean spirits yanked out of them? What insurance plan is going to cover such a claim? Why does the gospel writer even have this story in the Bible? Let’s stop talking about what happened two thousand years ago that doesn’t relate and let’s talk about what’s happening now.”
One Bible studying partner responses, “ok, what’s happening now?” Together the group lists what’s happening now: pressure to achieve, pressure to succeed, pressure to stretch finances and provide for children while at the same time caring for elder family members; pressure to solve an unsettling volatility in our country, a trigger happy population and a growing lack of decency and morality; pressure to trust in an authority. Finally, after forming their list one says to the group, “so what do all these pressures do to us?” Several speaking in unison and in agreement respond, “they drive us nuts.” Finally the other says, “just like unclean spirits?!”
Today, I’d like to talk a bit about our unclean spirits. But, more importantly, I’d like to talk about how Jesus comes to us and cleans up our unclean spirits.
Unclean spirits are what we hear about in Mark’s gospel today as a means of establishing the identity of Jesus Christ, the embodiment, the authority, the teacher of the kingdom of God. It is Jesus, the holy Son of God, who comes, inviting all to change their hearts and follow him.
Immediately following his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, his calling of his disciples, filled with the Spirit, Jesus is ready to get to work making God’s kingdom known. What does he do? He begins his ministry in the institution most familiar, most conducive to learning about the transformative power of God in our lives. Jesus, along with his young adult group, goes to church. Jesus, though, doesn’t come to be instructed. He comes to instruct. He stands, opening his ancient, well studied text of Hebrew scripture, he walks to the chancel steps, climbs into the pulpit and his words spill out with an authority so authentic, so powerful, never have folks heard anything like it. The trusted church officials, old timers, Sunday School teachers, those new to the faith, parents cradling kids, newcomers, the young adults, all are amazed.
Now, with the worship space rich in the spirit of wonder and awe, a bizarre exchange of shouting and yelling inserts itself into Jesus’ teaching shaking up the whole place.
A deeply disturbed man sitting among the congregation suddenly starts screaming, “Jesus, what business do you have here with us?! I know what you’re up to! You’re the holy one of God, and you’ve come to destroy us.” Who is this man? Has he been sitting in the back row week after week? Has he filled out a Welcome card? Has we passed the peace with him? Have we been sharing a cup of coffee with him during Fellowship hour? Who is this man? Yes, he’s clearly disturbed. But, this is not a scene from The Exorcist. His head isn’t savagely spinning ‘round in 360 degree orbit spewing out green glop. No. This man is in church troubled with an unclean spirit.
In Jesus’ time, according to the Hebrew translation, to have an unclean spirit is a condition in which we may find ourselves. In other words, the condition of an unclean spirit can be avoided. As well, to have an unclean spirit is a situation which can be reversed. According to ancient Judaic Law, we can become ritually unclean through the natural process of eating or touching certain animals or foods and/or emitting bodily fluids that may be considered unclean. At the same time engaging in inappropriate religious, sexual or other behavior can result in moral uncleanliness.
Maintaining a cleanliness as according to the Holiness Code of Leviticus is a requirement of God’s people, distinguishing God’s Chosen from other communities. The cleanliness codes as listed in detail in Leviticus chart the course for our identity and define who we are as God’s. We’re reminded in the book of Genesis, we are created by God, as God’s people, and we’re created not just good, but very good. Over time, the ancient Cleanliness Laws from God evolved into codes of moral behavior practiced by faithful folks in Jesus’ time. Today, as God’s chosen, we have a concern of cleanliness and uncleanliness through ritual purity and with moral behavior.
The man with the unclean spirit sitting in the congregation crying out in agony may well be suffering from the pressures of immoral behavior. Is his heart troubled as he struggles knowing his marriage is at risk? Has work become so compromising for this man he can’t bare the indecency? Has his behavior estranged him from a cherished relationship with his children? Is his agony due to his complicit behavior in some sinful act he’s hidden deep within? Does he suffer from a silence he can no longer keep quiet? Torn between the evil that beholds him and the redemption that awaits him, the unclean spirit cries out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”
Who is “us”? “Us” is the various beings we’ve been throughout our lifetime. “Us” includes the newborn baby wrapped innocently and securely in our mother’s arms. “Us” is the preschooler running in the doors of Epiphany each morning, eager to trust in the new day at preschool. “Us” is that first moment we become so self-aware and await anxiously to gain assurance. “Us” is our first steps of independence when we’ve listened and learned and find our confidence. “Us” is believing in ourselves enough to strike out knowing we’re good enough to take on the challenge. “Us” is the proud moment, the embarrassing jumble recovered, the trip and fall only to stand tall, the impossible made possible, the hurt made whole, the giving and receiving that unites us one to another, in the ugly parts and in the beautiful. This is us.
The “us” is who we are in all the cleanliness and the uncleanliness. And, sometimes the “us” is those various parts of us we keep so hidden in the darkness, we’re left living fearful and guarded. Or, the “us” is the simmering anger we’ve not been able to fully extinguish, preventing us from fully trusting. Or the “us” is the hurt we can’t shake that turns us resentful and distant. Or the “us” is the deep regret we have stored away and failed to unpack, leaving us sorrowful. These “us-es” are those parts of us that prevent us from loving fully, trusting entirely, striving completely.
So, this man, blessed and burdened by his us-es, comes searching for healing cleanliness, where he believes he will find, safety, security, trust, compassion and love. He shows up in church. He’s been careful all these weeks keeping his uncleanliness monster tucked deep within. But, no longer. Now he’s desperate for Jesus. Our Jesus who teaches with such an authority that compels folks to stop, loosen their anchor, put down their nets and immediately follow. Jesus, whom even the demons recognize, amazes all, as he commands good over evil. These uncleanly “us-es”, they know Jesus is the answer. Identifying Christ, “the holy one from God”, the one who comes to save, opens the door to freedom for the possessed man as Jesus cleans up.
Speaking harshly, Jesus silences the demon and demands he come out. There is some ugly screaming in the back row of the worship space as the man convulses and coughs up his carefully controlled anger, let’s go of his hidden hurt; and releases his regret to the healing love of Jesus Christ. Everyone is shaken. I would hope so. Turning to live a life believing in the amazing power of Jesus in our lives, is going to shake us up a bit. So, maybe this is the morning.
Maybe this is the day we turn in the direction of Jesus’ healing love, give our junk over to Jesus and let him clean us up a bit. Because, we don’t have to hold onto the hurt, the worry and the anger anymore. Jesus says, “come out.”
Give it over to Jesus. He’s here on clean up duty.