One Sunday morning in worship ten years ago, I was focused on our associate pastor who was preaching. About half way through her sermon, a man suddenly appeared in front of the congregation and began speaking in a loud voice. Everyone was shocked, their eyes riveted on this large, disheveled stranger who had disrupted the service.
The man started pointing at someone in our choir, and saying that he had been sent by God to talk to him about Jesus. I sprang out of my chair and walked up to the man and asked if he would talk to me instead. The man looked very distressed and he was insistent about talking to this particular choir member.
Very slowly, I gently put my arm around his shoulder and began turning him toward the back of the sanctuary. He began to resist, but I said I really wanted him to talk to me, but right here in front of everyone else would not be the best place. "Let's go to the back," I said, "and you can tell me everything on your mind."
We began walking toward the back and I kept talking, hoping to get his mind off his initial mission. About halfway toward the back he stopped and started to turn back toward the choir, but I encouraged him to keep walking with me. Fortunately, he cooperated.
I led him to the back of the sanctuary and into a room where we sat down. A member, who was a psychologist, ran down from the balcony and joined us. As the disturbed man talked, it was clear that he was suffering from a mental illness. We talked to him about his work and his family, and when it seemed safe, we asked if he had ever talked with a counselor. He talked about it for awhile, but then, he abruptly cut off the conversation, stood up and said he needed to leave. We offered him help, but he simply walked out, climbed into his car and drove away.
Later, I discovered how upsetting it had been for the people sitting in the sanctuary. Several told me about the worries that raced through their minds after the man and I had left the sanctuary. A couple of people told me that they were afraid that, any second, they would hear a gunshot. Picture that happening here. You can imagine how disturbing it would be.
This morning's passage from the Gospel of Mark tells of an episode that occurred in the early stages of Jesus' ministry. Jesus and the only four disciples he had yet called to follow him, travel to Capernaum. On the Sabbath, they enter the synagogue and Jesus begins to teach.
His teaching is spellbinding. Everyone present is mesmerized by his wisdom. His words warm their hearts and enlighten their minds. But then, mid-sentence, while people are hanging on every word, an agitated man suddenly disrupts the proceedings. He cries out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?"
The text says that Jesus silences the unclean spirit within the man and demands that the dark force come out of him. The unclean spirit throws the man into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, comes out of him. And all the people are amazed by Jesus' power.
In the ancient world, both physical maladies and mental disorders were believed to be caused by supernatural demons and evil spirits. The demons were thought to slither inside a person and wreak havoc with the person's health. The man in this story may have had a mental illness. To cure him, the malignant spirit had to be removed through exorcism. Jesus demonstrates his power over the demon that has wormed its way into this man, by rebuking it and calling it out.
Living in the twenty-first century with a few hundred years worth of scientific discoveries behind us, we know that mental and physical problems are not caused by evil spirits. Mental illness can result from a trauma or a chemical imbalance in the brain and scientists have created drugs and therapy to help correct the problem. We know that bacteria and viruses cause numerous illnesses, and so we might have a tendency to write off this portion of the passage as nothing more than a primitive understanding of illness. But, if we did, we would miss something crucial.
What if the man serves as a reminder that unclean spirits dwell within each of us? The dark spirits that occasionally possess us and wreak havoc in our lives go by the names of anger, greed, prejudice, envy, arrogance, lust, vengeance. When we allow even one of these unclean spirits to
drive our thoughts and actions, we inflict harm on others and we damage our own souls.
"There was a man who dreamed of gold. Night after night he dreamed of gold and during the day, gold was continuously in his thoughts. One morning after a long and rigorous night of dreaming about gold, he woke up and immediately ran to the market place. There were a hundred people strolling through the market. And he pushed through the crowd, bumping and bruising people as he made his way to the tent where the gold vendor was selling his items. The gold vendor's table was covered with gold earrings, bracelets and necklaces, and the man took his arm and swept across the table of gold and swept everything into the bag he was carrying. He turned around and began to run, but there was a police officer only four steps away. Immediately the officer nabbed him, cuffed him and dragged him off to the police station. As he was closing the door on the man's cell the officer said, "I don't understand. What kind of thief are you? In the sight of one hundred people, with the gold vendor sitting behind his table, with me only four steps away you attempt to steal all this gold." And the man said, "I never saw anyone. I only saw the gold."1
In the contemporary telling of this parable the man's name is Bernard Madoff. It was inevitable that Madoff's pyramid scheme would collapse, people would lose millions and he would go to prison. All he could see was the gold. We miss the point of the parable if we ignore the fact that there may be a touch of Madoff in all of us.
Of course, it's not limited to Madoff. Recently there have been revelations about the excesses of numerous people on Wall Street and how they seem out of touch with reality. Financial institutions that needed billions of dollars of our tax money to keep from collapsing, turned around and paid out billions in bonuses. Before Merrill Lynch's CEO, John Thain, was ousted, he rushed through big bonuses in December, despite his company's fourth quarter loss of more than $15 billion. I thought people received bonuses the company made a profit! This is the same man who had refurbished his office one year earlier to the tune of $1.2 million including a $1400 waste basket. I cannot even imagine a $1400 waste basket!
Citigroup, who received billions of our tax dollars, had to be told that it was not such a great idea to go through with the purchase of a $50 million corporate jet. You think!? Many have been exasperated with such actions and on Friday, one senator called them idiots for their reckless and thoughtless decisions.
I applauded her words, but I also realize that as a society, we have lost the language to speak of such actions. Their deeds were not so much the result of ignorance, as sin. Human beings are created in God's image, but we are prone to sin. Dark forces can cause us to lose our moral bearings. A number of people on Wall Street certainly lost theirs. Their sense of entitlement, coupled with a total disregard for the impact of their actions on others, demonstrates that their souls are dominated by demons.
Any of us can become so narrowly focused on acquiring something for ourselves - wealth, revenge, status or control - that we abuse others and disfigure ourselves. It is as if some demonic force within us takes hold of the steering wheel, slams the accelerator to the floor and heads directly for a concrete wall.
What can we do to remove these unclean spirits that take up residency within us? First, we need to admit that a dark force has found a home within us and we must clearly identify it. Call it confessing sin or naming the darkness or taking an unfiltered look into the mirror. Identifying the demon is a step toward vanquishing it.
Once identified, we can better perceive its destructive power and how deeply its tentacles
reach into our souls. Then, each time it begins to emerge, we can recognize it and say "No" to it.
However, saying "No" is not enough. Many reformed alcoholics will tell you that saying "No"
to their addiction was never enough to overcome it. They also had to say "Yes" to something
Christ can remove an unclean spirit from us. He can help us say "No," by giving us the courage and determination to fight it, and he can help us say "Yes," by giving us the purpose and new direction to render it powerless. As we deepen our bond with Christ, through worship, prayer and service to others, our lives are gradually transformed. And as we are transformed, we discover the antidotes to various unclean spirits that might possess us. We find that greed can be exorcised by generosity; so we give a healthy portion of our income to the church. We learn that the desire for revenge can be overcome by forgiveness; so we go to someone who has hurt us and forgive her. Envy can be vanquished by serving people in need; so we feed hungry people or visit someone who is suffering. Prejudice can be removed by respect; arrogance can be conquered by humility; anger can be cured by joy; cynicism can be silenced by hope.
God does not wish misery on us. If you have an unclean spirit that is preventing you from being the healthy child of God that you have been created to be, then let your brokenness come face to face with the healing power of Christ. He is the one who can liberate us from our madness and make us whole. He does not perform a supernatural healing on us, but instead shows us the path to a life in harmony with God.
Give this some thought over the next few days: To what will I say no? To what will I say yes? Living a Christ-like existence expels the devilish spirits that reside within us so that we can experience the rich, joyful, satisfying lives God intends for us to live.
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