|Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on January 29, 2018 at 10:20 AM|
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “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.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Stories like this- with screaming demons and Jesus casting them out- sometimes make us Lutherans a little uneasy. Because we like order. We like our worship and our lives to follow a plan. And we like to know what’s coming next. And whenever demons show up in Scripture, they’re always messing things up- either screaming in the middle of the synagogue’s worship, or causing convulsions or driving someone to violence. Demons are disruptive to our ordered lives. So, when these demon stories come up, (and it’s a lot because casting out demons was one of the cornerstones of Jesus’ ministry), we Lutherans get a little uneasy.
And besides that, we can’t explain exactly what they are. Sometimes they seem to be ways of explaining certain mental or physical illnesses in a time before they had words for those realities, but I think that explains a way a reality that we don’t like to admit often. That there are powers that take over a person and twist them into someone we cannot recognize.
Maybe we prefer to talk about them as addictions or compulsions or the power of evil, but whatever we call them, we still have seen that power at work. The powers that disfigure us like the man in the synagogue and turn us into what we are not. These demons are all the forces that make run in the opposite direction of what God wants for us. Rather than bless others, they encourage us to curse others, to tear them down. They are the forces that drive us to hate, rather than love and drive us to side with powers of death and destruction rather than stand on the side of life and health. They are powers that deform us and change us from who God created us to be.
Maybe these powers get a foothold during the end of a relationship, when someone has hurt us more deeply than we can explain. Right then, the power of hatred disfigures us and makes us want to hurt that person back. That power takes over and leaves no room for joy or for life.
Or maybe you have met those powers in a deep, painful grief after you have lost someone you love. Maybe that sadness and hopelessness is so overpowering that you can’t even see through it, you can’t even remember who you used to be.
Those powers may be at work through an addiction that claims that it is the thing that is in control in your life. It keeps calling out to you- whether it is alcohol or food or the desperate need to be in control. It often feels good, it makes things ok for a time, but it also becomes something that you can’t say no to, even though you don’t like what it does to you.
And in the days since 9/11, and after every new act of violence, we have seen the power of fear disorder our hearts- as individuals and as communities. It has a way of twisting our good ideals and making us want to shut people out before they can hurt us. And the powers of fear have a way of making us want to return to our past- where we knew we were safe- rather than face the uncertainty and change of the future that God calls us into.
These demons, these powers of evil don’t have to be dramatic. They don’t have to be visible to anyone else like they were for the man in the synagogue, but they are real and we know what it is to fight these powers. We know what it is to be controlled by forces that disfigure us. Powers that make us into what they want us to be, not what we were made by God to be.
Perhaps those in ancient times had a gift in being able to name these spirits for what they were- not just painful and destructive things, but spirits that are at war with who God made us to be. Addictions and hatred and greed and fear- these are all spirits other than God. They’re not just bad habits or human nature. They are things that distort the image of God in us, things that fight against the power of God in our lives. And this is true for us as individuals and us as a community together.
Because we are made in God’s image, so we are not made to dwell in hatred and greed. Even though it may feel good at times, we are not made to want revenge on our brothers and sisters. We are not made to keep some out to make ourselves feel safe or comfortable. And we are not made to have anyone or anything have ultimate power over us other than God alone.
But there is good news! What is true for the man in the synagogue is just as true for us. Jesus has power over all that threatens to define us and drag us away from who we were called to be. He has authority over all the forces within us and around us that cause us to run away from God’s intention for us. Jesus has the power to restore us to right selves.
Jesus doesn’t just help us keep New Year’s Resolutions or help us give something up at Lent. That is too small a thing. Jesus has the power to drive away the forces that draw us from God. The power to put us in our right mind and our right identity. To make us into who God hopes we will be- people of joy and love and compassion and service.
But how does Jesus drive away all those forces that try to own us? I wish there were some big flash of light or some magical words or something that proved that these powers were gone, that they no longer had control over us. Then we could have something to hold onto to trust Jesus’ power.
But there’s not. Jesus doesn’t so much as touch the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus sends the evil spirits away simply by saying “Be silent, and come out of him!” He tells the demons that they have no right to speak, that they no longer have authority. They can no longer own this man because God has already claimed him.
Jesus speaks and his words are somehow enough. Because his words create exactly what they say they will. That’s how it is with the words of God. They do what they say. It sounds too easy. Just as it was in creation, when God said “let there be light” and there was light, so it will always be. When God speaks, it creates a new reality. When God tells the waters of the flood to stop and the waters of the Red Sea to part, they do. So when God pronounces a blessing, you are blessed. When God speaks words of forgiveness, you are forgiven.
Jesus has authority over all that tries to have control over us and he keeps speaking that truth because he doesn’t want us to live enslaved. That’s what God declares in baptism- I choose you and you are claimed by me and no other. These other powers may fight for you, but I will fight them even to death. And I will fight them through death to the other side. You are mine and nothing can take you from me.
As my favorite baptismal prayer says, “now the floods will not overwhelm you and the deep will not swallow you up.” For you are mine and I have the power to bring you through. This is what Jesus declares to be true. When we are sinking deep in grief, when addictions and prejudice and hatred have a grip on us that we cannot shake, these words are like a life-preserver thrown out to us. They may not take us out of the water just yet, but they will hold us up until the fullness of God’s reality breaks in.
And this is no self-help talk. This isn’t just wishful thinking or keeping a positive attitude. Jesus declares that there is nothing in this world or beyond this world that can separate us from God’s love. And there will be nothing that is allowed to be more powerful that God’s hold on us. And as often as we give into those powers, as often as we choose to wallow in them, as often as we feel powerless to stop them- Jesus will keep speaking to those powers to send them away. To tell them to be silent so that we can hear God’s hope for us and God’s plan for us far above their noise.
God shuts those powers up, those voices, those desires and despairs so that we can hear the voice that seems too quiet and too small at times. The voice that simply says- be silent, for that is my child. I have claimed that one in love. I have set this precious one apart to live in freedom and joy and love. To live in loving community with others. To serve me and all I have created. And don’t you dare get in the way.
To the man in the synagogue who could not hide his demons and to all of us who work so hard to cover ours up, Jesus’ words are still the same- none of these powers are as powerful as my words. None have a chance to stand against all that I am. And none have the right to claim what God already has. It is the truth whether we believe it or not.
And thanks be to God for that.