Toorak Uniting Church

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Demons asked to leave

Mark 1: 21 – 28
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
29 January 2006

I think you will probably all agree with me that demons and exorcisms mostly aren’t at the forefront of our thoughts when we think about Jesus of Nazareth or about our faith. They aren’t at the forefront of our minds much at all because thety have become virtually extinct from daily life.
Anybody who is into demons and exorcism would best go to the cinema, watch television, read horror fiction, or join a sect because here in Toorak, within the Church or outside it, not much demon activity is evident.

In my career as a minister I have been asked to exorcise a demon once. A very awkward experience that went with a lot of anxiety and angst on my part. The handbooks (which I was able to consult only after the event) told me to "not dabble with what I did not understand" and "find an expert", and only ever get involved in anything like after careful preparation and after you’ve made sure all else has failed. Apart from the fact that I don’t think I would have been able to find an expert in our part of the Church, the request was of unexpected and of such an urgent nature that I didn’t feel I was in a position to go home and consult some books and ask some colleagues before I went ahead and did something. So I did what I had seen Jesus do in the gospels many times: I mustered all my power and in prayer told the thing to move off and lose itself in the tree outside.

The woman had been horrifically abused in her childhood, had worked through the trauma, done all the work, but felt that there was something deep down inside her that was beyond the power of therapy and the human ability to grow through such things and heal. Something alive and out of her and her therapist’s control. Something that kept the nightmares alive and would not let her move on. Before that moment, before the "exorcism" we had talked a lot about what had happened and how it had impacted her life, we had prayed together, we had shared a lot of the pain, but at that point something else was needed: The demon needed to be exorcised, needed to be thrown out as it literally means.

In the gospel of Mark there is no such prelude at all. There is a man in the synagogue and a demon speaking through him. There is no existing pastoral connection, there has not been any preparation, there is no careful identification of the problem. There is just confrontation of Jesus and an anxiously protesting demon:

"Have you come to destroy us Jesus of Nazareth? We know who you are, you are the holy one of God!"

If we weren’t so familiar with those gospel stories and accustomed to all sorts of weird things happening in them, we’d probably realise sooner that this could have come straight out of the "Exorcist" or another, similar movie. And it is definitely creepy if you think about it. Here is Jesus preaching in the synagoge and up gets this man and starts speaking gobbledegook. In another couple of minutes he is on the floor convulsing and crying out like somebody hit by a Toronto Blessing. Not something we’d be comfortable with if it interfered with our worship or my preaching!

We don’t do demons in our part of the Church, or exorcisms. And we would definitely not appreciate demons speaking out during the service or somebody convulsing on the floor. In the theology of our part of the Church these demons have been carefully explained away over the last two centuries of "enlightenment" and "rational and reasonable" Christianity. We don’t believe in demons anymore, we blame ignorance and say that at the time of Jesus people didn’t know any better and probably ascribed everything they didn’t understand or did not have a name for to supernatural powers. This man was probably psychotic, had lost touch with reality, and should have been properly medicated or offered therapy. With all those modern means not available at the time there wasn’t much else that could be done but for Jesus to heal him.

Up to a point I believe that is right. People didn’t know about mental illness at the time and when you don’t know what it is people are suffering from, mental illness can look and feel like somebody has been taken over, is possessed by something they can’t control but is controlling them. And I am sure many of the exorcisms Jesus performed could have been successfully treated with therapy or medication if they had been available. But that is not the point of the story.

The point of the story is that here is a man who has lost control. Who is in the power of something bigger and stronger than he is. Something that makes him loose his dignity, his freedom and his happiness. Something that takes away the possibility for him to lead the life that Jesus has come to proclaim: The Kingdom life. The power of this thing runs so deep that he even resists the preaching that can help him come out of it. He doesn’t want to be saved, the evil inside him has such a hold on him that he resents the light when it comes to light up his darkness.

In response Jesus turns on the floodlights.

I believe our lives and our world are full of demons. Unidentified demons that spread insidiously in the darkness and have a vested interested in not being brought to light.

We have probably all know the experience where, after a scary movie, we find ourselves in bed wondering what it is that moves the curtain in front of the window. And we also know that they only real remedy is to get up, turn on the light and have a look. But that it may take a while before we find the courage to do so and that sometimes we need somebody else to do it for us: "Mum, can you turn on the light?"

I would like to suggest that we all have, buried deep down inside us, demons, fears that control us, old scars that tie us down and keep us from living life with the freedom, trust and generous love Jesus is calling us to live with. Things like guilt, pride, resentment, bitterness, suspicion and others you can fill in for yourself that will shackle us and take away from our lives. Things that shrink from the light of day that are intangible and evasive in their nature and have a power that is not easy to break.

I would also like to suggest our society is rife with those things. Demons that exert power over people in a way that is hard to resist or change and that help the devil grow his power and influence over us. Primitive and unreasonable fears fuelled by politicians and powerbrokers is one. Fear of terrorism: in an attempt to protect ourselves from such an elusive and dangerous enemy there is a danger of disregarding values we have treasured as a community for a long time and take measures that will impinge on freedom, democracy and open minded living. Xenophobia is another that has come to take away the joys of living in a diverse and culturally exciting society. And there are many more. Ethnicity, religious beliefs, economics, they can all become demonic forces in our society and in our lives. Feeding off our own internal fears and demons as they go along and consuming the freedom and the trust needed to live the liberated life of grace in Christ.

Demons are not extinct. They have gone underground! We have reasoned them out of our existence to find ourselves stuck with a darkness that is deeper and harder to light up than before.

In that darkness the gospel speaks. "Be silent and come out!" A new teaching, with authority. It is our calling as people of faith to fight that darkness and bring the light of Christ to it. To wrestle with Satan and his cronies as Jesus did and bring liberation and healing that will enable us and others to live in his footsteps.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2006

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