Sermon: Possessed

Mark 1:21-28

Note: I am going to be calling Jesus “Joshua” in this sermon, which is what our friend Elias Ramer — who is both a member of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav and of our community — calls him. (You may know Elias Ramer as Andrew Ramer.) “Jesus” is the Greek form of “Yeshua,” which would have been Jesus’ name in Hebrew. “Yeshua” translated into English is Joshua.

I have before, in sermons, confessed to you my and Patrick’s love of horror movies. Not slasher flicks, I hate those — horror movies. Zombies, vampires, and all manner of supernatural weirdnesses. Our latest find was “Host,” a movie made completely during COVID where all the actors are on their own Zoom screens, trying to outlive a demon that they have conjured during an online seance.

Even those of you who don’t like horror movies as much as we do and don’t watch them, probably have ideas about what it means to be demon possessed that come from movies and popular culture.  I think the basic gist of it is: There’s a discrete spirit out there — that usually has a name that sounds like Beazibul — and that spirit enters into a person, and then their head starts doing a 360 around their neck and they start barking and making guttural sounds and speaking a language that sounds like ancient Sumerian or something. Sometimes, an exorcist is able to exorcise the demon, at which point it disappears into the ether again and the possessed person returns to their normal self — definitely disheveled, but recognizably human again.

So, when we hear this story from Mark, I’m guessing that we’re imaging a scene a little like the one I just described. There’s this possessed guy in the synagogue who’s probably barking and foaming at the mouth, and Joshua comes across as this very cool, powerful exorcist who can go toe-to-toe with demons and come out of it unscathed, unlike the priest from “The Exorcist” who dies from his exertions. Joshua seems here like he could be his own superhero character in an Avengers movie — DemonSlayer, or some such character.

So, forget all that. Wipe it clean from your mind. Let’s excavate this story to see what actually might be going on here.

This story comes at the beginning of Mark’s gospel, in the first chapter. Joshua has just left the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where he has called his disciples, and now he’s in Capernaum, a town on the seashore. Our passage is the very first story Mark tells about Joshua’s public ministry, so obviously this is a very significant story for Mark. He’s really setting up who this Joshua is and what he’s about. The story takes place in a synagogue — the heart of the Jewish social and sacred order. The synagogue is sacred space, and what’s more, this story takes place on the Sabbath, which is sacred time. (This insight, as well as many others in this sermon, comes from Ched Myers’ seminal study of Mark, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.)

Joshua begins teaching in the synagogue and people are astounded that he speaks with authority, not like the scribes. The verb in Greek for astounded is a very strong verb — it comes from a root that means “to strike.” So, Joshua’s teaching is striking, it makes an impact on you — maybe even physically — as you listen. He speaks with authority, and the Greek word here means “moral authority” but a delegated authority — it’s an authority that has been given by God to that person. Which is consistent with what happened earlier in this chapter, where Joshua is baptized, and the Spirit of God descends upon him. He becomes possessed by the Spirit of God. Joshua is speaking with the authority of that Spirit, and this authoritative speech has the power to transform people, not just inform them. (Insight from Feasting on the Word: Preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary.)

Who are these scribes, with whom Joshua’s teaching is contrasted? It’s easy to think of them as just boring preachers, who are always saying the same old, same old. But, being boring is not the problem with the scribes, according to Mark. Listen to this verse from Mark 14 that Matt will read:

As Jesus taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

How did the scribes get so rich, parading around in their long robes, and how are they devouring widows’ houses? Here’s how Scripture scholar Ched Myers explains it (my paraphrase): “Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness (hence the ‘pretext of long prayers’), scribes would earn the legal right to administer the estates of deceased men, since widows were deemed unfit to administer their own husband’s estate. As compensation, the scribes would usually get a percentage of the assets of the estate. The practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse.” The scribes are making money off these vulnerable women, which is especially egregious because the Hebrew Scriptures make the protection of socially vulnerable classes like widows and orphans the litmus test for obedience to God.  Mark portrays Joshua as being opposed to these scribes not because he’s such an electric preacher and they’re not but because the scribes are using their social and spiritual status to exploit vulnerable people for their own gain.  

So immediately upon Joshua entering the synagogue — this seat of the sacred order, where the scribes hold authority— immediately, Joshua meets this man with the unclean spirit who opposes him. Unclean doesn’t mean the man hasn’t washed enough or that he’s disgusting in some way. One Biblical scholar says that “impure” means, simply, contrary to the sacred. Contrary to God and God’s righteousness or right relationship. Impure, the scholar says, refers to an antihuman spirit, a spirit opposed to the flourishing of humans and of life. (From Feasting on the Word.)

Mennonite pastor and activist Mark van Steenwyck has this really beautiful way of talking about demon possession in the gospels. He sees demoniacs — that’s the word for someone possessed by a demon — as being like the prophets. Prophets, he says, are those who “name the alienating forces that prevent us from a vibrant relationship with all living things. Animated by the pain of a loving God, they confront things that separate us from each other, from the land, from the Spirit of Life. While prophets point outward at alienating forces, the demoniacs internalize such forces to the point that these forces manifest in their true form.” So the demoniac is a particularly sensitive person, whose soul has been twisted by the injustice of their society. “They are people who bear the weight of injustice in their bodies and minds.” They are like mirrors of what ails us.  (From one of Mark’s weekly emails from the Center for Prophetic Imagination.)

We are pretty far from rotating heads and barking here, aren’t we?

The unclean, inhuman spirit residing in this sensitive soul says to Joshua, “What have you to do with us, Joshua of Nazareth?” This could be translated as “What do you have in common with us?” And calling out Joshua as being from Nazareth might very well have been a slur. People from Nazareth seem to not have been highly regarded; I think they’re considered to be at the bottom of the ladder in the hierarchy of that day. So, the demon is naming Joshua as a hostile, inferior intruder. But the unclean’s spirit contemptuousness quickly turns to fear: “Have you come to destroy us?” 

Who is the “us” in that question? As Myers says, “Upon whose behalf is the demon pleading? It can only be the group already identified” in the story as the ones with whom Joshua is in conflict — the scribal aristocracy whose space Jesus is invading and threatening. 

The unclean spirit names Joshua as the Holy One of God, which would seem a compliment, except that in that society, naming someone accurately gives you power over them. The demon gets that Joshua is a real threat to this scribal elite and is attempting here to exert control over him.  Joshua silences the demon and orders him to leave the man. 

And here’s where things do get a bit horror movie.The spirit convulses the man and cries out loudly, and I can’t help thinking of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” at this point. That spirit does not want to leave the man, but the demon has no choice. Joshua’s word is powerful. “His word liberates the earth from the forces of evil and makes our world habitable for the human being,” as one Scripture scholar said. (From Feasting on the Word.) No wonder all the people who witness this are amazed and begin talking Joshua up.  This is a man possessed by the Spirit of Life, a Spirit that will confront and call out antihuman spirits that prevent us from a vibrant relationship with all living things.

What are the antihuman spirits  — the demons — of our time? I was struck by something Mark van Steenwyck noted — that Joshua did exorcisms in the places of worship first in the gospel of Mark. As he writes, “After all, there is where one usually finds the most demonic ideas. It is where may of us learned to hate ourselves. It is where many of learned that God wants to punish us. It is where many of us became so conditioned that they gladly welcome fascism rather than show compassion to undocumented strangers, provide free health care to the sick, or show mercy to those in cages.” There’s a whole host of demons named right there. And Joshua says to those antihuman spirits: “Be silent and come out of my people!”

What are the antihuman spirits that live in us? In you? What about that voice that chides you when you stop pushing yourself, when you let yourself rest? What about the voice that endlessly critiques everything you do? What about those times when you feel called to embrace a sacrifice on behalf of making the realm of God real on earth — when you feel called to a generosity or a courage that feels bigger than yourself — and then a voice creeps in that urges you to stay small and be safe?  Joshua says to these antihuman spirits: “Be silent and come out of my people.”

I think of a conversation I had with someone from my home in Ohio over the summer. He’s bright and kind. He had a rough growing up, and he had to assume adult responsibilities at a quite young age. He is now quite wealthy. I was pressing him on climate change and ecological degradation. I was telling him we can’t keep expecting infinite economic growth on a finite planet, and I was telling him all the reasons why. He didn’t dispute any of my arguments, but he could not imagine a world without our capitalist growth economy. Finally, at one point I said, “You have young children. What kind of a world are they going to live in if things keep going like this? How do you deal with that?” He looked at me and said,  “We can always terraform Mars.” And then I knew: He had been possessed. He would rather condemn his own children to an uninhabitable earth and the fantasy of life on a dead planet than countenance a fundamental change to our economic system. I think it’s fair to say that millions of other people who also identify as Christian believe the same thing as this person. And Joshua says to this antihuman spirit: “Be silent and come out of my people!”

Animated by the pain of a loving God, may we confront those things in us and in the world that separate us from each other, that separate us from the land and its creatures, and that separate us from the Spirit of Life. By the power of that Spirit, may we see and name that demon and call it out as the antihuman, antilife spirit that it is. And as the demon departs, may we find ourselves and each other definitely disheveled but returned to our full humanity again.  Amen.