Everyday Demons and Their Exorcists

Everyday Demons and Their Exorcists
Photo by fikry anshor / Unsplash

The side of Jesus we hear about from St Mark is a revelatory one. This is an apocalyptic Jesus, naming things for what they are and calling them to their appropriate places. Calling them to their eschatological places. Revealing who and what and how they will be on the Last Day when all is, finally, restored to the place and purpose for which God made it.

Mark’s Jesus is also a humble one. He prefers to go about his ministry in word and action but without seeking too much publicity or awareness of who he is. Mark’s Jesus does not seek to accomplish his work through dominance. Instead, in Mark’s gospel-telling, Jesus shows that even in what humans deem the weakness and humiliation of the Cross, God is more powerful than Death itself.

It is this seemingly weak and humble Jesus that the Adversary, Satan, tempts in the desert. It is this man who, just last week, called four disciples to follow him immediately and they did so. It is this wandering teacher and healer who had the Holy Spirit descend upon him at his baptism and who the voice from heaven named as God’s beloved son. It is this weak and humble Jesus for whom the sun will darken, the veil of the Temple will be rent, and who a Roman centurion will recognize as the Son of God.

In today’s portion of Mark’s gospel-telling, this Jesus who does not seek fame or renown is confronted in a synagogue by a man filled with an unclean spirit. A demon. The demon knows who Jesus is and names him aloud, in the congregation. Jesus commands the demon to be silent and it is. Jesus commands the demon to leave the man and it does. The man convulses and the demon howls; it leaves with complaint and an unwillingness, but leave it does. And the congregation begin to speculate about what this might mean.

The world of first century Judea is a world, like ours, filled with things spiritual. Jesus and his neighbours were perhaps more willing than us to admit this and find ways to engage with it. The so-called Enlightenment and the promises of human pride, especially of the last 150 years, have made stories like this one very difficult for us to grapple with. At least, to grapple with on its own terms. It is easier to paint this story as a primitive understanding of mental illness or demythologise the entire thing and making it a platitude about being kind and helpful to strangers in our midst than to take it for what it really seems to be saying: There is a spiritual realm difficult to apprehend with our five senses, it can affect us for good or ill, and it has some part to play in God’s creation including a place on the Last Day.

At this stage of Mark’s gospel, the reader has been let into the secret of who Jesus really is, but few of the other people in the story are sure. Many are certain that he is something special—like the disciples who have left their families to follow him—but exactly what kind of special remains to be seen. The demon knows, however. It recognizes him immediately and calls him both by name and title. Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God. The demon knows the authority Jesus has and, if the demon knows who he is, knows that Jesus is one who comes to set free, to heal, to reconcile, to reveal truth, and to save.

The demon is worried that Jesus has come to destroy it. Critical to our understanding of Jesus here is the recognition that the demon is not destroyed. It is silenced and it is removed from the man it unjustly inhabits. It is sent away from the congregation to wherever demons belong. It is named for what it is, its truth is revealed, and it is called—in this case, forced into—the place where it truly belongs. In its way, it is being freed, healed, reconciled, and saved by Jesus.

Have any of you here been present for an exorcism? Have any of you here been present for an Anglican baptism? You may recall the renunciations at the beginning of the baptismal rite. These are, in fact, a minor exorcism. The baptisand renounces—casts out of their self—those things which are not of God and then, in their baptism, is filled with the Holy Spirit. The good news for us humans is that God waits until we are ready and willing to participate in our salvation. Demons are not so lucky.

Last week I told you that, as people who had decided to follow Jesus, we would be introduced to our work through this Epiphanytide. Given our marching orders as reflections of Christ in the world. And here we are with the first example of Christlike ministry: exorcism. A role in this world that makes many of us uneasy. Who are we to cast out demons and reveal the truth of what they are?

We will very seldom, if ever, be confronted with so dramatic a situation as the one described in today’s gospel passage. If the goal is to corrupt humanity and lead us away from God, revealing one’s self as a demon is probably not very productive. This is work best done covertly, whenever possible. Rather than great, slavering, sword-bearing, horned entities of the kind depicted in Hollywood productions and video games, the evil forces you and I encounter are much more mundane.

By far the easiest way to keep us humans from Godly lives is to keep us fighting with one another. To keep us punching each other down, rather than lifting one another up. The tactics here are the quiet whispers that justify racism, homophobia, wealth gained through the exploitation of others, governance that perpetuates poverty, destructive consumption, exclusion and willful forgetting of widows, orphans, the disabled, and imprisoned.

These are the everyday, commonplace demons of our world. These are the demons who tempt us all, in ways great and small, as we go about our lives as disciples of Jesus. These are the demons you and I are called to name, whose truth we are to reveal where they are found, and whose casting out we are to call for in the name of Christ. These are the demons of today who have no place among humanity in the Kingdom of God.

Have courage and take heart. Just as the demon in Mark’s gospel knew that Jesus might destroy it if he wished, the demons today know that they have lost the fight. Every time we name them and push them back, we see their furious response. Their convulsions and howls. We see the fires of discord stoked with calls for exclusion, hatred, exploitation, and war around the world. Every step toward recognizing and honouring the image of God in every human being is met with an awful cry of rage from the powers that wish to separate us from God.

These are the death throes of a defeated enemy. The thrashing tail of a dying dragon. Painful and destructive, but ultimately fruitless. For even the demons know the truth of the Gospel: That, in Jesus Christ on the Cross—the still point in a turning world—Death was destroyed and nothing, not even the most determined of evils, would be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God.

Andrew Rampton

Andrew Rampton

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