Sermon: What’s an Exorcism?

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1:21-28

My sermon from the 4th Sunday after Epiphany (January 28, 2024) on Mark 1:21-28


Today’s text from the gospel according to Mark is a little weird. Jesus, after returning from the wilderness and calling his first disciples, immediately entered a synagogue and did something we only see in horror movies, comics books, and late night tv ads. Now the casting out of demons and unclean spirits is something Jesus did all the time in Mark’s version of Jesus’ life. It was Mark’s way of showing how Jesus’ presence in the world reshapes our present, our future, and the entire universe. Jesus, when he showed up, challenged and disrupted how we see ourselves, our neighbors, and took care of one another. And while none of that sounds, I think, very strange when we talk about the Christian faith, things get interesting when we ponder the supernatural. We’re comfortable during worship talking about Jesus’ miracles, His presence in Holy Communion, and how our prayers are, sometimes, answered. But when the conversation includes demons, unclean spirits, and spiritual procession – our responses can be all over the place. We might, for example, have no problem talking about demons, evil, and the spiritual forces that move through us and in our world. Or we might notice how many of the so-called “unclean spirits” in our Bible resemble people who were living with depression, schizophrenia, or a bipolar disorder. When we act as if only one of those views can be true, we often cause harm. We end up dissuading people from seeking help through the God-given gifts of therapy, counseling, and psychiatry or turning people into a biological soup made up of chemicals, hormones, and repressed memories. Seeking help through therapy does not make you a bad Christian nor does lighting some sage on fire when the vibes in your house feel off turn you into something other than a follower of Jesus Christ. But when we spend too much of our time trying to separate, compartmentalize, and wall off from one another the physical, emotional, and spiritual parts of lives, we lose out on what it means to live our lives in the world. And I’ve often found that when we do this too much, Jesus breaks through to show us something new. 

I wonder if we can see a little of what that newness looks like by paying attention to what happened before the exorcism took place. Jesus arrived in the city of Capernaum which was really a large fishing village with maybe 1,500 people living within it. Its economy was centered on fishing in the Sea of Galilee as well as farming and harvesting olive trees in the surrounding hillside. Capernaum had one large road running north-to-south with side streets covered in small one-story homes.  A synagogue was built along its main roadway and was, in Jesus’ day, pretty plain without any seats or even a paved floor. It was standard practice for the entire village to, on the sabbath, assemble in the synagogue for a worship that wasn’t very formal. Within the service, there was space for people, even visitors from out of town, to read selections from the Bible and interpret what they thought it meant. Jesus’ behavior, then, at the start of worship wasn’t strange. We might, at this point in the story, immediately focus on the authority Jesus’ teaching seemed to embody. But I think it would be fruitful to spend a little time with the fishermen, farmers, merchants, men, women, and children who were already there. This community regularly interrupted their lives to spend time with their God. And they lived in a world full of mystery, different religions, and times when their own faith was weak or strong. The community was filled with all kinds of people whose spiritual life was exactly their own. And in the middle of them was an unnamed man possessed by a spirit. 

Now Mark doesn’t tell us who, or what, this spirit was. We never learn its backstory or how the man was possessed. Mark doesn’t describe how the unclean spirit made its presence impacted his life or interfered with his closest relationships. This gap within the story allows us to use our spiritual imagination to wonder what this man’s life was like. We might, influenced by our own personal biases, turn him into an evil force resembling something out of the movie The Exorcist. Or we might assume he lived with multiple personalities or had a constant over-the-top manic episode. This man, in our mind, stood in the back, away from everyone, living with all kinds of hurt and pain. And once we’re done picturing him in our head, it’s then when we realize that Mark did tell us one thing about him. We don’t know his story but we do know he was there. The man with an unclean Spirit was in the synagogue with the disciples, Jesus, and everyone else. He wasn’t sitting at home, barred from coming into God’s house. He was exactly who he was – a part of the community. And when Jesus showed up, he explicitly reaffirmed that truth by not immediately calling him out. He, instead, did something we might consider even more shocking than the exorcism itself: Jesus treated the man with the unclean spirit like he did everyone else. He included him, taught him, and showed the man with the unclean spirit as well as everyone in that place they were worth everything to God. And when the demon finally spoke, using the word “us” to imply Jesus was there to destroy the man himself, it was only then when Jesus acted. The unclean spirit wanted to keep this man away from anything that gave him life. And so rather than answering the spirit’s question, Jesus casted it out because bringing others into a life rooted in hope, connection, and love was why Jesus was there in the first place. 

I wonder, then, if that truth image can show us who we get to be as we live into our identity as part of the body of Christ. This community is not supposed to be for only one kind of person since life is complex, complicated, and full of mystery. When you are living through our own mental health crisis, seeking help doesn’t mean you don’t belong here. And when the language of possession, demons, and the supernatural describes exactly what you are living through, you still have a home here and with God. We, together, have a responsibility to care for ourselves and all around us through whatever they are living through. We get to learn each other’s story and not let the walls we build around one another interfere with our kindness and care. When we surround one another with a love that includes each other and keeps us safe, we are able to be exactly who we are. And when we a beloved friend, parent, child, or spouse is tormented in ways we struggle to comprehend or understand, we can believe their story – and promise that, no matter what, they’ll always belong. That’s how we journey with them one another through therapy, study, and prayer. It’s how we keep each other connected to the things that give us life. An exorcism is, I think, not merely a supernatural feat of power that shows off what we can do; it’s all about driving out that which keeps us separated from the connections that shape the life God is calling us to live. This kind of work isn’t easy nor will we always get it right. But this is what we get to do because Jesus, in our baptism, through the gift of faith, and with grace – keeps us connected to a promise of life, love, and hope that will never end it.