A message based on Mark 1:21-28.
In 2012 the alt-rock band Imagine Dragons released their debut album, Night Visions. It was an instant success, becoming the fourth most purchased album nationally within a year. Imagine Dragons is also the only group with two of the top ten songs downloaded in rock history. One of these top downloaded songs, Demons, has been purchased online over 5 million times in the US to date.
So what makes this song, Demons, so successful? I’ll give you my take on that – the lyrics describe a certain darkness to the human condition, in language people can understand, in ways they can relate. In Lutheran terms, where we are both saint and sinner, at all times, it’s not the saint piece we’re talking about.
Lyrics to Demons describe the dark side of the human condition poetically:
When the days are cold
And the cards all fold
And the saints we see
Are all made of gold
When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
Sometimes where the demons hide is crystal clear.
When former Michigan State and Olympic gymnast doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison early this week, for inappropriate contact, with 150 teen and pre-teen girls, over the course of two decades, we can only shake our heads. Dear God, cast out this vicious demon. Dear God, bring your justice for this wrong. Bring your healing for all those impacted. Lord, hear our prayers.
Other times the nature of the demon is less than obvious, as is the case with today’s scripture text. Modern translations of the text use the phrase unclean spirit to describe what this man was possessed with, so let’s use that phrase for a bit. In biblical language impure means unclean, which means, simply, contrary to the sacred. Contrary to the sacred. Aka not according to God’s plan.
Today’s text finds Jesus, very early in his ministry, teaching in the temple on the Sabbath. Teaching in a holy space on a holy day. And then, in the middle of his sermon, something unexpected happens. A man shows up, speaking directly to the preacher, saying, “What have you to do with us? I know who you are, Jesus!”
We don’t know the nature of this unclean spirit, so it would be unfair to speculate. We do know it recognized Jesus, and Jesus recognized the spirit as something not according to God’s plan. And with Christ, sent to earth to live out God’s plan, with a showdown like this lined up, something had to give.
Jesus, in this moment didn’t launch into a parable, as wonderful as those parables are. He didn’t draw signs in the dirt, as meaningful as those signs can be. And he didn’t shuffle off to the next town, opting to preach elsewhere, as important as his preaching across the countryside came to be.
Instead he acted, commanding the unclean spirit to leave the man, casting out this unclean spirit right then and there. And the people gathered that day were amazed, realizing this Man doesn’t just teach, but acts. And even the unclean spirits, those spirits that aren’t according to God’s plan, they obey him, the people realized. At once the fame of Jesus began to spread. The words, and deeds, of this new preacher also began to spread.
Imagine if something like that happened here, during a normal church service. Imagine if Pastor Bryan and I were on vacation, and this other preacher, from Nazareth, were here in our place, speaking to you. And imagine if, right in the middle of the sermon, someone challenged this other pastor, and then had their unclean spirit plucked out of them, fully healed, in mind and body, right before your eyes. My guess is you’d be amazed too. And would have plenty to talk about after church as well 😊
Yet other times noticing unclean spirits, what they are, and how they are contrary to the sacred, and what we are called to do in those moments we encounter them, well, at times it can be a little more difficult to see all that clearly.
It was a gorgeous South Florida Sunday, about ten years ago, I remember it well. Kathi and I did then what we do now, we got up, showered, put clean clothes on and went to church. After service the congregation was invited to head outside for a pancake brunch, complete with eggs, sausage patties, hot coffee and fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice, mmmmmm, so tasty. The meal was spread out across a few long rectangular tables. People began to form a line to fill their plates, fill their stomachs.
Kathi and I got our food, and then went to find a place to sit. Now this is South Florida, so a lot of the gathering spots to be had exist outdoors. We found a couple of open seats on a picnic bench underneath a large covered patio that protected us from the sun. We settled in to enjoy a good meal alongside good conversation with people we knew, people we liked.
And what of the temperatures, my winter Iowan friends? They were in the mid-70s; a light ocean breeze blew through the large covered patio cooling everyone.
This is one of those moments I love most about participating in the life of the church. Music, prayer, message and communion, followed by the community gathering together for relationship, for conversation, for a shared meal.
If this were a beer commercial it could be summed up with a tagline akin to guys, it doesn’t get any better than this.
It was then, in the middle of a personal churchy utopia, that a member of the congregation came up and whispered something in my ear.
“A homeless man is here, and in line for food. Should we do something about that” the person wondered? I looked over at the serving line and easily spotted the man. Sporting a disheveled beard, and filthy clothes that I’d guessed he slept in for days, or weeks, standing amongst the people of our church, all in their version of a Sunday best, he was impossible to miss.
Now this was pre-seminary for me, pre-pastor gig, years before I’d first approach a pulpit to deliver a message. Yet I was on church council, and was being asked to take action, to address this perceived issue one way or another.
“Thanks for the heads up,” I replied, and headed back to pancakes and orange juice, back to fun conversation. I remember thinking, in that moment, what’s the big deal? Let the guy sit down. Let the guy eat. While I thought this I did nothing, settling for inaction instead.
A few minutes later, another church leader approached me with a different narrative than I’d silently spoken internally. “There was a homeless person here that made a few people uncomfortable. So I went over, spoke with him, gave him some food, and escorted him off the property. I thought you should know.”
This unclean homeless man, physically unclean at least, had literally just been cast out from our church gathering.
My personal churchy utopia, a South Floridian garden of Eden of sorts, suddenly felt a little unclean too.
Taken in the context of today’s scripture, who had the unclean spirit?
Was it the homeless man, unclean physically, he who had been cast out?
Or was it me, he who had taken no action, settling for personal comfort instead?
Or was the unclean spirit not dwelling in one person, but instead a symptom of a larger issue?
I’m not going to answer that question, but I do ask you to think on it some, look at it from various vantages and see where you arrive. I’ve held on to this story for a decade now and continue to grapple with the challenges it contains.
Sometimes demons in our world are really easy to spot, especially in an era of modern tech where news is disseminated so quickly. Finding and labeling unclean spirits, in conversation with friends or on your Facebook feeds, well, that can be downright fun. And, to be honest, it almost feels kind of good to do, thank goodness we’re not like this person or that group! We preach our sermons in one form or another, expecting others to come-to-Jesus, so-to-speak, desiring the world to be formed in our image, in our own version of utopia. Or perhaps we just turn a blind eye, like I did that sunny Florida morning, desiring change, yet unwilling to do anything about it.
Theologian Mike Graves, reflecting on today’s scripture, where Jesus stands in contrast to the scribes of the temple, says that:
”Like it or not, (preachers) are the scribes who profit from the scholarly work of others, and bring forth teachings in an assembly we call church. And like it or not, we are just as likely to miss the marginalized before us.”
Ouch. That kinda hurts.
But Jesus breaks into our world and sees us for who we are, as spiritually clean or spiritually unclean as that may be. Christ lived a life of transformation, of action, and stands ready to remove the unclean spirits, those spirits that are not according to God’s plan, and pluck them right from us.
The Imagine Dragons song Demons closes with these fitting lyrics, that point us right back to our savior:
Your eyes, they shine so bright
I want to save their light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how
Dear Lord, show us the unclean spirits within ourselves, those spirits that act contrary to your plan, whatever they may be. Cast out those unclean spirits, leaving us only Your heart for Your people. Guide us to model you and then act, moved by the Holy Spirit, being part of the transformation of the world around us.
And then empower us to make room at the grand banquet of your kingdom, a kingdom where none are sent away, and ALL are welcome to sit down, together, and share in the heavenly feast. Amen.