Jesus, The Exorcist
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
This week, I came upon a story written by a Presbyterian pastor. About ten days before Christmas, this pastor was in his office, when he heard his secretary say, “There’s a young man who wants to see you.” Knowing it was right before Christmas, the pastor assumed this person was coming in for some financial help. But when the young man entered his office, he said to this pastor, “I am sorry to take up your time, but I just want your blessing.”
The pastor wasn’t very used to hearing this message. A blessing. No money or assistance. So the young man explained. “There’s a devil on my back, and I just can’t shake it.” And so he came, looking for a blessing from a pastor, believing that a blessing from a minister of God would send away the devil in his life.
What I found to be sad, and honestly discouraging, was this Presbyterian pastor’s response. Instead of diving in with this young man, facing this devil with him, and offering whatever blessing he could give, this pastor said back, “Presbyterians don’t usually cast out demons. We haven’t really been given out that kind of power to heal.”
It was only after this man repeated his request, “All I want is your blessing,” that the pastor finally knelt down and prayed with this young man.
What troubles me the most with this story is that I am not sure what I would do in that moment. In our faith tradition, and I am including myself, we are for some reason very uncomfortable with praying to cast out evil or sickness or hurt away from people.
Some of our discomfort comes from seeing far too many false faith healers and false miracle workers at work in our world. There are many people like Peter Popoff and Benny Hinn, often on tv or traveling around the country, who misuse people’s faith in God, so that they can create a show for their own profit. We know that there are those who would use prayer not for real healing, not for real transformation and care, but as a prop in their magic show to make money and buy private jets.
Some of this discomfort comes from doubt. Who am I to battle against the forces of evil? What difference will my words, my prayers, my actions make in this world? We doubt ourselves, and so we don’t even act.
And lastly, our discomfort may come out of fear and avoidance. The pastor in the story above never even asks what that devil was in this man’s life. He doesn’t ask him how it is affecting him, harming him, changing his life. He doesn’t dive in with this young man into those moments of real pain, hurt, and isolation that he is going through. And maybe we too don’t want to know what that devil is in that young man’s life. Maybe we don’t want to go to those dark places of addiction, abuse, depression, or spiritual attack. Maybe we don’t like facing the truth that there is evil in this world, hurting real people. Maybe real evil, alive in real people’s lives, is just too troubling for us to face. We don’t like that part of our faith. We like jumping to Easter instead of facing Good Friday.
But while we may be uncomfortable with facing the powers of evil in our world, Jesus has no qualms about it. If you ever read the Gospel of Mark all the way through, one thing that will jump out at you is how often Jesus casts out “unclean spirits” or “demons.” It is everywhere in Mark’s Gospel. As often as he is restoring sight to the blind, health to the lame, food to the hungry, good news to the poor, he is also casting out powers of evil at work in people’s lives.
And it starts with his very first miracle, here this morning: the healing of the man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. In this healing, the “unclean spirit” in the man asks Jesus a question. “What have you to do with us?” In the original Greek, the words are more like, “What is there common between you and us?” They are telling Jesus, you are not supposed to be where we are. You are the “Holy One of God.” You are supposed to stay neat and tidy, clean and safe. You are not supposed to come into our realm. You are not supposed to be here, facing real pain, real sin, real evil, real brokenness and hurt.
These unclean spirits, just like the rest of the audience in the synagogue, expect Jesus to keep talking at the front, teaching on morality and the law, staying separate from that strange and troubled man in pain. They don’t expect him to come down where this hurting man is and actually face evil and cast it out and bring healing into the world. That would be getting his hands dirty, that would be God fully present in a broken world. That would be the holy being willing to go into a new place, into a realm for our sakes.
But that is just what Jesus does. His teaching isn’t so much his words, but his actions showing who he is. And who Jesus is someone who has come to triumph and claim victory over every power of evil in this world. Jesus is someone who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. He is not afraid to face evil and pain He’s not afraid to journey with people in their hurt, and offering them healing. He is the true king of heaven, and of earth, and no power of evil stands a chance against him.
We read this passage and those like it, and can get so tied up with questions like, “Are demons real? Do they have tails and hooves, and the like?” Are these unclean spirits different than depression, addiction, schizophrenia, isolation, or physical sickness?” And we can get so hung up arguing those details, instead of simply realizing whatever it is, we need real healing from it.
The main concern of Mark is not separating out physical and mental and spiritual evil. In the gospels, it is all tied together. We need care and healing for each aspect. The emphasis in this story is not on categorizing what is the “unclean spirit.” The emphasis is on Jesus, who has authority to heal every part of us, not just in heaven, but here on earth as well. The message of this story is that there is no realm, no world that Christ cannot heal and love and restore. There is no part of our lives that is too broken, too dark, too hurt for Jesus to break into, Jesus wants to come into it all. No part of this world belongs to the works of evil. This is Christ’s kingdom. He is the Holy One of God, come here with authority, to heal us all.
So when I read that pastors story, when he says to the young man, “We haven’t really been given out that kind of power to heal,” I can only think we have. Christ has called us to join in his work. We may not control it. Not everything we pray for may come to be. But we have the ability to be a blessing for healing in this world.
And it’s not about having magic words or the right water or oil, or wearing the right robes. It is about Jesus being by our side.
When people come to us looking for healing and help in our own daily lives, we may still ask ourselves, “Who am I?” Who am I to bless someone else? Who am I to pray for healing? Who am I to visit the sick? Who am I to become a healer in a hospital, an educator in a school, a tutor to a student, a friend to the homeless? Who am I to work for change in my community, and help for those who are hurting?”
When you ask yourself that, I want you to remember this. Who are you? You are a follower of Jesus Christ. You are a child of God. You are someone filled with the Holy Spirit. And God’s power has no boundaries, has no limits. You are someone God wants to use in this world, and God’s authority will have final say.
So when someone asks you for a blessing, don’t look over your shoulder and say, “Who me? I could never do that.” Offer them what you have. Your time. Your ears. Your hands, Your words. Your faith. Go into those dark places with them. God will do the rest.
When you hear a calling to join in the healing and good work of this world, whether that’s teaching, or protecting, or healing, know that Christ’s power is here.