Mark 1:21-28 “Can God A Struggling Loved One?”
Just because you’re a Pastor doesn’t mean you always have a direct pipeline to God. Pastoral ministry also doesn’t come with an instruction manual, a troubleshooting guide or FAQ’s. So naturally there’s going to be times when you have questions or you need some advice…especially if you’re a rookie like me. Now one such outlet for this is God’s gift of social media and clergy forums. With just a couple clicks of your phone you can literally ask hundreds of other pastors for some advice.
Recently I came across a really interesting story that a pastor posted about. He said he was at home sleeping…it’s about 115 am…..when suddenly he gets this phone call from a young lady who was asking if he was pastor. When he said the he was, she asked him if he could come and pray over her house because they were experiencing some kind of paranormal activity. He said she was very coherent and that she described the activity in great detail. He offered to pray with her over the phone instead. She seemed satisfied and after that she hung up. So he was asking other pastors if he did the right thing or if he should do any kind of follow-up.
I was really intrigued by this one, so I started reading all the comments. Most people supported what he did and a few of them had been in similar situations. But one thing I guess that sort of surprised me was the fact that most of the pastors who responded were saying that these things should be done primarily “as a comfort to the families.” In other words, most of them really didn’t seem to think that there were any real spiritual forces in play. That bothered me a little bit.
This week we’re continuing our blog series “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” and the question for this week is….”Can God help my Struggling Loved One?” Now in the video it's a little girl asking if God can help her older brother....and in the notes for the series…we’re never told what was actually wrong with the girl’s brother. All we see is this sad and reflective look on her face when she says it on the video. It breaks your heart and makes you wonder what was really happening in her life. But the United Methodist Communications gave me a clue with this series…they recommended Mark 1:21-28 as the sermon text to go along with this question. That suggests to me that whatever her situation was, it’s not unlike the lady who called a pastor at 115 in the morning seeking help. It suggests a spiritual dimension to whatever problem her brother was facing.
I suspect that some of us might be asking the same question today. You might have a relative or a friend who needs God’s help. Maybe they’re battling an addiction. Maybe they’re struggling with depression or they’re suicidal. Maybe it’s jealousy, workaholism…or greed. Whatever the case may be, the Bible teaches us to view human beings in a holistic manner. We’re not just independent parts…we make up a whole person with both a physical and a spiritual nature…and these things are deeply intertwined. So when we talk about helping a person, we’ve got to acknowledge that there’s a spiritual dimension to so many of our problems.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus always healed the whole person. And one of the ways He did that was by opposing the forces of evil that robbed the children of God of all the things that God hoped and intended for them. And He commanded the disciples and us in turn to do the same thing.
In a recent sermon I talked about the theology that emerged in the wake of the enlightenment. In the 19th and 20th centuries some of the most prominent theologians scoffed at the idea of the miraculous and the supernatural. They downplayed all of it. And we’re still living with the effects of that even today. So while in places like the Global South where Christianity is just exploding in growth…we’re hearing all these stories of the miraculous. Powerful faith healings. The dead being raised. Demons and unclean spirits being cast out. And meanwhile, in the West…we’re kind of scratching our heads like…is that stuff for real? But if we look at our history and our tradition…we start to see that these things might not be so far-fetched.
See, belief that the world is filled with spiritual powers, both wicked and good…was widespread in the ancient Near East. Our Old Testament writers assumed the existence of angels and they also wrote about evil spirits like the one who tormented King Saul. It’s also where we get the first references to “Satan” which literally means “adversary.” But when we talk about spiritual forces in Biblical times…I think we have to make a key distinction here…because I think this is one of the things we tend to get hung up on. It’s so easy to misinterpret and misrepresent the spiritual forces that are opposed to God. Yes, there are two teams on the field. But one team is like the New England Patriots…or better yet....the Philadelphia Eagles,,,,,and the other….is like a pee wee football team. It’s not much of a game.
In those days a belief system about the spiritual realms emerged that was called dualism. In the dualistic worldview the forces of good and evil were equal and they were locked in an ongoing or eternal war. Zoroastrianism…a religion that survives today in a tiny minority was of that worldview. But this was never the view of those who wrote our Hebrew Bible. Yes, "Satan" was this adversary who was cast out of heaven and he had these angels who followed him…but they were never seen as being equal to God in any way, shape, or form. In many ways what came to be Rabbinic Judaism and then later on Christianity…their theology was a strong reaction against dualism. So while much of the competing belief systems of the day taught that good and evil were eternal concepts…sort of like the Yin and the Yang of Daoism….the writers of our scriptures unanimously believed that there is only one supreme and eternal power in the universe. God.
Saint Augustine of Hippo, whose conversion I talked about in a previous blog a couple weeks ago, drew from the writings of the Apostle Paul and he concluded that evil is an absence or a lack…just like darkness is an absence of light. That’s what evil really is according to our tradition. And that brings us to our text this morning. One thing my Dad and I have always had in common is our love for Westerns. That’s been one of the really fun things about living with him again. On any given night if I’m not working and Amelia, our daughter, is behaving…chances are my Dad and I are watching a Western. Even my wife is getting into it.
Now one thing you can pretty much count on in any western…is the showdown. Think High Noon. There’s this tense, dramatic music as the camera pans back and forth between the good guy and the bad guy’s faces….who’s gonna draw first? Who’s gonna win the duel? Our Gospel lesson for the day…reads like a showdown from a Western. Capernaum was a small town on the upper northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Now this congregation would have been made up of humble people. There would have been fishermen, merchants, craftsmen, laborers, and their wives. And just like we come to church on Sundays, they would’ve been feeling different emotions as they took their seats. But that day would have been a little bit different. There would’ve been a sense of expectation in the air. They were eagerly awaiting the sermon from the Nazarene who’d been causing such a stir in the countryside. He was the guest speaker for the day.
And they weren’t disappointed. The text says they were astonished at his teaching. The original word literally meant “to strike with panic or be in a state of shock.” We don’t know what He said that day, but apparently it packed a pretty big punch. Now why is this? Our lesson says he taught with “authority.” That’s a very important word for our question today. Because then it happens. Now I imagine this scene like a Western showdown.
The door swings open and there’s a loud bang as it slams against the wall. In walks this this man who was possessed by evil spirits. I’m guessing he was dressed in all black. Jesus was probably dressed in all white. I’m sure they were ponchos. Now He disrupts the whole service…screaming at Jesus…asking if He had come to destroy the spirits that have taken possession of him. The townspeople were probably just staring at both of them in wide eyed terror. A deafening silence falls over that synagogue by the sea. Maybe you could hear the waves gently lapping against the shore. Cue that showdown music. Zoom in on Jesus’ face, then zoom in on the possessed man’s face…and back again. Then Jesus says “be silent and come out of him.”
The poor guy goes into convulsions and he’s howling incoherently. But Jesus forbids him to say another word. He falls to the ground rolling around on the dusty floor…but then he stands up and his despair has been broken. He rises to wholeness, joy, and peace. He’s been healed. Now we don’t know anything else about him, but I’m guessing this guy was a lost cause. He might have been somebody like the town drunk or the crazy homeless person who lived at the edge of town. But in an instant, Jesus heals him and sets him free. Then Jesus walks out of there without another word into the setting sun. The credits roll.
But if this were a movie, it would have spawned a lot of sequels. The Gospel of Mark frequently talks about Jesus healing people. Sometimes the healings are physical. Other times the person in need of healing is possessed by something that’s spiritual, emotional, or mental. Just like the story for today. And that makes me think back to that pastor’s thread on social media. Jesus was like the High Plains Drifter, roaming from town to town healing people and casting out demons. But man, are we skeptical. Just like we struggle to believe in the miraculous, we struggle to believe in the supernatural. And I'm saying this....on a blog....on a paranormal forum!!
If someone calls you up at 1am and they say there’s something unseen going on in their house…we’ll help…as “a comfort to the family” but we don’t believe there’s actually anything going on there, do we? See, we can’t help but look at these stories and just think to ourselves that people in the ancient world just didn’t know as much about science and medicine as we do now. Whenever a person was hurt or sick with some kind of unexplainable disease, they believed it had to be demonic…because that was all they knew. And that’s fine. That’s one way of thinking about it. And maybe there’s even some truth to it.
We really are able to heal lots of sicknesses with modern medicine. We might even say that medicine is part of the way God heals people in the world today. So maybe if this guy could’ve been taken to a modern day psychiatrist he would’ve been diagnosed with schizophrenia, epilepsy, or some other kind of mental illness. He’d be given medications that’d heal him. Okay. Fair enough. But go ahead and cue that Western showdown music…because I’m going to submit to all of you today that even with all this scientific knowledge…people today are just as overcome by demons and evil spirits as they were back in the time of Jesus. Period.
Now at this point some of you might be rolling your eyes. At first glance, I can’t say I blame you. When we think of the demonic…the first things that come to our minds…are some pretty stupid stuff. Late night paranormal TV shows. Humans that’ve become monsters…levitating in the air with their heads spinning around in circles and foaming at the mouth. Creepy dolls. It’s silliness.
So what are some of the demons that can possess us? Well I can think of a few. How about the demons of shame, low self-esteem, addictions, hoarding and overspending, over-eating, over-indulging? Just watch a few hours of reality TV and you might see a number of demons that plague humanity today. What about those times in our lives when we rely on certain things to make us feel good…and they do…for a while…but in the end they end up destroying our peace of mind, our self-confidence, and even our self-respect? And why not take it to a deeper level? One thing that I always emphasize in my teaching is the reality of sin…that humanity is fragmented…and we see the reality of sin everywhere. But why are we like this? Why are we all out of whack? All we have to do is look at the theology of Genesis chapter 1 and 3.
The spirit of evil in the form of a serpent tricked humanity into thinking we can make it on our own without any sort of God to sustain us. We thought we could judge for ourselves what’s evil and what’s good…and that’s what opened the door and allowed the darkness to come flooding in. These demons, they can take over our individual lives and they can take over whole societies. If we need proof of that all we need to do is look at Germany during World War II. That was a demon possessed, evil culture. How else can we explain the extermination of six million Jews…in the name of some perceived goodness?
And here as we as we recall the horrific images of families being ripped apart at the border with this ongoing immigration crisis …we know those unclean spirits of racism, intolerance, and hatred are still present with us to this day….they keep rearing their ugly heads…even in our culture. How else can we explain such a frightening and disturbing lack of compassion? And let’s look more closely. There’s demons on our streets today. I turn on the local news just to see the weather…and instead I hear story after story of murders, shootings, robberies and sexual assaults. So many lives tragically lost over this heroin epidemic. Demons. Evil and unclean spirits. Make no mistake…they’re all around us. And any time we ignore it, any time we pretend the problems aren’t there…they just multiply and get worse.
By now you might be squirming in your seats. Its uncomfortable talking about this stuff isn’t it? But here’s the thing. There’s good news. Can God help a struggling loved one? You bet He can. Let’s observe a couple things about this healing. First, it was believed in ancient times if you knew someone’s name you had some kind of power over them. So when the demon says in v24 “I know who you are” he’s trying to assert his authority over Christ’s and bring Him under his control. But it doesn’t work. Just like I said earlier…this isn’t a dualistic universe…there’s no yin and yang. The Thrice Holy God is in control and the light sends the darkness packing. And this story tells us that there’s hope even for the worst of us. You or someone you know might be a million miles away from God. Her brother might seem impenetrable, irredeemable and impossible. But as we see here, Christ doesn’t reject anybody.
The people of that synagogue probably would’ve called the ushers and kicked that guy out. But Jesus…Jesus shows him love and compassion. He ministers to him and heals him. Christ is the true authority and He can free us from any evil that has us in bondage. But there’s more. Jesus has given that power to us. There’s no need to be afraid of demons, unclean spirits or engaging in spiritual warfare because Jesus has entrusted His continuing mission to us in the church. Later on inMark chapter 3 He calls the 12 to follow Him up the mountain and there He commissioned them and the Church they founded with two jobs: to preach the gospel and cast out demons.
These unclean spirits, they’re not some awesome power to be feared…they’re more like leeches that want to attach themselves to our negativity and our weaknesses. They’re parasites, nothing more. So there’s but one key if you find yourself locked in spiritual warfare. You name these unclean spirits…these parasites…and you replace them with the Spirit of God. If the Enemy wants to flood your mind with negative thoughts and things that aren’t even true, you pray, you claim the authority of Christ over your life…that He is in the center of your heart…and you cast them out just as He did in that little synagogue by the sea 2,000 years ago. And if you get a phone call at 1am from someone whose in a struggle with these parasites, don’t be afraid to minister to them…because on the Day of Pentecost the same authority that Jesus had in Capernaum has now fallen on us, His church.
This means that every one of our churches has the power and authority to cast out demons…both individually and in our society. Not just the Pastors. Not just the prayer ministry team. Everyone. Just like that poor girl’s brother, our world today is in need of healing. There are so many demons and unclean spirits that need to be confronted, cast out and destroyed. But our God is gracious and powerful. Our God has all authority and He’s sent His Church to preach the good news and to cast out demons.
So as we logoff this forum today, let’s claim our power and authority. Let’s help everyone we can to see themselves as God’s precious children, even as they battle their demons. Let’s use our power to bring comfort to the afflicted, healing to the broken, and hope to the hurting. Let’s proclaim the good news that by the grace of Christ we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us. Amen.
© 2018 ENG/Marcus Aurelius