“Hope and Healing” Colchester Federated Church, January 31, 2021, Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Mark 1:21-28)

Today’s Gospel text is about hope and healing.  Jesus helps someone through a specific type of healing—an exorcism—the expulsion of an evil spirit from a person or place.  To understand this story from the Gospel according to Mark and its modern implications for us, let’s first set the scene.  Jesus is in Capernaum and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach.  He’s such a good teacher that soon everyone is amazed and turning to each other in wonder, asking among themselves how it’s possible that Jesus is teaching with such authority.  

Suddenly a man with an evil spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are.  You are the holy one from God.”  Jesus responds to the evil spirit inside of the man, “Silence!”  “Come out of him!”[1]  The man convulses and cries out loudly.  The demon is finally gone.  The gathered people inside the synagogue are all the more amazed.  Who is this person?  A new teaching, with authority?  Jesus commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him!  Jesus’ fame begins to spread throughout all of Galilee after this miraculous exorcism.

Don’t you wonder what Jesus did after this healing in our story?  Did he just turn back to the people gathered and continue on with the lesson?  Don’t you wonder what the man did after he was healed?  Did he run from the synagogue jumping for joy?  Did he say, “Hey, make room for me in the circle—I want to learn too because this guy knows what he’s doing!”  Our story isn’t just about an exorcism, but about words and actions lining up.  Jesus heals this person.  In so doing, Jesus gives him hope for the future.  Jesus restored him to himself and to his community.  Jesus teaches and then heals with power and authority—he practiced what he preached.  He just fundamentally changed someone’s life before our very eyes.  And all of that is a worthy take away.

Though let’s not let go of the demon so lightly.   We modern people use other words for demons.  But it doesn’t mean that demons are no longer among us.  Haven’t we met someone who’s going through a really bad divorce or break-up and it’s like they can’t come back to themselves?  Haven’t we met someone trying to get sober, leaving behind drugs or alcohol, and it’s like addiction will not be so easily dismissed?  Haven’t we met someone who faces debilitating sadness or anxiety and finds it hard to even get out of bed in the morning?  Haven’t we met someone who experiences such physical pain that it’s all they can focus on day in and day out?  Haven’t we met someone who’s survived abuse or violence or war and they can’t bear to talk about it?  Haven’t we met someone who’s had something terrible happen in their lives and they become like a shell of themselves? 

We use other words for all of these difficult situations in our lives.  Maybe we wouldn’t say that these situations are “demonic” or that someone is possessed by a demon when going through them.  But it doesn’t mean that difficult forces in our lives are no longer among us in some form.  Maybe they’re just not the “evil spirit” variety with horns and tails and claws we may picture when we hear the word “demon.”

Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber explains demons by saying, “Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own.  But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school—they all have a go at telling us who we are.  But only God can do that.  Everything else is temptation.  Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are.”[2]  In other words, we are not just those things that ensnare us and prevent us from seeing the light of Christ in our world and within ourselves.  We are so much more than our hardships.  And we don’t have to be solely defined by them, not when God has named us and claimed us as God’s own.

The great preacher Fred Craddock once said, “Not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”  Whether we believe in demons or not (or call something demonic or not), it doesn’t mean that we don’t have things in our lives that hold us back from God.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t have things that make us feel less than or overwhelmed or like we are weighed down by something that’s destroying us inside.  We may not call it demonic and we should refrain from calling people “demons” of course.  But that doesn’t make Bible stories about exorcisms irrelevant for us. 

Not believing in demons doesn’t mean there’s magically no evil or suffering in our lives or in our world.  However we understand the concept, stories about Jesus exorcising demons are ultimately about healing and transformation.  It’s about the struggle to not let anything or anyone other than God tell us who we are.  It’s about the struggle to remember that God has named us and claimed us as God’s own.

There’s plenty of words we can use for what we are facing as we continue to contend with the coronavirus individually and as a society.  Maybe we would refer to this virus as “evil” or a “demon” in our own time.  What can give us hope in the midst of the difficult days is that we also see healers who are working to overcome the virus.  We can witness the health care workers administering the vaccine.  We can also witness the people who helped make vaccines for global distribution.  As reported in The Guardian, “The team behind the Moderna vaccine is led by Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer and a former head of global oncology at Sanofi, who said: ‘This is one of the greatest moments of my life and my career.’  Melissa Moore, the biotech firm’s chief scientific officer in charge of the mRNA technology, has been key to this effort. Moore has spent her entire career analysing the protein structures at the centre of the new vaccine.”[3]  Or on the BioNTech and Pfizer side, as reported by Reuters, the vaccine developed due to the hard work of a married couple in Germany (Ugur Sahin and Oezlem Tuereci) who’ve devoted their lives to harnessing the immune system against cancer.  In fact, Tuereci said in an interview that even on their wedding day both of them made time for lab work.[4]  These scientists are healers giving hope to a weary and suffering world.

In the end, stories of hope and healing that we read in scripture are just as moving now as they would have been for Mark’s original audience who heard about Jesus exorcising a demon that day at the synagogue in Capernaum.  In fact, I wonder if stories of overcoming evil are even more hopeful to hear today because of the pandemic and all the hardships we are facing.  Healing does sometimes happen, that can give us all hope.  Let’s remember the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jesus doesn’t leave us alone to deal with demons, however we define them.  Jesus stays with us and trusting in him leads to transformation and new life.  Jesus looks our demons square in the face, telling them to be quiet and come out of us.  Jesus silences those parts of us, or those outside forces we are trying to overcome, that hold us back from God.  Jesus never leaves us alone in the shadows, not when we are baptized and beloved and belong, body and soul, to God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mark 1:24-25, Common English Bible.
[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, 138-139.
[3] Julia Kollewe, “Covid vaccine: who is behind the Moderna breakthrough?” November 16, 2020, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/16/covid-vaccine-who-is-behind-the-moderna-breakthrough
[4] Ludwig Burger and Patricia Weiss, “Behind Pfizer’s vaccine, an understated husband and wife ‘dream team,’” November 9, 2020, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/health-coronavirus-biontech-ceo-newsmake/behind-pfizers-vaccine-an-understated-husband-and-wife-dream-team-idUSKBN27P1O5

Photo by Rev. Lauren Lorincz.