Worship Service, January 31, 2021 “Naming the Unclean Spirits”
Join Holy Trinity church members and Pastor Erik
on January 31, 2021 via YouTube
The message “Naming the Unclean Spirits” by Pastor Erik can be heard during HTLC Virtual Worship Service.
Mark 1: 21-28 and Deuteronomy 18:15-20
GOSPEL: MARK 1:21-28 (New Revised Standard Version)
Forces that would bring death and disease have taken hold of a man, yet they recognize Jesus and know what his power means for them. Jesus commands these forces to leave and people are amazed at his authority.
The Holy Gospel according to Mark, chapter one.
Glory to you, O Lord.
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.
The Gospel of our Lord.
Praise to You O Christ
It is an encounter that can sound strange to our modern ears. Jesus having a conversation with an unclean spirit in a synagogue. It is an exchange with what we might call a demon, but there is no fiery creature with red horns. There is just an ordinary man who is trying to shout down Jesus. Why is he crying out? It seems that the unclean spirit within the man feels threatened. It is perhaps fearful because it recognizes who Jesus is and the authority that Jesus has. The scripture says that the spirit calls out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” It had been an ordinary day in the synagogue and an ordinary time of teaching. But because Jesus’ words brought with them a new kind of authority, the unclean spirits feel the need to interrupt and distract Jesus to throw him off and shout him down. No one seems to question the man as they stand there in astonishment waiting to see what Jesus would do.
It was an ordinary summer day when I entered a place that had once been filled with unclean spirits. I was ten miles north of Munich, Germany visiting the remnants of Dachau which had been a concentration camp during World War II. Dachau was the first concentration camp built by the Nazis and served as a model for all later camps. By as early as 1937 it held over 13,000 prisoners. These included not only Jewish prisoners, but also German communists and social democrats, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma Gypsies, homosexuals and Christian religious leaders who had spoken out against the Nazis. Almost 32,000 people died or were killed at Dachau during it’s twelve years of operation. Yet what struck me on that day was how ordinary the place seemed to be. There were no screeching ghosts or fiery demons to indicate the evil that had been done there. There were simply drab, non-descript buildings and the outline of foundations where once there were barracks packed with prisoners in horrible conditions.
At the site there is a museum and there are pictures to describe what happened there. You can still walk some of the hallways where the prisoners would have walked. My imagination filled in the gaps as I went around the quiet grounds. What horrors those people had to endure! What suffering they went through! I tried to picture in my mind what it had been like, but it was simply too awful to fully comprehend. I read the stories and paid my respects, saying a prayer that never again such a thing would happen. But as I left, I was again aware of how such extraordinary evil could happen under such ordinary circumstances. The camp was not far from a quaint German town. How many people had quietly participated in the horrors of the camp only to go home to live their normal lives each night? How many had been cooks? How many had been guards? How many operated the trains or the ovens or dug the mass graves and pretended that nothing was wrong? Had they so completely dismissed the humanity of the prisoners that they thought what was going on was ok? Were they so convinced that those who were different were some kind of threat that it was ok to get rid of them? Were they so scared of the Nazis that they thought they had no choice? Why couldn’t they name the unclean spirit that was in their own backyard?
This last week, Holocaust Remembrance Day was marked in many locations around the globe. It is set aside as a day to remember, because we need to name what happened if we are to prevent it from happening again.
This is especially important as there are fewer and fewer actual survivors of the camps. As there are growing forces who seek to deny what happened or pretend it wasn’t that bad, we need to remember the stories the survivors have passed on so we do not forget what awful things can happen when some would discriminate and dehumanize those who are different from themselves.
In the encounter that Jesus has with the man in the synagogue, the unclean spirit seeks to name Jesus. At first, it could seem that such an action isn’t so bad since the spirit says that Jesus is the Holy One of God. But it is important to remember that in the ancient folktales to name something was to have control over it. Jesus’ command to the demons to be silent has to do with the fact that he does not want them to name him, since in that culture the one doing the naming had more authority than the one being named. For instance, think back to the book of Genesis when God gives Adam the authority to name all the animals. By doing so Adam demonstrates the ability to control the animals’ identity and show power over them.
The unclean spirit tries to show power over Jesus by naming him publicly. It tries to dominate the discussion by interrupting Jesus and shouting him down. It tries to strike fear in the hearts of the other people in the synagogue that day by playing the victim and associating Jesus with something scary, “What have you to do with us, Jesus? Have you come to destroy us?”
But Jesus doesn’t fall for this. He doesn’t allow the unclean spirit to have power over him. Instead he recognizes the spirit for the demonic agenda that it has, and he turns the tables. He utilizes his God-given authority to silence the unclean spirit and call it out for what it is. You might say that implicit in rebuke of Jesus is a naming of the spirit as a destructive force that would lead people astray. In doing so, he is able to get rid of it so that the people might know that God has the real authority.
Can we name the unclean spirits in our world that play on people’s fears of those who are different? Can we name the unclean spirits that try and dominate others? Can we name the unclean spirits that try and shout down teachings or opinions other than their own?
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote an article this week where she talked about how as a child in Europe she saw first-hand the Nazi’s race-based conception of “us vs. them” and later, Stalin’s more ideological division of “us vs. them.” She said as Secretary of State, she would talk to other countries in conflict and use the American motto of how out of many there can be one. But now it is harder to see our nation as such a model. Our nerve endings seemed to have been rubbed raw. Political rallies have developed into exhibitions of hate. Public figures are threatened and harassed, their homes vandalized. Debates have been supplanted by shouting matches. At the very highest levels, democratic institutions have been undermined and mocked. Surveys indicate that a growing number of Americans view their partisan opponents as actual agents of evil. (Time magazine p. 19, Feb. 3, 2021)
How do we begin to change this? Perhaps it begins with prayer. In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter nine the disciples of Jesus bring to him a boy who is being tortured by a demon. They have tried to cast it out of the boy but have been unable to do so. After Jesus frees the boy from the evil spirit the disciples ask him why they couldn’t cast it out and Jesus replies, “this kind can only be cast out with prayer.”
Through prayer we are reminded that we are not God. We can be confronted with our own humanity and better recognize the humanity of others. We can admit that we struggle with our own doubts and shortcomings and can confess our own propensity to sin.
It is interesting to me that when confronted by the man shouting in the synagogue, Jesus did not just knock him out or strike him dead. No, instead he calls out the unclean spirit. He separates the demonic force from the man so that he can be transformed and made whole again. Jesus sees the humanity within the man and restores him to his best self. Can we recognize the destructive forces within ourselves and ask Jesus to call them out so that we can be restored to wholeness?
Seminary Professor Osvaldo Vena writes that naming the [unclean spirits] is a way to recognize that they exist. We can start with the big one, Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems. Then, springing from this one, come the others in fearful company: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, terrorism, war, greed, or extreme individualism.
These are some of the unclean spirits we can confront with prayer. It is important to note that this kind of praying is not simply a pious resignation to God’s will, or an exercise that puts our minds at ease, but rather, using Ched Myers’ words, it is an “intensely personal struggle within each disciple, and among us collectively, to resist the despair and distractions that cause us to practice unbelief, or cause us to abandon or avoid the way of Jesus.” In other words, it is the struggle to believe that change can really happen—to believe a better world is possible.
Unless we name the unclean spirits, they will name us; they will control us and destroy us. It takes courage, though, to do this. It takes a willingness to examine our own hearts and confess our own sins. It takes a willingness to speak up for those who are oppressed. It takes trusting that because Jesus died and rose again, we can have faith that the life-giving authority of God is ultimately greater than any unclean spirt.