Sermon - 4 Epiphany
In the Name...
Back in the 1970's, Episcopal seminaries started offering something called the Doctor of Ministry. It's sort of a life-experience degree and has proven to be quite popular. The abbreviation for it is D. Min., so, in case you had any doubts, it is true that over 2,000 Episcopal clergy, including 50 bishops, have demons.
It seems that whenever Episcopalians run across a Bible text that mentions demons we have a tendency to skip on to the next page. The thing is that it's hard, especially as we read through St. Mark's Gospel, to avoid them. Right in Chapter One, the passage we heard this morning, Jesus enters a synagogue and encounters a man with a demon. A few verses later, we're told, that he went through Galilee proclaiming the message and casting out demons. In Chapter Three we read that Jesus gave the disciples authority to cast out demons. And, in Chapter Six, we read they were actually doing it. So, as far as St. Mark is concerned, demons are something with which Christians should be aware.
But, this is a controversial topic because we live in a rational world which has conditioned us that demons are purely fictional Hollywood characters and those who think they encounter them in real life are wacko. On the other hand, there are some Christians who are so convinced of their reality that they blame everything on them - war, poverty, post-nasal drip.
C.S. Lewis once wrote, though, "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe and have an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. The devils themselves are equally pleased by both errors."
So, the first thing we have to recognize is that demons really exist, and the second thing we have to recognize is that we should not become obsessed with them, but, be ready to deal with them when they appear.
Now, St. Mark records this particular story as the very first demonstration of Jesus' healing power. Unlike the other evangelists who usually reserve the first healing for something physical like a leper or a blind man, Mark wants us to know, early on, exactly who Jesus is and why he came. For Mark, Jesus is more than a wise man who delivers pithy words of wisdom. Jesus is more than a good man who does good deeds.
This emphasis is affirmed when the demon taunts Jesus with the words, “I know who you are; you are the Holy One of God.” This is not an affirmation of faith, but, a revelation to us, the readers, that the mission of Jesus is primarily about the cosmic battle between good and evil.
And, Mark also wants us to know something about the presence of evil. The man in question is quietly attending his regular Saturday worship in the synagogue. To all intents and purposes, this man is going about his business and his religious duties, no differently from anybody else. This tells us that evil is not always visible in an obvious sense and that those who are possessed are still capable of saying their prayers.
That's why it's so easy to miss, especially if the possessed person has some other physical or emotional issue. In fact, those who have studied these things report that hardly ever is a healthy person possessed.
You see, when a person is physically ill it's not only the body that gets weak. The spirit can also be weakened and just as weak bodies are prone to infection, so too, weak spirits can get spiritual infection. St. Peter warns us that demons roam about like lions seeking whom they may devour. They look for people whose spirits are down and try to take advantage.
It's like the first rule of the con, "You can't con an honest man." The people who usually get sucked into a con are people who are open to breaking the law in the first place. The con man just takes advantage of their greed. And when we're not feeling well, we have to be especially on our guard because demons are the consummate con artists.
When we are sick we can go through a range of emotions - depression, self-pity, anger, isolation. These are spiritual weaknesses which can end up becoming invitations to demons.
I'm going to share a true story, told to me by an Episcopal priest I know in New Jersey, who has done over 70 exorcisms. A young woman we'll call Caitlin was born with a heart condition, but, it was treatable. She managed to have a reasonably normal life, until she was in college. There, she began to exhibit behaviour which was violent and self-destructive. She claimed to hear voices. Even stranger, was that her heart would sometime rush up to 150 beats without any apparent reason and she would have to be hospitalized where, before any treatment, her heart rate would descend to normal just as mysteriously. Cardiologists couldn't figure it out. Her condition forced her to leave school. One day, during a session with a counsellor, she told him that this had all started her freshman year when a demon had awakened her when she was sleeping. She had said the same thing to other counsellors but, they blew it off.
This counsellor, however, decided to investigate a spiritual cause to her condition. He contacted a friend who, in turn, brought this priest into the situation and they were able to determine that it was the pressure of college, combined with the heart condition that had given this demon an entrance into Caitlin's life. They worked with her and, through the rite of exorcism, cast out the demon. And, Caitlin was able to return to college. Oh, and the heart condition that she had had since birth disappeared.
Now, some may challenge all this, but, no one can deny that she was healed both spiritually and physically. And all because of a counsellor who believed and did something about what he believed.
On June 6th, 1944, when the Allied Armies landed in Normandy, there was no question how WWII was going to end, but, it took nearly another year and a lot of battles. In the same way, ever since Easter morning, there has been no doubt how the cosmic war of good and evil is going to end. We, however, are living in that interim period and we will experience many battles because we are not spectators, we are participants, and in this war many people, like that man in Capernaum and the woman we called Caitlin will suffer at the hands of the enemy.
But, even more people, like that man in Capernaum and the woman we called Caitlin, will experience great joy and victory when their battles are won.
Yes, demons are at work in the world, but, so are we, with the power Jesus gave us over them. The power he gave us to be doctors, doctors of his ministry to heal and restore.
Now that is a real life-experience degree. Let's experience it, then, to the highest degree.
In the Name...