February 1, 2015

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
Mark 1:21-28

“Power to Cast Out Demons”

Last week there was a gathering in Saskatoon of the National dialogue between the United and Anglican Churches of Canada. Although as a Presbyterian, I wasn’t involved in the meeting, Nick and I did know a few of the people involved and so we were invited to a social gathering on Wednesday evening.

Sitting around in a living room, drinking wine and sharing food with a group of mostly clergy and theologians, somehow how the topic of conversation turned towards exorcisms. I don’t remember how it happened, but suddenly we found ourselves swapping stories about times when we have been called upon to pray away evil spirits, rid homes of resident ghosts, and other unusual requests.

As a group of modern, mainline, fairly progressive Christians, there was a general discomfort with being asked to serve as exorcists. There was the worry that agreeing to such requests might legitimate the concern that evil spirits are all around us and need binding. And if there are ghosts to be busted, most of us weren’t too enthusiastic about claiming to have the power to do that sort of thing.

In contrast to our modern-day reticence to pray away the power of evil, Jesus did not hesitate to send the spirits scurrying away through the power of his word. And while Matthew’s Gospel tends to emphasize what Jesus said and taught in long passages like the one known as the Sermon on the Mount, Mark’s Gospel demonstrates over and over that Jesus’ teaching was not just in what he said, but in what he did.

When Jesus stood up in the synagogue to teach, the people were astounded because he spoke with power and authority. And then his words came to life in healing, helping, and feeding… one miracle after another, demonstrating God’s power and love.

In today’s story, Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. And the people were all amazed at the power and authority of his words.

Many centuries earlier, when God’s People, Israel, were wandering in the wilderness, they had questions about whose words had authority and to whom they should listen. Moses had been their leader for many years, and they had come to trust him and the fact that he spoke to them the words of God. But as Moses came near to the end of his life, he began to instruct them about what to do when he was dead and gone.

God will send you another prophet like me, he assured them. God will put God’s words in the mouth of the prophet, who will speak to the people everything that God commands. And Moses encouraged the people to heed the words of the prophet.

But at the same time, any potential prophets were warned: “any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die.”

We can probably all think of instances in which prophets or evangelists, faith-healers or other church leaders have boldly claimed to be speaking the words of God when in actual fact their aim has been to gain fame, or power, or money for themselves. People have been scammed. People have been betrayed and disappointed by the false claims of power and authority of many religious leaders. That is likely part of the reason why authentic, humble leaders are hesitant to speak God’s words of healing and freedom more confidently and authoritatively.

Listen to this story from an American Presbyterian minister, P.C. Ennis:

I was asked one time to perform an exorcism of a sort. It was, I suppose, about midway in my ministry. I was serving a historic old church in downtown Atlanta. About ten days before Christmas, the secretary buzzed the intercom to say, “There is a young man here to see you. He says he wants you to bless him…. No, he is not a member of the church… He says he just wants you to bless him.”

Well, I knew what that meant. He wanted money. They all do, especially at Christmas. Any excuse to get a foot in the door. But the emergency relief office was closed for the day, and so I said, “Sure, show him in.” He was not what I had expected. He was neatly dressed, clean-shaven, late twenties, I imagined. There was an air of dignity about him, no glassy look in the eye, none of the usual signs of having “been on the street,” as we say.

“Sorry to take up you time,” he said, “but I just want your blessing.” He went on to explain in a rather articulate, if un-Presbyterian, way that he had this “devil on his back” that he could not shake. As much as he had tried, he could not get rid of it, and he thought that if he could just find a minister who would “bless him,” the devil would go away. He did not seem depressed or overly desperate, in fact, he appeared in pretty good spirits, very much in control, I thought.

So I made some feeble attempt to explain that Presbyterians were not usually in the practice of casting out devils or conferring blessings on people. In a bumbling kind of way, I tried to explain that we really have not been given that kind of power to heal, though somehow none of that seemed appropriate at the moment. He had not come for a lesson in theology.

“All I want,” he repeated, “is your blessing.”

Well, it was Christmas. So I said, “Then tell me your name.”

“Andy,” he said, and with that Andy knelt down on the carpet while I had a prayer, which was not so much a blessing, at least not in the traditional sense, but a rather traditional Presbyterian prayer of thanksgiving for God’s presence in Andy’s life; an acknowledgement of the way God had already blessed him; then affirmation of God’s continuing concern and purpose for him; and the request that God would take away this “devil” that was preventing Andy from being the kind of person God intended him to be.

With the “Amen,” Andy stood, smiled, shook my hand and said, “Thanks.” Then he left. Not a word about money or a meal or a place to stay. “All I want is your blessing,” he said.

I have often wondered about Andy, and whether my feeble little effort at exorcism worked. I wonder too if Jesus ever did follow-ups on his miracle work.

Today’s scriptures remind me of the importance of staying humble. As ministers of the gospel who attempt to share God’s Word in Jesus Christ, you and I don’t know everything, we don’t have all the answers, and we don’t know the mind of God. As the psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” In other words, we need to remember that God is God, and we are not. We need to keep listening for God’s Word to us in the Scriptures, and praying and trying to understand a little bit more every day.

But we also must have the confidence and the courage to speak and to act when God’s Word comes to us. We must remember that the Spirit of God is already within us as a gift, and if we let that Spirit guide us, we will have the power to heal, and help, and bring freedom in Jesus’ name.

Some people might say it’s only Jesus who has the power to heal. And certainly, if you read through Mark’s Gospel you will find story after story about Jesus doing just that. But just a couple of chapters after today’s story, Jesus is already beginning to share that power and responsibility with others: “And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:14-15)

I know that many of you already know that you have received that power also. You may not remember it every day, but when you stop to think about it you know. You know that you can choose to use that power for God’s purposes, and hopefully you know that it will be effective. With God’s help, you have the power to use your words, and your presence, and your touch, and your thoughtful care, and your prayers… to bless, to encourage, and even to heal in body, mind, or spirit.

Presbyterians and other mainline Christians probably won’t start talking about “casting out demons” and “exorcising unclean spirits.” But even without using that language, let’s commit ourselves today to live, and pray, and respond to our hurting neighbours and our broken world like we know and believe that God, working through God’s people, has the power to overcome evil with good. Amen.