A new teaching and that’s some object lesson!
In the preface to The Screwtape Letters: Letters from a Senior to a Junior Devil, C S Lewis makes the assertion that people make two equal and opposite errors about demons. One is to disbelieve their existence. The other is to believe and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.
To modern, technologically minded, rational people such words, now over 50 years old, are worth remembering. If God is hard to believe then for many people demons and fellows in red suits with pitchforks are even more incredible and are often regarded as the old scare tactics of the church used to torment people into staying in the church. In our media saturated world, the devil and evil hordes are relegated to the entertainment industry subcategory – horror or maybe comedy – which is big business – but the big thing is that ‘it’s not real’. We are sophisticated people for whom the supernatural realm is not part of our daily living – we don’t fill the gaps in our knowledge with a poly-filler called ‘God’ nor do we assign every sickness or unexplained misery or tragedy to the powers of demons.
There’s a rational answer for everything.
So what do we 21st century people do with the gospel for today? I think we don’t have too much difficulty with Jesus teaching with authority – we’re used to the exercise of authority and to people confronting us with their personality, charisma, and ideas. And since Jesus is a teacher then it’s good that his lessons are such that people are amazed – that’s one way people learn we say.
I think we have more difficulty with the exorcism or healing or whatever it was. It’s even hard for people to really describe it. Some scholars regard the man as an epileptic and this is a healing; others regard it as a literary device of Mark’s to highlight Jesus’ identity; and there are others who say, ‘Look, it is an exorcism – deal with it’.
What strikes me as strange is that this is the exact opposite of the reaction of people back in Jesus’ day. They were amazed at Jesus’ teaching – he taught with authority – no referring to previous scribes or the last 15 religious commentators who wrote on the topic and no debates on this or that point of law – it was “I say to you”, “listen, I tell you” sort of teaching. And this sort of authority was confirmed by exorcising the demon – no prayers to God here, no long rituals, Jesus just says directly to the demon ‘Be quiet’ (actually ‘be muzzled’) and ‘Come out of him’ and the exorcism happens.
The text described the violent shaking and the shriek. That’s it – one verse – all finished. However for us, because exorcisms are pretty uncommon it is often Hollywood who has filled in the gaps as to what has happened. Such celluloid references are not helpful for they usually present the situation of the demon being tough and hard to dislodge and requiring special SAS-type priests to deal with it.
Note however what has happened.
1. Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum – his teaching is summarised by Mark earlier in v.15 – ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’.
2. The demon exposes itself – it had to reveal itself in the presence of Jesus – What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth. Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!’ v.24.
3. The exorcism happens.
4. The people are amazed – note they talk about teaching with authority and that the demons obey Jesus.
There is no sense at all that the demon is a tough nut to crack. Rather, as Paul said in Philippians, at the name of Jesus every knee in heaven, on earth, and under the earth shall bow and say that Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:10,11). So the demons – or in the Greek, the unclean spirits – know that it’s over for them – the Holy One of God is here – the battle has been brought to them and destruction is the
name of this game. We don’t usually make associations between God’s holiness and fear and destruction but this demon is in no doubt that Jesus is on earth and he means business.
Yet it is a strange business for although Jesus has power to exorcise and does so on numerous occasions yet he doesn’t follow the path of a super hero sending bad guys through walls and zapping evil doers with his mighty powers – instead he seems to go incognito – “Be quiet” he tells the demon – and it doesn’t take too many years before the miracle worker is strung up on a cross and the forces of darkness can’t believe their luck as the Holy One of God actually dies forsaken by God. Their destruction didn’t go the way they thought.
Indeed it didn’t – in fact it was more destructive than they ever could have imagined – for the Holy One rose from the dead having not only defeated all powers of sin, death and evil but in this case he also made a public spectacle of them by triumphing over them by the cross and disarming their powers (Colossians 2:15).
Christianity teaches clearly that the devil and his demons exist, rebellious spirits who are not God’s equals in any way but who do make mayhem in the world and who seek to collude with human sin in its various forms to keep people away from God and his love. What the demons can’t handle is the trick that comes from the cross just when they thought they had won – the laugh that comes from the empty tomb – the defeat that is proclaimed at every absolution, every baptism, every prayer, every Eucharist, every blessing.
The demonic world can throw its mud and despair – after all that’s what unclean spirits are good at – but followers of the Holy One are called saints (holy people) precisely because the Holy Spirit is with them keeping them focused on Jesus and so we don’t deny demonic existence but we don’t blame it all on the demons under the bed. Our lives are not perfect – we sin – and troubles will come but Jesus will always have the last laugh and the last word. ‘You are forgiven because I said so.’
‘Follow me’ Jesus says and we are freed to do just that back into our relationships and we can discover each day – no matter how joyful or stressful it is – in fact the older we become the more evidence we have that God is the one who is faithful and he can be trusted – when we follow Jesus in how we behave towards others and when we’re alone, then life is enriched while the walls, the workplace, the family, the neighbours, our bodies whether healthy or ill pretty much stay the same.
What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! Indeed it is the sweetest news of all – God declares you innocent because of his Son’s death on the cross which you receive through faith.
All that’s left is life – in all its fullness!
- Mark 1:21 - 28