Year B, Epiphany 4
Recently my husband and I were talking about a yearly event that we attend. It’s not my favorite event in the world, but it’s also not completely horrible, nor is it particularly memorable. This year my husband reminded me of one almost 10 years ago. “Do you remember how mad you were? I had to take away your car keys.” I looked at him like he was stark raving mad, because I had no memory of the incident he was referring to. He reminded me of what happened that made me so mad and it started coming back to me. I remember being very annoyed, but I don’t remember being enraged. I thought, “Why would that have made me so mad? How stupid to be mad about something so trivial.” In my defense, someone did something pretty rude and embarrassed me in a public setting and made me feel small and foolish. I confess, the more I thought about the incident, the more I remembered the anger. I could feel it 10 years later. But to be so enraged my husband did not trust me to drive? That seems excessive.
Anger is not necessarily a bad thing. There are times when it is appropriate to be angry. Jesus got angry, especially in the face on injustice and hypocrisy. Anger becomes dangerous when it envelops you and clouds your very being…when it almost becomes part of who you are, your very essence. We can say that about a lot of things. Fear, competition, confidence, success, desire… None of these things are bad…but they can take us over at times. They can possess us and change how we think and act.
The Gospel of Mark does not start the same way that the other gospels do. There is no dramatic story of Jesus’ birth like there is in Matthew and Luke. There is no poetic prologue like there is in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist and moves quickly to Jesus baptism, the temptation in the desert and the calling of his first disciples. This is all in the first 20 verses of the first chapter. Those first 20 verses are full of important events, events and people critical to the life of Jesus and to the Christian faith. After reading those 20 verses, we would expect that the next event would be equally important.
That brings us to today’s reading. Our story for today starts in a fairly typical fashion. Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach. Everyone was impressed with his teaching. Then the unexpected. A man possessed by demons approached Jesus…no it’s more like he confronted Jesus. The demon recognized Jesus immediately. Everyone else saw Jesus as a teacher, perhaps even a prophet. But the demon identified Jesus as the Holy One of God.
Of course Jesus did what we would expect him to do. He freed the man from the demon. He exorcised him. This was Jesus’s first miracle in the Gospel of Mark. Exorcism. In the Gospel of John, Jesus turned water into wine as his first miracle. In Matthew, he cured lots of people who were sick. In Mark, one of the first things he does in his public ministry is exorcise a demon. Surely Jesus could have picked something different. He could have healed a small child or a wounded animal…but why get involved with a demon?
The Gospel writer must have thought this was important if he put it in the very first chapter. Now I know we all get a little antsy when we start talking about demons and evil spirits. I don’t know what to tell you about the existence of demons, but I do believe that there is very real evil in the world. Mark knew this. Jesus knew this. Thus one of his fist acts was to confront that evil and free a person of that evil. It wasn’t some abstract thing…it was there right in front of him, possessing a human, a child of God.
We don’t hear much about the man who was possessed. We know he was a man possessed. That is it. Part of me wants to know more about this man, how it happened, how he made it into the synagogue, what happened next? But the other part of me knows that none of that really matters. What matters is that this man was a child of God, a child of God who was being suffocated by something evil, something that controlled him. Thus Jesus’ first act was not merely exorcising a demon. He was giving someone their freedom back. He was giving this person back his identity as a beloved child of God. If we look at it that way, then it makes sense that this would be one of his first acts.
In the Episcopal Church, we don’t talk about demons much, or being possessed. Yet I believe that most of us know what it is to be shackled by something. It might bad relationship or job. It might be an addiction or an emotion that has taken over. It might be guilt or something from the past that continues to plague us. It might be an illness or a pain that has made us feel less than whole.
It doesn’t have to be something that is bad in and of itself. It could be money and belongings. They can possess us. We can be possessed by knowledge that makes us arrogant and closed minded. We can be possessed by fears, fears that keep us from seeing others as beloved children of God. We can be possessed by anger, some of it righteous anger, some of it just plain foolish.
Jesus seeks to free us from those things. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being controlled by something like anger or jealousy. I don’t like it when fear keeps me from doing good things for other people. Sometimes I wish that we could just stick with the demon language. When my husband told me about that time I was enraged over something foolish, I could have said, well that was a demon. That would be so much easier. We know demons are bad. In stories like today, they seem to be eliminated with expediency. It is not the same with these amorphous things and feelings that possess us. They are much harder to get rid of. Sometimes we do not even realize we are possessed.
One of the interesting things about the story of the exorcism is that we don’t know what happened to the demon. What we know is that Jesus continued to exorcise people. It seemed that he never quite conquered evil; he freed people from whatever possessed them. He healed one person at a time. But he never rid the world of all evil. He was only able to heal the people who came to him, who knew that they needed his saving grace. That is what Jesus continues to ask of all of us….that we come to him, that we admit that we need him. We might have to keep coming back. I am fairly certain we will. Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t keep count—he’s just happy to see us.