A sermon based on Isaiah 51:9-16 and Mark 1:21-28 preached on February 1, 2015
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?
Here Jesus, in his very first outward act of his ministry in the Gospel according to Mark, finds himself in a situation that’s like a microcosmic version of the struggles that so many of us face every day: a confrontation with evil.
Mark wastes no time telling us that when Jesus stares down evil. These demons know exactly who He is, they know where Jesus comes from. Evil also knows it stands no chance in the presence of the Holy One who has come from God.
Exorcisms and devils and demons—they’re the stuff of B-grade movies. Whenever we talk about such things we gather images in our minds of heads spinning around on shoulders 360 degrees; glowing red eyes; deep, scary voices, devils with pitchforks. Evil has been characterized and caricaturized in our culture in a way that has us dismiss it—it’s funny in the end, absurd even.
Exorcisms, and devils with pitchforks aside, we all know that evil is real. We see it every day when we turn on the news or open our morning papers. Whenever evil happens, it takes the front page. Right there in color. And we can’t escape it, because it’s a part of our lives, a part of us. Evil resides in this world and inside of us—we human beings have a great capacity to harm others, this world, and ourselves.
On a large scale, we contend with the real evils of groups like ISIS and Boko Haram. They are evil and they need to be contended with—cast away—and silenced. I think we’re really good recognizing these huge expressions of evil especially because they come from others. We can point away from ourselves and say,
That’s evil. Way over there.
But don’t we all contend with our own demons—ones much closer? The ones inside of us? In our families?
Evil is real. Not theoretical. People struggle with demons. We all wrestle with the nightside inside of us, do we not? So often, we dismiss the biblical idea of demon possession to what now would be diagnosed as mental illness—something we throw drugs at. But have we not felt, at some time in our lives, possessed by something evil?
Poet Kathleen Norris writes about evil this way:
Who has not felt a sudden lifting of what seemed an unbearable burden, the removal of what for too long had been an insurmountable obstacle? Who doesn’t have something deep within that they would not wish to exorcise, so that it no longer casts a shadow on their capacity to receive and give love.
Don’t we all have demons we contend with? Don’t we all need to be delivered from evil?The parishioner who hands his weekly paycheck to his pastor, because if someone else didn’t handle his money, he would drink it all away. The woman who feeds herself only 500 calories a day, who looks in the mirror and sees something entirely different than what everyone else sees.
Isn’t the city of Huntington seized right now with a drug demon? Heroine has taken our neighborhoods and our neighbors. The mayor doesn’t know what to do about it, so he’s asked us to pray. Pray so that the demon of addiction might be cast out of our city and our people.
There’s the demon of unmanaged anger, the demons of isolation, sexism, racism, lookism, jealousy, bullying in our schools, rape culture on our college campuses. The list goes on. Name your own demon. They’re out there—in others and in us. The words from Martin Luther that we sang in our opening hymn:
This world with devils filled.
Possession takes awful forms. We need to be released from so many kinds of prisons. Set free from so many different cages.
Evil is all that diminishes us and keeps us from seeing the clear image of God in ourselves and in others. Possession is whatever binds us to something—that freezes us in place and keeps our nights from turning into our days. Possession is whatever isolates us—cuts us off from the Source of Light and Life.
We need to be released.
Haven’t we all been in the same place as that demon-possessed man in the synagogue?
This man is bound by something that keeps him from experiencing life in its fullness. Even there at the synagogue—in a place of God—this man stands, unable to worship because there’s too much noise—too much chaos in his head—too many afflictions making demands upon him. And what does Jesus say—his very first words to this evil presence inside of this possessed man?
Silence! Come out of him!
Evil is whatever keeps us from hearing the Word of God in ourselves or in others. We need to be released from whatever weighs us down so that we can stand up straight once again, and look directly into the eyes of Jesus our Releaser, and know fully God’s mercy and love and grace revealed to us in Him. Evil is whatever keeps us from knowing the depths of God’s love for us and for others.
In our Old Testament passage for this morning, Isaiah declares aloud these words:
Awake! Awake! Put on strength…I am the One who comforts you, why should you fear any human, for I am the Lord your God.
Isaiah speaks for God who has a message for all of us to hear. God is the One who frees us from all that oppresses us. God is the One who pulls us out from under the heavy burdens that tie us down and make us feel small.
Where now is the oppressor’s wrath?
God asks at the end of verse 13
A fear by which they intend to destroy you?
When God is in charge and God’s way is practiced, there is no oppression.
And the second part of that verse, isn’t that interesting? Oppressors wage their wrath upon us using the weapon of fear. Fear is enough to destroy us. I think these ancient words from Isaiah tell us so much about ourselves today. It’s as if he just uttered them yesterday. Fear is the big demon of our day. Fear is an evil spirit that has frozen this country and our Church (capital C church) in place.
John Pavlovitz is a pastor in Wake Forest, NC, and he shared an article on one of my favorite magazines websites, RelevantMagazine.com. In his article he says this,
You can see it in the way we [Christians] complain on social media, in the way we comment on the news of the day; in the defeatist, alarmist language that we use to describe the world…It’s as if everything is an immanent threat: Muslims, atheists, people who are gay, the President, inner-city criminals, Hollywood, illegal immigrants, the government…the world outside the church building is broadly painted as a vile, immoral warzone, with ‘God’s people’ hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.
Fear has become an out-of-control monster, a demon that has captured us—seized God’s church. And when we live possessed by this demon of fear, we find ourselves in this perpetually frightened, freak out mode. Every new event becomes confirmation to us that chaos is in control, the sky is falling, and that evil has the upper hand. And in that fear, we minimize God’s power. In our minds God becomes small—impotent. An absentee Deity. Unable to deliver us. Not in control at all. When our fear becomes bigger than our God we have a problem. That’s possession.
We are a Church universal possessed by the demon of fear. But don’t we have a God who’s bigger than the demon of our fear? Don’t we have a God who made it all and has promised to “finish the good work he began?”
If we live our lives and spend our time separating ourselves and defending ourselves from all that we think is falling apart around us, shouldn’t that be a sign for us that we’re more possessed by the demon of fear than we are by the God who has the power to cast out all fear?
We believe in a God who spoke the very cosmos into being, a God worthy of our worship and our ultimate trust.
As John Pavlovitz suggests in his article, freedom comes from putting our rest, our joy, and our trust in the One who has the power to cast out the demons of fear that have seized us and frozen us in place.
The world belongs to God and not to any other power out there, human or otherwise. Fear is the demon that makes us doubt that truth.
The bible talks a lot about the “fear of the Lord.”
Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, declares Psalm 110.
1 Peter 2:17 – Show proper respect to everyone: Love the family of believers, fear God, and honor the emperor.
The biblical definition of fear doesn’t mean panic or anxiety or fright, it means reverence, wonder, awe, and respect.
Jesus demanded that the evil spirit that had possessed this man at the synagogue come out of him. The unclean spirit shook the man, and it came out. And right there in Jesus’ presence, that man was delivered from the burden of carrying around that heavy curse. Jesus cast it out and away from him. And he was released from all that once held him captive.
Do you know how big your God is? Do you know He’s big enough to cast us out from under the weight of all that seizes us, confines us, holds us in darkness? Do you know that Jesus has the authority over every aspect of creation and every aspect of our lives? Do you know that God is more powerful than anything out there that may threaten us? Do you know that this is God’s world?
There are two definitions of the word “Release”:
1. To free from confinement
2. To allow to be known
Jesus is the One whom comes to us so that we can be released—freed from our burdens, from our crippling fears, all that weighs us down, and holds us captive and keeps us caged up. And Jesus is the One in whom our true selves can be revealed—we find our true being in Jesus, just like that man in the synagogue did that day Jesus touched him. It is in Jesus’ presence that we come to know ourselves fully, even as we are fully known. Jesus has authority over every aspect of creation and every aspect of our lives. That’s how big our God is!
In a while we sing these words:
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free, from our fears and sins release us. Let us find our rest in Thee.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!