Evicting the demonic

“No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”[1] Jesus said that. A lesson in home invasion as part of the good news of God? Jesus spoke of entering and plundering the strong man’s house with reference to his own mission. According to Mark, it’s how he understood himself and his work. Holy burglary.

Following his baptism, driven by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan, and he returned, proclaiming the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The good news is that time’s up for the strong man; Jesus has come. He’s here to plunder the strong man’s house. It may sound like burglary, but it’s really the eviction of the pretend landlord who has been acting like he has a claim on the world house far too long. The world is God’s house, and those who live in it are meant to live, not under the strong man’s oppressive rule, but in the freedom of God’s children, in the justice and peace and joy of God’s reign.

On the sabbath, Mark tells us, Jesus went to the synagogue in Capernaum to teachbut instead of telling us the main points of Jesus’ teaching, Mark shows us: Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit and affirmed by the heavenly voice telling him he’s God’s beloved, Jesus comes face to face with a man who is held captive by unholy spirits, by powers opposed to the flourishing of life, and they know better than anyone else in that scene who he is and why he is here. Suddenly the room is filled with screaming and shouting. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus is in the house, their time is up, and they know it. They shriek, they whine and whimper, but that’s all they can do in the presence of the Holy One of God. Jesus speaks, “Be silent, come out,” and the man is free. This incursion is the ministry of Jesus: to spread this freedom, through all of creation, so every woman, man, and child will know themselves and each other as God’s beloved. Jesus is not just another teacher, preacher, or prophet in a long line of teachers, preachers, and prophets. He’s come to tie up the strong man and reclaim the world house that has become a playground for demons and evil spirits.

People in the synagogue are astonished, not quite sure what to call what they just witnessed, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” They call it a teaching, because all they saw Jesus do was speak. But they call it a new teaching, because his words bring a new reality into being. He speaks, and it comes to be. He speaks, and the bonds of injustice are loosed, the thongs of the yoke are undone, every yoke is broken, and the oppressed go free. He speaks, and the wounded are healed, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. He speaks, and sinners are forgiven. He speaks, and life flourishes. He speaks with the power of God.

The ancient mediterranean world was full of demons and spirits; they regularly interfered in human life, often capriciously. They were widely regarded as principal causes for physical and psychological problems as well as natural disasters, and they were known to control human behavior because they were more powerful than human beings. Most of us no longer use this kind of language; we don’t think of our world as inhabited and controlled by demons and other spirit beings. But that doesn’t mean we no longer experience powers in our lives that are stronger than ourselves, ungodly powers that oppress and enslave us. We use different concepts, different language. We have come up with many excellent scientific models psychological, anthropological, sociological, medical, economical, political models that help us understand the complexity of our life together.

But when you are struggling to hold on to your soul, struggling to maintain your sense of self after your trust in human beings has been betrayed too many times, when you are struggling to stay above water while the whole world is flooding in on you in that moment, in that circumstance you don’t need scientific explanations of your situation. Explanations just don’t get close enough to where you’re standing or trying to stand. You need the assurance that you are not alone in your struggle. You need to know that you are worth saving. You need to know that the lying demons that are making your life hell are no match for the Holy One of God who speaks freedom, truth, justice, love, and life.

Robert Lifton is a psychiatrist who conducted interviews with Nazi doctors who had done what they called ‘work’ and ‘research’ in the death camps. He wrote about a conversation he had with a man who had survived Auschwitz.

We were discussing Nazi doctors—I had begun to interview them and he had observed a few from a distance in Auschwitz—when he posed this question to me: “Tell me, Bob, when they did what they did, were they men or were they demons?” I answered that, as he well knew, they were human beings, and that was our problem. To which [he] replied, “Yes, but it is demonic that they were not demonic.”[2]

In the face of evil, our explanations hit the wall. There is meant to be no room in the world house for demons, but they are here because we are here. We need God to come and speak freedom, truth, justice, love, and life.

These past few weeks have been remarkable for those who wrestle with the reality of the demonic. An astonishing story unfolded in a court room in Ingham County, Michigan. The accused, Dr. Lawrence Nassar, had pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault. The sentencing hearing began, and a number of women let the court know that they wished to make victim impact statements.

When the list of women scheduled to speak was drawn up, it had 88 names. Then, as more decided to come forward, it had 105. Then 120. In total, 156 women spoke about their experiences with Nassar. They talked about feeling horrified and disgusted by what happened in their appointments with the doctor, coupled with a sense of self-doubt about whether they were misinterpreting it at the time. They spoke about how it had affected their families. They told Nassar, and [the judge], about the depression, anxiety, and mental illness they’d suffered as a result of his abuse.[3]

156 women spoke, and after years of being ignored, or not being believed, or being told to keep quiet, they finally had their words and voices heard – inside the courtroom and far beyond its walls. Alex Putterman wrote in The Atlantic,

The Nassar scandal is about more than a single man’s unfathomable abuses. It’s also about a network of enablers who let him ruin lives with impunity, about a national news media that dedicated little airtime and few headlines to the story, about a university that failed to protect its own students, and about an American public that for too long failed to care. In her statement on Friday, [one of the survivors, Aly] Raisman was speaking directly to Nassar, but she was also speaking to the world beyond those courtroom walls. “If over these many years just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act,” she said, “this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would have never, ever met you.”[4]

The demonic thrives on silence. It thrives on the silence of not listening and the silence of not speaking, and we’re all part of feeding the demonic or resisting it.

Jesus speaks words that rebuke and command unclean spirits. To me this means that words we speak, in humility and courage, inspired by the same Holy Spirit, participate in his liberating speech that serves the flourishing of life. Words do things – they hurt and they heal, the beat down and they lift up, they deceive and they reveal, they belittle and they empower. Words do things, both when they are spoken and when they are heard.

The now very famous Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said to one of the women, after she had finished her statement,

The monster who took advantage of you is going to wither, much like the scene in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ where the water gets poured on the witch and the witch withers away. That’s what’s going to happen to him, because as you get stronger, as you overcome, because you will, he gets weaker and he will wither away.”[5]

With respect, it is not the man who withers away when the water of truth is poured on him. The water of truth is poured not only on one man, but also on the enablers in a number of institutions, on grown-ups who didn’t do what grown-ups are supposed to do, and on all of us. When the water of truth flows, what withers away is the demonic. What withers away are the oppressive powers that afflict people and keep human bodies and human societies from flourishing. And what thrives is life, life in communion, life that Jesus so beautifully described as the kingdom of God.

 

[1] Mark 3:27

[2] Robert Jay Lifton, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (New York: Free Press, 2011) p. 240

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/judge-rosemarie-aquilina-larry-nassar/551462/

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/01/the-sex-abuse-victims-america-ignored/551444/ to read the full statement by Aly Raisman go to https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/20/sports/full-text-of-aly-raismans-statement.html

[5] https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/17/us/larry-nassar-judge-sentencing/index.html

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.