I often tell clergy from other denominations that one of the advantages of using a lectionary is the simple fact that the readings force us to move along or to consider those elements of God’s teachings which we might otherwise prefer to avoid. Again, I was blessed this week to know where to go for my sermon, but like many of you, I was uncomfortable as to how to approach the topic without seeming to be freakish—well, more so than usual! I am speaking, of course, of the idea of demons and the spiritual warfare in general. I will say that the topic is clearly of some importance given where I was forced to minister this week and some of our conversations. Some parishioners approached me independently of each other this week to ask me about Mark’s account of Jesus’ exorcism in the synagogue. As I was reflecting on those conversations trying to make sense of the week and discern how best to approach the topic, I chuckled at the beginnings of all those conversations. Only one person had the courage to ask “Do you believe there really are demons?” Everyone else got there; it just took some time.
Clearly, demons are real. Let me say it again just to make sure you really did hear it the first time, yes, I think demons are real. The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus banished demons and that the disciples did also (and failed at least once). I know much of supernatural lore of spiritual warfare is based more upon Milton than upon the Bible, but Paul especially counsels us to be aware of the spiritual battle going on around us. I do not think that God is capricious or in the business to trick us, so I believe that the accounts of the demonic are real.
I know that most of us, as 21st century Americans, would much prefer to believe such tales as fancies. I have heard repeatedly that what were called “possessions” in the Bible were really epileptic seizures, behavior disorders, schizophrenia, and other such quantifiable and diagnosed diseases, as if the people in antiquity were total idiots. Make no mistake, people in the ANE were no more gullible, no more stupid than you or me. True, we are able better to understand the nature of bacteria and viruses. Doctors can distinguish between a migraine headache which is terribly uncomfortable from a headache associated with meningitis, which can be bacterially or virus caused and, so, have a different chance of survival. The ANE lacked much of that particular distinction. To them, it really did not matter if one had pneumonia, bronchitis, allergies, or whatever so much as the fact that one could not breathe correctly. Certain symptoms required certain cures, most of which were learned through trial and error. So, when we read in Scripture that Jesus “cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many diseases” we should probably not be so quick to dismiss the claims as superstitious nonsense. Angels we can accept; demons are a bit tougher to swallow. Why?
No matter the why, Mark in the last two weeks has related two specific exorcisms and some generic ones. If the first specific exorcism is the man in the synagogue last week, what is the second? Take a look a Peter’s mother-in-law. When the pericope begins, we are told that she had a fever. You and I are probably a little too detached from Jewish history and culture and a little too familiar with medical knowledge to understand the spiritual significance of a fever. To us, a fever is a sign of an infection. To those of Jesus’ time, a fever was a separate disease. In the Jewish culture, the fever had a theological significance because of the torah . Both Leviticus 26:16 and Deuteronomy 28:22 were interpreted by many rabbis to mean that God was punishing a sinner, a person who violated the torah. Such an interpretation will probably not surprise those of us familiar with the book of Job. Job’s “friends” are certain that he has sinned against God terribly because of all the calamities that have beset him. Similarly, a fever was viewed by many in Jesus’ time as “proof” of one’s crimes against God. The fever was sent by God to punish or chastise the wrongdoer. Many rabbis even taught that only God could cure a fever. Since it was sent by Him, only He could halt its effects, particularly the effects of higher fevers.
Now, perhaps, the second specific exorcism is obvious to you. Think of what is going on now in our reading. She has a fever which, to the disciples, requires that they tell the Master. Mark records that Jesus took her by the hand, upon hearing of her condition, and lifted her up. Our translators, by virtue of their decision, lessen the impact of what the disciples saw. Apheken means released or abandoned more than left. It conveys a sense of possession or ownership, in this case supernatural or divine, that has been forsaken. In the two other fevers discussed in the NT, the same turn of phrase is used, signifying to those reading and hearing the story, what was really happening. Whether her fever was God’s punishment or some sort of demonic attack, Jesus had the power and authority to heal! If it was divine punishment, this miracle testified to Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, as who else could stop His punishment but God? If it were demonic, still He had power to bring healing to victims (never mind the significance of a woman set free immediately after a man has been freed).
Keep in mind, too, how Mark describes exorcisms. Those with diseases are healed; those with sin are forgiven; demons, we are told, simply release or go away from the victim after being commanded by Jesus to come out. These are important, significant distinctions. When Mark speaks in terms of possession, he speaks in term of unclean spirits, those forces, beings, however we want to describe them, which attempt to thwart the Lord’s will in the behavior. Put another way, it is the spirit that is inimical to the Holy Spirit in this chapter, which took control of Jesus right after His baptism and works to the glory of God. By contrast, these unclean spirits work to alienate human beings both from God and others. Eventually, in Mark’s Gospel, they will even seem to get the upper hand in the spiritual battle when Jesus is put to death.
So what? That explains then, what about now? How should God’s teaching about demons impact us now? I know we are all more comfortable speaking in terms of addictions and psychoses and disorders. But are we really bringing all the healing power of Christ to bear when we allow modern science and medicine to supplant what God has revealed to be true? To be sure, as C.S. Lewis reminds us in Screwtape Letters, we are as equally ineffective when we think the devil and his minions are everywhere as when we think they do not exist at all. But scripture reminds us over and over again that there are forces arrayed against God, which work hard to see Him defeated and you and I separated from Him. Of course, Scripture also reminds us that the chief weapon of those who fight against God is death. In the end, it was the weapon that those spiritual and physical forces brought to bear on Jesus. Christ’s death and resurrection remind us, naturally, that even that weapon is insufficient to keep us from our Lord. Better still, as children of the living God, inheritors of the firstborn share, you and I have no reason to fear those unclean spirits or anything else we cannot explain! Jesus promised us all that we would do greater works because He would intercede on our behalf with the Father who would send His Spirit upon each of us. You and I and every one of our brothers and sisters have reason to believe that there are forces and spirits working against God, but we have an even better reason to believe we have nothing to fear thanks to that empty tomb!
As I was reflecting on a way to give us an example this week, a number of conversations popped into mind after I listened to a couple of sports talk interviews this week. A number of people had asked me over the last couple months what I thought about the whole Tim Tebow phenomena. Now, as a Steeler fan, I have to admit he is not my favorite person right now. But two interviews have helped me to accept the defeat from a couple weeks ago with a bit of grace. In the first one I heard, Von Miller, the starting linebacker for the Broncos, was being grilled by an interviewer. This interviewer was wanting the dirt. "Tim Tebow must be a horrible teammate being so 'holier-than-thou', right?" "You can't be yourself around him, can you, because he's so righteous, right?" On and on the interviewer baited Von Miller. His attempt was an effort to cause a rift in the team and expose just how much the team despised Tebow. After a couple deft answers, Von Miller asked the interviewer to quit. "All those comments about Tim are the press' creation. He's not at all like that. He is a great teammate. Nobody works harder, nobody works longer, nobody cares more about success for the Broncos than Tim Tebow."
Unfortunately, the interviewer was not done baiting Von. Once again he picked on the whole "in your face" Christian description to elicit a response from the LB. Von Miller gave perhaps the best answer any Christian man could hope to be said of him. "When I was little, I used to get dragged to church. I heard all kinds of expressions. Have you ever heard the expression 'Iron sharpens iron?' I had, but I never understood it until I met Tim Tebow. I like to think being around him makes me a better man. I like to think that he rubs off on all of us because he is a man at peace with himself and world around him. You guys in the media get on him about being 'all religious.' We don't describe him like that. He's one of us. He's in the pits with us slugging it out each week. I hope, one day, people will think of me like they think of Timmy. I hope my sons grow up to be like him. I hope my daughters would marry a man like him. That is what I think of Tim. That is what makes him special!"
I have to admit, I was whooping in the car. I don't know much about Tim Tebow other than what the press relates. I know from playing football that there is enough not happening in the Bronco locker room not to believe the press' commentary and descriptions. We're he a bad teammate, the veterans would be throwing him under the bus. Now, however, a rookie LB was telling a radio DJ to get off his teammate's back. Better still, he hoped that Timmy was rubbing off on him.
A few days later, however, I got to hear the same member of the press interview Tebow. The interviewer was polite but skeptical. He was asking Tebow about fans running over Joe Montana to meet him and questioning how well he fit into a team. Finally, the interviewer went too far and begrudgingly stated that Tim must really be enjoying all the attention. "To tell you the truth, it really worries me." The interviewer was surprised. "I have been blessed with some skills and the opportunity to play a game for a living. It just so happens that I have a platform that many lack. People ask me what I think about stuff. I answer. And they complain that I am forcing my views on them, like I am the one that stuck a microphone in their face. It's clear than many in the world don't like the answers that I give. What worries me now is that I will get too full of myself, to full of pride, and trip up in a way that hurts the witness I want to make. I know if I accept one of the offers of these girls, party a little too hard with drugs or alcohol, or anything else that someone else can do in private, my actions will be publicized. and then everyone will think I am a hypocrite and the truth of the Gospel will be compromised. It is a tough pill to swallow. Hopefully, it and my prayer life and God's grace will keep me on the right path. You'd think people would at least let me live my life rather than root against me and look for me to fail. But nothing is the way the Lord intended."
Think of what Tebow admitted on the radio. We live in a country that supposedly wants everyone to seek happiness. He has found it in his faith. Yet now people are doing their best to help him stumble. Women line up to be the first ex-Mrs. Tebow or just the first woman with whom he has sex. Nobody is praising him for waiting. Teammates describe a great teammate and a better man; yet interviewers are always criticizing his faith and trying hard to sow dissension because of that faith. Why? Why do we want people to fail? Why do we celebrate when "good guys" or "good girls" stumble? Could it be because we have been deluded? Can it be that we have forgotten our inheritance? Can it be that we have forgotten the words of our Declaration of Independence? Are we not in the middle of a war in which the distinctions between the good and the bad are blurred, and failure is cheered. Are we that messed up? Do we really like the Ben Rothlisbergers and Michael Vicks better than the Tim Tebow and Kurt Warners of the world? Are we more excited to see the latter fail than the former repent? Are we more willing to give the former a second chance than to cheer on the latter?
Are demons real? Yes. I believe they are. Too many times we are told that Jesus encountered them simply to dismiss them. And, given how many of us accept angels and their actions, does it seem any less probable that there would be beings fighting just as hard against God? Better still, while we have a particular understanding of demons and exorcisms as a church (that being they must be discerned in community and exorcised by bishops), we are not powerless before them if we encounter them alone. Christ’s death and resurrection signified the beginning of the end of their power. As His rightful heirs, we have nothing to fear when confronted by them. Yes, they might make life hard for us. Yes, they might even kill us. Yet even they must bow to the power of His blood and the authority of His commands. Perhaps, just perhaps, the world would be better served were we to quit pretending as if they cannot exist and name them for what they are. Perhaps, just perhaps, our naming and praying and asking Him to banish them would usher His kingdom that much further into the world, reducing the power and effectiveness of those, including Satan, who fight against Him. Perhaps, just perhaps, our willingness to accept His teaching and His authority would bring that much more healing into the world, healing which testifies to the world His glory and His grace and His power to heal all who are brought to Him!