January 22, 2012—Epiphany 3
Don’t think of it as an exorcism, think of it as an eviction. The body, the mind, the heart, and, in fact, the very being of the man whom Jesus confronts in the synagogue in Capernaum has been occupied by an uninvited guest—an evil spirit has settled down upon his life and is refusing to vacate the premises. Like the people we heard about in recent news reports, who moved into the Texas vacation home of a Manitoba couple, created complete havoc inside the house, sold all the furniture, kept the proceeds, claimed squatters’ rights and refused to move out, a malevolent spirit has moved into the mind and body of the man in Capernaum, made itself at home, created utter chaos, claimed squatters’ rights, and refused to move out, thus rendering the man desperately confused and completely powerless over his own life. And now this negative spirit has got its foot into the synagogue, which wasn’t necessarily a building, but, literally, the assembly of the people, the place where people are led together, their gathering place for worship, but not just for worship—also for discussing and making decisions about the public affairs of the whole community. The evil spirit does not stand on ceremony, or wait to be asked in. It simply stows away in the man’s body—the man’s being—and comes into the synagogue, one Sabbath day, and sits quietly, at least at first, taking it all in, looking for its chance to claim power in more lives, and thus to widen its sphere of influence, and impose its havoc on more people than this one unfortunate man—on a whole community, in fact—the whole poor, struggling community of simple fisherfolk that was Capernaum. The evil spirit is feeling smug. It’s making progress. Setting up shop. And it has no intention of moving out any time soon.
The individuals in the Gospel stories are never just individuals. They’re symbols of the collective experience of the people. The symbolism of the man’s possession, or, more accurately, occupation, would not have been lost on them, because their homeland, too, had been possessed and occupied by uninvited guests—malevolent strangers who had marched in with tremendous force, helped themselves to what they found there, made themselves at home, created complete havoc, claimed squatters’ rights, and refused to move out.
Like the man in the story, the common experience of the people of Galilee was of a loss of control over the things that had been theirs—and in fact, over their own lives—and a terrible inability to do anything whatsoever about it.
Imagine their astonishment, then, and their joy, to hear the story of Jesus of Nazareth—one of their own—a poor, simple person like them, struggling, as they did, to live in an occupied land—striding into the midst of the people in the Capernaum synagogue one Sabbath day, and teaching, with a kind of authority and integrity that they haven’t seen in a long while, if they’ve ever seen it—teaching about a sphere of influence that he calls “the kingdom of God”—a sphere of influence that will bring goodness, and justice, upon the land, that will lift the people up from under the weight of all that oppresses them, raise them up in dignity, and give them power in their own lives again.
Of course, in the story, as in their own lives, this new sphere of influence, this kingdom of God, is not welcomed by the uninvited guests, because it signals their eviction, their expulsion. Jesus’ teaching, and, even more so, the authority with which he teaches, raises the hackles of the demon, who then cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Now this phrase, “What have you to do with us,” when it appears in the Bible, is not just a request that the person addressed state his or her business. It’s a phrase uttered only, ever, by those who perceive their very lives to be under threat, a phrase uttered directly to challenge the one who is threatening them. There, in the Capernaum synagogue, Jesus suddenly is in a life and death conflict with the squatter, the occupier, the demon who has taken control of an innocent man’s life, and is threatening to take control of the whole community. “What have you to do with us, O you who claim the power to evict us?” the demon asks Jesus, and then he says, “Have you come to destroy us?” Us. in the plural. Not me, in the singular. Us. There’s more where I came from. Have you come to destroy me and all the forces that work the power of death in this world? The demon goes on, makes his move: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” To know another’s name, in ancient cultures, is to have power over that other, is to claim for oneself the very essence of who that other is. This is an attempt to take Jesus over—to own him—possess him—occupy him. But Jesus rebukes him—the Greek word that’s translated here as rebuke is better translated destroy, blot out, vanquish, trample, stun, make perish. “Be silent,” he says, taking away the demon’s voice (and thus his only real power, given that he can’t be seen.) “Be silent. Come out of him.” And then Mark tells us that the demon, violently convulsing the poor possessed man—in other words, not leaving without a fight—obeys, and is no more. Don’t think of it as an exorcism, think of it an eviction. In the presence of Jesus and the sphere of influence he calls the kingdom of God, the insidious unwelcome guest has no choice but to pack up his bags and leave, kicking and screaming all the way. And thus the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel has stated God’s intentions for the man, and for the community, and soon—immediately, in fact, in Mark’s phraseology—he will state those intentionsthroughout all of Galilee. The squatters will be ousted, and the people will have their lives back.
Don’t think of it as possession, by a demon or unclean spirit, think of it as occupation, by the things that counter the power of life. Think of it as being occupied by pain, and illness, and grief, and fear, and by death itself. Think of those things moving in to the bodies, minds, hearts and spirits of individuals in a community, settling down on the community itself, making themselves at home, creating utter chaos, claiming squatters’ rights, and refusing to move out, thus rendering the individuals, and the community, desperately confused and powerless over their own lives. Think of it, not as possession, but as occupation, and ask yourself if it doesn’t seem, from time to time, and hasn’t seemed in recent days, that our own reality has been taken over by pain, and illness, and fear, and grief, and death, that these uninvited and unwanted guests have moved into our gathering place, our community, here at Immanuel, put their feet up and made themselves at home, wreaking havoc in our sanctuary, throwing our lives topsy turvy, taking some of our best people, claiming squatters’ rights, and refusing to leave. We don’t need to subscribe to a worldview that includes demons in order to know what it is to have our sense of well-being taken from us, our trust in the power of goodness shaken to its core, our world thrown out of whack, our control over our own lives taken over by forces we neither can see nor understand. The worldview may be strange, the story may be ancient, but the good news is for us, here in this community that has, in recent days, been taken over and occupied by grief. And the good news comes in the form of an eviction notice for our unwanted guests that go by the names of illness and pain and fear, and grief and death. God’s kingdom is seeping into our world, widening its sphere of influence, asserting its power, evicting the occupiers, restoring to us our hope, and our dignity, and our well-being. The squatters, of course, will not go without a fight. They have a fearsome sense of entitlement, and they think they have a right to be here. But the message of Jesus was that they don’t have that right. And we are people who trust that message. So we may have to tousle, for a while, with those uninvited guests. They’ll stick around as long as they possibly can. But they will go. Ultimately, they will go. They won’t be given a choice. They don’t own us, and this is not their home.
The good news is for us. The eviction notice has been served. God’s sphere of influence is widening, and will continue to widen, until all the unwanted, uninvited guests that occupy our world and confuse and diminish our lives have been sent packing. The good news is for us. The occupiers will go. And we will have our lives back. Thanks be to God. Amen.