Sermon; Epiphany 4B; Mark 1:21-28
“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit . . .”
So I went down a rabbit hole with this one.
For starters, I followed an online conversation thread that began with the statement, “Jesus did exorcisms in places of worship first. After all, that is where one usually finds the most demonic ideas.”
And while I will agree that places of worship – limiting my examples to Christian churches – can, and do, breed demonic ideas (such as forced conversions, the Crusades, upholding slavery, controlling women, protecting abusers, or the recent rise of Christian nationalism), this pithy statement too easily dismisses the fact that most of Jesus' exorcisms happened outside places of worship and/or that unclean spirits/demons weren't exorcised from faith leaders.
Then I started trying to determine if an unclean spirit was, in fact, a demon. Or even if an unclean spirit was evil. And then I thought this might be a bit of research leading to a paper I might want to write. And then I realized that it was Wednesday and I only had until 11:30 on Thursday to get the sermon finished. All that said, I want to look at this idea of unclean spirits, demons, and evil.
In Judaism things and people (or actions) were referred to in three different ways: holy, clean, and unclean.
Holy meant to be set apart for God. For instance, spaces set apart for worship were holy, such as this building. Vessels used in worship were holy, such as a chalice and paten. The Sabbath day was to be holy. The people of Israel were to be set apart and holy.
Clean was a reference to things in their normal or ideal state. So basic, everyday life. Clean animals could be used for food, for instance. Offering sacrifices to atone for sins would make a person clean.
Unclean was something out of place or in an impaired state. It was outside the boundary of what was normal or ideal. Certain diseases or physical imperfections would cause someone to be unclean. Touching a dead body would make one temporarily unclean. Certain animals were deemed unclean.
Something unclean could be made clean through a rite of purification. Something clean could be made holy through a rite of sanctification. But the unclean could not be made holy, nor could the two states be mixed.
In all of this there was the understanding that the lower thing had power over the higher thing. In other words, if something unclean came into contact with something clean, the clean became contaminated and was declared unclean – sometimes temporarily and sometimes permanently. This idea is still prevalent today where we strive to keep what is holy and clean from being contaminated and therefore falling from a holy or clean state to a lesser state.
But Jesus flips this idea on its head. Today's gospel story records the first miracle/healing by Jesus in Mark. A man with an unclean spirit is in the synagogue. He cries out, “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” Although Jesus doesn't say so, that is, in fact, exactly what he has come to do. So rather than the unclean contaminating and destroying that which is holy, the holy, through the person of Jesus, cleanses and purifies the unclean. Jesus is demonstrating that the holy has more power than the unclean. So in that sense, this is indeed a new teaching. And it is a teaching we need to be aware of.
Besides the previous conversation thread, I also read a response to another article earlier this week. The article was titled, “Study reveals half of pastors say they're hearing conspiracy theories in their churches.”
The author of the response wrote this, in part, as part of his discussion of that article:
More frustrating is the timid formulation of the question: “Do you frequently hear conspiracy theories from church members?” Rather than, “Do you frequently hear church members bearing false witness against their neighbors?”
Because that's what circulating conspiracy theories means in biblical terms.
Conspiracy theories, especially when wrapped up in religiosity, are unclean spirits bearing false witness. Everything from the false alarm over the Proctor & Gamble logo years ago to the false panic of a sex trafficking ring in a pizza parlor to a stolen election to Jewish space lasers is designed to contaminate and destroy. These conspiracies are based in and lead to words and actions that bear false witness. And that is at least one unclean spirit that we must call out and destroy.
We need to understand that conspiracy theories do not suck in the gullible. They attract and feed on those who already want to believe alternative stories, or those who want to have their preexisting prejudices confirmed. Ignorance isn't part of the equation here. And as Christians we have a moral responsibility to avoid spreading rumors and lies and false accusations. As Christians we must call out those lies and call to repentance those who actively participate in such lies.
As Christians we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. We need to remember that we have been set apart for God. We need to remember that we are a holy people. As such, we must not let ourselves be contaminated by rumors, lies, false accusations, and the like. We must have the wherewithal to recognize those unclean spirits, call them to account, and repent if necessary.
When called to account, when called out, the unclean spirit will most likely cry out, “Are you trying to destroy us?” The unclean spirit will cause convulsions and look for a way to retaliate or to maintain power. But in the end, as Jesus showed us, holiness will win and the unclean spirit will be destroyed.
The holiness of God recognizes there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, black or white, but that all are one in Christ. The holiness of God recognizes freedom isn't an opportunity for self-indulgence, but that it leads us to serve our neighbors in love. The holiness of God demands we call out the unclean spirits of racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia, and any other act or language designed to hurt, separate, intimidate, belittle, or abuse.
I can't tell you the nature of the unclean spirit in today's gospel story. I still don't know if the unclean spirit was the same as a demon. Nor do I know if the unclean spirit was evil. I can make those same statements about unclean spirits of today. But what I do know is this: allowing unclean spirits to speak freely and unchecked will certainly lead to evil actions and contaminate the world around us. An unclean spirit of racism, conspiracy theories, or anything else only has the power to contaminate and destroy if we allow it.
When confronted with unclean spirits, we must remember that the holiness of God is more powerful than any unclean spirit, and we must remember to speak the words that Jesus spoke: “Be silent!” Because if we don't command the unclean spirits to be silent, it will be our own silence that allows those spirits to fester and grow, ultimately destroying the goodness of the world around us.