What is the first thing you thought about as you listened to today’s gospel reading? Did you ever see the film ‘The Exorcist’? That’s what came to my mind. Although I never saw the film, it certainly made an impression on my generation. In the film a young girl was supposedly possessed by a demon.
There are two extreme opposite views about possession. One looks for demons everywhere. We have a sense of spiritual authority if we are able to say such-and-such a person is possessed. The completely opposite view is the scientific view. It says there is a rational explanation for all human behaviour, no matter how strange. It says that what the people of the bible saw as possession is really just a form of illness or disease which can be treated by the usual means.
As we read the bible, it is clear that the people of those ancient times accepted the reality of possession and miracles. These things fit their understanding of the way the world worked. Since we have a very different understanding, and a different culture, we will see them differently. So we study the bible to find out what they understood in their day, and ask what that might mean for us now.
This is the first miracle that Mark gives us in his gospel. Mark shares this story of confrontation and freedom as the first event in Jesus’ work, because it is at the heart of the gospel story Mark tells. It is also the gospel story we are invited to live into and through. And it contains a dramatic contrast with what happens just before it.
In the opening verses of Mark’s gospel the good Spirit, the Holy Spirit, descended on Jesus at his baptism. He heard a voice from heaven which said, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ We can just imagine how this would have been overwhelmingly good for Jesus, and confirmation for his life work.
Now Mark contrasts this good event with a man controlled by an unclean or evil spirit - a spirit that in all likelihood was not telling him that he was loved by God or pleasing God in any way.
In our generation today there are many voices that undermine our confidence and our sense of well-being. In bible language they are not good spirits. Take for example social media like Facebook. It can be a very useful tool that draws people together - we now have a church Facebook page, and I hope we use it well. But the subtle and harmful attraction of social media is that in it we are always comparing ourselves to other people. Young people especially can become depressed through such continual comparison. How many friends do you have on Facebook? Never enough. How many wonderful things are you doing with your life? Never enough.
Such voices today curse rather than bless; rather than build a person up, they tear down; rather than encourage you, they disparage; rather than promote love, they sow hate; rather than drawing us together, they split us apart.
In Jesus’ first miracle as told by Mark, Jesus confronts the unclean spirit of a man greatly troubled in his mind, and Jesus proves his authority over it. This, Mark is telling us, is what happens in the kingdom of God. We remember that Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God is near. Now we hear and see what this really means. Evil is confronted and defeated in the kingdom of God. Good triumphs over evil. And it is Jesus who does this.
Does God do this in our generation? We believe God is the same yesterday, today and for ever, even though our culture and world understanding is quite different from the days of the bible. God opposes the forces of evil which would rob us his children of all that God hopes and intends for us.
Maybe possession is not so very far from our own experience. Maybe you have known times like me when you just can’t get out of your head what someone has said or done to you or someone else. We have had difficulty letting go of anger, and maybe that has led us to say things we later regretted.
Then there are the many addictions of modern life: not just the ones we usually see as addictions, like drugs, alcohol, and gambling; but also things like over-work, body perfectionism, and smartphones. Or we may have a hidden prejudice that keeps us captive. These things are clearly not the Spirit of God blessing us so we might be a blessing to others. What Mark is letting us know is that we can come before God in Jesus’ name and ask for freedom from the things that possess us.
Jesus’ healing of the man possessed was sudden and dramatic - it shook the man and then it came out of him. Sometimes people still have sudden encounters with grace and mercy, and they are changed.
This may sound trivial, but it was important to me and probably prolonged my life. I was 43 years old. I had been a vicar about 4 years. I hadn’t been doing any exercise of any kind for about 3 years, and I was putting on weight, the most weight I ever put on, in fact. And I happened to read an article which told me I was in a sedentary profession, meaning sitting long hours at a desk, with a risk of having a heart attack if I continued living as I was. It got my attention, I’ve never forgotten what I learned, and I resolved to do something about it.
Sometimes though the road to healing and restoration takes time and the help of someone else. Sometimes it's not about a single pastoral visit but steady support. Things like a grief support network, or an AA group, or a prayer chain, or a parenting group, or notices about anger-management classes, or one-to-one counselling, can all be helpful. God is at work in all these ways and so many more. He comes to free us from the unclean spirits that still possess us.
Jesus is still in the business of freeing us from those powers which seek to rob God's children of all that God hopes and intends for us. We may not always be aware of this. But God is doing that through us as we make this church community come alive.
To go back to the beginning and what we might think about such healing miracles that Jesus performed: if we rush to explain them away with modern answers, we may be overlooking the deeper message of his liberating power. With eyes and ears open to the Spirit of God, we too will see wonderful works of healing among us.