Probing the Unclean Spirit
2009-01-23 by Paul Janssen
Some thoughts on the unclean spirit in Mark 1: 21-28
We don’t go in much these days for talk of demons, at least not literally. We talk about people working out their demons, but we usually mean they’re dealing with bad memories from yesterday or high anxieties about tomorrow. There was a time when demon movies were all the rage (pardon the pun), and I guess some of today’s films fall into the “Exorcist” category. But as for unclean spirits, well, since the advent of psychology, most folks would say that demons are all in our own heads.
And maybe that’s true of the unclean spirit in today’s lesson. Maybe the man with the unclean spirit had a rotten childhood. Be that as it may, the unclean spirit bears looking at, no matter what it’s made of, no matter where it ‘lives.’ I know this could be explosive – I feel like I’m handling nitroglycerine wearing goalie gloves – but let’s see where it goes. It may help to think about a person you know – maybe it’s you – who’s ever gotten lost, who seems to be under a cloud, whose body, it appears, has been taken over by some other, malevolent, spirit. See if this Jesus story echoes with what you’ve seen.
First, the unclean spirit is aggressive. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, and the crowd is amazed that he speaks with authority. So far, so good. Right there, we’ve already got enough of a story. But from nowhere, without provocation, comes the unclean spirit. Why is he picking a fight? What did Jesus do to deserve being called out like this? He was minding his own business (or his Father’s business), and the spirit picked the fight. The spirit was the aggressor. Apparently unclean spirits don’t like anybody messing around in their space. Anybody gets too close, they bark. And they bite.
Why? Well, look at what Jesus was doing. Teaching. Not healing. Not preaching. Not turning water into wine, or feeding five thousand, or walking on water. He was teaching, and teaching so powerfully that he wowed the crowd. You know what’s gotten under the spirit’s skin: the truth. Unclean spirits don’t like the truth. They’re nasty, compact, hardened tangles of lie woven into lie into lie into lie. Along comes the truth and picks off one lie, and the spirit knows that if one lie is unmasked, then all of the other lies are suspect. Give the spirit its due: it knows that when the truth comes out, its survival is at stake. Is any of this sounding familiar? You’ve met this spirit, haven’t you?
Now, what does the spirit say? “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” What is this “us” business? Could be, I suppose, that this voice represents a whole class of unclean spirits. But I think it’s really just bluster. The spirit makes like those little birds that puff up their feathers to make themselves look big when they’re frightened; like a cat that gets its back up to present a scary appearance to its enemy. The spirit wants Jesus to think there are lots of them in there, wants to yell and scream and pretend that he’s bigger than he is. But Jesus knows what’s really going on. The spirit is NOT overwhelming. “Us” is just the latest in a string of lies.
We know how the story goes: Jesus says to the spirit, “Be silent and come out of him!” And the spirit comes out. But wait, stop, and look at what happens. It’s not that simple. The spirit came out, “convulsing and crying with a loud voice.” Convulsing – the word means tearing up, pulling the man to and fro. Crying out: the Greek words say “noising a great noise.” Spirits are not going to go without taking their pound of flesh with them. I’ve seen them at work, and I put it this way: having an unclean spirit in you is like you swallowed a fish hook. It can’t stay in, or it will kill you. Pull it out, and it’s going to hurt, and wound you on its way out. Of course you’re going to scream. But the alternative is dying slowly by infection. No one said this would be easy.
So we’ve met the spirit. It’s the spirit of aggression bound up with lies, yet so cowardly that it has to puff itself up. Is it painful? Of course it is; it won’t let go without a fight. Again, I ask you, does any of this sound familiar?
When and where have you encountered an unclean spirit?
How did you respond to its aggression?
Were you able to bring the truth to bear upon it?
How did the spirit ‘puff itself up’? (“vaunt” itself)
What pain was involved in the spirit’s departure?
How will you be gospel to people overtaken by unclean spirits?
Jonah, Patron Saint of the Spiritually Stuck
2009-01-22 by Paul Janssen
If we were to appoint Jonah as the patron saint of any group of people, I’d say he’s the patron saint of everyone whose relationship with God has ever gotten stuck. He can’t bring himself to do what makes God happy. God can’t seem to do whatever it would take to make Jonah happy. He’s stuck.
He’s stuck between God and the Ninevites, for one thing. Jonah is a prophet, and like any prophet, he sees more deeply than the rest of us can see. He sees who the Ninevites really are: not just enemies of his tribe, but bloodthirsty wretches, the kind of people who would just as soon slit your throat as shake your hand. He knows the kinds of things they do: sacrifice children to their idols, have sex out in public and call it a sacrament, kill old people and toss them outside the city wall where the vultures and dogs can lick their bones clean. Jonah knows what they deserve. They deserve to be punished, ransacked, destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth. No mercy. Just vengeance. That’s why he doesn’t want them to repent. Nineveh used up its last chance 1,000 chances ago. Which is why Jonah doesn’t want God to repent, either. Why should God have mercy on them? Why should God let them off the hook? What would a little sackcloth and ashes do to atone for the tens of thousands of innocents the Ninevites had killed? What kind of God would do such a thing – forgive the worst of the worst? Seems like a no-win situation.
So Jonah is stuck between his calling and his desire. Jonah is a prophet, and like any prophet, he has something to say. That’s what he’s been put on earth to do: to speak. You’d think, then, that when God tells him to speak, he’d be happy to open up his mouth and let fly with what Nahum got to say about Nineveh on God’s behalf: “I am against you, and I will lift up your skirts over your face and let others look at your nakedness, and I will throw excrement on you and treat you with contempt, and everyone who looks at you will cringe and say, ‘Nineveh is wasted. Ah, who cares?’” That is a juicy little bit of prophecy. All Jonah gets is eight rather nondescript words: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” That’s all he’s called to say, and that is precisely what he has no interest in saying. Why should he be the one whose name would go down in history as the instrument of salvation to such a rotten regime? Maybe he’d look good to the Ninevites, but never to his own people. Poor old Jonah; he’s stuck between the only thing he knows how to do and the only thing he doesn’t want to do.
He’s stuck, you see, between being a mouthpiece for a consistent God on the one hand and a compassionate God, on the other. Jonah knows full well what God should be like: God should know who does right, and who does wrong, and should dispense blessings to the good and punishment to the evil. Not that God should be angry: just the opposite. God should be dispassionate, uncaring, detached. The only problem is, that’s what a pagan god is like, not the God of Israel. Apparently Jonah didn’t quite master the calculus of a God who is slow to anger. Of course God gets angry: not miffed, not petty, not petulant or self-interested the way our anger works. But passionate, deep, burning, from down-in-the-gut is God’s anger (we used to call it wrath): the energizing force that kindles the ferocity of God’s love, the love that doesn’t whimper like a kitty but roars like a lion. Any one of us who’s ever loved anyone knows how anger coexists with love – but our anger gets messed up in all sorts of self-seeking and violence. God is love, we say, which means, God is passionate, reckless, extreme. Jonah wants a safe, predictable, consistent God. But God will be God. Who will sometimes repent. And sometimes not. But who will always love. Always, love.
How does it come about that a relationship with God gets "stuck"?
Is it a matter of our resistance?
Of God offering a call that (we perceive) overreaches our abilities or desires?
How will we be perceived if we follow God's wild call?
How will God be perceived if we follow God's outlandish calling?
When we resist God, whom are we protecting?
Parrish Jones; Urgency; And Theovolution
2009-01-21 by David von Schlichten
Thank you to our guest blogger Parrish Jones for his distinction between anxiety and urgency. How true his observations are. Pleae scroll down to read them. Then post a response.
This Sunday, I will preach on 1 Corinthians 7, particularly the announcement that this world is passing away. Change is happening now, thanks be to God. Around and within us is a theological evolution. I will preach about how evolution is not necessarily antithetical to Christianity. Indeed, the words of 1 Corinthians 7 and other passages (such as Revelation 21:5, which declares that God is making all things new) point to the ongoing work of God. God is evolving creation toward the holy consummation.
Share your thoughts. Join the conversation. I look forward to having people jump into the tub. Also, be sure to register for the Festival of Homiletics. The event is astounding.
Yours in Christ,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
Our guest blogger this week is
2009-01-19 by David Howell
The Rev. Dr. Parrish Jones. He lives in St. Augustine, FL, and is part time pastor of First Presbyterian in Jasper, FL. He has served churches in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. During the year 2007, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Reformed University in Barranquilla, Colombia. He is active in the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and in promoting Comprehensive Immigration Reform and reform of U.S. policy toward Colombia. He speaks regularly about Colombia, U.S. Immigration Policy and theological issues relating to peace and justice.
See his first post on the texts below.
2009-01-18 by Parrish Jones
The many themes these texts bring to mind are: call to mission, the importance of proclaiming the gospel, and judgement. One that occurs to me in our present crises is that of urgency. Jonah is urgently pushed toward Nineveh. For reasons he cannot understand, God wants to be known there. The disciples are called to an urgent task that is so compelling that they leave their daily labor to follow Jesus, leaving behind a comfortable living. Paul declares the need to set aside all the anxiety-producing-entanglements of the world to focus on the urgent matter of our calling.
There is a difference between anxiety and urgency. I am prone to be anxious about what is not urgent and not to focus on the urgent. There are important and unimportant things as there are urgent and not so urgent things. Anxiety builds as I let the unimportant things that claim to be urgent fill my life instead of focusing on the important and urgent things. One popular way of saying this is, “Don’t sweat the little stuff. Everything is little stuff. So don’t sweat.” It’s cute, but untrue. Not everything is little stuff.
The proclamation is filled with urgency. Fulfilled time, nearness of the kingdom, repentance, faith. Then Jesus passes by the sea hooking fishermen. Their response is immediate, no equivocation.
This difference between anxiety and urgency is important for our time of crisis. Those of us who are somewhat well off, which is most of those who live in the U.S., at least in relation to the majority of the world's people, are experiencing anxiety. Besides the anxiety over crashing markets and banks, government bailouts and foreclosures and business and personal bankruptcies, there are the anxious debates over morality. What really matters? What things demand urgent response?
God's mission is urgent. It will not be given up on. Jonah must preach in Nineveh. Jesus calls people to discipleship which means giving up their business pursuits and life as usual. Paul suggests we live in this urgent time as if there is no other concern than the proclamation of the gospel. The good news sets us free from evil: idols of wealth, security, license, desire, hatred, prejudice, and worldly affairs. Free to live with integrity, fearlessly, hopeful, gracious, kind, generous, peaceful, and loving. This message is important today if ever.
To be urgent is to be necessary. Anxiety is about unnecessary worry and frustration. We are called to be about the necessary mission but not to be anxious about it. We plant, cultivate, water, trusting that God will bring the harvest. God always blesses faith-full life.
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