I am no longer as squeamish talking about demons and their various manifestations as I once was.
I used to feel compelled to try to explain such things in the gospels because they seemed so foreign to our sophisticated sensibilities.
“They were unaware of mental illness back then…” I would explain.
“These are allegories of the kind of spiritual warfare Jesus waged..”
“They didn’t have any other way to explain epilepsy, or motor illnesses..”
Explanations such as those to try to make sense of the outbursts, the thrashing child, the strange interjections, or the interruptions in the middle of Jesus’ teaching.
But after the last four years of witnessing the upheavals in the world of politics, the proliferation of misinformation, the resistance to public health measures, and the persistence of conspiracy theories run amok, as well as actions of individuals online, at demonstrations and riots, I no longer feel compelled to try to explain demon possession.
We have seen it firsthand.
We have been befuddled by the nonsense coming out of an otherwise normal person’s mouth, their tortured logic or grasping at conspiracies.
We have watched as fathers, sons, mothers and grandmothers – many of them our own extended family members — have suddenly snapped in mid conversation to blurt out something hateful or hurtful comments on a subject with which we deeply disagree.
We have seen mobs turn angry, protesters and police be possessed of a spirit of fear that drives to violence, or desensitized action.
Shoving old men to the ground.
Beating people with flags.
Breaking into the capitol, or the police station, or the storefront with willful destruction. Arguments breaking out with fierce emotion over the wearing of a mask, or the closing of a bar!
We have witnessed otherwise rational people get carried away in the heat of the moment or seized by something quite outside of themselves and quite outside of our comprehension with sudden violence and emotion.
I think possession is no longer a mystery to us.
We seem to see it daily.
So, it is not a surprise to me as a Pastor to hear of this outburst in the middle of Synagogue worship for Jesus today in the gospel. (I’ve had annual meetings that have gone similarly!)
No, what caught my attention this time was the demon’s question.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come here to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!”
It is a question that goes unanswered, and that is what catches my attention!
Jesus silences the outburst, yes.
Jesus then draws out the offending comment and casts out the thing that possesses the man.
But, Jesus does not answer the demon’s question about whether or not he has come here to destroy “us” –whoever the “us” is here.
Scholars are divided on this most interesting of questions.
Who is the “us” that the protesting demon refers to? Particularly glaring because the person possessed man follows the “us” with an “I” statement.
“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
So, what is Jesus acting upon, an individual or a corporate entity here?
Some scholars say that the “us” in this story refers to the Scribes. Jesus has been teaching with authority, not as one of the scribes, and so maybe the sense here is, “Has Jesus come to destroy the authority and teaching of the Scribes in this community? In Jewish culture?”
“Have you come to destroy our authority, our power over people, our way of guiding and directing our own worshiping communities?”
This is a real possibility, as clearly the scribes are feeling threatened by Jesus, by his popularity and the people’s reaction to his teaching.
Other scholars say that the “us” here is referring to the corporate sense of the powers of darkness, the demonic, the “legion” of forces out there marshalled against God and God’s intent for this world.
They point to Jesus doing battle with the forces of evil, healing, opposing the powers of death and disease and destruction throughout the gospels and say that this is what the “us” referred to, all those things out there that combine to oppose God’s Kingdom and God’s reign in this world.
I think both are possible, likely probable.
I don’t think you or I will ever be able to tease out how dark forces sometimes drive public policies, or decisions, or teachings or assumptions in communities.
Dark forces at work in the world or the self-preservation of power and privilege, can be used interchangeably.
What I find more interesting is the silence of Jesus on whether he has come to destroy them or not.
It is an unanswered question, and unanswered questions tend to hang in the air like a fog, obscuring any sense of clarity.
And that, is perhaps the way Jesus wants it to be.
If Jesus had answered, “Yes, I have come here to destroy you…”, then the onus on these things would be up to Jesus’ actions and his alone.
Who else can cast our demons after all?
Who else can contend with political forces and matters of power and privilege?
“Only Jesus can take on these kinds of things, stand back and wait for him to act!” We might be tempted to say.
But Jesus does not answer the demon’s question.
Instead, what Jesus does is call disciples, and then grants them power and authority over the unclean spirits and demons.
What Jesus does is send his disciples out two by two to heal, and to bring peace, and to engage in communities with scribes and pharisees and anyone who will listen. They are to extend God’s peace to those they meet along the way, and if they are met with peace, to stay there and let their peace fall upon that community.
If they are met with resistance, then they are to shake the dust off and move on until they find someone who will accept their peace.
Oh, and on occasion cast out such demons themselves, with prayer.
If Jesus had answered the demon’s question with “Yes, I have come here to destroy you…” then the whole of the work of us as disciples would have been a kind of jihad against the forces of darkness in this world, and we would be consumed with rooting out darkness wherever it could be found.
That, of course, becomes a kind of darkness of its own!
Because you see, the more you go looking for demons and demonizing others and their actions, the more you tend to find such demons, (at least find them in your own mind and estimation.)
The church has a long and shameful history of taking such an approach from time to time, through the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution and labeling of heretics, the crusades to reclaim Jerusalem.
Going out to look for demons is tricky business. Jesus will not engage in that, neither should we!
Instead, when such demons and unclean spirits raise their ugly heads, Jesus calls them out, identifies them, and sends them on their way.
Maybe that is a cue for what we are called to do as disciples of Jesus in this day and age.
I don’t think we will destroy either the powers of darkness, nor the inequalities of power and privilege that have developed over generations.
It is not in our authority to go looking for them, or to destroy them.
But I do think what we can do is call them out and disarm them when they are found in our very midst!
I do think we can take away the power they have by naming them, not fearing them, and recognizing them, even (and especially) when they pop up where we least expect them, in our own midst and amongst the people with whom we regularly gather, love and care about.
Our Synagogue—- our church!
That, (it seems to me) is being faithful to what is modeled by Jesus in this Gospel lesson.
Jesus does not turn a blind eye to the conflict when it rises up in the midst of his own gathering, but instead acknowledges it, names it, calls it out and dismisses its power.
“I know who you are…” the man says.
“Well, then, be silent and come out…” Jesus responds.
Jesus makes it uncomfortable for that demon that has been exposed. There is convulsing and squirming and shouting, – but the offending demon eventually comes out and has no more power over that person, or over the assembly!
This is what Jesus models by leaving the question unanswered.
He does not seem to come to destroy, but he does not hesitate in engaging either, wherever the demon appears!
If the season of Epiphany is all about us discovering God and watching what God has come to do in this world, then this is the lesson learned here, our “epiphany.”
We are not called to go forth and find the powers of darkness to do battle with them, to seek them out and root them out.
They will come and find us, most likely.
No, what we are called to do is to recognize the demons when they raise their ugly heads in our midst, to name them, call them out, and dismiss them from our assembly.
This is not easy work by any means, but it is hope filled work, for it is less about destruction and more about restoration.
Restoring this questioning man to his community.
Ending the outbursts and accusations by casting out the thing with which the man is possessed, the fear of destruction.
And which us is not ready for Jesus to come and do such work of restoration and reconciliation in our own midst right about now?
To cast out our fears and restore us to one another.