Signposts to the Kingdom of Heaven: Exorcisms and Miracles
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery
31 January 2021
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Things happen rapidly in the Gospel of Mark. We are only at verse 21 and here’s what has happened so far. John the Baptist proclaims Jesus’ coming, Jesus is baptized and a voice from heaven declares him as God’s Son, Jesus survived his 40 days in the wilderness without succumbing to the temptations of the devil, and then John the Baptist was arrested. Right after John was arrested, Jesus declares his message. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel.” Then Jesus calls some of John the Baptist’s disciples to be his own first disciples, the two pairs of brothers, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. Today we join the story when Jesus and his followers attend the local synagogue on the Sabbath, with all the other Jewish members of the town of Capernum.
It’s probably helpful to begin by saying that Jesus did not burst through the doors in some dramatic way and start teaching and interrupting the rabbis. On the contrary, it was customary during Sabbath worship for a variety of the men in attendance to offer insight and commentary on the readings and to have dialogue back and forth. Jesus was participating in the normal way. However, it was the way in which he participated which captured people’s attention.
Jesus was said to have taught with authority, and not as the scribes. What does that mean? The teachers of Israel, often referred to as the scribes and the pharisees, discussed the application and interpretation of the Torah usually in reference to what other teachers before them had said. The most respected rabbis were one’s who had vast memories and could recall various interpretations of different rabbis on different points of the law. If a question about divorce was being discussed, the rabbis would not only refer to the aspects where the subject was written in the Torah, but then also what all the commentators on the Torah had said about it (mostly all being passed down by oral tradition.) It would be something like if you asked a professor a question about ethics and then he started referencing Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas Kant and John Stuart Mill and Spinoza and Kierkegaard and on an on and on. In that discussion, you might ascribe to him a certain authority for his vast knowledge of the subject matter, and for possessing knowledge that you don’t know about, but that authority is somewhat derivative.
But, Jesus’ mode of teaching is different from the scribes. We are meant to believe, I think, that Jesus stood up and just spoke plainly about what ever subject was under discussion and that he most likely was emphasizing his message about the coming kingdom of God. And, It was probably both the manner in which he spoke and what he said that seemed to astonish the people. But the point that the Gospel writer wants to make is that Jesus authority was derived not by his knowledge of or connection with the great Jewish teachers of the past, but of his own person and character as the Son of God.
The truth about Jesus’ teaching authority being linked directly to his person as the Son of God is immediately recognized, not by his fellow members in the synagogue, but by the man with the unclean spirit. He says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” Jesus immediately rebukes the unclean spirit, “Be silent” which literally means, “Be muzzled.” This is not because Jesus doesn’t want people to know who he is, since he has already been declared as God’s Son when he was baptized, but because he is already demonstrating his superior authority over the forces of darkness. That Jesus has come to destroy the works of the devil and all demonic forces was all part of the message of the kingdom of God being at hand. And, so here with this exorcism, we have the first demonstration of how the kingdom of heaven is going to be achieved. The forces of evil and darkness will be defeated. And, the result is that creation will be delivered from destruction and God people will be healed from its effects, both now and in the age to come. Preparing people for God’s kingdom, what might also be called salvation, is the final goal of Jesus ministry.
When Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man, it was not a gentle process. We are told that the man convulsed and cried out with a loud voice. We might pause for a moment over this. Why was the act of ridding the man of the unclean spirit so painful? One explanation might be to illustrate how deeply attached evil can be to us and the grips it has on the world. For example, when we use the term being “possessed” by something, such as an evil spirit, it means that we are owned by it, that we are slaves to its demands, that it has control over us. We have no freedom, when under its command.
Now, we in the 21st century might think ourselves too clever and sophisticated to acknowledge the existence of demons or unclean spirits. After all, people who act like they are possessed most likely have a diagnosable psychological disorder like epilepsy or schizophrenia or something like that. And, we should be glad that science has progressed such that we might be able to offer medical treatment for people who suffer from such maladies and not leave their fate to a modern day exorcism.
But, whatever the views about the metaphysics of evil forces one holds, I think we can all admit that there does seem to be real evil and cruelty in the world, evils and cruelties which possesses us, in which we feel trapped, and believe impossible to get out of. We have witnessed the evil deeds of individuals but also in the namless “systems” and “forces” of global society. Child and animal abuse; sex trafficking; purposeful disinformation and propaganda campaigns, systemic and structural economic inequalities in communities that trap people in poverty, racism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, war, torture, murder. But also, perhaps more subtly, we have our various idolatries, whether it is money, or the state, or security, that we look to to shield us from the forces of evil and darkness.
And, even more subtly, are the dark forces of despair and disinterest, or indifference. These internal dispositions that turn us away from faith, and hope, and love. It is perhaps no accident that after his baptism Jesus’ first activity is to go toe to toe with the devil and then perform an exorcism. These actions remind us that we are always called forward and to have confidence in God’s Word that is manifested and the power of Christ and to have confidence that evil and death will not have the last word and will not ultimately destroy us, no matter how intractable their grip may seem on us as individuals or as societies. And, perhaps Jesus is also preparing us for the reality that our being separated from its grips may be a painful and difficult process.
Now, I want to conclude by situating this reading into a larger perspective about Jesus’ power to cast out demons and perform miracles.
In everything Jesus does and says, he is always pointing people forward to the future. It might be helpful for us to think of his actions as signposts and markers for those who will follow him in the direction that he will lead them. Jesus is not trying to reform Judaism so that it return to it past ways, or purer ways. Jesus’ message is orienting everyone who will listen to them to the future, and trying to illustrate to them, by his teaching and actions, in direct speech and in parables, what that future looks like. Jesus brings with him a new message, a message that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, a message that everyone in the synagogue was astonished to hear. So what is it about the kingdom of heaven that Jesus’ encounter with the devil, his exorcisms, his teaching, and his healing are trying to tell us?
When he teaches, people experience the power of truth. The truth affects them. They know it deep down in the soul. Even though they might be afraid of its implications, and will work against it, it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus always spoke truthfully. Why? Because in the kingdom of heaven there will be no lying or falsehood anymore, because there will be no more forces of darkness to deceive us. When Jesus casts out demons, he is demonstrating the power of God over the forces of darkness. Similarly, when we read later on, when he heals the blind, he is showing us that it is through faith, that we see what truth is most clearly and the kind of sight we will all have in the kingdom of heaven. (People aren’t healed or not healed because of their merits. We already know that there is nothing that we deserve on our own merit when it comes to standing before God.) Also, when he raises Lazarus from the dead or helps the lame to walk, again, it doesn’t have to do with one’s merits, but rather Jesus is pointing to the fact that we will live in resurrected bodies in the kingdom of heaven. In other words, the casting out of demons or the miracles Jesus performs are in and of themselves not really the point. The point is about God’s power and authority over all of creation, in heaven and on earth, and what one can hope for when the new heaven and new earth are fully in place.
To think of Jesus’ power and authority as the son of God and the people he encounters and heals as serving as signposts, pointing people who witness it to the future, and not necessarily as an expectation for the here and now, hopefully gives us some relief. In the person of Christ the kingdom of heaven has broken in, that, I think is what the stories of the miracles of healing and casting out demons is all about. (Sort of like Jesus is giving us a preview of what the full feature film will be like). Not everyone Jesus encountered was instantly healed. Again, that sort of expectation is to miss the point and lead us down unsatisfying and unsolvable intellectual puzzles about personal sin and personal merit and reward and God’s grace or withholding of grace, etc. Much harm, I think has been inflicted over centuries by such views, providing us with a very unhelpful view of God and what it means to be created as a mortal creature. So, any lack of healing or miracles or infirmities that we suffer are not because God is withholding his love from us or because we are being punished. Dying is a natural part of our created life. But, our Christian faith, teaches us not to be afraid of death. In many ways, knowing that we will all one day die, helps us focus on living well during the days that we have been granted to live, whether a long life or a short life. And, the work that God has called us to do, is much like his own work, living as signposts, that our lives may point the way to the future that God has promised us.
The miracle that we might pray for, to be spared from death, has already been granted to us.
That miracle, with a capital M, happened 2000 years ago when Christ was raised from the dead. Sin and death and evil have been conquered. That really is the only miracle we really need. Our challenge is to live in such a way that we actually believe that it has happened.