The evangelist Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples “went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘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.’”
It came right out of the blue, of course–in the Gospel of Mark everything important happens fast. Sometimes things happen so suddenly that we miss their deeper meaning entirely, and we don’t really begin to realize what is going on until it is all over and Jesus has moved on. The Lord is always ahead of us in Mark’s gospel. And we are always trailing along behind, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on–just like his first followers.
In this case the action takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. After he left Nazareth and began his public ministry, Capernaum, the home of the disciple Peter, became his base of operations. If you take one of those Bible tours of Israel, you will be shown the ruins of a synagogue just a few steps from the traditional site of Peter’s house. This may be the very place where Jesus worshipped—or not. In any case Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum on a bread and butter Sabbath and suddenly all hell broke loose. There was nothing so extraordinary about that day—apart from the presence of Jesus there, teaching originally and brilliantly–“as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” as the evangelist puts it. (What would I give to have been there to hear him, however? How about you? What a wonderful convergence of holy circumstances, to be in that holy place on that holy day in the presence of the Lord.)
Then all at once the face of evil appeared. “There was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,” Mark tells us. And we are amazed, because that is the most surprising part of the whole story. But should we be? Really? Because where else would an unclean spirit be more likely to show up on a bright and sunny Sabbath morning than at church?
I can’t claim to have had the widest possible experience of evil—in any case nothing to what some people have had. I have never experienced a Nazi death camp or encountered the agents of ISIS, who behead journalists, butcher their prisoners and burn people alive to make a rhetorical point. I haven’t seem more than newspaper reports of the horrific mischief that Boko Haram is up to in North Nigeria. There are some real experts on the demonic out there, people with first-hand experience of evil in its direst forms, people who have suffered its ruthless effects, and I cannot claim to be one of them. My experience of the demonic is limited. But I wasn’t born yesterday either. In my long life I have occasionally encountered genuinely evil people, and it has always been in the church that I have met them. They often appear to be quite respectable and “nice.” They look as if they belong there. They often make quite a show of their piety. Like the Pharisee in the temple they love to kneel and make a spectacle of praying. And then suddenly the mask comes off and the face of the demon leers out at you. Yeow! It is a shock that goes far beyond mere surprise.
And I know for a certainty that some of you are suffering from the trauma of encountering evil in a holy place. I know how profoundly shaken you are, and in part I am writing this for your comfort. But I am also writing for my own comfort, because I am also trying to recover from that same experience. And it is taking me a lifetime to get over being astonished, stunned, and utterly gobsmacked, (as the British put it when they are being lower class,) by meeting up with demons in church. The memories of those close encounters with the noonday devil still occasionally upset my sleep.
I suppose that only goes to show how really simple and naïve I was—and probably still am. We should know better, beloved. Having read the gospels, particularly Mark’s, you and I should be better prepared. Demons in the church? Why of course there will be demons in the church! Where else would demons be?
Mark’s gospel is like the exterior of a Gothic cathedral–there are gargoyles and devils crawling all over it. Jesus encounters demons everywhere—sometimes singly and sometimes in legions (see Mark 5:1-13). Reading Mark you might well get the impression that the rural Palestine of the first century was the very portal of hell. But in fact evil was no more present then than it is now. It was no more present there than it is in our own nation and our community and, I daresay, in our own church. It was the presence of Jesus that drew it out of the darkness where it hides. Holiness draws evil to itself. And the presence is not a necessarily sign of nastiness and moral decay—in fact, the holier place the more likely evil will be to crop up there. And quite suddenly.
In all probability those decent, observant Jewish people of Capernaum were also shocked by the sudden manifestation of evil in their synagogue that Sabbath morning. Utterly gobsmacked. And they would have shivered—literally. (Evil is frequently accompanied by intense cold. I have experienced that supernatural chill myself. It is like a window being opened into a dark, frigid universe of despair, which is what hell is.) And they would also have felt utterly helpless against it. That’s the worst part of an encounter with true evil, that sense of helplessness and isolation. That is the source of its power, the ability to create that feeling of defenselessness in decent, ordinary folks.
When they encounter the demonic in the church or anywhere ordinary people do the ordinary thing—they hide from it. Confronted by hell they get the hell out. They recoil because evil is ugly and vulgar and repulsive. It is the ultimate bully, and although in reality it is weak, it looks and acts horribly strong. Its entire strength resides in its fearsome appearance. So they step back, they flee, they seek a safe hiding place—they scatter in the face of evil like Jesus’ disciples did when he was arrested.
But step back from evil is exactly what Jesus did not do. That is the whole message of the Gospel of Mark—Jesus confronted evil and overcame it decisively and forever. He did that for us, so that we would no longer be helpless in the face of the demonic where ever we encounter it—in the church, in our families, in the life of our nation. “Have you come to destroy us?” the demon in our story asks. And Jesus’ unspoken answer is—yes, of course. That is exactly why I am here.
And the demons know that. They recognize The Holy One of God when no one else does. They fear him and at the same time they are drawn to him, like iron to a magnet. In Mark’s gospel only the demons know who Jesus really is. His true identity remains a secret from the disciples, from the crowds, from his own family. But the demons recognize him. That’s why “he would not permit the demons to speak,” we are told, “because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). The powers of evil know him as the instrument of their ultimate destruction.
And on the Cross Jesus stood alone against them and broke their dominion definitively and forever. But battle is not over. By no means. The face of evil still leers out at us from the morning paper. We meet up with it in the most unexpected places. Evil has no strength of its own, only the appearance of strength, but for us appearances are still very powerful. It is easy for us to be overwhelmed by them, shocked, baffled–gobsmacked.
We no longer need to fear evil, but when we meet it, especially in holy places, it still fills us with fear and disgust. The risen Lord gives to us, his followers, the same authority to cast out demons that he had (Mark 3:15). The problem is that confronted by evil we are afraid to use the power we have in us. Instead we recoil. We leave the flock and try to hide. We are scattered by it, like Jesus’ first disciples were. Scattered like frightened sheep. Evil always seeks, first and foremost, to isolate us from one another and attack us alone. And we have all experienced that one time or another, haven’t we?
Now I realize that this has been a rather depressing read up until now—all this somber talk about evil and demons. So by way of making a point and lightening things up a little let me tell you a pretty good Uncle Ole story:
My Uncle Ole and his pal Arne went hunting deer in the badlands of North Dakota with a bunch of the boys from the Sons of Norway Lodge. They camped out there by the Little Missouri River and drank a lot of Miller High Life and whooped it up a little, and then the next morning they split up in pairs and went out to hunt. Ole and Arne were together, as usual. The day passed. Then just before sundown Arne came back to camp, puffing and panting, and dragging behind him an eight point buck. It was a magnificent deer!
“Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway, “that’s sure a real nice deer you got there.” And they all had a Miller to celebrate Arne’s triumph and whooped it up a little. It wasn’t until the deer was skinned and field dressed that they noticed that someone was missing. “What happened to Ole?” the Sons wanted to know.
“Well, that there’s a long story,” said Arne, looking more than usually sheepish. “What happened was this. I shot this here nice buck, and we was dragging it back together when Ole started to feel light-headed. ‘I’m feeling kinda sick, Arne,’ he said, and then he sorta passed out on me.”
“But Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway. “You mean you just left Ole lying there all by himself and brought back the deer instead.”
“Yah,” said Arne, looking even more like a sheep than before, if that were possible. “I gotta admit it wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but I figured no one was likely to come along and steal Ole.”
Arne wasn’t really a bad person, just human, and being human he did a bad, bad thing. He got possessed by evil–anyone can be. Cases of possession are hardly less common in the world than the flu—and certainly no less contagious. Evil can infect decent people and make them very sick indeed. It can twist sisters and brothers into the most awful shapes. It can sweep through churches and denominations and religions like brush fire. Even whole nations and political parties can become possessed. That’s what happened to Germany in the 1930’s. That is what is happening in parts of the Islamic world even as we speak.
Speaking theologically, evil is not really “real,” since it was not created by God and everything God creates is good. But even in its unreality it is still dangerous because it separates us from each other. Evil confronts us all together as a church and a nation. It is never our sole problem. But we treat it that way. We may know in our minds that it is bad to leave our friends behind. But when we meet evil where we least expect it, we allow our feelings to master us and we run off and hide. We leave each other to face the music alone.
Now Jesus could confront evil alone and he did. But without putting too fine a point on it, you and I aren’t Jesus. We need his presence with us. In the twisted face of evil our best defense is always each other, since in communion with one another is where we experience the presence of Jesus most powerfully. So when we are startled by the face of evil, where ever it may appear, we need to quiet ourselves, rise above our emotions, and seek out our brothers and sisters. Remember, beloved–against the frigid wind that blows through the universe, our best defense is to huddle together.