Possessed by Spirits

This passage in Mark is set up as a sandwich, meaning it starts and ends in similar ways (bread) but there’s something different in the middle (e.g., turkey)

  • (bread) Jesus teaches, people are amazed at his authority/power
  • (filling) Jesus casts out unclean spirit
  • (bread) Jesus teaches, people are amazed at his authority/power


Bread layer: From what we know of Jesus’ teachings, what might his message have been in the synagogue that day? (Talk amongst yourselves. Ideas that surfaced: there is one God, Jesus is the Son of God, the kingdom is within you.)


Filling layer: Jesus casts out an unclean spirit. We translate these words, but we also have to translate the whole concept, because these are not terms we use in the UCC. (Other churches do use this concept. I read this week about a seminary colleague’s conversion therapy to train her out of being a lesbian. Part of this process included a minister shouting in her face for the demon to come out of her.) When’s the last time we described what happens here at Prospect as casting out an unclean spirit? Never. And yet I think we would totally understand the encounter that Jesus had with this man. So let’s take the three sentences that this man says to Jesus and try to hear what he might be saying.


  1. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
    • We’re in Capernaum; you’re from Nazareth—you’re barging in. Who gave you permission to come teach in our synagogue?
    • The man knows Jesus’ name and town.
    • Us = ? The man and his unclean spirit? Those assembled in the synagogue? The people of Capernaum? The Jews living under Roman oppression? Multiple options.
    • Are you planning to make us change—in faith understanding of the Hebrew scriptures, in faith practices, in relationship to Roman oppressors?
    • Do we have to become disciples, like your followers? Do we have to completely change our lives?
  2. Have you come to destroy us?
    • If “us” = demons, then yes.
    • If “us” = people who live so bound by fear that they can’t live in love and faith, then yes: destroy not the people but the living in fear.
    • Or to give you new life in God.
    • Jesus’ message destroyed him—landed him on a cross as a political rebel in need of being taken out because he threatened the status quo.
    • What if the old safe “us” has to be destroyed/die in order for new to be born? There’s that resurrection imagery, and we’re still in chapter 1.
  3. I know who you are, the Holy One of God.
    • Knowing does not equal accepting.
    • Recognition of Jesus’ holiness from beginning of his ministry.


What happens next? Jesus heals that man of his unclean spirit. However he did it, that man stopped pushing back, stopped feeling the need to object.


This is an encounter between two men possessed by spirits: one with an unclean spirit, one with a clean or Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit prevails.


We don’t talk about people having an unclean spirit. But having an unclean spirit just means something that is impure, which means something that holds you back from God. Oh. We have those things. It might be fear, or an addiction, or busywork that distracts us from what is most important, or dysfunctional relationships, or or or…. Name your baggage—we have it. Those are our unclean spirits. And what Jesus is inviting us to do is to leave them behind, to let ourselves be open to healing by his clean and Holy Spirit, to say a whole-hearted yes to God, no strings attached.


Power of Jesus’ words:

Jesus starts in the synagogue worship service by preaching and teaching, using his words to open up the Word of God.

Words are powerful. Think of the first creation story, in Genesis 1: In the beginning God called creation into being: “Light,” “Day,” “Night,” “Dry land,” “fish, animals, plants, humans.” The creation story has God speaking us all into being. Power of God’s word to create.

Power of Jesus’ word to teach—and then to heal. Not only to say, but to do. Word as performative action. Word as invitation. Word as calling. Word as healing.


Jesus’ ministry is about breaking down boundaries

Between God and people

Between old rigid ways and new

Between oppressed and freedom


Whenever I preach, my goal is always to take an ancient text and make it get up and walk around this room, here and now. So let us reflect: What is the unclean spirit, the baggage, that makes us pull back and say, “Hold on Jesus, who do you think you are? Are you trying to kill me? I know you’re holy and all, but I’m not ready for this.” We get to lift that unclean spirit up, look at it, and say, “You no longer have power over me.”


Some people think Christianity is dead, or at least dying. If we take seriously these words from 2,000 years ago—if we peel them back and understand the depth of the invitation that is offered to us here today—then the Christian faith will not be ready to die anytime soon.

  • As long as there are people suffering from the baggage they carry—the unclean spirits that hold them back from God—there is a need for what Christianity has to offer.
  • As long as there are people willing to listen to Jesus preach and teach, willing to open themselves to Jesus’ power to heal, there is a need for what Christianity has to offer.
  • As long as that Holy One of God keeps showing up unannounced and uninvited in our congregations and loving us with power and authority that has nothing to do with the politics of our day, there is a need for what Christianity has to offer.
  • And as long as we wrestle our way to saying yes to God with our whole hearts, we will continue to practice being Christians in this troubled world.

May it ever be so. Amen. 


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