29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
Anyone who has been in therapy can attest to the fact that the most important and insightful things always come up in the last 10 minutes of the session. I’ve always wondered if this is due to the fact that we can’t handle the truth for longer than that. Something similar happened at Bible Study this week as we looked at the texts for today. Right as we were ending we almost as an afterthought asked “what’s up with the whole casting out demons thing?” Every since then I haven’t been able to shake that question. I mean in the gospel text for today there’s a lot of talk about casting them out but what is meant exactly by demons? That word can feel very Lord of Rings – like from a mythical time when there were Hobbits and Elves and Dragons and demons. So, was there some sort of powerful presence of evil spirits in the world back then and we for some reason don’t have that pesky problem anymore? As though demonic possession was an epidemic that has now been eradicated? You know, like polio. I think we like to believe in eradication of demonic possession through rationalism and the scientific method or something. We’re too enlightened to have such pre-literate problems.
I can’t actually claim to know what demonic possession meant 2,000 years ago, but the word from the Greek - daimonion can be read as more like lesser god or idol. Possesion by idols. Posession by that which we put in the place of God. Whatever replaces God is demonic. But God doesn’t settle for being replaced. Never has actually.
Personally I like the term “unclean spirit” so often used in these demon possession texts. Unclean spirit seems a little more palatable than demon. Demons seems so weird – but unclean spirits, now that I see all around us. See, some spirits which replace God are so obviously unclean – possession in the form of alcoholism, or other addictions be it to violence or war or pornography.
But then there are the socially acceptable spirits which possess us. They’re like, neutral – could go either way. These are the idols of Money, status, comfort, education, the free market economy.
What’s even more insidious and less comfortable are the seemingly clean spirits. These are the sneaky ones. These are the virtuous idols we construct so that we no longer really need God who is then replaced by piety, self-improvement, social justice. Even The Bible can replace God.
I don’t know that on our own by our own efforts we can choose to change all this. But Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons. It’s hard to imagine how powerful the presence of Christ must have been to have people drop their fishing nets just because some guy said follow me. It’s hard to imagine how much truth and love must have emanated from him to have everything that bound people: illness blindness demon possession – fall away like molted skin. But what we see in these Gospel stories is that when we really encounter Christ, that stuff between us and God just doesn’t stand. It flees. It leaves us. Sometimes violently sometimes with silent tears but the not-real dissolves in the encounter with the truth. The hollow idols we put in God’s place fall away at the word of God. I want that. I want to know what it’s like to be Simon’s mother-in-law and have Jesus show up at your house. No matter what the source of her fever was; a virus or hopelessness. Bacteria or self-loathing and anger – no matter the source, God-made-flesh came into her own house, took her by the hand and lifted her up. Whatever she was in bondage to vanished at this encounter with the Christ. And what does she do next? She began to serve them. It’s easy to be cynical about this text, like “they just had her healed so they didn’t have to resort to making their own sandwiches” But she was really restored to her place of honor in her household.
That’s all well and good for the folks who actually got to encounter Jesus. But what about us? It’d be nice to have Jesus here in the flesh. But Jesus isn’t exactly walking into people’s living rooms anymore.
If he were still alive on Earth we’d all have to go to Galilee to see him and I for one could never afford the airfare. So we have the Body of Christ all over the world. The liturgy and the Word and the sacraments and forgiveness and Christian community is now the means by which we have him here. It is here in worship that God’s story and our story are joined. What we do as the body, gathering around the story and the table and the font, isn’t just us making up some pathetic facsimile since we can’t actually have the real guy here. There’s something more than that but I think it’s too mystical the explain. Mons Teig, my worship professor at Luther Seminary asked his students on the first day of class: What is it we do in worship? “We praise God”, one answered. “We gather around Word and Sacrament” said another. “We pray for the whole world” someone else said. And after we had exhausted the obvious Dr. Teig said, “We raise the dead”. We come here where the dead are raised and the demons cast out, for it is we who are dead – the old self drown in the waters of baptism and daily raised to new life in Christ- filled whether we believe it or feel it – filled with God’s love which has replaced our brokenness.
Here we remember that When Jesus entered Simon and Andrew’s house that day he did nothing less than defile himself - and on the Sabbath no less- by touching an unrelated woman who was sick in bed. This was simply not done if you wanted to maintain your own purity. But he took on her crap and exchanged it for his love. See, from the very moment of the incarnation God has been doing this; being Emmanuel, God-with-us even to the point of taking on our demons and brokenness and sin. This is the heart of the gospel – the blessed exchange where Jesus takes on your struggle with idolatry and sin and death and gives you his own righteousness and life and promises. It’s hard for me accept this which is why I prefer to construct seemingly clean spirits of personal improvement or idols of theological correctness or piety so that I don’t need something free from God. I’ll earn it myself, thank you very much. But Jesus won’t be replaced by our righteousness. He defies our self-imposed or societally-imposed barriors and defiles himself to cast out our demons and graciously refuses to let us settle for less than God as God. Now no longer bound we are free to serve. To know that you can’t do this for yourself but that God has done it for you is to be free to serve. To have the scales drop from your eyes, to be taken by the hand and lifted up is to be free to serve. To have all of that which lies between you and the neighbor, all the stuff you’ve put between you and God just melt in the pure love of Christ is to then be free to serve. We don’t serve to be free. This is the Kingdom of God’s inverted economy of mercy.