Series: December 2023
Speaker: Rob McClellan
"Jesus Exorcised Regularly: The One for Whom We Are Waiting 1"
They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; 4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.
14 The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened.
Jesus Exorcised Regularly: The One For Whom We Wait 1
I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving break. While I fell ill, I was able to get out with the family to see a movie on the rise of fascism, a nice holiday treat. Okay, we went to see the new Disney film Wish, but it sounds so much smarter to say I went to see a film about the dangers of fascism rather than a sing along children’s movie.
Today’s story about Jesus is hardly a children’s tale. It begins a series we’ll do throughout Advent leading up to Christmas, focused on better getting to know this one for whom we are waiting. In particular, coming off a series in which we explored Jesus as teacher we will explore three other key roles Jesus plays in the gospels—Jesus as exorcist, Jesus as reformer, and Jesus as healer.
Nothing says holiday spirit like exorcisms. The stories are clear that Jesus was an exorcist. By some counts they include one exorcism per month for his entire ministry not including mass exorcisms. Exorcisms are the stuff of horror films to us, but they have been and remain a part of many people’s worldview. Religion is a way of understanding and speaking about and to the world. The people of Jesus’ time and place understood there to be all kinds of spiritual struggles behind or beneath or within the visible world. They may not have been so wrong by the way. When Jesus exorcises demons, a word that just means spirits, he is expunging a destructive or harmful spirit from a person, restoring them to health, and critically restoring the balance and wellbeing in the community. He says to the destructive forces, you are not welcome here, rebuking their power, claiming it back for the victim and the community terrorized by them.
There is so much to this passage that we can but touch on a few points:
- Religious historian Diana Butler Bass recalls first hearing this story in youth group and asking, concernedly, “What about the pigs?” An animal lover myself, I appreciate the concern. Pigs signal, among other things Roman influence, because pigs were unclean to Jews. In fact, Mark changes the location of the incident to a certain Roman town, the site of a brutal attack long after Jesus but right before Mark writes his gospel.More on that later.
- It is the demon who recognizes Jesus, calling him “Son of the Most High God.” This happens repeatedly. Those who carry out harm, destruction, and divisiveness recognize Jesus’ true power before even his professed followers.
- The demon here is named “Legion,” interesting on two levels.
- First, it means many. Have you ever thought about how often people’s problems, their struggles, are many, complex, but we tend to try to treat simplistically, failing to take into consideration the multiple factors that lead us where we are: our backgrounds, our genetics, our resources, our relationships, our geography, our racial or ethnic background, luck! You’re not doing well in school. It must be because you aren’t working hard, or it may be you’re malnourished or don’t have a safe home or can’t sleep or having a learning disability or the pedagogy doesn’t work for every type of child. Our makeup is legion. In fact, there’s a therapeutic approach called “internal family systems.” You may be familiar with family systems, where you look at how members of the family, or community, or group of any kind, function in relationship to one another. Internal family systems theory considers how these various parts, personalities even, interact within us. There are lots of “mes” in me. By the way, this isn’t a bad thing. Just as ecosystems rely on biodiversity, so we rely on the different aspects of ourselves, and our communities rely on those with different gifts, interests, and ways of seeing the world. This is what Paul tried to teach us.
- Legion is also the name for the largest army unit in the Roman military, and Jesus is nothing if not a critique of Rome. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says Jesus acted out the alternative to empire,empire which is built on power and cedes all power over to a single individual. Diana Butler Bass, drawing on the scholarship of John Dominic Crossan calls this story political satire, even political resistance literature. Mark is writing in the wake of a vicious Roman attack in the mid 60s. Mark’s people had been without Jesus now for a generation and a half. They were desperately awaiting God to intervene in history and set things right. Resistance stories give people a way to hold onto the good and hold out for hope. We lit the candle of hope today, similarly, to shine a light even where we don’t always see it.
I didn’t lie to you. I did see a film about fascism or totalitarianism or the abuse of power, though it wasn’t billed as such. If you see the film Wish, you see a charismatic leader who takes the wishes and dreams of the people, holds them in “trust,” with a hollow promise to grant them (if they fit his vision), only to play upon those desires for selfish gain, further empowering himself. The people are robbed of their power and pretty soon their hope. How do they get it back? Well, it is a Disney film. They sing, and singing is such a beautifully loaded image. It is an exorcism of sorts because by joining their voices in making something beautiful, they take their power back from their despot. Remember, despots, abusers, get power because at some point on some level the people grant it to them. In their singing, the people rise up, they say “No, you’re not welcome here, go away,” expunging the community of destructive and harmful forces and restoring wellbeing. Just like Jesus did whenever he exorcised.
The one for whom we wait this season exorcised often, and we should too.