Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, Ga., on August 16, 2009.
Learning may reduce the prejudices of ignorance, set our bones, build our cities. In itself, it will never make us ethical.
—Loren Eiseley in The Firmament of Time
One of the subjects that many ministers find daunting is the subject that comes up very often in the New Testament. That is the subject of demons. There is a disconnect between how the ancient world understood demons and how we understand them today.
Several weeks ago, I preached on another passage about the same subject and was a bit surprised at some of the reactions that I received. I counted five different conversations, either in person or in e-mail, where people responded with a very clear sense of struggling with demons in their lives. No one was talking about little green goblins or anything like that. They were talking about things that seemed to have control of their lives or someone that they loved. I came to the conclusion that the disconnect is perhaps not quite as great as I might think sometimes. In trying to find a way to explain it a bit more, I did come across a quotation in which one person said what the ancient world called demons, we call issues. I started thinking about the idea of issues. What do you mean when you say, “Someone has issues”?
If you are teachers and you are talking about a child, it is more than the child cannot learn multiplication tables. If you are talking about a teenager at school, it is more than just simply talking too much in class. If it is a co-worker, how many people want to be on the same project team with someone who has issues? If you are flying somewhere and they say, “We are going to bump you to business class, but the person you will be sitting next to has issues,” most of us would say, “Put me in the back of coach. I am OK.” I don’t think that is 100% accurate but I think it does begin to point us in the right direction.
There is one instance in scripture where Jesus comes down from the Mount of Transfiguration and the father is complaining because a spirit comes and causes his child to have what is described as seizures. It is clearly some sort of medical condition. We also know that there are people such as Legion who comes to Jesus out of the tombs who is clearly dealing with an illness that affects his mind in some particular way. We recognize that it is a variety of things but it is deep. When the person said, “It is the same as having issues,” I think what they were trying to really say was that it is something that is deep. It is not a weekend with the blues. It is not just a weekend where you are feeling low and wish you could be in a better mood. When we look at people who have demons, it is something that is ongoing and there is a tremendous sense of helplessness. It is as if we have worked and done everything we know to do and we find ourselves still caught in a trap. It is beyond our power to do anything. I think we begin to understand a little bit about what the Bible is describing as demon possessed when we understand that.
The passage from Mark 1:21-28 is Jesus’ first encounter with demons in the Gospel of Mark. If you decide you are going to read through the New Testament, by the time you come to the end of Luke, you will be convinced that a lot of people in the ancient world had demons because there are so many stories about them.
Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum which is, more or less, the adopted headquarters for his ministry. As he is teaching as the rabbi of the day, someone presents himself to Jesus. I don’t know if he comes in unexpectedly or if he has been there all along and just stands up, but he begins to shout at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus, you holy one of God? I know who you are.” Whatever we would describe as a demon is against what God wants as goodness for us. With just a command, Jesus tells the demon, “Come out,” and all of a sudden, the man is delivered of the demon and he is in his right mind.
It is the response of the people that I want to focus us towards today. They say, “What is this? A new teaching?” Jesus has been teaching as the rabbi. They are saying, “What is this? A new teaching? Ah, and it has authority.” The impression of what they are saying is that somehow Jesus is teaching something that has delivered the man from his demons. If that is so, what did the man learn that, all of a sudden, set him free? I don’t think it is teaching at all. It is not about teaching, but it is about the power of God that is in Jesus.
In our world as we look at Jesus in scripture, there is a tendency to think about Jesus as the master teacher. Jesus is the great teacher, and when we want to study Jesus, we will have a study of The Parables. “Tell me about the Parable of the Sowers. What does this mean? What does that stand for? If I could just understand the Parable of the Sowers.”
Then we move on to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. “What does it mean to be a neighbor? If I could understand that, I would have my relationship with God all sorted out.”
We listen to the teachings of Jesus—turn the other cheek, sell all you have and give it to the poor. We think if we could figure out which ones are literal and which ones have some wiggle room in them, then maybe our relationship to God would be closer. But when you read the Gospels, and particularly Mark, the emphasis is not about what Jesus teaches. It is about what Jesus does. Of course, if you read all the way to the end, Jesus died on the cross to seal the forgiveness of sin and he was raised from the dead by the power of God.
If you have a red-letter Bible, look through the Gospel of Mark and see how many red letters you see. There is a fair amount, but not as much as in some of the other Gospels. The emphasis is not on what Jesus says as if we are supposed to learn and memorize it all. The emphasis is on what Jesus does. Jesus sets people free—not just what he teaches, but what he does.
In the story from Mark 1:21-28, did the spirit leave the man because he learned the right thing or did it leave him because something beyond learning, something beyond teaching, came into his life through Jesus Christ and he was free?
There are many among us who have addictions. When you were set free, did it come about because you learned facts about God or because all of a sudden that language about a higher power became real, and the higher power reached into your life and did something very specific and very freeing?
Some people have had grief to the point of a blanket of depression. Did you get set free from your grief by learning the five stages of grief or did the prayers of your friends, family, and yourself reach into your life and give you peace?
Speaking of peace, in the fourth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, he describes an experience as “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” It is the peace of God that is laid upon us like a mother lays a blanket on her children to protect them from the chill. It comes and lays upon us in the midst of being frantic, frayed, and worried and gives us peace. What did we learn to get that? It is not anything that we learn. It is the power of God and the Living Lord, Jesus Christ, that lays upon our lives, and God works.
Let me confess that I had to use my fingers to add this up. I was in school 23 years of my life. I believe in education. I took a Gallup personality inventory to find out what my strengths were. I did not even know that my highest strength was even considered a strength on the scales. My No. 1 strength was learning. So I believe in education and learning. I believe in what we do as a congregation in faith development with our children where we hope they will learn the Lord’s Prayer, where they will be able to sing the Gloria Patri, where they will be able to identify passages of scripture. I believe all of these things are tools in God’s hand to help bring them to faith. I have confidence that learning what Jesus teaches makes for a better life than being ignorant of what Jesus teaches. But let me just say, it is not enough.
If you have looked at the meditation text today, it is by Loren Eiseley who is a great naturalist and a tremendous author. He said, “Education will do certain things. It will teach you how to be a doctor; it will teach you how to build a city, but it won’t make people ethical.” It is a statement that reminds us that education has limits. If you look at the people who ran Enron or a Bernie Madoff, there is tremendous brilliance at the service of greed. Just having a good education does not determine how you will turn out. Just learning facts about God doesn’t guarantee that the spirit of God will be allowed to work in our lives.
The teachings of Christ are so valuable and so important, but they only take us so far. Beyond that, comes that place, that moment, where we have to surrender our lives and sometimes even surrender our inability to understand and just say, “I trust in God. I believe that Christ will deliver me and carry me through.”
I don’t know many facts that will cure those demons, those things that are beyond our control, those things that seem to have reached in and hooked onto our lives and won’t let us go. But I have seen and heard the testimony of others and I have experienced it in my own life. The power of God is real and the power of God can set us free.
The message today is not to learn more of Christ, although I wish everyone would. The message today is to trust in God and to surrender and seek God so that God’s power can invade our lives. I wish I could somehow can the power of God and distribute it to people when they need it. Some pastors make it sound so easy. They say, “Just do this and it will automatically come to you.” But I do know that those who seek him and surrender to him find it, and the power is real.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.