January 28, 2018
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Javen Swanson
Read today’s scripture lessons: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28.
In her own characteristically witty and irreverent way, Nadia Bolz-Weber tells a story about how she decided to name her depression Francis.
Nadia is a Lutheran pastor from Denver who you might remember from an event she held here at Gloria Dei a couple years ago upon the release of her latest book. Her tattoos and her foul mouth often capture the spotlight, but what has endeared her to so many of us are her deeply faithful stories about her struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, and her reflections on her own experiences of death and resurrection, of dying and rising to new life.
Nadia Bolz-Weber describes how depression came into her life when she was in her early twenties. She named her depression Francis after another Francis born around that same time—Francis Bean, who is the daughter of Courtney Love and Curt Cobain. If you don’t know, they were a couple of alternative rock stars in the early 1990s with their own stories of drug abuse and depression. Nadia says that Francis, her depression, was a terrible roommate, who always trashed the place and told her horrible things about herself. Francis was constantly distracting her, and sometimes it was so bad she would forget to eat. Francis made it impossible to do even the most basic tasks, like getting out of bed and going to the grocery store. The worst part about her horrible roommate Francis was that she refused to move out. Finally one day Nadia’s family convinced her to go talk to a professional—a therapist—about evicting her.
What are we to make of the story in today’s Gospel lesson about Jesus casting a demon out of a man overcome by the forces of evil? Nadia Bolz-Weber confesses that she’s not always sure what to think when it comes to talk of demons in the Bible. Maybe demons were how people in those days made sense of illnesses for which we now have a more scientific explanation. Maybe demons were things that did torment people regularly in those days but are much more rare today. Or maybe demons are a more prominent part of our lives than we realize, but we find ways to explain them away or pretend they’re not real. I’m not sure what to believe either. But Nadia acknowledges that many people, like herself, have suffered from addictions and compulsions and depression—things that have taken hold of us, making us do thing we don’t want to do, or making us think we love things, or substances, or people, that are actually destructive. If that’s what having a demon is, she says—if it’s being taken over by something destructive—then maybe possession is more widespread than we thought.
It’s true, isn’t it, that many of us have been overcome and occupied by forces that do us harm, whether it’s addiction or depression, or anxiety or feelings of unworthiness that we just can’t shake—forces that keep us from being fully alive, from living the kind of life God wants for us. We don’t talk much about these demons. Maybe it’s because we’re ashamed to admit there could be something inside us over which we have no control. Or maybe we don’t talk about it because there’s stigma attached to them; our society views those possessed by these sorts of demons not as victims but as moral failures, people who are reaping the fruits of their mistakes. But if we’re honest, many of us could testify that we have had that experience, of being possessed by forces that control our behaviors and cause us to do harm—to ourselves and to others. Many of us know that these demons are real and they are tenacious, and most often we are powerless on our own to resist them.
When Mark tells this story of Jesus casting out a demon, he’s trying to send a clear message. He wants us to know without a doubt that Jesus comes to oppose every evil power that keeps us from the abundant life God wants for us. Jesus stands against all that would deprive us of happiness and love and a sense of community. This isn’t a story about a one-time event that happened two thousand years ago. It’s not a story we should write off as the product of an antiquated, pre-scientific worldview, as a story that couldn’t possibly hold meaning for us in the 21st century. This story is about who God is for us today and what Jesus continues to be about in our lives here and now.
But I don’t think this story is only about who Jesus is for us as individuals who find ourselves wrestling with our own inner demons. With this exorcism scene Mark is telling a much bigger story.
It’s worth noting that this exorcism is Jesus’ very first public act in Mark’s Gospel. Most Biblical scholars say that when we read the gospels, it’s important to pay attention to these first things, because usually the first scene gives us a sense of what the whole rest of the story is going to be about. And in Mark’s Gospel, the first scene is a confrontation; it’s a fight scene. But it’s not just any fight scene. It’s a fight between Jesus, who comes onto the scene possessed by the spirit of God, versus this man in the synagogue, who is possessed by an evil spirit. This first scene hints at what is to come. It tells us that the rest of this story is going to be about a cosmic battle of good versus evil, that will play out right here on earth, as Jesus, identified in the reading today as the “Holy One of God,” goes about confronting all that is unholy in his world—all that is life-denying, all that perpetuates divisions between “us” and “them,” all that keeps people trapped in poverty or powerlessness, all that keeps people cut off from community and relegated to the margins. From this first scene we learn that with the arrival of Jesus, “all things demonic are on their way out.”1
From the moment he steps into the arena here in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is on a mission to confront the powers of darkness. It’s a mission that will take him from his insignificant hometown in the backwater region of Galilee to the very center of power in the capital city of Jerusalem, where the corrupt Jewish religious establishment and the Roman imperial political establishment conspire to keep power and wealth concentrated in the hands of a few. Already in today’s reading—before we’ve even finished the first chapter of Mark’s gospel—we see that Jesus’ ministry is raising eyebrows, and it won’t be long before the authorities in Jerusalem take notice and begin plotting his arrest.
For the crowds of people in Galilee and beyond who were the nobodies of their time, who had zero hope for the future and were only barely surviving each day, a Jesus who came praying comforting prayers or preaching inspiring sermons wouldn’t have cut it. They needed more than hopeful words or a sympathetic companion. They needed a Jesus who could look demons in the eye and throw them out with a word. Only a Jesus who showed up to confront the powers, cast out evil, and establish a new order could be their messiah.
In just a few moments we will baptize Ezra Axel and Ava Elizabeth. It’s probably good that they are such tiny people and don’t understand at this point what they’re getting themselves into, because baptism brings us into the Body of Christ and makes us part of Jesus’ mission to confront evil and proclaim the Kingdom of God. It probably should be a little bit scary. We do very civilized baptisms here at Gloria Dei—just three delicate splashes of water in the name of our triune God. Afterward we even use a little napkin to pat the head dry. You’ve probably heard about full-immersion baptisms in other traditions where the one being baptized is dunked all the way under water, symbolically drowning their sin and rising out of the water refreshed and renewed for their new life in Christ. A couple weeks ago there was a video making the rounds on social media, at least among the church nerds I’m friends with on Facebook, of an Eastern Orthodox priest baptizing several babies, violently plunging each one head first into the baptismal font three times; afterwards the babies came out of the water with eyes like saucers, wailing, clearly terrified by what had just happened. I promise, we won’t do that today—though maybe that captures some truth about baptism, that joining Jesus in his mission on earth means joining him in the sometimes terrifying work of looking evil in the face and saying, “No more! Get out!”
But when we baptize Ezra and Ava today, we’ll also tell each of them, quoting from Galatians, that they have been clothed in Christ. We’ll even dress them in a little white garment to remind them of that: clothed with Christ—or as Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “clothed with the one whom demons fear.” Which means as they grow older and encounter demons of their own, they will be empowered, with Jesus, to look them in the eye and say, “That’s enough!”; empowered to cast out all that would keep them from the life God desires for them, empowered to bring about healing, for themselves and for the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
1Gary W. Charles, “Mark 1:21-28: Exegetial Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).
Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Demon Possession and Why I Named My Depression ‘Francis,’” June 25, 2013 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/.
Euronews, “This baptism in Georgia is enough to make your head spin,” published January 19, 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFGHerqhSC8.
David J. Lose, “Epiphany 4B: First Things First”, on …In the Meantime, 2015, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/01/epiphany-4-b/.