I suppose all of us have demons that disturb us from time to time in our lives. They are things that hurt then haunt us, they are things that weaken our souls and batter us down beyond our normal selves. Demons set out to destroy and thwart our attempts at healthy, soul-filed living. Such was the case of Cecile[i], a woman I met at the VA Hospital. Cecile is not her real name and the particulars are not exact, I’ve changed them. But her story is true.
She had been admitted for intestinal problems but was getting ready to be discharged. The room was very heavy so I stood for a while in silence after I introduced myself as the chaplain. She began to weep. ‘Tell me about your tears’, I asked. Big welts of tears began to stream down her face. ‘I was only 18 when I went into the army, Gulf War.’ She stopped for a moment. ‘But I’m 40 now and my people just don’t understand me’. Cecile was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Schizophrenia. ‘They say I need to be over this by now, and they don’t accept me, they’ve abandoned me’…..her voice trailed off and then she again said, ‘I was only 18’.
Cecile was haunted by her past and by her mental illnesses. Few today would say that she had demons like they would have back in Jesus’ day. She was not possessed as we might conjure up those iconic images of demonic possession and spinning heads. Her demons were not of the supernatural sort. She was troubled by her past, her Gulf War experiences, images that she just could not let go of in her mind’s eye. She was bothered by the voices that kept her awake some nights as she lived with mental illness. I wish I had had a ‘miracle elixir’ that I could have given her to make it all go away. But I didn’t. She just knew her Lord would take care of her. We both knew that she was right; her healing can only come from the Lord.
The Gospel of Mark is filled with stories of Jesus’ healing people and we are just at the beginning of his ministry. He called his disciples from their fishing boats and their livelihoods to follow him and from there they went to a town on the north side of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum.
The Gospel of Mark, first chapter.
They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”
And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Let’s unpack these eight verses of scripture. It’s a two-for, you get two stories for the price of one. The first story is about Jesus coming into the synagogue on the Sabbath and preaching. Sabbath was and still is a day especially marked in the week in which to rest from your work, to pray and to study. It’s no surprise that we find Jesus in the synagogue. It must have been some fantastic sermon, some amazing explication of Mosaic Law because the people who were at synagogue that day were amazed with what he had to say. He had some sort of authority when he spoke that the others did not.
And then, unnoticed, a man with an unclean spirit, a man possessed with demons was there among them. Here’s where the second story begins. The demons, not the people, not the man, but the demons recognize Jesus. The demons are the ones to recognize Jesus as the Holy One of God, not the physical Jesus or the son of Joseph the local carpenter. The demons speak, they challenge Jesus, and they know full well that they have met their adversary. But Jesus admonishes them, he nips the demonic activity in the bud right there. Silence! Come out of this man! And the unclean spirit left. Sadly, we hear nothing more of the man.
Things settle down as they do. The gathered crowd was amazed; we are back to the first story. They are curious and ask, is this a new teaching? A new pedagogy? Jesus taught with words and with his actions. The torah teaching together with an example of healing gave Jesus an authority that the other teachers and rabbi’s that day did not have. Therein lies the miracle. We always learn better with an example, a sermon illustration if you will. They saw Jesus in a completely different light because they witnessed his teaching and his exorcism. Sometimes the demons among us move us to a different place in our lives or a different level of dependence and understanding upon Jesus, Holy One of God. And in that new place we see that God’s works are amazing.
The Psalm that Juliana read earlier, Psalm 111 is a Psalm of praise for God’s wonderful actions. The Psalms are oozing with human emotion from anger and mistrust to glorious praise. It is fitting that this Psalm is coupled with our story of healing because God’s works and miracles are to be praised. This Psalm praises God for the all of life. When healing happens, when knowledge comes we should give God all of the glory and praise. Not because God needs it necessarily but because we are the one who are in need of being grateful. It helps us to give up that which inhibits us, to rely less on ourselves. We are not the creators, only God is. We are not the healers, only God is.
As Cecile was sitting there she said to me, ‘Psalm 91, where it says that God will deliver me…that gives me strength, I believe that. He [sic] does deliver me.’ She continues to weep. ‘I know that I’ll be ok, I’ll be ok, I’m fine. I just want to know, why me? How long? Why don’t they understand? Why are they so mean? I would never think of being mean to my children. But I’ll be ok. I know that God will take care of me.’ In this knowledge and belief Cecile began to calm down and feel some peace.
I realized that she was a living Psalm sitting there right in front of me and she was crying her Psalm of lament and singing her Psalm of confidence and praise over and over again. This Living Psalm’s cadence waxed and waned like the moon in her phases. Her deepest and purest questions, filled with emotion, gave way to her compelling refrain of God’s deliverance from the vicissitudes of her life. Anguish turned to heartfelt joy because of her deliverer. Her faith and witness was amazing to me and gave me strength.
When we feel that we are overcome in our lives with the demons of modern day living turn to your faith, it’s meant to hold you together. Jesus, the holy one of God waits to heal you. He yearns to help you out of the dark corners and into the light of day. He desires to tame the frenzied spirit once and for all. Be at peace in this knowledge that Jesus is our all and all.