Sermons : Dealing With Demons in a Culture of Fear

By Bob Dunham on January 29, 2012 | News by the same author

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Mark 1:21-28

A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany       January 29, 2012



            This incident in the synagogue at Capernaum serves like an overture to the whole of Mark's gospel, because here the themes of conflict and salvation and power get condensed into a single encounter between Jesus and a man possessed by a demon.  Now, I know that in the post-enlightenment world in which we live, most folks aren't very comfortable with the mention of demons.  Such talk causes us to squirm, to seek other terminology to describe what has happened to people such as the man in our story.  And indeed, it is important to demythologize mental illness and bring it out from the shadows, so we can learn better forms of treatment and deal with it like other illnesses.                                                 

            But at the same time, I'm not ready to discard all references to the demonic.  In fact, I've been rethinking the way I consider demons for several years now, ever since my friend and colleague Ted Wardlaw provoked me to think about the presence of evil in different terms.  He shared a personal story that is a bit long to tell, but which I believe can help us revisit this story of the exorcism in the synagogue at Capernaum.  Ted confessed that he, too, had a problem talking about demons, indeed, that he had spent a lot of time over the years "performing the cosmetic surgery necessary to make them more palatable... [I would say something like] "People in Bible times were apt to use categories of the demonic to give expression to what we now understand in more therapeutic categories, don't you see.  What they understood as demon possession is now more accurately diagnosed as, say, a narcissistic personality disorder with tendencies toward hysteria - easily treatable with a combination of Zanax, intensive psychotherapy and maybe a little liposuction." 

Ted says that he has come to think differently now about demystifying the demons, and he traces his conversion on the matter to an encounter with a guest preacher at a Holy Week service at the church he was serving in Atlanta.  Out of respect for a staff member who belonged to a large and prominent African-American congregation there, Ted had invited her pastor to speak on Good Friday.

His sermon was stirring [Ted said], there was a standing-room-only crowd, and... [everything went very well] with the exception of one thing. One person in the congregation that day was clearly disturbed - spoke back inappropriately during the sermon, appeared on a couple of occasions, even, to be at risk of causing a scene.  I'm not talking about words like, "Amen, Brother!" or "Make it plain."  I'm talking about backtalk that bordered on heckling: "Yeah, well, how does all this ... apply to you, Preacher?" 

.... Over lunch in [the fellowship hall], I confessed to the guest pastor that I had been concerned about that guy.  "You needn't have worried," he said confidently.  "I have armor bearers, and they always accompany me."  "Armor bearers?" I said.  "Sure," he replied. "Just look around."  My eyes swept the perimeter of the room, and sure enough, in every corner there was a beefy off-duty Atlanta policeman in a dark suit, keeping an eye on the comings and goings of the after-service lunch crowd.  "Each one of those guys is packing heat," he said. "You needn't have worried about a confrontation with that guy.  My people always keep a sharp eye on folks like him."

Ted said the conversation bothered him well into the next week, and eventually he sat down to talk with his staff member about her pastor. "Where does he get off surrounding himself with armed guards?" he asked.

"Ted, you need to understand something," she said.  "He's dealing all the time with demonic forces.  His church is down the street from several crack houses, only a block or so from a liquor store, and there are drug dealers and prostitutes walking the sidewalks in front of the church all the time.  He's always dealing with the forces of evil, so he needs those armor bearers a lot more than you do."

Ted said he thought to himself, "[So] what am I - a potted plant?" 

Maybe I don't need armor bearers [he said], but am I in essentially a different business from the other pastor?  Are we enlightened high-Protestants charged with proclaiming a different gospel than [he]?  Have we been perhaps a little too successful explaining away the rough edges of texts like this?  And if so, are we not left with an inadequate language to make sense of the clearly Not-Good which so often engulfs our nation, our neighborhoods, our world?  [Look at all that's going on....]  Don't we all need armor bearers a lot more than we think?[1] 

            Ted's question has dogged me ever since. I remember a conversation I had a while back with an adult church school class about the problem we have talking about evil.  We had a good discussion, and I thought one class member hit the nail on the head when he asked, "We readily conceptualize good; why is it so hard for us to conceptualize evil?"

            Jesus, of course, had no such difficulty.  He did battle with the powers of evil all the time, sometimes in the form of demonic spirits, sometimes in the form of seemingly good, law-abiding religious folks.  In this morning's text, the encounter takes place in a synagogue... a struggle in a sacred space.  And what is going on here is not just a struggle but the struggle.  It is the cosmic struggle between the God of heaven and earth and a demon that represents the lures and struggles of every other loyalty we know.[2]  The crowd sees Jesus as a powerful miracle worker, [but the demons] recognize that he is the Son of God."  This demon recognizes Jesus and speaks for all the powers of evil, asking, "Have you come to destroy us?"[3] 

            The answer, to be sure, is yes.  That is what Jesus has come to do, to destroy the power of death and evil.  And so he tells the demons, "Be silent!" That's what our translation in our pew Bibles says, but the force of Jesus' words here is more forceful: "Shut up!" Or "Muzzle it!"[4]  New Testament scholar Brian Blount says it became clear at Jesus' baptism, when the Spirit of God "just ripped up the buffer zone and clawed its way to our side of the creation fence" and "moved into Jesus."  And from that moment on Jesus is possessed by the Spirit of God... the wild spirit of God running loose inside him, taking on any lesser spirits that rise to challenge his rule.  Later in this Gospel Jesus will touch and hold lepers, he will party with cheating tax collectors and thieving sinners, he will break the Sabbath laws right in front of the folks who uphold such laws, he will say that the law was meant to serve human beings, not the other way around.

This is what the world... looks like when Jesus sets God loose in it.  It's a wild world ... on the edge of time... a world so sure that God is right around the corner that it stops thinking about standing in line and starts lining up the ways, all the ways the people in the world can think about to help each other.  It's a world that cares more about purifying those who are sinners than being pure and separate from sinners.  It's a world that cares more about touching and holding those who have dirtied themselves or have been dirtied by the situations of their lives than it cares about sweeping the churches and lives clean of anybody who's made mistakes.  It's a world that would willingly and willfully break laws and customs that segregate people from each other...laws that send people into unjust wars... laws that allow the powerful and the wealthy to have more opportunity in life than the weak and poor...[laws that seek to discriminate purely out of fear]....  In such a world you either go with [Jesus] and help him create the holy chaos he's creating, or you find a way to do everything you can to stop him so you can get your people back in line.[5]

            Do you want to join Jesus in His work, this One who is God on the loose?  If so, here's the dilemma: how do we join in that work? How do we do so, knowing what we know not only about evil out there, but about ourselves, about the sin that corrupts even our best intentions, about the evil that is not only out there, but in here?   Knowing what we know, how do we avoid the endless second-guessing of our motives?  The answer, I think, lies along the path of holding passionately to the good we have learned in Jesus Christ - to acts of compassion and mercy and to a passion for what is just and fair.  Jesus was not solely about subduing the evil powers; he did so by announcing the reign of God's shalom and God's love...and he did so as one with authority.

A friend said to me a while back, "We are living in a culture that is responding to its fears more than it is being shaped by its hopes." I think he was right. And when we are fearful, all kinds of demons tempt us. In the past decade we have been consumed by such fears, and their bitter fruit has been... what? ... the resurgence of anger and prejudice, the attempt to suppress those who are different from some supposed norm, the willing abandonment of our humane values in order to wage a war on terror by employing terror and torture ourselves, the loss of civility in our civic life, the loss of mutual respect, the passage of mean-spirited legislation... often in the guise of Christian faith.  What is wrong with us? It is as though our whole culture is demon-possessed.  It is no wonder the world looks at America these days with deep sadness and profound disappointment.

            There is little doubt as to the power of evil at work in our world, in our nation, even in our own lives. Part of facing up to evil is not just resisting it when it's embodied in the other, but knowing that it is embodied in ourselves... and thus in submitting our actions always to God's scrutiny and judgment and, ultimately, to God's mercy.   Perhaps the power of our Gospel text would engage us more if we were the ones asking the demons' question: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" The answer is yes. Jesus has come to destroy the demonic powers. And the answer is no.  The promise of the Gospel is that this One now on the loose in this wild world has come also to create a holy chaos out of the ordered plans of the powers-that-be... including our ordered plans.  But that holy chaos will be for good... for the sake of justice and equity, for the restoration of our hope and the allaying of our fears.

Mark records that the people in the synagogue were amazed, because Jesus taught "as one with authority," and not like the scribes. With authority Jesus is lining us up with the power of love over against the love of power.  He is aligning himself with those who value mercy more than might, who stand with truth over against falsehood, who see that at times it is more important to be kind and compassionate and generous than to be right.  He is aligning himself with all who understand that our motives are never quite as pure, our exercise of power never quite as unblemished, as we may think. But he is offering us the courage to act nonetheless. He is showing us the way to speak with authority and to act with boldness.

Do you know the Taylor Mali poem that has been making its way around Facebook this week?  Mali is a teacher and slam poet, and he wonders if we have lost our ability to speak simple, declarative sentences?

In case you hadn't realized,

it has somehow become uncool

to sound like you know what you're talking about (?)

or believe strongly in what you're, like, saying (?).

Invisible question marks and parenthetical ‘you knows'

 and ‘you know what I'm sayings' have been attaching themselves

to the ends of our sentences (?) ,

even when those sentences aren't, like, questions (?).


Declarative sentences, so called because they used to, like, you know,

declare things to be true, OK,

as opposed to other things that are, like, totally, you know, not (?).

They've been infected by this tragically cool

and totally hip interrogative tone (?),

as if I'm saying,

‘Don't think I'm a nerd just because I've, like, noticed this, OK,

I have nothing personally invested in my own opinions.

I'm just, like, inviting you to join me on the bandwagon of my own uncertainty (?).'


What has happened to our conviction?

Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?

Have they been, like, chopped down with the rest of the rain forest?

You know?

Or do we have, like, nothing to say?

Has society just become so filled with these conflicting feelings of nyeh

that we've just gotten to the point where we're

the most aggressively inarticulate generation

to come along since, you know,

a long time ago?


So I implore you, I entreat you,

and I challenge you to speak with conviction,

to say what you believe in a manner

that bespeaks the determination with which you believe it,

because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,

it is not enough these days simply to question authority.

You gotta speak with it, too.[6]

In a synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus spoke with authority and cast out demons. He is among us still, I believe, working to cast out the powers of darkness that inhabit those we fear, and the powers of darkness that inhabit us, causing fear in others.  He is, indeed, working to cast out fear with his love.  Over against fear and the power of evil he is seeking to align the world with grace and the power of good.  And He asks us to join him... to stand with him in that struggle... to speak in declarative follow Him and to act in His behalf ... in humility, to be sure, but also with His authority.  Such a calling is integral to our discipleship.  And our voices and actions are needed now, perhaps more than ever.  So don't give in to the voices of fear and hatred and prejudice all around us. In the name of the One who confronted the demons of his time, raise your voices in ours. Take a stand, won't you?  This world and this land need voices like yours, voices of hope and compassion, of grace and hospitality.  Speak with humility, but speak with Christ's authority. This is no time for silence.

[1] Ted Wardlaw, in a paper on this text presented to the January 2003meeting of the Moveable Feast in Louisville, Kentucky.

[2] Wardlaw.

[3] Pheme Perkins, The New Interpreters' Bible, VIII, Nashville, Abingdon, 1995, 541.

[4] William C. Placher, Mark: A Theological Commentary, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 38.

[5] Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark In Two Voices, Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, 31, 33.

[6] Taylor Mali, "Totally like whatever, you know?" What learning leaves, Newtown, CT: Hanover Press, 2002. There are multiple versions of this poem, and the one I heard Mali read and which I quote differs from the printed text in this volume.


Topic TagsTags: Mark

About the Author

Bob Dunham, Pastor


Phone: 919-929-2102, ext. 11


Bob has been pastor and head of staff of University Church since 1991. He is a native of Florida and a graduate of Davidson College, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and Yale University Divinity School.Bob began his ministry as associate pastor and campus minister at the First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, Alabama; he also served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Covington, Georgia, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Charleston, South Carolina, before coming to Chapel Hill. His wife, Marla, is a retired college educator, and they have two grown children: son Aaron, who lives in Greenville, SC, and daughter Leah, who lives in Asheville, NC. Bob is the author of Expecting God’s Surprises: Devotions for the Advent Journey, published in 2001 by Geneva Press. His sermons have also been featured on the Day 1 national radio broadcast. Bob enjoys reading, music of all kinds, and enjoys attending local cultural and sporting events; he is a mediocre golfer, but doesn’t let that stop him.


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