john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Mark 1 - Meeting Demons

    Good Shepherd 29/1/2006

    Revelation 12.1-5a, Mark 1.21-28

    Last week we remembered that lovely miracle at a wedding in Cana in which Jesus helped the party to go on so much longer by turning water into jars full of the best wine.

    In this week's gospel things take a darker turn, as here, for the first time in Mark, we meet a demon. We shall meet many more of them before Mark is done.

    We get told that we live in a secular world these days, but there's little real evidence of that. People still have great fear of the demonic, certainly here in Liverpool 11, where from time to time I am asked to come and say prayers in a house where it seems the spirits are up to no good. And it was the same in posh Wavertree too. Whether or not demons exist, it is my duty to act on the assumption that they just might.

    In Mark's Gospel we face an unholy trinity, the ugly threesome of demons, disease, and death. Jesus is seen confronting and overcoming each of them in turn. They're related to each other, of course, as trinities usually are. Professor Alan Richardson of Nottingham University, teaches us that someone in the Gospels who is possessed or ill is simply suffering from "a mild attack of death".

    Demons, disease, and death. The terrible triplets are all children of one father, and the scriptures make clear how Jesus relates to them all: "The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3.8).

    The demoniac doesn't know what's got into him. But "what's got into him" knows that it has met its match. The first person in Mark's gospel to confess Christ as Lord is not Peter at Caesarea Philippi, but this ugly thing inside this man, this malign thing that had made its home in this poor soul in Capernaum.

    "I know who you are, the holy one of God," it screams, reminding us of that verse in James (2.19): "The devils also believe and tremble".

    Jesus isn't happy to have this demon shouting about him like that. "Be silent", he says.

    "Be silent" is a very strong demand indeed. Literally, Jesus is saying that the man's mouth should be muzzled. Interesting that in Mark, it's not just the demons who are told to shut up. Jesus says this over and over again. People who are miraculously cured, indeed the disciples themselves, are repeatedly told to keep quiet about who Jesus is and what he is doing.

    "Be silent!" - we can be sure that he must have spoken these words, because they just couldn't have been made up and ascribed to Jesus by a Church which, within a generation, was going into all the world to preach the gospel. These are words which make that gospel real.

    "Be silent!" This repeated command has since the very beginning embarrassed the evangelically minded. We don't hear it quoted in mission action plans. Christianity is a missionary religion. So what are we to make of this call to secrecy?

    Mark is a theologian. His Gospel is punctuated by Jesus' orders to keep secrets. And that must be because, for Mark, they tell us something essential about the way God reveals himself in Jesus. Mark wants us to understand this about Jesus: that the man's a mystery.

    It is not obvious who Jesus is. That is both a fact of the history Mark records and an article of the faith he shares. It is our experience, too - we who, two thousand years later, try to walk alongside this wandering exorcist of Galilee. There is hiddenness about the man, this strange figure who seeks to escape the crowds, who speaks of the coming reign of God as a secret, who here urges silence on a demon, as later he will on the disciples.

    If God is truly one of us and not merely stealing our clothes, then it makes sense that we won't immediately know who he is; he will take time and care to disclose himself fully. It will take us time to begin to understand him.

    "Be silent!" As our numbers decline, we raise our voices. The church is full of anxiety and it comes out in activities full of noise and clamour. We are rebuked by the reticence of Jesus in Mark's Gospel.

    There's a dusty old title, which could perhaps be added to the long list of modern publications about mission - Isaac Williams's 1837 Tract for the Times, "Reserve in the Communication of Religious Knowledge". Williams, pointed out in his mild and gentle way that we do not serve the gospel by speaking too soon.

    The purpose of evangelism is not to dispel the mystery surrounding the figure of Jesus, not to answer questions, but - exactly as happens here - to provoke them. When Jesus cast out the demon people responded not by saying, "So now we know," but by asking, "What is this?", "Who is this?"

    Back to the man with the "unclean spirit". Our accounts of his plight will be determined by our own experiences and instincts. Some will dismiss talk of demons as superstitious rubbish. Others - most of the human race - will take the existence of demons for granted. But however we explain this man's affliction, we know that it has its equally destructive equivalents in our world today.

    Possession has much in common with addiction, for example. The possessed and the addicted both suffer an invasion of the self. Drink takes time in destroying my liver, but it is very quick to begin to undermine my sense of identity. Something else, someone else, takes over us, and the struggle of the addict is to try to find ourselves again.

    Canon David Williams, who has done such fine work among the drug-dependent and alcoholics of the Rochester diocese, writes of the healing of the addicted: "It is not the addict in them that is recovering, but the person that they lost in their addiction to whom they are now returning."

    Like the man who Jesus healed returning to himself once the demon had left him.

    Demon-possessed, addicted, or just an average boring sinner, my healing is always Christ's restoration to me of the one I truly am.

    How that happens is a mystery, of course. But it is a mystery we can embrace if we come to Jesus with our own addictions, transgressions, demons. Jesus longs to just say the word so that we can be healed, to be fully ourselves again.


    [1] Based on sermon notes in the Church Times by John Pridmore.