This text challenges me every time it pops up in the lectionary. We don’t talk about casting out evil spirits very often up here in New England, so I usually end up kind of preaching around it. But for some reason, I decided to just tackle it head on this week. And by the end of my sermon, I had the entire church chant with me, “Not Today, Satan!”
I’d call that a success.
Hard to believe next weekend is the first Sunday in February. We’ve got another Super Bowl challenge going on at the church – go Pats!
Rehoboth Congregational Church
January 28, 2018
Resisting The Evil In Our Lives
We pick up where we left off last week (although, don’t worry, I promise not to sing The Village People again). Jesus was in Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God; he called four fishermen – Simon, Andrew, James and John – and they dropped their nets, left their boats and followed him.
And here begins this morning’s passage: They all travel to Capernaum and when the Sabbath comes, Jesus enters the synagogue and begins to teach. The disciples are amazed because he is teaching with such authority and wisdom.
And then there is a disruption. A man with an unclean spirit inside of him comes into the synagogue and begins to yell at Jesus.
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.
Jesus does not falter; he says to the unclean spirit inside the man:
Be silent, and come out of him!
And with that command, the unclean spirit comes out. The disciples are even more amazed and the news about Jesus begins to spread throughout Galilee.
This story is, for all intents and purposes, about an exorcism, which – let’s be honest – is not something we talk about very often in old New England Congregational churches.
I am part of a group on Facebook of clergy women who preach out of the Revised Common Lectionary and someone posed the question this week, “Okay, for real, guys, what are y’all going to do with this Mark text? How do we explain exorcisms?” and someone so wisely replied, “Preach another text.”
Which I strongly considered doing.
But I think this text can challenge us. I think it can challenge our understanding of evil, of the work that God is doing in our lives to fight against evil and of what it means for us to recognize and acknowledge that evil as we seek to grow in our knowledge and love of God.
Because I think we can all admit that – in some way, shape or form – there is evil in this world. It is heartbreaking to admit; but it’s true.
Last week I was scrolling through Instagram and saw a post from a podcaster I listen to who lives in Austin, Texas. She was so excited about a t-shirt someone had recently gifted her and posted a picture of it. The shirt said, in big block letters:
NOT TODAY, SATAN
I was so tickled when I saw the post, because the whole thing was just so deliciously southern that I immediately got a hankering for biscuits and gravy with a side of sweet tea.
The truth is, in our culture – in our area of the country, in our denomination, specifically in our church – we do not often talk about Satan or casting out demons. We like to focus on a God that loves, on a Jesus whose life and ministry we can emulate and on a Holy Spirit that fills us and makes us whole.
And yet, here in scripture, while Jesus is teaching about that power and Good News of God, evil lurks. A man with an unclean spirit comes into the synagogue and begins to yell at Jesus.
As I started to think through my sermon, I read a few different translations of this text to see how else the man with the unclean spirit was described.
The New International Version describes the man as being “possessed by an impure spirit.” The Message says the man was, “deeply disturbed with an afflicting spirit.” The New Living Translation says the man was, “possessed by an evil spirit.” The New Life Version says the man, “had a demon.”
No matter how you look at this scripture, translate it or interpret it, the meaning is clear: Evil manifested itself in this man.
Remember when I said I strongly considered preaching another text? Well, I had actually made the switch in our worship document on Tuesday morning; but then something happened in bible study that day that changed my mind and gave me the courage to tackle the exorcism.
We are currently studying the Gospel of Matthew in bible study and were looking at chapter 16, where Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. Peter takes Jesus aside after he does this and tries to rebuke him, but Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me.”
We all kind of paused when we read this, because it so boldly showed us Jesus’ own understanding of evil in this world. Jesus not only recognized evil, but he saw it within his own disciples. And even more than that, Jesus, himself, knew he had to fight to resist that evil. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus said, “You are a stumbling block to me.”
This, of course, reminded me of that t-shirt I saw on Instagram and I brought it up in conversation and one thing led to another and … I made a sign for my office.
… and also ordered a mug.
Now Bruce (rightfully so) kind of gave me a side eye when I told him I was going to do this, but hear me out: I believe there is evil in this world. And whether we call it evil or Satan or the devil or our own imperfections and humanity out to get us (and, for the record, I am still trying to figure out what to call it most days) – I think it needs to be named.
Because how else are we going to fight back against it?
Talking about God and about God’s love, grace, mercy and redemption is so much more fun than talking about evil, especially when we are talking about how that evil manifests itself in us.
But that is what this story is about. Evil manifests itself in a man and Jesus casts out that evil.
So what does that mean for us? Does evil manifest itself in us?
I am not saying that any of us are evil. But I am saying that none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. We all do and say things that we regret. And even more than that, we all have inner demons; demons that tell us we are not good enough, smart enough, wealthy enough, pretty enough, strong enough, talented enough. I believe this is part of what it means to be human – to resist the evil in the world that threatens to manifest itself with us.
But the grace of knowing God is believing that God is stronger than those mistakes, more powerful than those regrets and loves harder than those demons that constantly tell us we are not enough. Knowing God means God is constantly working that evil out of us, even if it is an ongoing process (and I do not know about you all, but this it is an ongoing process with me).
(Which is why I think I am going to benefit from the “NOT TODAY SATAN” reminder.)
When we read this story and put ourselves inside that synagogue, learning from Jesus and witnessing him casting the evil spirit out of that man, I think it reminds us that Jesus can and will do the same for us. Jesus will give us wisdom as we discern the difference between right and wrong. Jesus will give us gentle words in those moments when we need them (and apologies in those moments after when perhaps the gentle words did not come soon enough). Jesus will stop the comparison traps that we all fall into and help us to believe that we are good enough, smart enough, wealthy enough, pretty enough, strong enough and talented enough.
Casting out evil does not have to look like an exorcism you might find in a movie. It can simply look like God helping us resist the real evil that exists in the world, the evil that tries to eat away at who we are – who God created us to be and who God is calling us to be. Casting out evil can simply look like God reminding us that we are who God says we are, that we know the difference between right and wrong and that we are enough. It can simply look like God constantly working within us, giving us the courage and wisdom to resist evil and proclaim the Gospel.
I think we need to talk about evil; about our own struggles, about our shortcomings and about the things that tempt us. Because how else are we going to resist them? How else are we going to strengthen our relationship with God and proclaim the Good News in this world?
Now I am not suggesting that you hang a sign on your wall that says, NOT TODAY SATAN (although I would be happy to print you your own copy!). But I do think we all need to name the evil that we feel and experience – whatever that looks like for us – and believe that God is stronger and trust that God will cast it out of us.
Not today, Satan! Not today.
Thanks be to God!
 Matthew 16:23, NRSV