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. ************************************************ Today, we pick up Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. He’s rounded up a band of disciples and has put together his ministry team. And I'm thinking that this must be about the time the disciples start to ask questions about the person they have left everything to follow. 'Who is this guy really?' 'Where exactly are we going?' 'Where are we going to sleep tonight?' Or even something simpler, like, 'when’s lunch?' But it is the Sabbath, so Jesus takes his team to the temple. A good way to start a ministry- Jesus begins to preach.
Frederick Buechner says that the most hopeful part of the church service is the moment the preacher walks to the pulpit and pulls the little chain on the lectern. It’s in that moment that the congregation waits for a word from God… maybe, there might be a word for them today. Maybe, they will hear something to deliver them from whatever they may be facing for that day, that week, that year.
I can imagine that was exactly the feeling in the temple when Jesus got up to preach that morning: And whatever Jesus had chosen to speak about, the text says, the 'hearers were amazed by it'- and they were talking amongst themselves (hopefully not during the sermon, but nonetheless) and they were saying, “Isn’t he fantastic! He brings the scriptures to life. He makes this real for us! He knows what he’s talking about- not like the scribes- but someone ho really knows this stuff- with authority!”
And it goes on like that for who knows how long, until someone in the tenth row, behind the lady with the big hat, starts heckling! It was a man, the text says, with an unclean spirit. Now, I know that over the years, we have had a tendency to make this man, and this spirit, and in fact this whole story, look like a scene straight out of the exorcist: The man’s head doing a 360 like Linda Blair with crossed eyes and spitting out gallons of pea soup... the lady in the hat starts screaming, hand flying in the air...
But that’s not what we see here… instead we see just a man, in church, with an unclean spirit.
What is an "unclean spirit?" Some have said that perhaps it was a demon. Scientific folk, because we don’t believe in demons anymore, say it was some sort of medical condition; kind of like epilepsy, that had the man convulsing as he was being healed. Some, say that the man was possessed by some sort of a deviant behavior- (I hate that one) ...something that held a grip on his life- that he was possessed by the kind of things we don’t like to talk about in church- something evil that was waiting inside- like a predator. In fact, when we think of it this way, it’s easy to think of the spirit as evil, and actually, it’s really easy to take the leap and just demonize the whole person.
But again... who was he? Could he have been a stranger in the church that week? A visitor perhaps? Some sort of monster who got in somehow- some dregs of society that walked by the church that morning who managed to sneak in past the ushers. It’s nice to think that- because we don’t want to think of our church family as having any of “those” kind of problem people- that one of us could… (perish the thought!)
But I want to explore the possibility that this man was not a stranger in the midst of the congregation. That this man instead, was one of the regulars- one of the congregants... one of those waiting in the silence of hope as the lectern lamp chain was pulled… one of us. Could he, perhaps, have been the one to have heard some word, some spoken truth that would deliver him? Could Jesus, perhaps, have touched the place deep inside- a part of him, a part of his spirit, something… unclean?
...And the unclean spirit shouts out from behind the woman with the big hat… “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
What have you to do with us? With us? Who is US? You mean, all the people we are on the inside? You mean, all the parts of us who have come and gone during our lifetimes…
For this man, perhaps… "us" includes the sleeping baby boy in the blanket who had won his mother’s heart at first glance… the toddler in his first Easter suit... the awkward teenager on his first real date... the cocky college freshman moving into his dorm room... the insecure interviewee trying to show confidence to a prospective employer… "Us" embodies the new father passing out cigars around the water cooler... the coach... the lodge member... the church member… ALL those parts are "us" because they still live in us- and "us" have gotten very good at hiding themselves under the skin we are in.
And so for this man, those parts... those unacknowledged but still present parts cry out together....
“What do you want with us!” he shouts, "Because amidst all the memories and hopes and experiences of all the people we are, there are things we don't want to look at that you just poked... bad things! And there’s a darkness in here that we don’t want to relive, that you’ve just touched on, Jesus. There’s fear in here, and pain that we’ve repressed for years. There’s anxiety and worry in here that we’ve pressed down and only let out when we’re alone- there’s hurts in here- some caused by the people we loved and trusted most." And the man begins to tremble...
Most of us have places like this inside of us if we are honest with ourselves. We have become proficient at managing them, and have organized and cataloged them like files or chapters in book. We tuck them in with parts of "us" that are more presentable, more amenable... crushed between the pages among the dried flowers and old photographs.... and then we put them in a cigar box, or a memory chest and then we take our little boxes of "stuff" and we hide them under the bed.
But like a child who is plagued by shadows and stirrings in the middle of the night, those memories under the bed turn quickly to monsters under the bed, especially when the lights go out. You know the feeling don’t you? When you have said to yourself- "I'm so glad I'm past that... I know that what happened to me was terrible, but I'm healed now" Until someone brings it up when you least expect it.. when the lights are out so to speak, and all of those feelings of pain you swore you were done with, suddenly rise up to the back of your throat. And what happens next, for many of us, is that we go to that little cigar box…which actually serves as an arsenal for us- and we draw on those monsters and hurts and anger so we have extra resources to throw back out to defend ourselves against what's hurting us right now!
It's not that we haven't tried to get it together... some can battle these things for a lifetime; going through all kinds of therapy and medications- and for the most part, the wound appears to be healed… we’re ok. But all of a sudden something happens to touch that old wound, and it flairs up again- and we realize that we’ve been holding on to a piece of it all these years later that still causes us pain.
But we do that sometimes, because of the fact that we have been hurt. And we know what hurt feels like and don’t want to live through it again. So if we can hang on to it, and bring it out at just the right time, we don’t have to feel vulnerable with anyone. We don’t have to feel like we will be left with no reserves, with no “defensive monsters” in case someone tries to cause us pain again. It’s understandable, and it’s perfectly human.
The problem is, that when we are holding on to past hurts and past angers, we sometimes miss being able to be intimate with anyone. We can’t open ourselves up to the relationships that we really desire, because those monsters, although they may have good intentions, move from being under our bed, to standing as a blockade in front of us. And they serve as walls between us and those we want to be open to.
In fact, those monsters keep us from being totally intimate with God. Because if we were to really open ourselves up- if we were really to give those things over to Christ where they belong- we would have to be vulnerable with Him as well. We couldn’t go on pretending that we are able to do even one thing on our own. And where would that leave us?
That would leave us completely dependent on Christ. And that’s a scary place to be for most of us. We like control- we like being in charge of ourselves and not being dependent on anyone!
Is it any wonder the man was coughing and convulsing when Jesus was healing him? We don’t want to give up our stuff! We don’t want to give up our self sufficiency. We don’t want to give up our defenses. And I will tell you that this struggle doesn’t only happen once. For some of us, it happens over and over again. Because for most of us, we are only able to let go of one thing at a time.
Thank God, Jesus comes to us over and over. Thank God, that the Holy Spirit continues to show us the things in our life that we can give over to Christ and even gives us the strength to walk in newness and complete dependence! If there is anything in this world that I would want to be dependent on, it would be Christ!
And scary as it may be to think of being that vulnerable and that open with anyone, God already knows everything you've got, everything that has ever happened to you, and everything you are!. And despite what you may think of yourself, loves you anyway. And, every day, Christ sees us sitting in the tenth row behind the lady with the big hat as we scream out loud or whisper to ourselves... "What do you want from US Jesus of Nazareth?" And Jesus answers the 'us,'... “Be silent… I’ll take care of this for you.” And he looks to the monsters who have so valiantly guarded your heart- “Come out of there… she doesn’t need you anymore… I’m here now… I’m the one who can love her as she needs to be loved, the one who she can trust… the one she can depend on… and I’ll never leave her alone.”