A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Alice Lawhead on 28th January 2024
I wonder if you heard about – or possibly you can recall – the furore that was caused by the movie, The Exorcist – the original one, released in 1973. Or maybe you read the book. It was a story about a mother – an atheist – who, after investigating every other possible explanation for her daughter’s horrifying behaviour, comes to believe that her child is demon possessed. So she goes to a priest seeking deliverance for her daughter, but the priest initially lacks even her small faith in exorcism, and rebuffs her. ‘We don’t do that stuff any more,’ he objects. ‘This isn’t the Dark Ages!’
There’s the twist: The atheist has faith that is lacking in the priest.
That interesting contradiction and its implications, however, are not what most people remember about the film. They remember the menacing posters, the X-certificate rating, the cinema warnings that patrons were going to be absolutely repulsed and terrified. Which they were. And, to be fair, the sight of Linda Blair’s head spinning 360 degrees might understandably have kept viewers from appreciating the finer theological points that are made in the movie.
Now, I must confess that this pithy insight into The Exorcist is not my own. It belongs to the film critic Mark Kermode, who thinks this is probably the best film ever made, and I’m quoting him because, being of a rather delicate emotional and spiritual constitution, I’ve never seen The Exorcist. Or wanted to. And in all honesty, I could do quite well without todays gospel account of Jesus rebuking an unclean spirit.
Because today’s gospel reading is a bit like that film. Whatever theological point it has to make about Jesus and his ministry – and I’ll get to that in a moment — the most dramatic thing, the most memorable thing in the passage is the image of a man with an unclean spirit – other translations say it’s a demon, or an evil spirit, but the meaning is the same – an unclean spirit crying out like some sort of Gollum character, ”What do you want with US? Have you come to destroy US?’ Jesus meets his derangement on its own level and demands ‘us’ to be quiet. He tells the spirit to leave the man – that’s exorcism — and the spirit shakes the man violently and comes out with a shriek.
Pretty cinematic, I’d say.
And how do we react to this story, this scene?
I think that if we’re honest, many of us would have to admit that we’re like the priest in the Exorcist film. Yes, we’re signed up Christians and as such we’re obliged to recite the creeds and read the Bible and live according to Christ’s teachings ….. but this? This is Dark Ages stuff and we don’t think it applies anymore.
And perhaps that’s right; many theologians would say so. But before we decide that ‘That was then, this is now’ and confine these accounts of demon possession to ‘Bible times’, know that in many parts of the world, Christians report credibly of experiences that seem straight out of scripture, of people inhabited by evil spirits, and of deliverance from those spirits through the power of God, often by calling on the name of Jesus Christ.
Our own Anglican church acknowledges – reluctantly, perhaps – the possibility of possession and has policies and procedures in place to deal with requests for intervention. Quite right, too. Because this is an area ripe for abuse. It’s too easy for those who desire power to label any thought or behaviour they don’t understand or approve of as ‘evil possession’, thereby demonising – literally, demonising – the innocent and vulnerable and opening them up to all kinds of mistreatment. Unfortunately, it happens.
I do think we can confidently make this point: that whether or not we believe in demon possession, the people who followed Jesus around, who listened to him, who observed his behaviour and wrote it down – they certainly believed in demon possession. In the New Testament, there are perhaps 55 mentions of Jesus casting out evil spirits; and a dozen times it’s recorded in some detail.
I think we’ll have to set that aside, now, if we’re ever to get to what is surely the main point of the gospel reading this morning. If we’re going to look beyond the dramatic and see the wider point, which is this: Jesus has authority.
It’s there at the beginning of the passage: Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach, and people were astounded at his teaching because he taught them as one who had authority. Obviously, he was able to draw out something new and different from the scripture that they had surely heard countless times before. His reading of it, his exposition of it, was astounding to them because of his intrinsic AUTHORITY.
After he drove out the unclean spirit, what the people said and how they reacted was almost identical – they were amazed. In fact, the ‘exorcism’ was counted as yet another ‘new teaching’ and their conclusion was the same. This man teaches with AUTHORITY.
We know his ‘authority’ was not attributed to him on account of any formal position. Jesus was a previously unknown person from a small, insignificant town. He didn’t have degrees and credentials; he did not, to our knowledge, possess any status within the synagogue. He was not a priest or levite or scribe. But he was recognised as a rabbi, he was a teacher, and throughout the Bible we read that when he spoke, when he expounded on scripture, when he told his parables, when he had dialogue with doubters and believers alike – people were Amazed. Astounded.
And it seems that he couldn’t get through a single day without healing someone of an intractable illness or affliction, changing the course of some adverse weather condition, defying gravity, or the laws of nature – such as, feeding thousands of people with food meant for just one. And when this happened, again the people who saw it were Amazed. Astounded.
He even claimed the power to forgive sins! Something that only God can do, of course.
And, most incredible of all, in his ultimate act he demonstrated that physical death is not the final word. After being killed and buried, his life was restored. And that is truly Amazing. Astounding.
Time and time again, in all sort of situations, Jesus Christ showed that he had Authority over evil, over illness, over the natural world, over death itself.
Where does that leave us this morning, as we contemplate this gospel reading and Jesus’ authority? Do we say: That was then, this is now. It’s not relevant today, and it’s not relevant for me.
Or are we willing to accept that Jesus’ authority, demonstrated throughout scripture and upheld by the apostles and the saints throughout the ages, is vital in our own lives. Are we willing to accept, in this modern/postmodern era of individuality, personal agency, personal achievement …. this era of ‘my truth’ and ‘I did it my way’ …. are we willing to accept that Jesus Christ retains authority over our life, and in our life.
Are we willing to accept that what he said and did is as relevant to us today as it was to those who saw him cast out demons in Palestine. And that accepting his authority, putting him at the centre of our being, aligning ourselves with his purposes …. brings us into contact with tremendous power that we may not fully understand, but which can fuel and drive us in our spiritual life, yes, but in our physical and emotional and mental life as well.
This is challenging, whether we feel ourselves to be very far from Jesus and his authority, or consciously submissive to that authority: To increasingly and faithfully acknowledge him for who he is, the power he exerts, and the authority he brings.
And then we will be …
with those who met and followed Jesus throughout his ministry;
with the early Christians who gave up everything and nothing to follow The Way;
with the saints around the world and throughout history who manifest the power of God;
with the martyrs who died confessing Christ;
with the scribes and translators who kept scripture alive with their painstaking work;
with millions of ordinary people like you and me who took a step of faith and struggled to live lives worthy of the Light within them
…. we will, like them, be Amazed. Astounded.