Artwork: Curing the Possessed, 6th-century mosaic, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna.
'Guard my soul and deliver me.' (Psalm 25:20)
Living with three young children, every day it seems Amy and I clean-up the house several times only to find that very soon later, it becomes messier than it was before, if we leave the girls to their own devices.
In the words of our Gospel: The last state […] is worse than the first – which is not to say that our children are the demons referred to in today’s story! Rather, it is a reminder that house cleaning is not an end in itself, but done so that the house can be a hospitable place for us to enjoy quality time with the girls.
Friends, what are we to make of this strange and difficult Gospel story here this morning? And what about all this talk of ‘demons’? To us, this sounds like an unpleasant fairy-tale with a primitive and superstitious outlook.
But it would be a mistake to see it that way - this is no fairy tale, nor is it a matter of superstition. We may no longer use the term ‘demons,’ but the experience of demons is still very much with us. So I want to suggest one possible way we can make sense of this.
To be possessed by a demon means to have one’s will fixed upon something as though it were God: to be obsessed with someone or something, to live for it, to fantasize about it, to put your hope, trust and expectation in it. And try though we might, nothing in this world can possibly fill this role or bear this weight – only God can. Nothing can ultimately take the place of God. So to treat something as God is to live a lie or a fantasy, which becomes all-consuming and possessing.
Perhaps the two most common examples of this are given in today’s reading from Ephesians: the worship of sex and money. When we give ourselves to these alluring idols, they dominate our fantasy life and offer a false satisfaction for the desires of our hearts.
Back to our Gospel story, the particular kind of demon that Jesus casts out of the man is mute; and when the demon had gone out the mute man spoke.
Here we might consider the ways that we are mute when it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus, giving a reason for the hope that is in us, or when it comes to speaking up against injustice.
Friends, ask yourself: what kind of speech tends to come out of your mouth? Is it loving and edifying, building others up? Or, does it tend to tear down with criticism and gossip?
Notice that not only does the mute man speak when the demon is cast out, but other start to speak too - Jesus is surrounded by a cacophony of voices chattering criticism and noisy, negative speculation. Perhaps we can hear our own voices in this crowd.
The opponents of Jesus try to discredit Him in a kind of smear campaign by claiming that His ability to cast out demons is itself an occult practice. They said He had power over the demons because He was somehow in league with the prince of demons.
Jesus responds by saying that this argument makes no sense – why would the demonic forces be wilfully divided against themselves, casting each other out, undermining their own destructive purposes? But He says, if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. This saying ‘the finger of God’ is a clear echo of the Exodus – a reference that the crowd would not have missed. In the story of the Exodus, after the miracles of Moses and first three plagues, Pharoah’s magicians exclaimed: ‘this is the finger of God’ (Ex. 8.19).
So here Jesus seems to drop a hint that He is bringing about a new and greater Exodus: Jesus is the new and greater Moses who will lead His people from slavery to the powers of sin and death to a new life of freedom, love and joyful service to God.
You know, the story of the Exodus is often misunderstood when it’s summarized as a simple journey from slavery to freedom. The Book of Exodus make it clear at many points that Israel was liberated from slavery so that they could serve the LORD God – and this service is perfect freedom.
And friends, there is a vitally important point here for us: the human will cannot be truly and successfully independent – you’ve got to serve something or somebody. The only question is: what kind of master will you serve? The gods of sex and money, for example, are harsh taskmasters; they will enslave you and wear you down. Jesus is the only master whose yoke is easy and burden light. As we serve Him, we will find continuous refreshment and renewal and become the people we long to be.
We are liberated from slavery to our various demons by the finger of God, the Word of God in Christ Jesus our Lord – and as we learn to trust and obey His Word, we will find that this humble trust and obedience is a life of perfect freedom. That may sound paradoxical – to obey is to be free – but again, it all depends on who your master is.
Our master, the Lord Jesus, took the form of a servant in His earthly life and especially in His suffering and death on the cross. Among other things, this proves definitively that He is not a harsh, domineering taskmaster. He loved us and gave Himself up for us.
That is, He took upon Himself the violent forces of Sin and Death to break their chains, so that they would no longer enslave us. And He rose again, ascended into heaven, and gave us His Spirit so that He could be present with us always, enabling us to walk in love as He first loved us.
And so in the freedom that He give us, we must freely welcome Him into our hearts as our honoured guest. In the words of today’s Gospel, Jesus is the one stronger than the forces that enslave us; and He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks (Rev. 3:20).
Now the house of our soul may be dark and dingy inside, and we may be lazily curled up in bed, so in the words of our reading from Ephesians: Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. Christ has come to bring light and beauty and to inspire us to get to the work of spring cleaning. Friends, our task for this spring season of Lent is to clean-up our hearts and lives. We must cleanse ourselves of the things listed today in our reading from Ephesians. But the cleaning is not an end in itself – the goal is for your heart and life to become a beautiful and liveable home for Christ to dwell in. T
This, I think, is what Jesus means at the end of today’s Gospel when He speaks of an unclean spirit that goes out of a person, but then returns to find the house nicely swept and put in order, and then takes up residence again with seven more spirits more evil than itself.
So yes, by all means, we must do that spring cleaning work, but don’t leave the house empty. Enjoy it and use it for loving hospitality. And so St. Paul tells the Ephesians, let there be no filthiness, but instead let there be thanksgiving. Instead. It’s not enough to cleanse the filth - something better must take its place. In other words, the Christian life is not merely sin management. Christ has come that we may have life and have it more abundantly.
Think of it in terms of gardening (a task you may be eagerly anticipating as spring draws near): when it comes to your garden bed, it would be pointless only to pull weeds.
The goal is to grow beautiful flowers or fruit-bearing plants. If you were only to pull weeds, you would be left with a bare garden bed; and in fact, the weeds would keep coming. What you need is for a good plant to take root, take up space in that garden bed, and crowd out the weeds.
How can we do that, practically speaking, in the garden bed of our hearts?
That’s how we can be rooted and grounded in the love of God, so that we can grow, become beautiful and bear fruit for God’s glory.