As One Newly Awakened…..

Jan 28, 2018 by

January 28, 2018

MacNeil Baptist Church

Bob Tees


Mark 1:21-28
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.


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In JRR Tolkein’s famous novel The Lord of the Rings there is a scene when the good Wizard Gandalf encounters a King named Theoden.  Theoden has come under a dark spell.   An advisor named Grima – also called Wormtongue – has made his way into the king’s court.  He is the lackey of the corrupt wizard Saruman (who is an  ally of the evil Sauron).  For many months Grima has been whispering dark and despairing thoughts to Theoden, until he gradually loses hope.   Theoden becomes weak, despairing and distrustful of his closest friends and allies. When Gandalf and his companions come to court Wormtongue tries to prevent their encounter and he tries to persuade Theodon that Gandalf is a foe – and not to be trusted.   Despite Wormtongue’s efforts Gandalf persists.   First he softly sings a song in the name of Galadriel – she is a great Elf, full of light and grace.  Then Gandalf’s tone changes and in a strong voice he commands Wormtongue, “…be silent, and keep your forked tongue behind your teeth.  I have not passed through fire and ice to bandy words with a serving man til the lightning falls.”  He raises his staff and a crack of thunder fills the hall.  He addresses Theoden by name and says, “Will you listen to me?  Take courage. Look out upon your land.  Breath the free air again.”  Theoden leaves his chair and slowly begins to come to himself.  As he begins to see with eyes free of the spell, strength starts to return.   Theoden says, “dark have been my dreams of late, but I feel as one new-awakened.”

There are many gospel echoes in this episode of Lord of the Rings.

One echo is the experience of amazement.   Gandalf’s mystical song and authoritative command came with surprise and power, a liberating illumination in the dark, grey, soul-eroding despair of the court.   The Gospel also has amazement – two times.  First, the listeners are amazed at the authoritative stance of Jesus’s teaching. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Second when, the unclean spirit leaves the man they are even more amazed.  “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.”  We need to pay attention to how wonderstruck the people were.   Go to a place in your memory when you were struck with wonder – the birth of a child, a stunning landscape, the sweep music that came into you with unexpected power, a secret revealed- perhaps even a dark secret with essential truth – and the rush that discovery brings.   I think these sensations of awe and sudden staggered awareness are hints of how such encounters with Jesus affected people.   Take these moments from your memory and imagine them magnified many times.

Another echo – and the obvious one – is how the restorative encounter between Gandalf and Theoden echoes the interaction between Jesus and the man with an unclean spirit.  Jesus confronts and dismisses a destructive presence.

For the past weeks I have been reflecting on this story and thinking about what it might mean.   The conflict in the story has often brought to mind the hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing,
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.

Like the passage from Lord of the Rings, this hymn text is another way to express the gospel story.

I remembered other less helpful things.  I was terrified as a teen to see the Exorcist movie.  I don’t think these Hollywood narratives help us grasp the spiritual meaning of the gospel.  In my 20’s I came under the influence of a revival preacher who gave me a book called The Adversary.  It was a guide to praying against evil powers and in my evangelical earnestness I spent a lot of time praying this way, a sort of spiritual warfare.  In the end if felt too overbearing and suffocating and I moved on.   CS Lewis comments that there are two errors in how we think about the devil and demons – one is to give it too much attention, and the other error is to give too little attention.

How do we interpret this gospel story – how literally do we think about demons, unclean spirits, possession by destructive powers?   Sickness?  Metaphor?

In his wonderful book about Jesus, entitled “Jesus: A Pilgrimage”, the Jesuit writer James Martin comments on this passage, asking, “How is an intelligent, rational, modern-day person to understand tales about possessions?  For healings and exorcisms are an important part of Jesus’s ministry.”  James Martin observes that some stories of exorcisms are ways of recounting physical healing, such as when heals a boy with epilepsy and then says he “rebuked the demon.”  But other stories in which unclean spirits or demons seem to speak to Jesus seem to defy a health-based.  Here I will quote a passage from James Martin at length:

In our own day there are some credible stories of possessions that defy rational explanations.  Since entering the Jesuits, I have read about and heard reports from rational and reliable witnesses who have assisted at exorcisms and who have seen terrifying things that defy logical explanation.  Perhaps someday we will have further scientific explanations, but to my mind the possibility of possessions is not hard to believe.  Understanding it is quite another thing.

From an infinitely less threatening vantage point, I’ve done enough spiritual counselling to witness the effects of evil in people’s lives – evil that is more than something from within them ans that seems to exhibit similar characteristics  from person to person.  That is, there is a certain sameness to the way that people describe this force.  St Ignatius of Loyola, in his classic sixteenth century text The Spiritual Exercises, once delineated the three ways that the “enemy of human nature” acts: like a spoiled child (making a person act childishly, selfishly, refusing to take no for an answer), like a “false lover” (tempting the person to conceal bad motives or sinful behaviours), or like an “army commander” (attacking a person at his or her weakest point).

I believe in the presence of evil as a real and coherent force opposed to God and one that can sometimes overtake people, but not necessarily in the popular conception of the devil.  As CS Lewis said when asked if he believed in the devil, “I am not particular about the hoofs and horns.  But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do.’”

No matter how you envision the power of evil, there is an important theological point in this Gospel story.  Jesus enters into a struggle that goes beyond his healing of the man.   [Harrington writes] ‘Jesus is engaged in a battle with cosmic significance.  He struggles against and overcomes the chaotic forces of nature, Satan, sickness, and death.  In this respect his acts of power are part of his mission to proclaim and make present the kingdom of God.

James Martin, SJ

It is in this vein of spiritual counselling that I deeply resonate with James Martin, based on my work in hospital and community as a spiritual care practitioner.  When patients have asked me about demons and possession I first try to slow things down.   I want to hear their story.   Who are they and what has brought them to this place?  If the conversation comes to a point where prayer is appropriate, I pray that the person will become aware of the grace of God to heal, liberate, cleanse, and release. As I see it, the gospel recognizes that pockets of destructiveness take up residence within us.  Over time and through life experiences, antagonistic presences come to abide and to exert a toxic and debilitating influence on our character.  When the healer comes, the Risen Christ names these powers and disarms them, loosening their grip, uprooting their pernicious tendrils.  This is not a magic show or Hollywood drama but an act of grace mediated through compassionate conversation, contemplative prayer, self-surrender to God, creative worship, experiences of amazement – and many other ways.   The transforming encounter between Jesus and the self can happen at any time or place in the deep undercurrent of our hidden identity.  Violence has broken the soil of the ground of our innocence, and here the unclean spirit finds its place of germination.  The Risen Christ travels time to visit these past assaults on our narrative, to name the moment in light and to send the destructive spirit on its way.

When we move towards what is true and good and beautiful there is an opposing force.  When we take steps to create community, to attempt reconciliation, to grow intellectually, to make art, to tend to the vulnerable, the opposing force rises to distract and distress us, assailing us with temptations to despair and destructiveness.   While this dark diagnosis may seem daunting, the gospel today calls us to see these embattled experiences as opportunities for the Risen Christ to enter in, to bring authority and power to liberate and to bring life.  We cannot control or conjure the coming of this action of grace.   But we can ask for it, pray for it, wait for it, live in attendance upon it.

While preparing this talk a story that kept coming to mind comes from my work in 2000 – 2002 with homeless men in downtown Hamilton.   With Mission Services I worked specifically with men in the shelter who were in very early recovery from drug and/or alcohol addiction.  The men I worked with were applying to a rehab treatment centre but had a wait time of two to twelve weeks and so we provided group and individual counselling in addition to a bed and meals.  I was deeply affected by my work with the men and learned a lot in the urban core.  For a couple months I had a quite a good relationship with a man I will call “William”.  William was 20, a refugee with a military background from El Salvador, a gay man, who came to Canada for sanctuary.  Instead of sanctuary he fell in with a bad crowd and became addicted to crack cocaine.  William was filled with anger and his bursts of rage got him kicked out of recovery houses, which is why he ended up with us.  The first time I spoke with him he raged and raged, spit flying from his mouth as he told me his story.  Due to renovations we were me meeting in vacant dining area with no one around and William was so heated once or twice I glanced around wondering if my safety was an issue.   But as I sat and listened William gradually became calmer until he became settled and even a little weepy.  In the weeks to come we met and talked many times.   With his temper and post-traumatic stress and with all the other cultural and social factors at play, one could have voted William “least likely to succeed” in recovery, but as the weeks went by and other men relapsed or moved on, William stayed the course.   He did 1200 push-ups a day in intermittent sessions and recorded his push-ups on a chart he created.  There is a concept of replacement addiction when we exchange a destructive habit for healthier habit.  He was 5’2’’ and pure muscle.   After several weeks, one day he said to me, “my addiction is an Entity and I hate it.   I hate what it does to me. When I walk the streets and I am clean (and sober) I feel that angels are walking with me.”  Grace separated the Entity of addiction from William, named the problem and freed the person, and so created a space for him to walk in new way.

How amazing is the grace that comes to us in time, a grace that speaks to all that lies with us, that names the powers in truth, and that brings transcendent energy to free and restore.   Let us allow ourselves to be amazed at its coming, astounded at its action, available to the healing that springs from the Risen Christ.





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