Lectionary Sermon for 1 February 2015, Year B, Epiphany 4 based on Mark 1: 21 – 28

Billy Graham used to tell a story from the days when he was making frequent plane journeys as he travelled from place to place with his famous mission. On one such, on the way from New York to Charlotte, a large man, obviously drunk, was a fellow passenger. The man was flirting with the air hostess and at one point attempted to help the pilot fly the plane. In an effort to ease the situation, a friend of Graham’s leaned over to the man and whispered, “Do you know Billy Graham is sitting over there?” As Graham tells it, “The fellow got up, swore and exclaimed, ‘You don’t say.’ He lurched over, unsteadily to me and asked, ‘You Billy Graham?’ I said that I was, and he stuck out his hand and said, ‘Well, boy, put it there! Your sermons sure have helped me!’
Billy Graham doesn’t say how he replied, but if he used Jesus’ words to the demonic, “be silent!”, we might at least begin to understand why.
In Jesus’ time, we need to remind ourselves that demons were greatly feared and used to explain many medical and psychological conditions. Without modern pharmaceutical drugs as a means of moderating behaviour there would also have been rather more variety of serious conditions to blame on the demons. A number of ancient civilisations were so convinced that a variety of conditions – including severe headaches, and what we would now call schizophrenia, epilepsy and strokes were due to such malign spirits, to the extent that they sometimes resorted to punching a hole in the skull usually with a chisel to release the demons. That some skulls have been found with straight sharp edges to the hole in the skull and other skulls with partial bone growth over the hole shows that such an extreme operation called trepanning was occasionally survivable. Presumably according to the ancient wisdom of the day, when the patient died, the demon was reluctant to come out!
Although I am sure we would now use different medical or psychological terms to describe someone of the sort described by Mark as being demon possessed, for anyone who has encountered a variety of forms of human behaviour, there is a genuine authentic flavour to this story.

We have probably all witnessed instances of bizarre and even psychotic behaviour where a person exhibits symptoms of strange and anti social behaviour. Although these days where such conditions are rather better understood, describing such people as possessed still conveys a form of truth we observe. A clinical psychologist or psychiatrist may have rather better understanding of what causes the apparent possession, whether it be a drug or alcohol induced state, a chemical imbalance in the brain, a birth defect or even specific environmental factors that trigger such events. Nevertheless that such a person is described in terms that leaves no doubt that something has caused them to react as if being possessed by forces outside their immediate control is still fair enough, and I for one still find the term “demon possessed” helpful as a descriptive term for what we see. In fact we can go further. Those who teach behavioural psychology are fond of reminding their students that all we really have to go on is exhibited behaviour because even now we don’t yet know enough to understand exactly what goes on in the the brain or in what is popularly called “mind”.

In Mark’s story he talks of the man who appeared to see something threatening in Jesus and suddenly starts to rant about the threat to his demons. Jesus takes control of the situation and apparently finds an appropriate way to calm the man down with his authority. While it is traditional to ascribe this to a miracle I wonder if we rush too quickly to such judgement. Much of the talk about Jesus as a miracle worker is by way of editorial comment, much of it written long after the event. The catch is of course, that the more we emphasise the superhuman or God-like characteristics of Jesus, the less he has to do with us and our realities. Nevertheless, what is true for this particular reported incident, is that Jesus behaving with authority in the face of the man’s outburst is certainly not typical of what we might expect from those facing such a situation today.

Time after time in our daily newspapers there is editorial outrage about an all too common situation in which typically someone gets out of control and that despite often large numbers of observers, most people stand around and do nothing. A few years back in our daily newspaper the New Zealand Herald, there was an account of an outraged and out of control young woman beating up and kicking a pregnant young woman on the ground outside a shop while watched by 20 or so onlookers who reportedly stood by watching without interfering. The beating was evidently over a boyfriend the pregnant woman was accused of sleeping with.

Over the next few days there were the usual indignant letters to the paper expressing outrage that none of the onlookers had moved to help. Yet I wonder if the letter writers should have been surprised. There is a paralysing and almost hypnotic focus of attraction associated with bizarre events and instances of uncontrolled behaviour.

I know from past experience from being at the scene at a number of accidents, that by far the most common attitude is where in the face of an emergency most people appear to be able to do nothing more than gawp. What is encouraging is that from time to time, there are a small number of clear and logical thinkers who can, using little more than common sense and a positive attitude, take control of such accident scenes in a calming and rational manner. If there is a common factor for most of these, it is that they are quite simply willing to become involved.

When we read for example of incidents where an armed person is either threatening to harm others – or in a worst case scenario attacking others (as for example in an armed hold-up or mass shooting) while many might panic or flee, there are sometimes those prepared to help calm the situation and even risk their own safety in order to help others survive. I have both seen, and in other instances read of people exhibiting dangerous and even psychotic behaviour counselled to a more peaceful way of acting so I don’t believe miracle must always be invoked in such instances.

While the attention is usually given to Jesus as the miracle worker – I wonder if rather more attention should be given to his willingness to get involved, time after time, with situations where he appeared to be thinking more of others than himself. In those days for example, diseases like leprosy were much less understood than they are today and the lepers were genuinely feared. That Jesus was not a passive spectator in such cases and was prepared to meet and touch such people, tells us far more about his character than for example it tells us about the ultimate long term health outcome for the lepers he had met and which, in the absence of recorded detail,  we can never know. That he was prepared to get involved with the demon possessed, the blind beggars, those who might be seen as dangerous enemies, prostitutes, tax collectors, and those having socially unacceptable beliefs can almost be summed up not so much as some form of ethereal magic – but more as one whose authority was the confidence to put his own welfare and safety to one side – and to become totally involved.

I must say that for me, demon possession can be trivialised by focussing on the form of getting rid of the demons with ceremony or ritual. Becoming deeply involved with someone possessed by agents outside their control is costly rather than trivial. Those for example who have struggled with someone in the grip of drug addiction or alcoholism will know that such demons are rarely exorcised with a few words of religious mumbo-jumbo or a quick passing prayer. While I confess to a healthy scepticism for what goes on at mass faith healing services and even feel unease that the now retired Papal exorcist in Rome once publically estimated that he had performed some 50,000 exorcisms in his career, it seems to me that the question is not about how others treat the afflicted, because that has nothing to do with my individual walk of faith. The question I must face is: whether or not I personally can bring myself to follow Jesus’ lead in directly dealing with those I meet in the course of my path through life?

In an age where mega-churches are all the rage and where Tele-evangelists can sometimes reach untold thousands with their message, there must seem something of a conundrum in Jesus ordering the man freed from his demons to be silent. Why not tell it from the roof tops? Surely if this sorry derelict in Capernaum has acknowledged Jesus as Lord, he is doing nothing more than making an historic proclamation. After all doesn’t James put it as: “even the devils believe and tremble” (James 2:19)

Yet Jesus insists “Be silent” which John Pridmore wryly points out is not exactly the favourite text in typical Church mission plans. In some ways this particular “be silent!”saying deserves more attention thn it gets in practice. Those front door religious visitors who switch on a practised torrent of artificial religious spiel to go with their simplistic tracts, often seem unaware that true religion is lived not professed. Somehow a wodge of words, no matter how accurately quoted seems curiously unattractive if the messenger does not even take the trouble to first get to know the recipient – and even less show any genuine concern for the realities of their life.

As those attempting to follow Christianity, we are unlikely to ever achieve universal agreement as to whether the unfortunate man in Mark’s story was indeed demon possessed or whether his condition was rather more mundane and explicable in modern terms. Yet whether or not he was possessed, or merely behaved as if he was is hardly the point. A rather more important focus of the story was that Jesus was reported as being prepared to address the one afflicted, rather than being a passive spectator and in so doing restored the unfortunate man’s human potential. Jesus’ injunction to keep silent afterwards is a timely reminder that some events don’t need a facile and shallow acknowledgement. In this case it may be that we too need to keep silence as we contemplate the mystery of what is reported here before we too might look for creative and positive ways of making room for similar actions in our tentative steps in faith.

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