What exactly is an unclean spirit? And how does Jesus exercise his authority over unclean spirits? Notice in the painting at the right that the uncleanness comes out of the man’s mouth. Here is a sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B:
What Is an Unclean Spirit?
A Sermon on Mark 1:21-28 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B
While Jesus was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, all of a sudden, a man started shouting, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus, Nazarene? I know what you’re up to. You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!” Can you imagine the sensation?
Some time ago our friends at First Presbyterian Church uptown in Rocky Mount and at Lakeside Baptist Church had just this sort of thing happen in their churches. One Wednesday night when a group of First Presbyterian folks gathered for a meal and Bible study, a man they didn’t know wandered in. Their Director of Christian Education was leading the study, and she graciously invited him to have a meal and join their study. He was quiet at first, but as the study went on, he began to grow agitated and then launched off on a tirade about why the Bible does not permit women to preach, or to teach in any setting that includes men. The DCE managed to keep her cool, and dismiss the group with prayer despite the man’s ranting and raving. The men in the group escorted him out, and they alerted the police.
The following Sunday, the same man went to worship at Lakeside Baptist Church, which had recently called a woman as an associate pastor. Again he was quiet at first, but then he disrupted the worship service just as he had the Bible study. The deacons tried to escort him out, but he resisted. Eventually the police were called to resolve the situation. Turns out this man has done this in other places, too. He crusades against women in the ministry. Needless to say, his behavior shocked and upset people. He may or may not be mentally ill, but I think most of us would agree that he is spiritually disturbed. There is something unclean, unholy in his behavior, an unclean spirit lurking about him, negative, disruptive, generating turmoil.
In Jesus’ day people thought unclean spirits were behind illnesses and other phenomena that they couldn’t explain. The word “unclean” didn’t necessarily mean literally dirty, although it could mean that. The word “unclean” basically meant disordered, mixed up, out of place in some way. A man with deformities, for example, would have been considered unclean and therefore unfit to approach God to perform priestly duties in the Temple.
This week as I studied, I tried to put my finger on just what an unclean spirit is, and here’s the summary I came up with: An unclean spirit is a disruptive spirit, a negative force or power that resists the will and way of God and oppresses people. Unclean spirits hold people captive, hold them down, preventing them from being healthy and whole as God intends.
In Jesus’ day, unclean spirits were thought to be behind what we now call epilepsy, an electrical problem in the brain, and behind mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia that we now treat medically. People with these illnesses seemed to be possessed by forces from beyond themselves.
We no longer attribute those illnesses to unclean spirits because we have an understanding of what’s wrong and we have means to treat it. And yet, there are so many other disorders and troubled situations where negative forces really do seem to be in the driver’s seat, oppressing people and causing untold pain to them and to those around them. Think of what addiction does to people. Think about people “stuck” in negative patterns, who either can’t or won’t help themselves. Many of us can think of people we would describe as “sick” in some way even though they technically might not be classified as mentally ill. These are people who drain the people around them, or thrive on negativity, or bring a disruptive atmosphere with them when they come into a room. An unclean spirit of some sort has hold of them, sowing the seeds of trouble and turmoil.
There’s no doubt that unclean spirits can also get hold of whole groups of people. We’ve seen that in a horrifying way among the 19 fanatics who hijacked those planes on September 11. We’ve seen it in weird religious groups like the Branch Davidians. Yet unclean spirits are also running loose in “normal” congregations or other groups that can’t stop fighting and splitting. Keeping them in turmoil, unclean spirits undermine their ministry.
If an unclean spirit is any spirit that opposes God and oppresses people, then there were plenty of unclean spirits in Jesus’ day even among the very leaders of God’s people, among some of the scribes and Pharisees and priests. Some of them had grown self-centered, self-serving and power addicted. They liked wielding their authority over ordinary folk who had no hope of keeping all the rules and regulations these leaders said that God required. These powerful people liked looking down their noses at others. They liked looking good and raking in admiration from others. They were arrogant, so certain they were right and others were wrong. They prayed prayers such as, “God, I thank you that I’m not a sinner like that tax collector over there.”
Moreover, these particular religious leaders were dead certain Jesus was wrong, when he challenged them on missing the forest for the trees. In all their nitpicking about keeping all the details of the law, they had lost the Spirit of the law, and Jesus told them so. It wasn’t long before these good, upstanding leaders were plotting to murder Jesus. In the name of God, they believed, and for the good of the nation, this Jesus had to be crushed before he led more people astray.
“What business do you have with us, Jesus” cried the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue. “Have you come to destroy us?” Well, yes. Yes! Jesus came to set people free from every form of oppression, from every oppressive spirit, from slavery to sin and sickness and death. Yes, Jesus came to set people free from every kind of unclean spirit. The unclean spirit in the synagogue was right: Jesus was a threat to it.
Jesus acted immediately. “Hush!” he commanded the unclean spirit. “Be quiet and come out of him!” The unclean spirit didn’t give up without a fight, though. It convulsed the man. He struggled and screamed. But it did finally come out. The onlookers were amazed that Jesus even had power and authority over unclean spirits. They had never seen anything like this before. “What is this—a new teaching with authority!” they exclaimed.
All through the gospels Jesus battled and overcame the powers of negativity. He healed people of all sorts of illness, and there are places in scripture that even say that he “rebuked” these illnesses and cast them out. Jesus set a woman free from what the gospel writer calls a spirit of infirmity that had twisted and bent her spine for almost two decades. Jesus set a man free from unclean spirits that caused him to live among the tombs, naked and out of his mind. Jesus sent the unclean spirits into a herd of pigs, who plunged headlong off a cliff into the sea. In that day people believed that water destroyed unclean spirits, so this was proof that Jesus had completely overcome them. Dead bodies were thought to be unclean, but Jesus touched the casket of a dead man and raised him to new life. He overcame the power of death!
Jesus also challenged the unclean spirits that were subtly lurking among the leaders of the people of God. Unclean spirits don’t always appear as abnormalities or illnesses. They don’t always appear as weird behavior. Sometimes they hide underneath normal thought and behavior. But Jesus is never fooled. Unclean spirits can’t hide from him. Jesus dared to show these leaders who thought they had it all together the ways in which they were actually opposing the God they claimed to serve. There was uncleanness in their attitudes and actions. At times his challenge was low-key, as when the authorities challenged him for healing on the Sabbath, thus breaking the law against work on the Sabbath. “The Sabbath was made for humanity,” Jesus declared, “not humanity for the Sabbath. The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Then there were the times when the hostile scribes and Pharisees criticized Jesus for associating with “sinners,” who, by definition, were also unclean and unfit to be in the presence of God. “It’s the sick people who need the doctor,” Jesus replied. His opponents had no concept that they, too, needed the doctor, that they, too, had uncleanness that needed to be dealt with.
Yes, at times, Jesus was low key in his challenge. But other times he was forceful and not at all nice to them. “Woe to you, scribes, religious experts and Pharisees! Frauds! Your lives are actually roadblocks to the kingdom of God! You lay heavy religious burdens on others and don’t lift a finger to help them! Woe! You keep meticulous account books on all the tiny matters of the law and neglect the basics of compassion and fairness. Woe! You are like whitewashed tombs, all pretty on the outside, but inside full of death and all sorts of uncleanness.”
Jesus rebuked the unclean spirits loose in those leaders. They were enraged and had him impaled on the cross. But then God rebuked death itself, the most unclean, hurtful force of all and took away its power. God raised his son from the dead and God will raise all of us.
“What business do you have with us,” cried the unclean spirit in the synagogue. “I know you. You’ve come to destroy us!” Right! Christ came to defeat all the unclean spirits all the way from the most obvious ones to the most subtle and hidden ones.
Christ is here among us and still at it. He says “no!” to every attitude and behavior that tries to thwart God’s good purposes. He says “no!” to every power that would imprison his people. “Hush!” he orders. “Come out!” to every destructive spirit, both in the world and in the church. Where the spirits of selfishness and self-centeredness rule the day, Christ says, “No! Come out!” Where arrogance and hunger for control cause turmoil and pain, he declares, “Woe to you! Stop it!” Where anxiety and fear paralyze people, Christ says, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. Take courage. I am with you, my people!” Where there is addiction, Christ makes freedom possible. He makes new life possible. Right and left Christ Jesus is setting people free from all that harms us. He is working to heal. In all things he is working for our good.
We are all prey to unclean spirits. That’s why humility and self-examination are critical. Search us, O God. Try us. See if there be any evil way in us. See if there be any uncleanness in us, and correct it. Cast it out. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today, Lord.
Jesus has the authority and the power to do that. The people saw his amazing authority in the synagogue at Capernaum and marveled: “What is this? This is a new kind of teaching. Jesus even commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” Thanks be to God!