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Casting Out An Evil Spirit / Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:21-28

I know who You are—the Holy One of God. But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”

The idea of casting out an evil spirit sounds too much like superstition to many of us. We choose to refer to such things in the mindset of a pre-scientific world.

Perhaps it’s because we’ve been exposed to so much human evil in our century. There was a traveler in Soviet Georgia in the days before the Second World War who was visiting a very humble old woman in a little cottage. The old peasant woman asked her if she was going to Moscow. The traveler said she was. “Then, ” asked the woman, “would you mind delivering a parcel of homemade toffee to my son? He cannot get anything like it in Moscow.” Her son’s name was Josef Stalin. This was the same Stalin who is said to have murdered millions of his own people.

Confronted with monsters like Stalin and Adolph Hitler who seemed in every respect normal human, but found it possible to rationalize barbaric behavior, we feel no need to look behind every bush for demonic spirits. The human face of evil is enough.

Outside the Christian community, however, there’s tremendous interest in the demonic. Hollywood has discovered that our ancient fears are fertile ground for grinding out one gory horror movie after another. Interest in the occult and witchcraft is probably more widespread in western society than at any time since the Salem witch trials. I am told that there are more self-proclaimed witches today in Paris, France than there are Roman Catholic priests. Since that’s traditionally a Roman Catholic stronghold, such a statistic is disturbing.

Some people think that the rising interest in the occult and witchcraft is a sign of our society’s hunger for the supernatural. I’m not so sure. Maybe people are looking for a cheap thrill.

We really don’t know what the New Testament means when it speaks of casting out evil spirits. Is it referring to mental and emotional illness? Would physical problems with unusual manifestations such as epilepsy have been considered demonic in a pre-scientific world? Most scholars are convinced that this is the nature of so-called demon possession in the Scriptures. Does this mean that we should forget these stories and send these problems to modern medicine and/or psychiatry? Absolutely not! Jesus still casts out demons whether they be physical, emotional or spiritual.

Good religion heals the body. Modern science has helped us see more clearly than ever before that there’s a remarkable interrelationship between the mind, the soul and the body. Our thoughts and our attitudes can literally make us sick. We know that.

Of course, we must approach this subject with care. I’m not saying we should replace medicine with so-called “faith healing.” This is a field where so much damage has been done by spiritual quacks, that most responsible religious people are even afraid to approach the subject. Even as great a man as Mahatma Gandhi was guilty of a grievous error in this regard. Gandhi’s wife was severely ill with pneumonia and was fading. Gandhi refused to let her have penicillin, arguing that alien substances should not be introduced into the body. Accordingly, his wife died.

Larry tells the tragic story of the devastation his family experienced when their diabetic eleven-year-old died. Why did the boy die? Because the family “by faith” withheld his insulin. They were encouraged by friends and their pastor to take this so-called “step of faith.”

Such actions are not steps of faith. Penicillin and insulin are themselves gifts from God. I believe in prayer, but I look at the two hands of prayer and I see one hand open to God and the other reaching out to the world.

Good health is God’s plan for life. The greatest enemies our bodies have are our own destructive habits. We know, for example, that daily exercise will add years to our life. Excessive worry or stress can subtract those years. Smoking more than two packs of cigarettes a day will cost us many more years. The greatest enemies of our bodies are our own bad habits.

The greatest ally we have in maintaining the healthfulness of our bodies is first of all the conviction that our bodies are the temple of the living God therefore we must not mistreat them and that the confidence that if we trust in God He will provide for our needs. Thus, we can relax and enjoy life.

Not only is trust in God good preventive medicine, there’s evidence that there’s healing power in such faith even for the body already diseased.

Some people, when they are given bad news by a doctor, immediately fold up emotionally. Their worst fears have been realized and thus they simply give in to the inevitable. That doesn’t have to happen.

Good religion also heals the emotions. All of us sometimes reach the breaking point emotionally. There is a story about a monastery in Europe perched high on a cliff several hundred feet in the air. The only way to reach the monastery was to be suspended in a basket which was pulled to the top by several monks who pulled and tugged with all their strength. Obviously, the ride up the steep cliff in that basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about halfway up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and frayed. With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a moment and answered brusquely, “Whenever it breaks.”

There have been times in my life when emotionally I have been suspended in that basket. All of us come to that moment at some time in our life, though many of us would rather die than show it.

The things we keep in shadows, afraid of ridicule, admitting weakness, afraid to admit we need help.

It is sad and unhealthy to bottle up our pain. There are times when all of us reach the breaking point. At such times we desperately need a friend. That’s one reason a church family is so important. For many of us this is where we turn with our hurts.

Our relationship with God is also critical to the healing process, however. One psychotherapist has concluded that the major factor in the effect of treatment on an emotionally disturbed patient is the therapist’s expectation. According to this study the therapist can literally communicate a winning or losing feeling with the patient almost unobtrusively. For example, the therapist might say: “You’re the kind of person who can pull yourself out of depression. You can get yourself out of the house, join a social organization, get out to meet people, I believe in you.” Compare that to this: “You’re now too fragile to go out on your own.”

Isn’t it good to know that there is One who always believes in us? Who says to us, “You are created in my image. You can make it. I will be with you.” Good religion heals the body. Good religion heals emotions.

Good religion heals the soul. By the soul we mean “the whole person.” Who we really are inside. Not what other people see. Not a tiny fragment of our being, but the totality of our being. Our personality, our dreams, our fears. When we understand who we are under God when we surrender ourselves to His love and trust in His wisdom there’s healing.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum when a man in the grip of an evil spirit began shouting at Him. We don’t know the nature of that evil spirit, but we know that Jesus delivered the man. We don’t know whether that man had a family but, in our imagination, we can see him returning home in his right mind with a peaceful look on his face. His wife greets him at the door. His children peer suspiciously from behind their mother’s skirt. He gently calls them out and lifts them into his arms. He turns to his wife and says softly, “I’m back. THANKS BE TO GOD.”

Good religion heals the body. Good religion heals the emotions. Most important of all, good religion heals the soul.