Idols, unclean spirits, and prophets: our lectionary readings are full of them today. They are hardly the most usual Anglican subjects of conversation, are they? So what do we make of them in our holy scriptures? More importantly, in this season of light and revelation – in this time we call Epiphany – what difference do they make to our lives? How does understanding them help us to shine, like divine candles, in our world?
Does this mean that our bible readings today can shine no light for us? Certainly not: it simply means that we must hold them together with all that God has taught us in other ways, both through other biblical texts and Christian insights and also through the exercise of our God-given reason and experience. For whilst we may need to work a little at understanding their contexts and language, there are some very powerful continuing spiritual messages for us.
The first message, from Deuteronomy, goes to the heart of all our readings: God’s truth is non-negotiable. We are to heed the prophetic words of God. We cannot get out of them. Now the ancient context of this passage is very different from ours. Like Deuteronomy as a whole, it is seeking to lay out the foundations for the kingdom of God’s people in ancient Israel. The language is typically fiery and abrupt. It is not speaking directly to our reality in a secular, multi-cultural and multi-faith society. Yet it does speak powerfully into our reality, reminding us that it is upon our response to the God of biblical prophecy that we too find the firmest foundations. God’s truth is the light that can lead us to the deepest love and salvation. The word of God, not just any word, is the eternal source of our strength and enlightenment. Let us therefore seek God’s truth and act upon it.
Our second reading, from St Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth, is a necessary pastoral corrective to the first. For Paul asks us to consider each other, and the wider community, whenever we speak or act on what we understand to be the word and truth of God. Again, it is important to view this passage in its context. St Paul was seeking to settle a very diverse and divided Christian community in Corinth. This was a community which was arguing about all kinds of ethical and theological questions and practising a wide variety of spiritual and liturgical approaches in conflict with one another. Paul’s message is thus especially concerned to bring calm and consideration to our handling of the word and truth of God.
Taken out of context, Paul’s words can seem to clash with the teaching and practice of Jesus. After all, Jesus did not seem to hesitate in breaking religious and cultural boundaries. He freely and actively mixed and shared food with those who, in others' eyes, were both unclean and, sometimes, even idolatrous. Jesus was hardly one to hold back or keep quiet for the family’s sake. So do we see, in his words today, the old Pharisee in St Paul coming out? Is this one sign, in the New Testament itself, of how the Gospel freedom of Jesus became, over time, a new religion of restriction? Perhaps, but much more likely, in this context, it reflects Christian awareness of the destructive limitations of certain kinds of speaking and acting in the name of the word and truth of God.
For, let’s face it, the word and truth of God is sovereign. That is the message of our first reading. Yet our human understanding of God’s word and truth is always partial and prone to abuse. Therefore, says St Paul, even if we have a good grasp of God’s word and truth, let us be careful how we use it. Let us take care that we don’t hurt the spiritual growth of others by how we speak and act in relation to God. Let us have concern for the whole body of Christ, not just our little part of it. Truth alone is not the be all and end all. Love is the heart of our faith and our prime concern is to build one another up in love. I guess it is a bit like care of children. There are some things adults do well not to say and do in front of children: not because they are not allowable but because children will not understand them properly. It is a tricky balance, which is why we have to hold all of the Bible and Christian experience together and look at matters in context. If we do not seek to know and live by the word and truth of God, then we will not share in the freedom of God. Yet that freedom is not just freedom for ourselves. It is only the freedom of love. It must involve sometimes exercising the freedom not to do something when it prevent others entering more fully into the freedom of God’s love.
So what then do we make of our Gospel reading today, in the light of our first two readings? It is an interesting passage, for it is the first story Mark tells of Jesus’ public ministry. As such it is very revealing, as first things often are. For it tells us a good deal of what Mark was trying to say about Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is primarily a teacher and a (new) lawgiver like Moses. In John, Jesus is the bearer of unexpected and unimaginable abundance. In Luke, he is the one who releases the captive, heals the sick, and proclaims good news to the poor. And in Mark? Well, we see today, first and foremost, Jesus picks a fight with unclean spirits. In other words, Mark shows us Jesus primarily as a divine exorcist.
Oh dear! We are in danger of misunderstandings now, aren’t we?! We do very well to heed Paul’s words of mutual care when we start talking about matters like exorcism, prophecy, idols and unclean spirits. There is much disturbing nonsense talked about them in some Christian, and other, circles. Such concerns can easily be inflated way above their importance. Our Anglican Church as a whole therefore, following St Paul, has a very careful approach. There are a very small number of incidents, for example, which require special spiritual attention. In the view of the Anglican Church, these need to be carefully considered and prayed through, and referred to those who have particular gifts. However, in most incidents where people talk about unclean spirits or demons, we are wise to take a holistic approach: involving, where appropriate, social and medical support. Yet this is not to diminish the vital message of today’s Gospel: about understanding Jesus as an exorcist, in the broadest and most profound spiritual sense.
For the Bible is to be understood as a whole. All three of today’s readings flow together. They are each concerned with bringing human beings, and all creation, into the light and love of God. To do so, requires that we face up to the truth of God: that is the message of Deuteronomy. It also requires that we take care that we use the little bits of truth we grasp in the service of love: that is the message of St Paul. Most importantly however, it requires that we allow the truth of God to change us and to lead us into love: that is the message of today’s Gospel. The central character, other than Jesus, is the man with the unclean spirit. What spirit it is, we do not know. It could be any of the kinds of things which prevent us knowing God’s love: anger, pride, fear, desire for power or control. Or it might be an addiction, or an attachment to any of today’s many genuine idols or hateful –isms. We do not know. Like us however, the man with the unclean spirit resists Jesus, his truth and his love. He resists the light until the truth and love of Jesus breaks through. Then he starts to experience the light, to know freedom, and to share fully in God’s love. This is our story. This is our calling. So may God in Jesus Christ cast out our unclean spirits that we may be light! Amen.