The evil spirit knew exactly who Jesus was. “You are the Holy One of God.” Now throughout the gospel of Mark, a lot of time is spent trying to figure out who Jesus was. And everyone had an opinion, even the evil spirits. Actually all the evil spirits had the same opinion of Jesus, but they weren’t exactly happy about what they knew. “Did you come to destroy us?” I imagine that would be a terrifying thought if I were an evil spirit, and I came upon that very something or someone that was out to destroy me. Evil, we know, is a powerful force. But we have access to something more powerful that can send evil trembling in its boots.
Exorcism, the driving out of evil spirits, has always captured our imagination. It’s something that simultaneously fascinates and terrifies us. It is both interesting and scary, like poking a sleeping wild animal knowing you’re absolutely positively never going to outrun it when it comes chasing you. At least that’s what we know from watching too many scary movies and TV shows.
But we can easily dismiss that encounter between Jesus and the evil spirit in today’s gospel reading. The evil spirit said some amazing things about Jesus, amazing because nobody else in the building knew what it knew, that Jesus was the Holy One of God, and probably came to destroy it. And Jesus said to the evil spirit “Shut your face! Take a hike!” We know that was what he meant. And the evil spirit made the man rattle and shake, probably rolled him around on the ground a few times, his eyes rolling back into his head, his face contorting in all manner of excruciating pain, made him cry out like a banshee, a spine-tingling, bone-chilling, ear-splitting shriek, then exits stage left. And amazement descended upon them. “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” And I bet all the other evil spirits in the room looked at each other knowingly, analyzed the entire scenario from beginning to end, pretended nothing happened, turned to page 666 in their synagogue hymnal, and just kept on making plans for the weekend. It had to be that one evil spirit’s own fault he had to say something when he saw Jesus. If he had just kept his trap shut, he would still have a roof over his head. But no, he just couldn’t help himself.
Now I am no expert on evil spirits. So what I can tell you I only know from what we learn from scripture, what I have personally dealt with in my own life—and I’m sorry to disappoint, but it’s nothing like what Linda Blair experienced, and what I have learned from other people sharing with me what they’ve experienced in their own lives.
First, we know evil exists. It can manifest in terrifying ways, but it can also be quite mundane and unexciting. The evil spirit in today’s gospel was not alarmed in the least when the man it was possessing walked into a synagogue that day. In fact, the evil spirit may have known a synagogue could be a very safe place for it, especially when the person it was possessing had no intention of expelling it. It only got scared when it thought Jesus was going to destroy it. And we don’t know if there were others. Evil is not always easy to spot, especially the low-key sort. But if it’s safe, word gets around.
What caught its attention could have been Jesus’ teaching, the kind of teaching that also impressed his listeners. The evangelist Mark doesn’t say much what Jesus taught. All we know so far we heard last Sunday. Jesus’ message was simple. “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, it doesn’t sound all that impressive. But whatever Jesus was teaching with authority that scared the devil out of the evil spirit would have had to do with its destruction. “Did you come to destroy us?” I keep saying evil spirit in the singular. But it admits there’s a few. Now I have done my fair share of dealing with evil spirits, and I can say that one way to destroy them is to let into our hearts the light of God’s love. That, too, doesn’t sound at all impressive, mainly because we don’t know what it means, or if we do, we may not be convinced that it works.
Of all that Jesus had been teaching, the only thing he instructed his listeners to do so far was to repent and believe in the gospel. To repent is to acknowledge sincerely the presence of evil in our hearts and in our lives. Every so often, I meet people in the confessional who will honestly tell me they have no sin, and therefore have nothing for which to repent. They may not recognize the presence of evil in their hearts and in their lives, but it is there, pretending not to be evil, hiding in plain sight. It’s just occasional impatience, a little gossiping, a couple of X-rated thoughts. The presence of evil is not sin, mind you. Sin is what happens when we go along with its suggestions. Evil is really just our personal rent-free spiritual parasite. It is there embedded deep in our nature, feeding on our inclination to jealousy and vanity and self-indulgence. But that doesn’t typically rise to a level of concern because we are always willing to excuse ourselves, and others are just as willing to excuse us. Don’t mind him. He just likes to mouth off every now and again. Oh, she’s harmless, just a little weakness for pretty things.
But evil knows when it is threatened, when its lair has been discovered. And it will not go down quietly. Oh, no. It will thrash and scream and take no prisoners. It will plead and grovel and try to persuade you someone else is to blame. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong. It runs in your family. Just love yourself the way you are. You were born this way. Besides, what would you be without us?
But repentance can only happen when we put faith in the gospel, assuming we allow it to sink in. It tells us God desires our healing, that we need not be slaves to darkness no more, that God has done and still does so much to share with us his very life, that with Jesus we are heirs of God’s Kingdom. But there’s a catch. We will need to show evil the door. We will need to be firm that we do not want evil back in. When we hear what evil is capable of, and we learn what it feeds on, and we realize we have been pampering it with our excuses and our indifference, we come to know something we cannot unknow. We shine the light of God’s love in the dark recesses of our hearts and our lives. We come clean about evil’s powerful hold on us, our reluctance to admit we have been deceived, and our lack of conviction to embrace change for the better.
And on its way out, evil will make us miserable, so miserable we will be tempted to give in and let it stay. But God gives us strength to persevere. When we come to know what it means to live free from evil, we will understand why evil doesn’t want to let go. The joy and freedom that only God gives is something evil can never have. And if you want to make evil tremble, give it notice. Tell it to shut its face and take a hike.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018