Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Binding Satan

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
6th June 2021
Michael binding Satan, William Blake, 1805

Mark 3.13-35
Listen to this sermon here:

Jesus, it seems, attracted all the wrong people!

They had been flocking to him from the far north and the far south,
            from the Jewish heartlands of Judea and Jerusalem
            and from the margins beyond the Jordan (3.8)
They had come seeking healing (3.10) and exorcism (3.11)
            They were the disenfranchised masses,
                        the poor, the unemployed
                        the displaced, the sick,
                                    and the unclean
And in today’s passage from Mark’s gospel
            we encounter Jesus the exorcist
                        casting demons out of people
            and causing a storm as he does so.
Now, I don’t know what images run through your mind
            when you hear the language of exorcism and exorcists?
Possibly you may think of the cult classic horror film The Exorcist
            from the early 1970s
Or maybe you think of the charismatic preacher on the God channel
            casting demons out of people left, right and centre
                        to the applause of an appreciative congregation?
There is no doubt that in many ways,
            those who consider ourselves
                        to be liberal minded and sensible Christians
            often find it much easier to stay away from stories of exorcism.
At best we find them mildly embarrassing,
            and at worst they are manipulative, abusive, and dangerous.
So what are we to do with the fact
            that exorcism was a central aspect of Jesus’ ministry?
Do we simply disregard these stories
            as pre-psychological myths?
Or is there some way in which we can encounter Jesus the exorcist
            in a meaningful way in our oh-so rational
                        and post-enlightenment world?
I have been greatly helped in my thinking through of these issues
            by the work of Ched Myers,
and I recommend his writing
            if you find the approach I’m taking this morning helpful.
            (This sermon draws considerably on Myers, ‘Say to This Mountain’, pp. 31-38)
So let’s take a look at what’s going on here in the text of Mark’s gospel.
Here we see Jesus in a struggle with unclean spirits,
            specifically over the power to ‘name’ him.
Though his disciples often appear confused about who he is
            the demonic forces he encounters know exactly,
and seem to believe that they can bring him under their control
            by announcing to the public who he is.
So Jesus is seen routinely forbidding
            unclean spirits from making him known (3.12)
At issue in Jesus’ confrontations with these unclean spirits
            is the question of who has the power to frame reality.
As George Orwell so vividly demonstrated in his dystopian novel 1984,
            the authority to name, or describe, reality unchallenged,
            becomes the power to frame reality
                        to create the reality that is being described.
The central characters Winston and Julia
            attempt to speak a different reality into being,
and discover to their cost that the Orwellian state
            cannot permit such alternative realities
            to be spoken into existence.
The same story is played out around the globe in our world today,
            as states find ways, both brutal and subtle,
                        of silencing dissenting voices;
            as they maintain their power
                        by speaking their own vision of the world into being.
The reality that is remembered
            is the reality that is spoken the strongest,
and the most effective spin always seems to carry the day.
In Jesus’ own time, the Roman propaganda machine
            worked hand in hand with the military regime
            to enforce the ‘Roman’ view of the world.
The Jewish state had largely capitulated to the Roman worldview,
            guarding with care their few hard-won concessions,
            such as the famous exemption from worshipping the emperor as a God.
So when Jesus started rocking the boat,
            challenging the authority of both the Roman overlords
                        and the Jewish political powers,
            he, like many a potential revolutionary before him,
                        needed to be named, dominated, and silenced.
According to Mark,
            Jesus’ practice of exorcism was first and foremost
            a practice of unmasking the truth of a situation.
And as such, exorcism: the naming of evil,
            and the consequent challenging of its power,
            remains fundamental to any movement of liberation
                        whether that be personal or political.
This is why fearless and independent  journalism matters so much,
            and it is why any aspiring dictator will always take control of the press.
If you have no-one naming the evil in the land,
            you have less power to do anything about it.
A conspiracy of silence is the forerunner to a conspiracy of capitulation.
The person who claims that there are no demons,
            and that exorcism is unnecessary,
has allowed themselves to be blinded and silenced
            by the very powers that Jesus sought to challenge.
In today’s passage, we find the stakes being raised
            in terms of Jesus’ confrontations with power structures
            that oppress and diminish humanity.
As Jesus returns home, he’s engulfed by the crowds
            who have been following him around.
As those who live in and around London,
            many of us will be no strangers to large crowds.
We know that on occasions being caught up in a crowd,
            particularly one made up of diverse and desperate people
            can be a terrifying experience.
Well, Jesus’ family start to fear for his safety and sanity,
            and try to get him to distance himself from the crowds
                        who are flocking to him.
To make matters worse, the scribes from Jerusalem
            are launching a counter-offensive,
as they are starting to realise that this upstart preacher from Nazareth
            is drawing to himself exactly the kind of people
            that revolutions are made of.
The composition of our passage this morning
            is what, in technical Biblical Studies language,
                        we call a ‘sandwich’.
            Actually, we also call it an ‘intercalation’,
                        but ‘sandwich’ will do for now
What this means is that Mark starts a story,
            which is the first piece of bread.
He then inserts the filling,
            which is a different story,
before topping it off with the second piece of bread
            by finishing the first story.
He does this in a number of places in his gospel,
            and it’s always an invitation for the reader
            to read the two stories together,
to see how they shed light on each other.
In this passage today, the two slices of bread
            are a story about Jesus’ family trying to get hold of him,
while the filling is a story about the Jerusalem scribes
            coming to ‘get’ him.
In these two strands,
            we find the two ancient pillars of social authority:
                        the clan and the state,
            working together to domesticate someone
                        who has started acting in ways
                        that are challenging to the status quo.
In the ancient Mediterranean world,
            the kinship, or family, system
rigidly determined a person’s personality and identity:
            It controlled everything from their job prospects,
                        to their social status.
We hear a lot of talk these days about social mobility,
            or the lack of it, in our society;
and politicians of every stripe are quick to claim that their ideology
            will allow children of humble origins
                        to climb to the top of society with ease.
And yet still we have a university system
            dominated at its upper levels by those
            whose parents were rich enough to pay for their private education.
with 65% of the Boris Johnson’s cabinet being privately educated,
            and half of them having attended either Oxford or Cambridge.
Despite the claimed best efforts of politicians,
            family background counts for a lot,
especially when that background is reinforced
            by a national ideology deeply permeated by a class ethos
            which is inherently conservative with a small c.
As Ed Miliband once memorably put it:
            ‘It’s harder to climb the ladder
                        when the rungs are further apart.’
So when someone comes along,
            as Jesus did in the first century,
            challenging the status quo,
family systems and state structures fall into an easy alliance
            to act together to preserve normality, and restrict mobility.
From the parent who tells their child
            not to get ideas above their station,
to the careers advisor
            who suggests jobs in line with perceived social status,
the barriers to mobility take shape
            both within and without a person’s family structure.
And sure enough, Jesus’ family sought to reign him in;
            no doubt, they claimed, for his own protection
            but of course also for the sake of their reputation.
It’s interesting to note that were doing this
            even before his clash with the scribal investigators,
but once it became clear that Jesus had attracted
            the wrong kind of attention from the authorities,
            his family redoubled their efforts to restrain him.
However, and perhaps contrary to what we might expect,
            in v.32 we find Jesus and the crowd
                        sitting together inside the home,
            while his family are gathered outside!
And as is always the case in Mark’s gospel,
            things like this don’t happen by accident.
He is showing us that Jesus understood full well
            that in order to weave an alternative social fabric,
            the most basic conventions and constraints of the family system
                        must be questioned;
            so when Jesus is told that his family are asking for him,
                        he replies ‘who are my mother and my brother?’ (3.32)
            before concluding that his true family
                        are ‘whoever does the will of God’ (3.35).
His biological family are outside,
            and those who follow him are now the insiders.
The power structure of the family home
            has been disrupted.
And it is clear that Jesus will not be defined
            by the expectations and conventions of his birth and family.
Meanwhile the official investigators from the capital
            start echoing the family’s accusations, if not their concern.
The family are saying to themselves, and to anyone else who will listen,
            that Jesus ‘has gone out of his mind’ (3.21);
whereas the scribes say something much more sinister,
            claiming ‘he is possessed’ (3.22)
Both the private sphere of the family,
            and the public sphere of the state,
are here collaborating to silence Jesus, to put him back in his box,
            and overall to maintain the status quo.
The scribes then upped the ante even further,
            by suggesting that Jesus is actually in the service
            of none other than Beelzebub, the ‘prince of demons’!
It is the predictable strategy of threatened political leaders the world over:
            Neutralise the opposition
                        by identifying them with the mythic arch-demon.
And it is a tactic we are all too familiar with in our world also.
George Orwell captures this wonderfully in his book 1984.
            In the world of 1984, the world is divided into three power blocks,
                        and at any given time two are at war with the third.
            It’s just that the ally and the enemy change places from time to time.
But the significant thing
            is that when they change places,
                        history is rewritten:
            - Today’s ally has always been the ally,
                        and today’s enemy has always been the enemy.
And those who threaten the current status quo
            are neutralised by being aligned with the enemy.
Whether it’s hunting for Red’s under the bed,
            or labelling conscientious objectors as Nazi sympathisers,
            or assuming that everyone who is non-white is a potential terrorist,
we still, in our society,
            have strong social systems to prevent social mobility
            between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
And yet Jesus invited the misfit crowd
            into his home.
And his deviant practice of exorcism
            was part of this big picture
as he sought to free people from the demonic structures
            which distorted their humanity
            and kept them bound in their place.
And so the state and the clan collaborated
            in defence of the status quo
to label him either as a lunatic or a traitor.
Jesus masterfully turned the scribes words back upon them
            by suggesting that they were themselves the ones
            who were acting in the service of a satanic system,
                        which it becomes clear is the temple regime itself.
The dwelling place of God
            which should have been a place of liberation,
had become a tool of oppression,
            and as such had become itself satanic.
And it is in this context that Jesus tells his parable
            of the Strong Man
Mark 3:27  no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
In this parable, Jesus makes his subversive intentions clear,
            likening his mission to that of the thief.
Jesus is making it clear that his ministry of exorcism,
            of overthrowing the demonic hold
                        that the systems of family and the state
                        have over people’s lives
            is him breaking into Satan’s house
                        tying him up,
                        and releasing those held there.
Of course, later in the gospel
            Jesus quite literally breaks into the house of Satan
when he enters the temple in Jerusalem
            to cast out the thieves who had taken residence there.
However unsettling this metaphor may seem,
            of the ministry of Jesus as a thief, breaking and entering,
the tradition of the coming of Jesus as being ‘like a thief in the night’
            was one of the most enduring in the early church.
            (Mt 24.43; 1 Thess 5.2, 4; 2 Pet 3.10; Rev 3.3, 16.15)
The answer to Jesus’ question
            of whether Satan can cast out Satan now becomes clear:
Jesus, the one falsely accused of acting on Satan’s behalf,
            intends to overthrow the strong man
                        of the Jewish Scribal establishment,
            which has become a satanic system
                        binding people in oppression.
As the prophet Isaiah says:
            ‘The captives of the strong man will be liberated,
            the prey of the tyrant will be liberated’ (Isa 49.25)
Jesus ends the debate with the scribes
            by issuing a blanket pardon
forgiving all people of the sins and blasphemies
            spoken and enacted whilst under the oppression
            of the satanic regime.
The only people excluded from this pardon
            are those who demonise acts of healing and justice.
Too many people have been paralysed by fear
            that they have committed the so-called ‘unforgiveable sin’,
and too many church leaders have used the threat of this
            to prop up their dominating ministries of oppression.
So what is the ‘unforgiveable sin’,
            what is the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’ that Jesus speaks of?
Juan Luis Segundo says, in his book ‘Capitalism versus Socialism’, that
            ‘The real sin against the Holy Spirit
                        is [the refusal to joyfully recognise] some concrete liberation
            that is taking place before one’s very eyes’
Those who deny the liberating work of Jesus,
            who continue to dominate, oppress, exclude, distort, and demean,
are in fact seen to be working against the kingdom of God,
            and will discover that they have  placed themselves
            in opposition to all that Jesus stands for.
The social context reflected in Mark’s narrative
            may be alien in form from our own,
            but not in substance.
Our world is hardly free from systems of domination,
            and I would suggest that today the free market
            has become the strong man.
Adherence to its principles is necessary
            for any person, community, or nation
            that wishes to participate in the global economy.
The system includes the public and private sector,
            domestic bodies and international institutions
                        such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund,
            commercial banks and pension funds,
                        advertising agencies and the media,
            stock markets and money movers.
This free-market strong man takes no prisoners
            and extracts a terrible price on those who fail him.
The declining Western economies of recent years
            have tasted just a small sample
of the reality faced by those in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa,
            where almost half the population lives in absolute poverty.
The strong man extracts his tribute from the earth,
            and his victims are both people and planet,
through the economic slavery of billions,
            the depletion of natural resources,
            and escalating environmental degradation.
The strong man rules almost every dimension of our daily life and culture,
            and nowhere is he more visible
                        than in the relentless and deliberate cultivation
                        of the desire for consumer goods.
Even when products are superfluous,
            wasteful, and destructive of human life,
we are told to buy, buy, buy.
Wealthy and poor alike
            are trapped in a vicious cycle
of increasing frustration
            as they search for meaning and identity
            in intrinsically meaningless objects.
There’s a wonderful line in the Lily Allen song ‘The Fear’
            in which she is describing a young woman’s desperate search
                        to construct meaning for her life
                        through acquiring money and possessions.
Lily Allen sings, with profound insight:
            “ I am a weapon of massive consumption,
                        and its not my fault
                        it’s how I’m programmed to function."
The strong man acts incessantly in favour of the rich,
            while the poor are told they are worthless
            unless they own what is just out of reach.
Cheap and exploitative labour from abroad
            feed unemployment and poverty back home,
as the vulnerable are used
            to make the vulnerable more vulnerable.
So, do we have the eyes to see the strong man?
            Or are we too much under his influence?
Do we have the courage to join Jesus in ‘binding’ him?
            Or are we cowed by his legitimacy and power?
Will we join Jesus in his great work of exorcism,
            as together we break into the house of the strong man,
            bind him, and plunder his treasure?
Do we desire to set the captives of our global house liberated?
            Or are we just… too… comfortable?

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