Psalm 111; Mark 1:21-28

Seriously, what’s wrong with this guy? Who uses Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream as a bulletin cover? Well, as if it were a mitigating factor, it wasn’t originally my idea – one of my favorite worship blogs suggested it – but I suppose I made the choice either way, right? Fine. The fact remains, I’m not the one who put this story about demon-possession in the Gospel.

Munch’s description of the inspiration for the painting sounds more than a little demoniac, as it happens. He wrote in his diary:

“I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”

Isolation, disorientation, a sense of cosmic anguish: doesn’t that sound like the kind of “evil spirit” Mark’s gospel might have been referring to? We know the isolation part for sure, because the word “evil” here means “unclean,” as in ritually prohibited from entering the synagogue. This was a man who was cut off, alone, with the world melting around him.

It’s a little hard to tell what kind of conditions the biblical authors meant when they talked about demon possession, and we could spend a long time puzzling over ideas about mental illness, social structures, or supernatural beings. The point, I think, is that there are forces (within and around us) that undermine our ability to make the decisions we rationally and emotionally know we should. Sometimes those can rise to the level of clinical dysfunction, but I think more often they’re about the patterns of our interactions with people, the habits we unwittingly practice, the institutions we love and hate.

For what it’s worth, I think there’s maybe something useful about a figure of speech that portrays these aspects of life as alien spirits that do battle with our true selves. We mustn’t take that metaphor too far, but there’s power in knowing that there are things about us that ultimately are not us. It means that we can say ‘yes’ to some things and ‘no’ to other things, without having to give up on everything about ourselves.

In fact, facing down these “demons” can actually tell us more about ourselves. In the early part of Mark, nobody truly understands who Jesus is except for the unclean spirits. We know that our demons come out especially when truth and justice stand to prevail. Often, it seems like just as we start to change our lives, something else tries to undermine the life-giving power of truth. When we’re doing that work, we have that much more need to center ourselves in a reality greater than our demons.

For almost four years in the early 1990s, the city of Sarajevo was besieged by Yugoslav and Serbian armies. The toll on Sarajevo’s civilian population was horrendous, including one attack that killed 22 people waiting in line for bread. In response, a musician, Vedran Smailović, began to play his instrument in public, in the ruins, while the violence was still going on. He held the line of beauty and harmony in the face of war’s demons, and he turned out to be instrumental in motivating Western Europe to do something about the atrocities going on. I’m sure the demons spoke his name and tried to shake his confidence, but something deeper drove him on.

Our stands may be less heroic, but they’re similar: choosing to do away with an old grudge, entrusting yourself to a twelve-step process, even reaching out to someone who is shunned by the rest of the people at your school or workplace. We know that these stands get us called out. The demons know our name, our identity, and they will resist what we do to bring health into the world. But that’s just it: the capacity for health is embedded in our deepest identities, and anything that draws us back to that divine reality is the power of God.

The power of God is real in the world. It’s working for healing and growth among us. It’s drawing us joyfully to each other and peacefully into ourselves. God’s power expresses itself in our fundamental identity as the holy people of God, and we find the power to be God’s people any time we come back to that basis. Most of the spiritual disciplines, like circling prayer or self-examination, are about remembering this identity so we can live more fully in it.

I know who you are: you are God’s own beloved, chosen to bear good news to the world. Thanks be to God!