This is a rough draft of my sermon on Sunday (Mark 1:9-15; 1 Peter 3:18-22). I will likely make some more edits and developments but I am curious if there is any feedback that I should take into consideration here.
At times the church gets criticized for holding on to outdated and backwards views of the world. And we do need to be open to these criticisms and concerns. But it is interesting to note that while many churches on the one hand are working hard to remove unhelpful ideas about mental illness being some sort of evil spirit or of heaven and hell as literal places in the clouds and in the center of the earth on the other hand we find so-called enlightened western culture fascinated with movies about books about zombies, vampires, demons, ghosts and all sorts of hellish creatures. Out of curiosity I went online to search for videos on YouTube about demon possession and exorcisms and I found plenty, some with millions of views. What is going on here? How do we discern these matters as a church? Is there a relationship between our current curiosities and interests in evil spirits and other hellish matters and what is happening with Jesus and the Devil in the wilderness and Jesus message to the spirits of the dead in prison? I think there may be a connection but I think the connection is in their opposition to each other. Let’s start by looking at our current and ongoing fascination with the realms of the dead.
I want to suggest that we take these contemporary expressions literally? Now I don’t mean literally in that they represent some other literal place or reality. I just mean what if we simply tried to plainly describe what we see in these expressions. So let’s take the global phenomenon of the Twilight series. Some found this series offensive simply because it dealt with vampires and werewolves much in the same way that people viewed Harry Potter negatively because it dealt with magic. But in these instances I think it always more important, at least at first, to describe as plainly as possible what is actually happening. So Bella, a human teenage girl, begins relationships with two teenage boys Edward and Jacob. We find out in time that Edward is a vampire and Jacob is a werewolf. And what we find then is that Bella is attracted to the vitality of Edward who deep down really wants to suck the life out of her. Bella also begins a friendship with Jacob who when provoked becomes a jealous and possessive beast who can’t control his anger. I am more interested in seeing how the plot lines plays out these common dysfunctional relationships as opposed to getting worked up simply because they are vampires and werewolves.
I mentioned earlier that I searched online for videos about exorcisms or demon possessions. I was struck by one particular commonality in these scenes. The person possessed was almost always a woman and when it was man the person was almost always non-white. So again I want to describe plainly what I saw in one of these videos. I saw a woman literally bound to a chair. A man was standing in front of her naming and taking authority over the evil he sees within her. At one point she began reacting aggressively and so other men around her began to bind her more firmly in the chair with various straps. I actually have no interest in trying to ‘uncover’ whether that scene was entirely staged or not because I think that misses the point of what is actually happening.
I want to suggest that at least one of the unconscious motivations behind some of these interests in death and evil is our need to both express and deny the realities we are dealing with. In some ways the reality of our fears and struggles are right there on the screen. How do we deal with a relationship or expression that is exciting but threatens to suck the life out of us? How do we help people in abusive controlling relationships? What do we do when we feel bound and gagged as though we cannot speak until someone in a superior position authorizes what we can say? These things are right there in front of us on the screen and in the books. But at the same time many of these expressions deny our reality or at least deny us the ability to respond. These realities are placed in the hands immortal vampires or charismatic religious leaders. The problems are translated into intangible and allusive demons and other realms. These expressions reflect our real fears and desires but then just as quickly they are sent off to some place we intentionally don’t have access to.
So while some people criticize the genre of horror or fantasy as too intense or as pushing the boundaries of civil and moral society I think the reality or effect of these expressions is often the opposite. Now I want to be clear and say that I am not condemning the genre of fantasy or horror because often these imaginative forms can help us to see things in a different light. The book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature is a case in point. However many contemporary forms have a negative effect not because they are too extreme but actually because they are too conservative in how they entrench ideas of dominance through gender roles, sexism, or the prejudicial treatment of minorities. The destructive nature of some of these expressions is that we get distracted by thinking that these things exist in some other realm. It is at this point that our readings of Jesus can relate but they do so coming in the opposite direction.
So while contemporary expressions of hell and devils tend to emphasize the graphic possibilities of these realities, as do other biblical accounts at times, our readings this morning actually greet us with silence. The book of Matthew gives some details about what Jesus and the Devil talked about but Mark says nothing. We have no access to it. Then in our reading from Peter we hear that Jesus went to spirits of the dead in prison to make an announcement. Again, we have no details. I think part of the reason we create such graphic and fantastic images around the questions of hell and evil is because we are most of afraid of the silence that it requires of us. Even in the book of Matthew find that Jesus spent 40 days alone before he spoke to the Devil. There are no distractions here. We must face the demons and the hell that we see and encounter. We cannot appeal to the immortality of youth represented in vampires. We cannot appeal to illusion of strength represented in werewolves. We cannot submit to false of authorities of religion that abuse gender and race. We must seek each other and gather in these places because we know that the Gospel has been proclaimed here to.
Perhaps an image then for Lent is Job. The devil, in a way, possesses Job or at least possesses all that forms his life. And perhaps one way of interpreting the friends that gather around Job are as misguided exorcists. Throughout the book they attempt to claim authority over Job’s life and how the devil’s presence can be exorcised. But Job rejects this. Despite feeling like he is in the wilderness with Devil or bound in prison with the dead he maintains that there is no shortcut to his redemption. He will not be satisfied with the gods that are presented to him along the way. He is not satisfied with the god who wants to cruelly test him. He is not satisfied with the god who wants him to grovel in repentance. He is not satisfied with the god who is only interested in finding something wrong about him. So Job waits. But he does not wait passively. His waiting is filled with the struggle for truthfulness in his situation. This truthfulness is based on the belief in a God who whose only interest is in freedom and life; a God who will be found in the devil’s wilderness and in the depths of hell.
This is our hope and our challenge for Lent. The Word that was in the beginning with God is also with you. There is no place this word will not go for the sake of life. It is our call to accept nothing less. There are many gods available to us in our culture that promise to ward off the threats of demons and of hell but they are simply false. They will, in the end, ask more of you then they are ever able to offer. May we learn to gather so that we might see and encounter the God of life; the God who is only present when life and freedom occur. This is the only God we worship. This is the only God we follow whether it is into the wilderness or through the depths of hell.