Pentecost 17.18 “A Wonderful Way With Demons” Mark 9:14-29
Jesus called 12 guys, a year or two before today’s Gospel, to be His Apostles. “Apostle” is a Greek word that means “one who is sent”. Like an ambassador. You represent the King. Matthew 10 gives the full account of what Jesus sent these 12 out for. To preach the Gospel. Forgive sin. Heal the sick. Cast out demons. Pretty cool stuff, right? Later, Jesus sent out 70 others for the same thing. This is reported in Luke 10. And the 70 fared exceptionally well. They came back all excited saying: “Lord! Even the demons are subject to us in Your Name.” Which Jesus says is actually not as exciting as having our names written in heaven…
But; all good, right? The Gospels should be filled with stories of the 12 and the 70’s super-hero exploits, right? And uh, not exactly. Instead, we see the 12 do not exactly get Jesus most of the time. His Story flies over their heads, though they give a Lutheran “Yes!” whenever Jesus asks “Got it? Or not?” Peter tries walking on water with Jesus—which goes extremely well until it doesn’t. He earned his nickname, “Cephas” (“Stone”) from that, as in “sinks like a…” He’d be fish food without Jesus’ hand.
James and John were out apostling once. Their assignment, which they chose to accept, was to go to a Samaritan village and tell them Jesus is coming. But the village would have none of it. James and John ask permission for an air strike—figuring a little fire from heaven as Elijah conjured up from time to time was just the ticket, here. Jesus told them they didn’t get it or get Him if they thought He’d given them power for destroying life. Jesus, see, is all about saving life—even the lives of the bad guys.(!)
So, surprisingly, these Apostles, divinely empowered and inspired as they are, mess up a lot. They are known more for mistakes than for successes. But today, we see them trying to save a life, as Jesus has charged them, and you think, “Well, they’ve been sent for this purpose. This should be right in their wheelhouse. This should go well.” And it does not go well. Jesus has been up on the mountain being transfigured, with Peter, James, and John. He’s left Andrew to provide leadership for the rest of the 12. That should go well. Andrew is a good guy, a higher aptitude apostle, generally, than Judas, the other Judas, Simon the Less, Thaddeus, et. al.
A very nice man [with a very severely demon possessed son] comes up to the Apostles asking if they could please cast the demon out of his son. The Apostles are like, “Hey, sure, man! No problem. We’re trained professionals. Stand back a little, watch and be amazed!” And I don’t know who went first, [Andrew probably]: “Demon! YOU SHALL NOT PASS! BE GONE!” like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. And… nothing happens. Everyone is kind of amazed, just not in a good way. “Are these guys really going to be pastors?”(!)
Lebbaeus, a.k.a “Thaddaeus” (he had different names, apparently depending on what area they happened to be riding through, because, well… we don’t want to get sidetracked with that unfortunate business with the law. It was probably a misunderstanding). And Lebbaeus, Thaddeus, whatever, goes: “You know; maybe it’s all in the wrist? I’ve watched all the Harry Potter movies, pretty closely, because they have wizard powers kind of like ours, and Harry usually uses a little more wrist, “Demon! Be Gone!” but with a little wrist flick on “GONE”; know what I mean?” And they try it—with more wrist. And that worked like my friend Barry, [also a Lutheran pastor] who was visiting our friend Jeff [a Baptist pastor] years ago. Jeff had a hunting dog locked in the basement who was whimpering to get out and meet the guest. Barry said, “Bring him out!’ And Jeff said, “No, Toby is a very badly behaved dog.” Barry said, “I have a wonderful way with dogs.” So, Toby comes out, charges up to Barry and Barry goes [with no wrist], “Sit!” And Toby jumped on Barry and did some, uh… disgusting things to his leg. Jeff is rolling on the floor, laughing. “Barry has a wonderful way with dogs!” (like the Apostles have with demons!). Jesus’ help remains at a surprisingly low level, present company included, sad to say. I mean; look where this sermon illustration has gone…
Anyway, it’s about this exact instant that Jesus and the other 3 show up and the crowd comes running to Him, recognizing the only Adult in the room. And Jesus goes, “What up?” And they tell him that His Apostles have a way with demons like my friend Barry has with dogs (I think that’s how the NIV reads?). And Jesus goes “Faithless generation! How long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring your son to Me.”
And as they brought him, the demon seizes the boy and makes him thrash around on the ground, foam at the mouth, and go rigid. Jesus goes, “How long has this been going on?” And the distraught father goes, “Long time! Since childhood. And sometimes worse than this! Often he’s thrown into the fire and into the water to destroy him.” Jesus goes, “That’s bad.” The father is like, “Right? But, if You can do anything…” and Jesus goes, “if you can? If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes!” And the father utters that most quotable of lines from Holy Scriptures, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
Jesus [with no wrist] commands the spirit to get out, and it gets out; but—and this is very interesting to me—the spirit cries, convulses the boy one more time and leaves the boy apparently dead. The crowd goes, “He’s dead! You made it worse, Jesus! Good going!” And this, I think is how Jesus’ “help” often look(s) to us. He makes us worse (much worse!) before anything gets better. With “help” like Jesus gives, maybe you’re better off with a demon or two? This is why St. Paul says Christianity is a scandal, an offense, a hard sell—and why the Apostles are not salesmen, peddling the Gospel by clever marketing stratagems, making it all appealing and attractive to outsiders.
The Apostles are just like their Master—they make things worse to make them better. They kill in order to make alive(!). They wound in order to heal. They offer something so spectacularly unappealing that only the very foolish would want in on that. But Jesus has a very “you break it, you buy it” mindset. He takes the boy by the hand, as His very own, and raises him up. Which is exactly how this Christian thing goes for us all. Christ breaks us in order to own us. He shares His suffering and dying with us as the only Way that we can share in His forgiveness, life, and salvation. The power and the glory of Christ’s Kingdom come in an opposite-land kind of way…
Which is why the Apostles are inept, I think. If God can bring us Jesus through guys like us; well(!)…. He’s pretty powerful, indeed! Our apostolic ineptitude shows that the power is not in us—not in our way with dogs, not in the wrist, not in our clever plans or programs for “growth”, not in prayer and fasting, either! No; the power is all in the Cross of Jesus—in the killing which truly makes alive, the suffering and shame that is the real power and glory of God.
Jesus frequents the low places—crosses, tombs, low-brow human stories, water, bread, wine. He hangs out with low-lifes like us to get us back in the High Life, again. Jesus has a wonderful way with demons; so Peace surpassing understanding will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.