ST. AUGUSTINE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH, MORROW, GEORGIA
THE REV. BARRY GRIFFIN, RECTOR
Linda Blair had a birthday last Monday. I saw it in the newspaper. She turned 59.
Some of you are wondering, “Who the heck is Linda Blair and why should I care that she had a birthday?” On the other hand, some of you will never forget Linda Blair. At the age of twelve, she played a central character in the 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist. She portrayed a girl possessed by a horrible, relentless demon. It was her first big movie and people took notice. Linda Blair turned heads. Come to think of it, it was her head that turned, wasn’t it?
The Exorcist was on TV recently, and I hadn’t seen it in many years. When compared to today’s special effects, that scene where Linda Blair’s head makes one complete revolution seems primitive. But the movie as a whole still shocks and disturbs me, even after all these years.
William Peter Blatty died last year. The author of The Exorcist was 89 years old. After his death, National Public Radio did a piece on Blatty, and I was surprised to learn that Blatty was a man of faith. He was Roman Catholic. He was educated by Jesuit priests at Georgetown University. He wrote The Exorcist in response to another man’s novel that offended him greatly: Rosemary’s Baby. In Rosemary’s Baby Satan is born into this world, and Satan wins.
In The Exorcist Satan loses. The twelve year old girl is no longer demon possessed, and God wins.
In today’s gospel Jesus wins. Actually, there’s no contest.
Jesus goes to Capernaum and teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The people are astonished by his teaching. Unlike the scribes who quote sources from their received tradition, Jesus teaches by his own authority. He doesn’t need footnotes. He speaks the truth because he is the truth.
And the people notice. So does a man with an unclean spirit. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth,” the man cries. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
But Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”
The unclean spirit convulses the man. Then, crying with a loud voice, the unclean spirit comes out of the man.
God wins. And lest we forget, the man wins, too. The man is finally free. The man himself was never at fault. The man had an unclean spirit, but no longer. Now he’s finally free.
So, what are we to make of this strange account? Was this unclean spirit the same kind of demon that possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist?
I don’t think so. I think our modern-day concept of demon possession is shaped mostly from what we see on TV and in the movies and in the fiction we read. Those sources portray demons as extremely powerful and very frightening. Powerful, frightening demons make for good TV ratings, blockbuster movies, and bestselling novels. But let’s not confuse those things with the gospels. What we find in the gospels is quite different.
In the gospels, unclean spirits never win. They always lose. Sometimes they’re almost pitied. Whatever they are (and really, who knows what they are?), they don’t stand a chance when Jesus comes along. For Jesus, unclean spirits are just another opportunity: another opportunity to heal a person in pain.
Whatever they are, unclean spirits are no more powerful than disease or blindness or any physical infirmity. In the gospels, unclean spirits offer Jesus another opportunity to heal.
In the Christian scriptures, every healing account invites the question, what is it in me that needs to be healed? In today’s context we ask: what is it that torments me? What is it that will not let me go? What hurts me most? What needs to be healed, and will I offer it to Jesus?
Today’s gospel is not really about demons. Today’s gospel is about Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry. That’s where Jesus gets his authority: in teaching and healing.
The people of Capernaum were amazed, and they kept asking each other, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!”
Ultimately, God heals, and God wins. If you enjoy getting scared and the adrenaline rush that goes along with fear, you might enjoy movies about demon possession. (You might also have some bad dreams!) Just remember that such movies are fiction.
I acknowledge that there are things in this world we don’t understand. There are things that are mysterious and cannot be explained. But that’s not cause for alarm. There’s no need to fear what we don’t understand, especially for people of faith. We are called to trust God in all things, including those things we cannot understand.
God can be trusted. And ultimately, God always wins.
If you would like to respond to this sermon or receive future sermons by email, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org