God With Us...When We Must Be Bold

God With Us  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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Jesus meets the man with the unclean spirit in Capernaum and rebukes the spirit. As we struggle with mental anguish and despair, especially now in this difficult season, we lean on the Holy One of God for healing and our communities for support.

The New Revised Standard Version The Man with an Unclean Spirit

The Man with an Unclean Spirit

(Lk 4:31–37)

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

As we look at texts where God shows up and is “with us,” we have to wrestle with what it means for God to be present in very difficult, unclean, disorder parts of our lives. I know it can be difficult to fully admit it. But right now, especially, so many of us are feeling the burden and the cracking of our physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health. As we examine this text today, I want us to consider the man with the unclean spirit as a picture of the burden that so many of us are bearing as we try to hold it all together right now.
Before diving into some of the text, I want to simply ask: How are you doing? I mean, honestly. If you stopped for just a moment to consider, how might you rate your wellbeing in the areas of physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health? On a scale of 1 to 5, perhaps? Are you thriving or surviving? Are you suffering or struggling? Are you doing ok, managing well enough?
We have to learn to be honest with ourselves about our health and wellbeing. Perhaps its easy to acknowledge where you’re at physically. But more sticky can be the issues of mental and emotional health. We often don’t like to look down the well of these things, look into ourselves with honesty, because we are often uncomfortable with what we find.
But in order to be a people of God who are for each other, who seek to thrive in a world that is broken, we HAVE to be honest about mental health, emotional health, spiritual health. That is where the man with the unclean spirit is so helpful for us. He enters the synagogue with it all hanging out — heart on his sleeve and strong emotions out in the open. Its uncomfortable, for sure, but it is also so helpful to his community. When his community can see this, they can help, they can stand with him.
I’ve been honest with our church about some of my struggles with depression and anxiety. It has been something I’ve needed support for and I continue to lean on my family and friends for care so that I can stand strong in who I am, while also receiving grace for the times when I come in like the man with the unclean spirit and just start ranting. I believe in this honesty because it creates a culture where we don’t have to hide the pain. And so, I ask you, how are you? Do you have a space where you can honestly consider that question of health right now? If not, can we be that place for you, those people to lean on?
Let’s explore how this man meets Jesus, the Emmanuel, God with us, and finds his mental health cared for and healed.

The Text

We find Jesus teaching in the town of Capernaum, in the synagogue on the sabbath. Jesus and his community are at church. And Jesus is being bold, preaching the Good News with conviction and authority. People are listening and wondering at his words.
Enter our man with the unclean spirit. Now, the text doesn’t explicitly state that he is possessed by one demon or whether he’s having a nervous breakdown or whether he’s on something or what…it says he has an unclean spirit. But what we do know is that that spirit speaks in the plural. “Have you come to destroy us?” it says.
If you have ever encounter the anguish and struggle of mental illness, you know that while it might have roots in a singular trauma or chemical imbalance, it FEELS like it is legion, a full choir of voices that drag you down, an army to be battled.
This man should not have been at the synagogue, on the sabbath. He is unclean. He shouldn’t be there…and yet he is. He has come to a place where perhaps he hopes to find that healing, that cleansing.
And he knows who Jesus is. Not just that he’s from Nazareth, but with that that he is Emmanuel, God with us, the Holy One of God. The anguished unclean spirits in him know God when they encounter God. They know the authority that they have come into the presence of.
The text also says that Jesus had been teaching with authority. The trained theologians, the scribes, couldn’t take credit for the kind of boldness and power Jesus was bringing. His authority was something to pay attention to, something to heed. And thankfully so, because it is with this authority that Jesus speaks to the man with the unclean spirit.
Again, seen through the lens of considering mental health, there is great value in the authority of rebuke that we must level at these kinds of struggles. We need to take them seriously, as they effect the quality of our lives so greatly.
I want to acknowledge that in our church community, we have people of all ages and stages of life. Perhaps when you hear me discuss mental health, you hear me speaking of a taboo, something that “we just don’t talk about.” Perhaps you are at a place in life where you think it’s too late to consider the healing that could be possible around issues of depression or anxiety or trauma. Or perhaps you’re in a place of life that you simply write off the struggle as a byproduct of a busy life, career, family, finances — sure, I’m struggling with anxiety, I’ve got so much on my plate!
I want to say that while I understand the reluctance to consider our mental health as something to be cared for, it is so important that we pay attention to it. It affects everything. I talk about issues of mental health with my parents, who are in their 60s. (Hi mom and dad, if you’re out there watching). They may consider that they are set in their ways and have set patterns that they use to cope with stress. But we talk about it because it is a quality of life issue. And I’m going to keep talking about it with them, as they age, because I want them to thrive all the way to the end, I want them to have the help they need when the struggles get heavy. I want them to use the resources of therapy and care if they need it, just like I would want my 6 year old son to have that support at his stage of life.
And it is from this place that Jesus speaks to the man — rebuking the spirit. From a place of loving authority — he wants better for this man and for his community.
Jesus’ words are simple: “Be silent, and come out of him!” They are simple, but they are certainly commanding. There is no messing around here — first, to the spirit, be silent. Stop what you’re doing. Hush. The Greek word for silent is “phimoo” and there’s an emphasis on that last vowel “o”. My mind immediately turns to Spanish — “silencio” says the Holy One.
And it is with that authority that the unclean spirit responds.

The Authority of Christ to Dispel Our Pain…In Time

I want to pause here and consider the process. The Gospel of Mark moves quickly, wham bam, onto the next thing. The spirit leaves and everyone rejoices.
But…I want to pause and simply note that the healing process is not always so quick. In fact, the healing and pursuit of wholeness again can take a lifetime. It is slow work, finding our ground again when we find ourselves held down by forces of despair, panic, stress, and mental disorder.
And I want to pause to simply say that that is ok. It is ok if the healing doesn’t happen right away. We want it to, for sure. But the slow work of healing is why we need each other. We need to find patience and grace for the man with the unclean spirit, grace to walk with him through this season and find healing as a whole community with him.
That man shouldn’t have been at the temple — he was unclean, outside the bounds of ritual purity that the organized religion of the day required of him.
He needs a community that can hold his disorder and love him through it. He needs the rebuke that dispels that pain and he also needs to be able to walk day by day in the amazement of the healing that is ongoing, with people who care for and love him. I pray that is what he found as he met the Healing One, Emmanuel, that day.
What we find in this text is the God with Us…the God who is with us in the pain of our mental anguish, the struggle of being possessed with spirits of unhealth that would keep us from connection with true community. We find a God with Us who is bold in love and connection so that this man does not have to stay stuck there any longer.
I want to close with some bold words for our community.
Friends, we see so many examples in our lives right now that people are struggling. There is a looming crisis in our world, as we process through the collective traumas of this last year. Unless you’ve had your head buried in the ground, you have felt some of the impact of the global pandemic, the astounding death toll, and the fumbling steps toward restoration of our communities. Have you also felt the tension of the racial reckoning going on in our nation? Or the anxieties of the tumultuous election cycle? How about the financial burdens from losing a job or supporting a loved one who is out of work?
I want to challenge you, boldly, today, to take stock of how you’re doing. Not to make it worse, but to gain awareness. Let’s refer back to the questions I asked at the beginning of this sermon and try a simple practice to consider how we’re doing:
Take a piece of paper and make a list:
And then, on a scale of 1 to 5, rate how you’re doing in each of those categories. 1 would be “really struggling” and 5 would be “really thriving.”
Once you’ve rated each realm of life, consider…what influences the rating? In physical health, for instance, I’d say I’m about a 3. And I know I’m a 3 because I’m “doing ok” in taking care of myself in a lot of ways: sleeping pretty well, exercising a bit, eating more or less healthy. But it’s a 3 because I also know there are a few ways that I could certainly be thriving more and some things that feel like their struggling.
By taking stock, we can begin to see where we need help. It’s a tool like this that can help us be honest with ourselves and offer an opportunity to find the support we need.
In this text and in our worship today — we encounter Christ who is boldly stepping into our pain and leading us toward healing.
In our life together, we can offer this for each other, as well. But we must be honest with ourselves, with each other, to acknowledge what we need.
St. James Presbyterian Church, will you be a people who stand with each other in the struggle? Will you acknowledge the unclean spirits in our midst and seek to heal from them? Will you be honest about your own struggle so that we can care for you?
Last word: I know that some of us are struggling more than others right now. And I know that for some, it may be a matter of great consequence to even acknowledge that. I want you to know that we are hear for you. As your pastor, I am here. I want to talk with you about what you’re facing. I want to support you. We have a number of practicing mental health counselors in our congregation — they want to support you too. We do not have to go it alone. We do not have to get to the place where we run screaming into the church building in a fit of possessed rage. We can be here for each other.
I have a number of resources I would be happy to share if you want to dive in to this healing work. This is the joy of our life together — we journey with one another through the struggle. And there is such hope on the other side, such joy in healing, so much to celebrate as we receive grace upon grace from the Holy One of God, who loves you so dearly.
Come, all who are thirsty, to the well of God’s bold, healing love.
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