When I look at the choir I remember that I was a teenager our church choir traveled to Nashville. In our free time we visited the “Grand Ole Opry.” Minnie Pearl and the gang weren’t there that day. Instead, a faith healer was putting on a show. He’s actually still on TV these days but I won’t name names. But, there was a lot of flash and drama and people were coming forward in droves to be healed. One man who might have been considered demon possessed in Jesus’ day, came forward. He could talk but it was all garbled. He couldn’t speak clearly. They kept trying to get him to say “Jesus” but it never really happened. I watched as the faith healer hit the man on the forehead and he fell to the ground. He commanded the man to speak. What he said simply sounded like a louder version of the same man. After all he had just been hit on the head. But they pulled him up, said he was healed and took his money. It was not amazing. It was heartbreaking.Healing in Jesus’ day wasn’t much different. People put together a series of incantations, sometimes literally with smoke and mirrors. It didn’t work but it’s all people expected. But then Jesus comes into their midst, and they were amazed. Not in the way we use the word today-like some new amazing gadget we see on TV like “the Amazing Bamboo Steamer.” Amazed to experience something they’d never seen before, not sure what to make of it. Faith healers and exorcists had a lot of flash, but the synagogue did not. People weren’t flocking there perhaps because no one expected to be amazed.
Leaders were dedicated to memorization of Scripture and the interpretations. It took a long time but probably sounded more like someone reciting the Declaration of Independence than speaking real freedom. But then Jesus comes into their midst. And they were amazed because it seemed new and real. It wasn’t like a lecture and a heaping on the demands of the law. He spoke God’s word into life. His words. Engaging the spirit of the words, not just the letter of it. It was unsettling and amazing. Then things got really interesting.
If you recall, right after his baptism, Jesus had been driven into the wilderness to encounter evil spirits. Now evil came to his house for round 2, demanding Jesus mind his own business. “What have you to do with me? Go play in your own turf.” You see, the synagogue wasn’t considered by the spirits to be God’s territory. That ought to be unsettling and amazing too I think. But no one seemed to expect more. It would’ve been powerful but confusing as Jesus began reclaiming God’s world. What the disciples didn’t yet know was they would be given this same power by Jesus to heal and to cast out demons. You see, the spirits got it. Jesus’ followers did not.
We may still find it hard to imagine. Our modern day “faith healers” still leave us jaded. It’s hard to imagine what demon possession looks like, but we hope we don’t see anyone like that here. Our fears and doubts let us drag our skepticism to church. When this happens we allow sin and evil to claim that this really isn’t God’s turf. Yet, we and others are very much captive to what threatens to separate us from God and each other. It doesn’t need to look like foaming at the mouth to need God’s power to bring healing and freedom. If you want to see what tormented looks like, talk to the unemployed who wonder if there will ever be a job; or the lonely who wonder whether it matters if they get up today or if anyone cares. Talk to the immigrant who’s misunderstood and followed by security in every store just because of how they look; and those who are bullied like the Reading boy whose funeral was yesterday, who think there is nothing left to live for. It’s heartbreaking. Lots of things torment us and tell us we are beyond hope.
I had an experience of being with someone tormented in this way. An experience I never expected to be a part of. My internship church offered free breakfast Sunday mornings for sometimes 140 people in the city. A meal and Bible message. All walks of life shuffled in. Some had spent the night on the street. Others came from shelters, beginning the daily migration from place to place, meal to meal. Others were just hungry, alone or out of money. We met in a large room far away from the sanctuary. One day afterwards, I headed towards the sanctuary among regular worshippers, chatting and moving down the hall. Suddenly, a loud voiced bellowed out- “HEY YOU need to talk to me!” People awkwardly looked around, walking a little faster. The voice got closer and louder, “HEY! You need to talk to ME!” I realized he was talking to me, the person in the collar, and turned around confronted by a clearly agitated man. He was shifting and reeling, eyes darting from place to place. People in the hall scurried away to the sides. What was this about? Twitching and breathing rapidly, he kept trying to speak, getting red in the face. Sweat began dripping down the side of his head as he fidgeted with his coat. “I have to tell you something but …” “Well I need help but…” Lots of sentences without endings. He embodied being possessed and controlled by something.
Then Jesus came into our midst. I felt guided to place my hands on his shoulders and look him in the eye, saying “Stop! Tell me what it is you need to say.” He’d been out of work, staying with friends, but he battled addiction. He’d stolen from them to feed his habit. Battling guilt, he’d left without their knowing. But they’d realize he’d stolen stuff and there would be the law. Wracked with shame, consumed with the horror, as he spoke it was like you could see the torment swirling around him, nipping at him, mocking him, “it’s hopeless, you’re worthless, you can’t win, no one cares.” Around and around, captive to this, his body shook-possessed by the demons. No amount of seminary knowledge would help. I found myself saying, “Before we talk about what to do, you need to hear this: You are forgiven. By the power of Jesus Christ, God has already forgiven you. What God wants to know if you can accept God’s grace and forgive yourself. The cross is more powerful than all your fears.” Tears flowed, I marked him with the cross, his shoulders relaxed, the grip on his face erased, the convulsions stopped.
Real healing power, hope and support replaced heartbreak, isolation and doubt. It was entirely the power of Jesus in our midst that made it possible. Overcoming our doubts and fears. It was unsettling, amazing and real. This is the power to change and reclaim lives in the kingdom. Jesus is our midst today, confronting all of our brokenness, and longings. Reminding us that he heals to show the reign of God is come near. God’s amazing power continues!So in the name of Christ, and by his power, I invite all who seek any healing and reconciliation: Entrust yourselves to God. Come. Receive a sign of this healing and wholeness from the One who claims us. Come close to the one whose name IS health and salvation, and who calls us to go tell so that all might be healed. And let us proclaim this healing to a tormented world.