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  • Writer's pictureRev. Caroline Barnett

Unclean Spirits, Caterpillars, and Jesus

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 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.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.


Sometimes when we read stories like this one from Mark, stories in scripture that have supernatural elements in them, like an unclean spirit or demon as they’re sometimes called, we have a tendency to ask— well, what exactly is that? If I don’t really believe in literal demons, what are they talking about? Are the writers referring to some sort of illness that we can now explain through science? How can I understand this story in a way that makes sense to my worldview?

That’s not a bad line of questioning, but it’s easy to get hung up on it, to the point where we can’t hear the story as it’s told to us.

We ask “how,” when we could be asking “why.”

So for now, I’d like us to suspend that question, and simply enter into the worldview that Mark inhabits. One where unclean spirits possess people, and where an exorcism is not the premise of a scary movie, but is a reality we all live in.

And with that question set aside, I’d like us to ask a different one of the text…

Why is there an unclean spirit in the synagogue?

Elsewhere in the Gospels, when Jesus meets people with unclean spirits or demons, they are separate from the masses.

In a world that is concerned about clean and unclean, holiness and impurity, unclean spirits and the people who they inhabit tend to live on the edges of the world. They reside in tombs or caves on the outskirts of town. They form their own sort society adjacent to the one that rejects them. They are certainly not allowed in a house of worship.

Even in instances of physical healings, where there is no unclean spirit to grapple with, in those instances still the people in need of healing are set apart somewhat, or their entrance into the crowd is disruptive, telling us that people think they might not belong there.

But here, the unclean spirit, at least as I understand the text, is a part of the crowd in the synagogue. And I doubt it is because the crowd is suddenly empathetic to the demon-possessed or ready to give up on the whole clean/unclean separation.

So it makes me wonder: Why is there an unclean spirit in the synagogue?

Did no one notice the man slipping through the side door, keeping his head down so as not to draw attention to himself?

Or maybe, unclean spirits are far less recognizable to human eyes, so this man possessed, just looks like a man.

Or maybe, there is a difference, but confidence is key, and so the man with the unclean spirit walked into the room like he belonged there, and no one batted an eye.

But even if the crowd doesn’t at first recognize the spirit as something supernatural, the unclean spirit recognizes Jesus as someone holy.

In a crowd of people taking in Jesus’ words, there’s only one who sees Jesus for who he is: Both Jesus of Nazareth and the Holy One of God.

It’s the supernatural recognizing the divine, like the spirit operates on a similar frequency to Jesus, so it have a better understanding of who he is and what he’s on earth for.

And so Jesus is teaching to a crowd of people and at least one unclean spirit, when the spirit calls Jesus out.

I know who you are, the spirit says. And I know you bring destruction with you.

In some ways, the demon is absolutely right. The demon knows that Jesus has a divine authority within him as well as a human heart. And it knows that Jesus has a power greater than any spirit that makes its home on earth.

It knows that Jesus will change things. It knows that Jesus is not content human suffering, with demons possessing humans, nor is he content with humans keeping the demon-possessed and the sick at the edges of society.

Jesus has come to destroy the ways in which the unclean spirits manipulate and control the world around them.

The unclean spirit is the only one in the room who sees Jesus clearly.

And it worries the unclean spirit. It is afraid of the implications of who Jesus is.

Fear is a very powerful emotion, but it’s not a bad one.

A healthy dose of fear keeps us from doing risky and ill-advised things.

There is a reason some people are afraid of heights: You could fall.

There is a reason people are afraid of the dark: There could be something hiding in it.

Fear helps us with our self-preservation, making sure we avoid the things that threaten our survival.

And the demon has that self-preservation instinct, so it’s afraid.

But just as fear can help us stay alert to danger, too much reliance on it keeps us from seeing other possibilities.

Fear keeps us alert to possible dangers in our way, but it also keeps us shackled to them. When we are afraid, we can’t imagine what exists beyond this moment; we can’t begin to imagine a scenario where we do not fall from the sky, where there is nothing hiding in the dark.

Fear tells the unclean spirit that Jesus is bringing destruction, but maybe he’s bringing something else, maybe he’s bringing transformation.

On paper, it might seem obvious that destruction and transformation are not the same, but when you are in the throes of change, of upheaval, and that fear of the unknown kicks in, it’s hard to tell the difference.

Because what might look like destruction to an unclean spirit is transformation and healing for the man it inhabits.

But either way, there is convulsing and crying. It is uncomfortable and perhaps even threatening. Transformation is disconcerting and challenging.

Transformation is not an easy process.

We only need to consider the caterpillar to know this is true.

Caterpillars that turn into butterflies are the embodiment of transformation. They go from squiggly little worms to a lifeless cocoon, and finally become beautiful butterflies.

If you’ve ever read the children’s book “The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar,” you might remember the caterpillar’s journey: A very hungry caterpillar hatches from a tiny egg, and each day of the week he eats his way through apples, and pears, and leaves, and ice cream cones until he is full, and builds himself a cocoon. And with the flip of a page, he emerges as colorful butterfly.

But the actual process of caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation is not as cute and sweet as the book might have led us all to believe.

Inside that cocoon, the transformation is kind of messy.

Inside their chrysalis, caterpillars literally disintegrate most of their body into a goo-like substance that resembles neither a caterpillar nor a butterfly.

Only once the caterpillar is no longer a caterpillar, it can begin to re-form itself into something new. But if you were to look at a cocoon while that transformation is taking place, you might think the creature inside is dead.

Sometimes the difference between destruction and transformation is having a lot of patience and a little bit of hope.

At the beginning of this sermon, I asked “Why is there a demon in the synagogue?”

The truth is I don’t know why. I don’t know enough about demons and spirits to know if it is a case of hidden identity, or breaking and entering, or if it just didn’t bother the people way I think it would.

But there is a demon in the synagogue who, before being exorcised, is shouting that Jesus is destroying things.

And maybe to some people in the crowd, the demon makes a lot of sense, because they are afraid. And fear is a very powerful emotion.

Maybe the things Jesus teaches about are intriguing, but they ask too much of the people. So, they are afraid. Afraid of change, afraid of something different than what they’re used to. Afraid of what they’ll have to give up.

Maybe the demon and its fear actually seem pretty reasonable.

I don’t know if there are demons in our world, but I know there is a lot of fear.

And that fear, at times, feels very reasonable.

In a world that is rapidly changing, some are afraid that things are changing too fast, and others not fast enough.

Some are afraid of people who don’t look, or think, or act like them. Others are afraid they’ll be forgotten by the world.

People are afraid of what this virus, and how it affects individuals, but also our community, our economy, our children, our future.

People are afraid things will never go back to the way they were. People are afraid that they will go back to the way they were.

There’s a lot to be afraid of because it feels like a lot of things are falling apart.

But sometimes the things we think will destroy us,

the ways in which everything is changing around us,

the ways in which we feel like we are disintegrating into caterpillar goo,

are actually transforming us and our world into something beautiful and new.

And like the caterpillar who builds herself a cocoon in order to fall apart, we too have it within ourselves to let go of fear and embrace transformation, even if the future is uncertain, even if the process is painful.

And like crowd around Jesus, maybe we can see the power and authority he brings to this world as amazing not frightening, full of grace and love, not fear.

We just need a lot of patience and a little bit of hope to believe it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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