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Possessed by God’s Spirit

St. John’s Lutheran Church
28 January 2024 + Epiphany 4b
Mark 1:21-28
Rev. Josh Evans



Diana was a passionate and gifted art curator when she began to suffer from symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Possessed by illness, she started to experience vivid hallucinations, while John tried his best to enter into his wife’s world, to see what she would see.

As John reflects in a 2021 essay published in The New Yorker, “I had read that it did not help to deny the reality of these visions, so I stopped doing that. I began to deal with them as if I could see what she did. Friends were encouraged to make the same allowances… A fifth person at a dinner for four did not pose a big problem once you got used to this kind of thing. I informed the members of Diana’s reading group that she might refer to people who weren’t there, and they, too, made the adjustment… For years I have tried as hard as I could to see these things, to share Diana’s view of the passing world…”

Eventually, Diana’s illness became too much to manage at home – not to mention how it was taking its toll on John – and she moved into a dedicated care facility. By November of 2020, John’s visits with his wife were limited to Zoom and phone calls.

On one of their last calls, when it was expected that Diana would not live through the night, following complications from COVID, John started reading the first poem he ever wrote for her, only stopping mid-sentence when the grief hit him.

“You’re doing great, Dad,” their daughter encouraged him, “but she wants to know about the Flowery Man.” The Flowery Man had been one of Diana’s many, more gentle hallucinations, inspired by a flower pot in their hallway at home. “So,” John concludes, “I told her everything I knew.”

Even in the midst of Diana’s physical and mental decline, there is healing in this story, as John enters into his wife’s reality, right alongside her, seeing what she sees … indeed, seeing her.

To be seen like that is healing.

There is healing like that in the synagogue at Capernaum.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” the man with the unclean spirit cries out, under layers of anguish and isolation.

“There’s only one answer to that question,” one commentator suggests, imagining Jesus’s unspoken reply: “Everything. I have everything to do with you.”

Just as John lovingly and patiently entered into Diana’s reality to walk alongside her in her illness, to make her feel less alone, Jesus enters into this man’s reality to walk alongside him, to declare to him that he is not alone.

For perhaps the first time in this man’s whole life, he is truly seen by someone who has everything to do with him – demons and all – by someone who is so deeply invested in his well-being that he’s willing to enter into the “unclean” space where no one else dared to go.

And in that moment, the man is healed. Released from his demons, yes, but more than that: Made holy by the Holy One of God. Liberated from isolation and loneliness. Restored to community. Possessed by a new Spirit.

The very same Spirit that filled Jesus at his baptism, that accompanied him into the wilderness, that emboldened him to declare that the kingdom of God has come near, and that entered into the most painful and most isolated places of human existence to bring good news.

***

I wonder if they wanted to go back to their nets, their fish, and their boats – standing there that day in the synagogue at Capernaum, face-to-face with … whatever this was.

Or … I wonder if they heard, in that moment, those unspoken words: “I have everything to do with you.”

An epiphany of grace … as much as the words that called them to this moment: “Follow me, and I will make you.”

***

The forces that possess us are many. They weigh on us, they keep us up at night, they tell us we’re not “worthy,” that we’re not “good enough.”

Thanks be to God that they are no match for God’s Spirit.

The Spirit that sustains us in our baptism – “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in God’s presence.”

Hear the truth of the gospel today: We are possessed by God’s own Spirit:

A Spirit that never fades away, that enfolds us in infinite mercy, that bears us from death into life abundant.

A Spirit that makes us and names us beloved, that goes with us into the wilderness, that enters into our reality, right alongside us, and that assures us we are never alone.

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