Whenever preachers run across a text that talks about demons, we are tempted to skip that part and keep reading. But when you read through the Gospel of Mark, it gets hard to do that. It starts off in the beginning, in chapter Mark 1. After Jesus calls his disciples, the first thing they do is encounter a man with an unclean spirit inside the synagogue. A few verses later we're told that Jesus took the disciples throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message and casting out demons. Then in chapter Mark 3 Jesus sends the disciples out on their own to proclaim the message and cast out demons. You keep finding those phrases put together in Mark—proclaim the message and cast out demons. They're almost used interchangeably, synonymously. In chapter Mark 5 Jesus heals the Gerasene demoniac, a man driven out of his mind with demons. In chapter Mark 6 Jesus again sends out the disciples to proclaim the message and cast out demons. In chapter Mark 7 he casts a demon out of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman.
When you start preaching filled with the Holy Spirit, don't be surprised if the congregation starts convulsing.
If you stay with Jesus you will find it unavoidable to deal with the demonic. That is because Jesus is a Savior, and it is the nature of the Savior to go to places where evil has taken over, where it is sucking the life and spirit out of people. We may call it by more socially sophisticated names today, but do any of us deny there is an evil at work in the hearts and souls of people both within our congregation and outside? Mark will not allow you to deny that Jesus has called you to do something about it: Proclaim the message and cast out the demon.
In Mark 9, Jesus has gone up to the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John—the first string of the disciples. While those guys are away, the other disciples are asked to cast a demon out of a little boy. Though they knock themselves out, they cannot exorcise this demon. When Jesus returns from the Mount of Transfiguration, he finds his disciples arguing with the scribes.
This makes sense, because these disciples aren't feeling good about themselves to begin with. They're the second string. Jesus is away on study leave with the first string on the Mount of Transfiguration. They are left behind. This is their one moment to shine, to do what Jesus commanded, and they're flunking their one moment. They feel powerless to do what they've been told to do. So they argue. The disciples of Jesus always argue when we feel powerless. We argue with whomever we think has the power, like the scribes. We argue with each other. We argue with anybody who will listen to us. So this is not some ancient story we're looking at.
When the father of the demon-possessed boy sees Jesus, he rushes up to him and says, "Teacher, I brought you my son. He has a spirit. When it seizes him, it dashes him down and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not."
I know what it feels like to be asked to do something Jesus has commanded me to do and not be able to pull it off.
According to the leading cultural indicators, the number of unmarried teenagers having babies has doubled in the last 20 years. Even more frightening, the number of teenage suicides has tripled in the last 20 years, as has the number of teenagers convicted of violent felonies. Those of us who live near inner cities are getting used to having metal detectors in our high schools. Getting used to something like that in itself is evil.
Our kids could tell you about their struggles with such demonic things as materialism, which is distracting these kids from real values, or racism, which has taken on more sophisticated forms these days, or alcoholism, which is crippling these teenagers before they even get started in life. They'd tell you about the demons of loneliness or judgment.
And the parents of these kids, parents who know how hard the world can be on them, parents who are terrified for their kids, bring them to church on Sunday and look up at anybody who is standing in the pulpit, and they ask, "Can't you do something?" And we are trying. We are knocking ourselves out. We have the best youth director anywhere. We have great programs for these kids, mission trips, retreats. It doesn't matter how hard we try or what we do, we cannot exorcise the reasons to be afraid out there.
As you can imagine, those of us trying to do ministry in Washington, D.C., are in no shortage of pastoral opportunities. I mentioned that once to a friend who lives in the Midwest. He said to me, "You're not doing much good, are you?" He's right.
We have aids all over Africa. We have violence all over the Middle East. We have poverty all over the Third World. Every time I return from a visit to one of our partners in these places of dire need, I know the missionary staying behind in the slums and the violence starts praying, "Lord, I asked your disciple to cast the demon out of this place, but he could not do it. Jesus, you sent me a second stringer."
We cannot cast out the evil all by ourselves. That's the good news. The day you come to that realization is the day you are ready for a Savior. For salvation comes not through your power, not even through your powerful preaching. Salvation comes only through the power of Jesus Christ.
"Bring the boy to me," Jesus says. You ought to underline that three times in your Bible. "And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth" (ESV). This is quite a scene. The spirit sees Jesus and throws the boy down to the ground, and immediately the boy starts foaming at the mouth, rolling back and forth.
Notice that Jesus doesn't rush in to help this kid. In fact, it looks as though he's taking a medical history. This kid is flopping around on the ground, and Jesus looks to his father and says, "Whoa, how long has this been going on? Oh, and does he throw himself into fire? Fire, is that right? And water too?" When we read this, we want to break into the text and say, "Jesus, what difference does that make? Hurry up and fix this kid!"
Jesus never hurries. This drives me crazy. I am hustling for Jesus all the time, every day. I figure Jesus can at least move as fast as I can move. But I'm finally starting to realize the real question is, Can I move as slowly as Jesus moves? Getting rid of evil takes a lot of time. Preaching is never about what you or I make happen. It is always and only about what Jesus makes happen. And apparently Jesus is not in a hurry to get all the evil out of your congregation, is he? He certainly isn't in a hurry to get it out of the world. So the first question the preacher has to ask is not, How do you make people believe in Jesus? The first question you have to keep asking is, Do you believe in him? You get your answer to that question by asking, Are you trying to fix your church or are you bringing it to Jesus? "Bring the boy to me," Jesus says.
The work of Jesus Christ did not end on the cross. He did not abandon you to an overwhelming mission. He doesn't ask you to complete the work for him. Jesus rose from the dead, and he continues his work in the world through the ministry of the Spirit that proceeds from the Son and the Father. The ministry of that Spirit is to bind people to the healing, saving acts of Jesus Christ. So the question is not, Are you an effective preacher? The question is, Do you believe the Holy Spirit is still effective in binding people to the salvation of Jesus Christ?
The father said, "I believe; help my unbelief!" Who of us doesn't know that prayer? We do have belief, but we cannot deny we have a lot of unbelief and doubt in us. We doubt our sermons are going to make much difference. We doubt they'll do anything to cast out evil. But as honest as we are about these doubts and unbelief, we have to be honest that as tattered as it is, there is belief there as well: "Yes. I believe and need help with my unbelief." That's enough. That's all it takes. That is enough of a confession to cast out evil. For as soon as Jesus hears this rather lukewarm confession of faith, Jesus looks at the convulsing boy and says to him, "I command this demon to get out and to never enter this boy again."
After Jesus says that, notice, the boy's convulsions turn into terrible convulsions. The demon does a lot of damage to this kid on the way out. It gets worse before it gets better. When you start preaching filled with the Holy Spirit, don't be surprised if there's convulsing going on in the congregation. It hurts when evil leaves somebody. It hurts, because most people don't want the demon to be gone. Most people want you to give them tips on how to manage the demon. They want to make the demon their friend. Or if that doesn't work, they want to turn the demon into ambition so they'll at least be successful with all the churning they have going on. Or they want to turn the demon into despair, and they'll grow comfortable with their despair, saying, "This is as good as it gets." They'll trust the demon, because the demon is with them all the time.
When you start talking about hope, they're terrified to hope. If they hope, they're going to have to give up their best friend, the demon. It may be a tormenter, but at least it's always been there for them. That's when the convulsing starts. When you preach hope, convulsing comes. You start hearing things like, "We may need a different preacher here." Or they'll shake your hand and say, "This congregation is used to an intellectual kind of preaching." They'll do anything they can to get you off the hope subject. Or as someone said to me early in my ministry, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus—is that all you know?"
Let the convulsing go on. It doesn't matter. Bring the boy to Jesus, and he'll do the healing.
After the demon is finally gone, the boy is laying there cold and stiff, and everybody says, "That boy's dead." That may be what some people are saying about your congregation. It's not what Jesus is saying, because Jesus bends down and lifts the boy by the hand until the kid can stand tall. There it is again. Who is it that turns the dead back to life? Who is it that lifts up a congregation so it can stand tall? Only Jesus Christ. That means that preaching is not about phrases and rhetoric and technique. It's always about helping the congregation find the hand of Jesus, which will lift them up. That's why they're there, whether they know it or not. No other hand will do, only the hand of Jesus.
The disciples are alone with Jesus, still bothered by their performance. They say, "Jesus, what did we do wrong here? Why couldn't we get this demon out?" The Lord responds by saying, "This kind comes out only through prayer"—not through trying harder, not through better legislation, but only through prayer. If you're going to stand up in a pulpit and go after something evil in the world, you better have your spiritual act together. You better know how to pray, because neither you nor I have it in us to take on the demonic. We're not that good. But prayer engages us with all the power of heaven, even if the prayer is as meager as, "I believe; help my unbelief." When you start praying like that, you're going to see some miraculous things happen in your congregation. You're going to see heaven and earth come together in the proclamation of the Word, for in prayer you take your congregation and put it into the hands of Jesus.
Craig Barnes is pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, professor of pastoral ministry at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and author of The Pastor as Minor Poet (Eerdmans).