Please Release Me
(Mark 1: 21-28)
I know you’ve heard me say it many times, but being the Jefferson County Drug Court prosecutor for four years was one of the most impactful experiences of my professional life. Now, it’s not as if I was naïve and had no idea of the toll substance addiction took on the person and those closest to them. I had, after all, been a Houston Police Officer, a Criminal Defense attorney, and a prosecutor in two states. I had seen it up close. Sitting around the table every Thursday for four years I heard countless stories of wrecked lives and debilitating despair from those caught in the crushing grip of addiction pleading: “Please release me, let me go.” They all had their own personal demons that controlled virtually every aspect of their lives. The demon’s appetite was so insatiable that every waking moment was spent feeding the demon. They were miserable and Drug Court was their last and only hope to regain some semblance of control of their lives.
Our Drug Court was a 12 step, faith-based program that did not require the participants go to church. What they were required to do was to admit that they were powerless over alcohol or drugs and that their lives had become unmanageable. They had to believe that a power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity. They had to make the decision to turn their will and lives over to God’s care as they understood Him. They had to make a searching fearless inventory of themselves and admit to God, themselves, and another human being the exact nature of their wrongdoings. They had to be entirely ready to have God remove all of their defects of character and ask Him to remove their shortcomings. And, through prayer and meditation, they had to seek to improve their conscious contact with God as they understand Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for them and the power to carry it out.
And that’s what the Apostle Mark is talking about in our Scripture reading for this morning, the turning over of your life to God, repenting of your sins, and asking that you be released from the bondage of sin and lawlessness, praying for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out.
We know from last week’s sermon that Jesus had just called the first four of his disciples, fishermen who dropped their nets and accepted his call to follow him. Mark tells us that Jesus and his followers went into Capernaum which is significant because up until this time Jesus was preaching and teaching out in the countryside. The city of Capernaum was a thriving town with great wealth as well as more than their fair share of sin and decadence. And because it was the headquarters for many Roman troops, pagan influences from all over the Roman Empire were pervasive. This was an ideal place for Jesus to challenge both Jews and non-Jews with the gospel of God’s kingdom. So, Mark tells us that immediately on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and started teaching. Now you might be asking yourself how could this happen? Wouldn’t the preacher have stepped forward to stop him? I can’t see our pastor standing by on a Sunday morning and allowing some stranger to come in off the street and start preaching. That’s not how it’s done, but it might be a nice change. Good question. The custom at the time was that Jewish men would gather on the Sabbath at the local synagogue to listen to a rabbi teach from the Scriptures, and because there was often no permanent rabbi or teacher, it was customary for the synagogue leader to ask visiting teachers to speak. This is why Jesus often taught in the synagogues in the towns he visited. He would seek out the leader and ask for an opportunity to read from the Scriptures and give his interpretations of God’s holy word. Mark tells us that the people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts who were probably sticking to a tried-and-true script. The Jewish teachers often quoted from well-known rabbis to give their words more authority, much like when I reference John Wesley or our Book of Discipline. Jesus didn’t have to do that. Because He is God, he knew exactly what the Scriptures said and what they meant. He was the ultimate authority. The power and authority of his message was evident as we are told that there was a person with an evil spirit in the synagogue listening who suddenly screamed out: What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the holy one from God. Not that Jesus needed this sort of validation from an evil, unclean spirit, but it shows that even the unclean spirits, especially the unclean spirits, knew that Jesus is the Holy One sent from God. Silence! Jesus said, speaking harshly to the demon. Come out of him! The unclean spirit shook the man, screamed, and then came out of him. What a sight that had to have been as Mark tells us that everyone present was shaken and questioned among themselves, “What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!” And Mark tells us that right away the news about Jesus spread throughout the entire region of Galilee. You think?
Freeing this man from the unclean spirit is precisely the mission of Jesus Christ as was evidenced by the rhetorical question of “Have you come to destroy us?” Once freed from the power of sin, a child of God is then free to cooperate with the presence of God’s prevenient grace and endearing voice. And that, to me, is the whole point of Mark’s recounting of Jesus’ casting out this demon. It’s not a debate as to whether or not demons really exist. If you have succumbed to the powers of an unclean spirit, the temptations of an addiction whether it’s alcohol, legal or illegal drugs, gambling, pornography, or any other illicit desire, the demon is as real to you as it is to your family and friends. Many was the time I was approached by the loved ones of a potential drug court participant and was told that I was wasting my time and taxpayer’s money. It was hopeless and the best place for the afflicted person was prison. We would then have a conversation two years later where the same person would come to Drug Court graduation amazed at the transformation exclaiming: “You’ve given me my daughter/son back. How can I thank you?”
Mark’s point in emphasizing Jesus’ conflict with evil powers was to show His superiority over them which is why he recorded many stories about Jesus driving out evil spirits. And Jesus didn’t have to conduct an elaborate exorcism ritual. His words were enough to send out the demons. And His word is still good. All you have to do is ask: Please release me, admit that you are powerless over your demon, that your life is unmanageable and believe that Jesus’ power is greater than yours and He will restore your life to the life you were always meant to live as a redeemed child of God.
Let us pray.
Yes, Father God, when the storms of life are raging, stand by us, and in the midst of tribulation, stand by us, and in the midst of faults and failures, stand by us. Lord, we pray for your grace, mercy, love, and understanding as we try to do the best we can and we know that more often than we’d like to admit, we put ourselves first and fall woefully short of your glory. And Lord, sometimes we are overcome by our selfish desires and find ourselves in the grips of temptation and sin with no way out on our own. We pray, Lord, for your intervention, help us Lord, please release us from that which keeps us from being all that we can be in your service. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.
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