Sunday, January 29th, 2006

Click here to read Mark 1:21-28.

My, oh my. I’ve known all along that the day would come that I would be called to preach a text like Mark 1:21-28. Part of Jesus ministry was the practice of healing, and not simply healing people from illness. The scriptures tell us that Jesus also called out unclean spirits—demons, we might say. In our cynical and “rational” culture, miracles are a tough lot to interpret and proclaim. When the miracle at hand is an exorcism—well, let’s just say this is when novice preachers such as myself start calling up their mentors and colleagues for advice.

Conversation number one: my friend and seminary classmate, Rosamond. I called her up and told her about the scripture this week, and confessed that I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the task of preaching a faithful and relevant sermon about it. She paused and thought for a moment, and I waited expectantly for her response. “Well,” she said, “Maybe you should just perform an exorcism. That should get the point across better.”

Taking an inventory of my spiritual gifts reveals that, no, casting out unclean spirits is not in my repertoire. Back to the telephone. Thank goodness for free minutes on the weekend.

Conversation number two: Julie, my mentor from First Christian Church of Pomona. “Katherine, just put a good word in for Jesus. That’s all you have to do: put a good word in for Jesus.”

With that golden advice in mind, I revisited the text for today, meditating especially on the powerful and healing presence of Jesus. The modern questions that initially clouded my mind started to dissipate. In fact, I think for us to genuinely understand this scripture and to prayerfully consider its import for our community of faith, we have to filter out concerns that are not very essential or helpful. For instance, we could easily be bogged down by questions regarding the nature of the unclean spirit. Well-meaning modern readers of the Bible often connect the dots between demonic possession and mental illness, assuming that the spiritual ailments afflicting Jesus’ contemporaries were actually misunderstood conditions like schizophrenia or depression. We have no way of knowing, but by focusing on the nature of the affliction rather than the nature of the healing, we miss the whole point.

So here we are, in the first chapter of the gospel according to Mark. Thus far, John the Baptist has preached, baptized, and gotten himself arrested. Jesus has been baptized, spent 40 days alone in the wilderness, and called four fishermen to be his disciples. This is how it is with Mark; he races to tell this story, and curtails much of the detail we expect from the other evangelists. It’s no surprise, then, that in retelling the tale of when Jesus visits Capernaum on the Sabbath, he tells us that Jesus teaches, but doesn’t clue us in on just what Jesus was teaching that day. When Mark writes that those present in the synagogue were “astounded at his teaching,” he isn’t so concerned about the content of Jesus’ teaching as the marvel of Jesus’ authority. Something about the way Jesus embodies the message he delivers catches everyone completely off guard. Jesus is a man who clearly knows what he is talking about. And given the context, in a synagogue on the Sabbath day, we can guess that Jesus was probably teaching something about God. Jesus was not speaking as someone who had simply studied the scriptures; he was speaking as someone who intimately knew the One revealed in the scriptures. The distinction between humdrum and authoritative teaching is significant. We can imagine this as the difference between reading an instructional manual for flying an airplane and actually sitting in the pilot’s seat of a Boeing 737 during take-off, or the chasm between watching a reality TV show about weddings and walking down the aisle with one’s beloved. You just can’t compare the experiences, but the rush of adrenaline and joy is unmistakably real. So when Jesus comes in teaching not like a stodgy professor but like the very Son of God, people take notice. His authority—the power and truth of his presence—is simply amazing.

In the midst of this unexpected amazement, a man enters the synagogue. This man is in bondage to an unclean spirit. What’s more, this is an unclean spirit that knows beyond the shadow of a doubt who Jesus truly is. He comes bounding in, startling the amazed crowd, breaking the seal of their amazement, and shouts. “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.” Now, if we’re paying attention to the way Mark is telling this story, we’ll remember that this is the second time a spirit has named who Jesus is. The first happened during his baptism, when the Holy Spirit tore the heavens asunder and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” What Mark is trying to do here is simple: he wants us to see that both holy and unclean spirits alike recognize who Jesus is. The Holy Spirit is well-pleased, descending like a dove to rest upon Jesus’ river-drenched body. But the unclean spirit is terrified. The unclean spirit knows that if God is in this synagogue, its days of strength and power are numbered.

The man who had been in bondage to this unclean spirit is something of a mystery. We don’t know how long the unclean spirit had enslaved the man. We don’t know if his captivity caused the man to be marginalized and rejected by his community. We don’t know if the man had done anything to deserve his poor fate, or if he, too, recognized that Jesus Christ would be his salvation from the dark force engulfing his life. All we know is that Jesus silenced the unclean spirit and commanded it to leave the man. The man convulsed, the spirit cried, and this victim of oppressive evil became free. And Mark, in his usual brevity, moves on. He doesn’t bear witness to the man’s tears of gratitude. We are not privy to the rest of his story, how he reclaimed his life after Jesus liberated him from suffering.

Nope. All eyes are on Jesus. Even after this dramatic miracle, the people are still hung up on his astounding teaching. “What is this?” They exclaim. “A new teaching—with authority!” The exorcism of the unclean spirit is almost an afterthought; it merely confirms the authority revealed by his teaching. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

I love that question, “What is this?” It captures the breathless amazement of these astounded worshippers. They came to the synagogue that morning, believing that it was going to be an ordinary Sabbath. After a lifetime of hearing lackluster teachings that lacked the authoritative pizzazz of Jesus’ message, they probably didn’t expect to encounter the Holy One of God that morning. Or maybe they did. Annie Dillard says that we don’t dress properly for church, with our hair fixed just right and our nice clothes on. She says we should gather for worship wearing hard hats, because we never do know when the Spirit of God is going to shake everything up.

In this passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus is powerful, wise, and obviously attuned to the grace and wisdom of the scriptures. Jesus is deeply connected to the Spirit of God, who calls him Beloved Son. His unprecedented teaching startles a tired congregation into amazement. And in this passage, we realize that this holy authority comes at a cost. The unclean spirit arrives as a direct consequence to the presence of Jesus in the synagogue that day. That spirit comes specifically to call out Jesus as the Holy One of God, and to find out if this rabbi from Nazareth is as powerful as it fears.

In the brief interaction between Jesus and the unclean spirit, we see a glimpse of the whole life and ministry of Jesus Christ: he comes, he teaches, he is challenged by the forces of evil, and he is victorious. He liberates the man from bondage to the unclean spirits, and gives him new life.

This is our good word about Jesus for the day: this Great Teacher reveals that God is infinitely more powerful than the powers and principalities that enslave this good Creation. By the sheer force of his words, Jesus silences the wicked spirit and offers lasting salvation to its victim.

Thanks be to God, for the gift of his Son, the Holy One, who is our Lord and Savior. Amen.

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