January 31, 2021 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany The text is Mark 1:21-28.
21 [Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 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.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
To be fully transparent with you, I would prefer that the gospel lesson selected for this morning by the group of theologians that decides these things was a different one. Now, there is no hard and fast rule that states that a preacher must base their sermon on the lesson that the lectionary publishes for a specific Sunday. If I were to select a different gospel lesson to preach on, let’s say one of the ones that is much less difficult than this morning’s, I imagine you would probably be fine with that decision. Quite frankly, since we no longer use bulletin inserts, unless you were to Google the Revised Common Lectionary suggestion for this morning, you would likely not even be aware that I had opted out of this rather difficult passage.
I might have selected John 3:16, where we are told that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”. Very familiar and relatively easy to preach on. Or, maybe John 14:15, “if you love me, obey my commandments”, Jesus tells us. Pretty cut and dry, no? Or, finally, Matthew 16:24, “pick up your cross and follow me”, Jesus commands. Again, plenty of pithy material from which to compose an effective sermon. But no, that would be the taking the easy way out. As much as I would prefer to speak to Jesus’ sacrifice, commandments, or exhortation to follow him, I’ve chosen to meet the challenge of demonic exorcism since this is the topic of this morning’s official lectionary reading.
But I am going to touch on what, at first glance seems to be the main topic, the departure of the “unclean spirit”; and rather quickly move on to what I feel is the underlying message that St. Mark wants us to take away from this account of Jesus’ first public action. I’ll get to that part a bit later, but first I think we should set the stage for what’s happening in this morning’s gospel lesson. This encounter in the synagogue takes place very early in Jesus’ ministry; he has so far called only his first four disciples; Simon, Andrew, James, and John. As he is teaching on the Sabbath a man with an “unclean spirit” confronts Jesus, questioning his intentions and confirming his identity as Gods’ Son. Let’s not forget, we’re still in the season of Epiphany and most of the readings during this time speak to the discernment of Christ’s identity. How do we, 2,000 years after the fact react to this description of having an “unclean spirit” dwell in people? Those with unusual behaviors, irrational conduct, or even people suffering from physical illness were said to have an “unclean spirit” or a “demon” dwelling within them.
Today, we are blessed with a greater abundance of knowledge of biological and psychological conditions that we attribute as the cause for the maladies that people suffer from. Our ancestors didn’t have the same awareness of the causes of illness, physical or psychological. Nearly every affliction that people might fall victim to was attributed to demonic possession or being under the influence of an “unclean spirit”. Therefore, we can’t be certain exactly what caused the irrational behavior of the man who accosted Jesus in the temple.
But whatever was affecting him, the fact remains that he was cured of his affliction by Jesus’ Words. This is the first of many healings we will witness Jesus perform during our journey with him as we accompany him on his mission. The blind will see, the lame walk, a woman will be cured through the touch of his garment, Lazarus will rise from the dead. And each of these miracles further confirms Jesus’ identity and nature as the divine Son of God, the long-awaited messiah, sent to save the world from its sin. Add to the healings the other miracles Jesus performs and we once again find ourselves witnessing the epiphanies of those he encounters, as they also come to the realization of Jesus’ proclamation of the coming reign of God. Fishing nets bursting at the seams, water into wine, 5,000 fed with a few loaves and fishes, walking on water.
Taken individually, these events make us aware of the power that Jesus has to perform actions that are impossible for anyone but the Son of God. But, when viewed in total, this tends to bring us back to that underlying message of Mark that I referred to earlier. A little background for the bible geeks among us; scholars have determined that, contrary to its position in the bible, Mark’s gospel was undeniably the first one written. This is confirmed by examining much of what is contained in both Matthew and Luke, and the similarities these two others have to one another. Yet, each one omits portions of the story of Jesus’ ministry that Mark includes. I note this because it’s important that we understand Mark’s goal in writing his Jesus biography. He has taken quill to papyrus in an effort to inform his readers exactly what he feels is the most important aspect of Jesus’ identity. And this is the great big epiphany that Mark felt would bring people to understand the nature of Christ. Here it comes; Jesus has come to earth as One with authority. Authority to teach, to heal, to perform miracles, to ultimately take the place of a sinful humanity to redeem the world.
You will note that those Jesus was teaching in the temple and those who witnessed his healing of the distressed man were amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught and healed. St. Mark has recounted this very first miraculous event in his gospel as a revelation for his early readers. Jesus’ authority comes from God!
Now, this may not seem like a great revelation to us, since we have the benefit of the entire Bible, recounting for us all of Jesus’ ministry; healings, miracles, and resurrection from the dead. But it was exceedingly important for those 2,000 years ago, who were struggling to live under the heel of the occupying Roman empire. Their understanding that Jesus came directly from God and all that he did was under God’s authority, provided them with the hope that their suffering would be alleviated. And each time a blind man was restored to sight, a lame person walked, and the dead rose, more came to believe in Christ as the awaited Savior, come to rescue the people from their bondage. Whether in the form of unfair tax collection practices from Rome; or blindness, physical impairment, or the mental suffering from an “unclean spirit”. God granted Jesus the authority to bring about change; from this worldly existence to the fulfillment of the coming of the kingdom of God.
And this authority of Jesus that granted him the power to overcome seemingly unbeatable forces during his temporal ministry didn’t end with time on earth. In point of fact, Jesus’ authority was fully cemented three days after the cross, when he rose from the grave to defeat what was thought to be the strongest power on earth, death itself. This epiphany of ours, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God possesses the power that comes from authority granted by God; this is the knowledge that compels us to trust fully in God’s promise to restore God’s people to wholeness in the coming kingdom. The things we seek to control, we strive to overpower, to overcome, to reverse; these should be attempted while keeping in mind the power of the One with authority to handle them on our behalf. Our human existence is perilous at best. A different understanding of the cause of illness doesn’t negate the reality that disease and infirmity will always plague our species. Try as we might, odds are that we will never fully eradicate all the maladies that affect the world. That said, the knowledge that we have gained through God-given abilities to discover more and more the intricate workings of creation, will continue to ease the burdens that God’s children bear. Yet, many “demons” still wreak havoc in our lives. There are powerful forces that stubbornly refuse to depart from us; addiction, spiritual distress, physical and mental illness, poverty, hunger, homelessness.
While we ought to strive to overcome all that would diminish the lives of God’s people, be they ours or those of our neighbors, we must maintain that even as we struggle, we are witnesses to the power of Jesus Christ to bring healing to the world. Whenever we find ourselves reduced by the forces and situations that we face, our affirmation that Christ Jesus is the One with the authority granted by God is the greatest epiphany to ever bless humanity. Our assumptions about what is possible and what seems impossible may be overturned as we ponder all that Jesus has already =]accomplished. What we should always maintain is our amazement at the power that God has bestowed upon Jesus. The power of the gospel is not something that we relegate to the removal of “unclean spirits” 2,000 years ago; the Good News of God in Christ is manifested daily in our lives and in the world.
The gospel message is itself the revelation of Jesus’ authority; it is the epiphany of the nature, identity, and power of the One who is able change the world from what it is, to what it might be. “Unclean spirits” and “demons” don’t stand a chance!
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious and Holy God, we acknowledge that there are forces in the world that cause us to struggle. We also thank you that you have granted to Christ the power to overcome these things that seek to diminish the spirit of your people. And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the Good News of God who comes by your authority to save your children. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good.