This is based on a sermon I once used in 2012. I didn’t reference an author, but I suspect a lot of it is not mine, so thank you who helped me then and now with this.
My daughter Gina, who is 36, didn’t start college until she was 30. But she began spelling when she was 4. I remember her sitting on the floor at the foot of my mother’s recliner playing with Spill ‘n’ Spell dice (cubes with letters instead of numbers); she was arranging the letters into words and reading them to us. She was doing well, and she knew it. She looked up at my mother and said, “Aren’t I amazing?” We agreed. We were amazed.
But not as amazed as the men in the synagogue in today’s Gospel. Nor was Gina as amazing as Jesus. Not even as amazing as the book of Mark. When we sit down to read the Bible, we’re usually at leisure. We tend to read slowly, savoring the verses, reflecting on the story. There’s no rush. But Mark amazes us by grabbing us by the hand and pulling us along, rushing forward, and saying, “Come on! Come on!” anxious that we learn as soon as possible the story of Jesus. I have a picture in my head of a person flying along horizontally, yanked along by Mark, with those cartoon lines trailing after – and maybe a few clouds of dust – as we dash to and through the story.
The point of Mark’s story is that the Kingdom of God, God’s powerful presence is breaking into – God’s powerful presence has broken into – our ordinary world. And that’s – amazing.
How do we respond to that? We mostly lead pretty ordinary lives, don’t we? – We eat, we work (some of us), we fold laundry, we do our school work, we weed the flower bed, we clean the gutters, we pay the bills, we feed our horses – and cats – and dogs, we read, we watch basketball games. . . . Mark shows us divine intervention with Jesus breaking into the lives of some other ordinary people, ordinary fishermen, Simon and Andrew and James and John, who eat, work, sort and sell their fish, maintain their boats and nets. . . . How would each of us have responded to such intervention in our own lives? How do we respond to God’s presence in us today?
Mark’s story suggests that immediate action is appropriate. The fishermen immediately set their work aside and follow Jesus. Immediately. “And immediately on the sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches.” I looked at 13 Bibles I have at home – and checked an internet site called biblehub.com which gave me translations from 24 different Bibles and didn’t find the translation I just quoted [above]. Mark uses words that are translated “immediately,” “at once,” and such like more than ten times in the first chapter of his book alone. But there were many translations using immediately, straightway, just then, all of a sudden, as soon as etc. etc. etc.
“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; 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.’”
This is the first day of Jesus’ ministry, and immediately the confrontation with evil is on. No chance to dip a toe into the water to test it and then wade in slowly. Day one clearly establishes that the will and purpose of God, present in Jesus, // and the will purpose of evil as present in the demon // are engaged in a desperate struggle. Today, this Sunday, January 24, 2018, we are well past that first day, and the battle is not yet over.
The issues of good and evil are being fought out just as much here, where we live and move and have our being, as they were in the synagogue where Jesus was teaching. Evil is not something that we usually like to dwell on. I don’t often preach about it. When we come to church, we like glorious hymns of praise. We look forward to receiving the strengthening sacrament of the Eucharist. We greet our friends in peace. Nevertheless, the struggle with evil demands our immediate attention.
Think about the people we know who are addicted to drugs. We pray for them, especially when they are our own children or grandchildren or siblings. And it’s good to pray for them, to pray for the Lord to intervene in their lives and turn them around. In my gut – I feel really good on a visceral level when I pray that the evil, the demon of drugs, be completely, thoroughly crushed. Smashed. When I pray through clenched teeth that the purveyors of those drugs meet a fate like that of Pharaoh’s army when the sea came crashing in on them and annihilated them. – And then, of course, I find that I’m a bit startled at myself, realizing that I’m not praying for my enemies very compassionately. But enemies are one thing. Pure evil is another.
Isn’t it interesting that the demon in the synagogue, the embodiment of evil, sees more clearly than anyone else that in this Jesus of Nazareth is incarnated the will and purpose of God.
How would we have responded to Jesus’ presence that day? If the doors back there were to open and I said to you, “Oh, look! There’s Jesus!” you’d know immediately (there’s that Markan word “immediately” again) you’d know immediately whom I was talking about. But if I said, “Oh, look! There’s George!” you’d expect an ordinary mortal. We call Jesus Jesus. That sets him apart for us; his name is at once recognizable. But during his lifetime, his name, probably closer to Joshua or Jesse than Jesus, is an ordinary name. Like Jim. Or Bob. Or Andy. Or George. My point is that at the beginning Jesus is at first received as just another guy. Like Jim. Or Bob. Or Andy. Or George. The men in the synagogue don’t recognize anything extraordinary about him. At first.
But the demon does. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” And of course the answer to that demonic question is Absolutely Yes! Christ has indeed come to shatter the bonds that hold people to lower standards, to shatter demonic bonds like those of prejudice, of pride, of greed, and of a multitude of destructive behaviors. The demon of turning our backs on Jesus, and on the least of his children, which is a figurative slap on and spitting in His face. The demon of turning away from our baptismal vows.
The presence of evil makes the scene in the synagogue alive with conflict. It sizzles and crackles. Jesus and the possessed man don’t hold polite conversation. No small talk. The demon shatters the dignified atmosphere in the synagogue with screams and cries. Jesus rebukes him. Jesus gives an order. And the evil spirit leaves the man. Not quietly. It doesn’t give up without a struggle. It convulses out of the man.
And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
A new teaching? Had I been there I would have thought it was more a miracle than a teaching. But in the New Testament that’s what the miracles are – actions that authenticate what Jesus is teaching. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.
The healing, the casting out of the demon, is done in such a fashion that Jesus’ authority is unmistakable. The authority that distinguishes the miracle from mere magic is not in the act itself. Rather it is the fact of who Jesus is.
Who recognizes this ultimate authority? That’s what’s amazing to me. Not the men in the synagogue. It’s the demon who sees it, who sees that Jesus is the very incarnation of God, the very antithesis of evil. Makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a good thing to know your enemy, after all.
In Mark’s time all kinds of professional exorcists offered their expertise to confront and defeat demons. Exorcisms and traveling exorcists were common. Exorcisms were drawn-out affairs, surrounded with drama, mumbo-jumbo, mystical acts and incantations, the use of symbols and religious artifacts, and the summoning of some higher power by whose authority the demon was to be cast out. Mark’s point is that it is Jesus who exorcises. The power of God in Jesus casts out evil. With just a word, Jesus casts out demons – and those demons recognize and acknowledge his superior power and authority angrily and bitterly.
Because Jesus is no professional exorcist, no charlatan. The meaning of this miracle, this healing, this deliverance from evil, lies in Jesus himself: in the reality that through Jesus Christ, God will ultimately triumph over all the forces of evil.
It intrigues me that it seems to be only the demon who recognizes Jesus for who he really is. That it’s only the demon who recognizes this miracle. But we can’t fault the men in the synagogue really. Like all of us, they see what they expect to see. Take a city slicker and an Indian scout and let them walk the same trail on a day of intermittent rain. The city slicker will see the puddles and the muddy places and try to step over or around them. The Indian scout will see tracks of animals that have crossed the path. He’ll see bent grass and broken twigs. He’ll notice a tiny shrew disappearing into a hole. He’ll recognize signs that rain will fall again soon. The city dude will have put his umbrella into his briefcase.
Ask them, at the end of the trail, what they saw. The city slicker will have seen mud and puddles. The scout will have seen tracks and creatures and signs and a multitude of grasses and plants – and the footprints of the one who saw none of those things. The scout will probably tell us that the heels of the man’s shoes are worn down unevenly. The city slicker is not trained to see other things. He’s not ready. He’s not interested in anything other than keeping his leather shoes from getting soaked. If there is a miracle on the trail, he won’t see it.
As one theologian puts it (Alan Richardson, The Miracle Stories of the Gospels), “Miracles are signs to those who can see. In order to understand them, it was first necessary that one’s eyes should be opened to the central mystery of the gospel, the mystery of the person of the Lord; then they could be understood as the revelation of the power of God himself.” The eyes of the men in the synagogue haven’t been opened yet. The “eyes” of the demon, on the other hand, are forcibly opened by Jesus.
Interesting, isn’t it, that this story occurs in a synagogue? Not in a public market place where a huge crowd can see and ooh and aah. Why have the men gathered in the synagogue in the first place? To pray, to hear and study the Torah, to worship the One God. And why are we in church?
From the time I was old enough to think about it, I just “knew,” maybe because Mother told me or because I picked it up in Sunday school, that we went to church to worship God, first and foremost. When my boys were ten, they were willing to come to church basically because the women at St. John’s made such good coffee hour treats.
We come to offer thanks and praise to God. To ask for the things we need. And in the act of worshipping, we also seek forgiveness for our sins and the strength to resist evil. We want to get rid of our own demons. We might not call them demons, but whatever and however we name them, we know they’re there.
We want to get rid of the demons outside these walls as well. We can’t live in our community, not only this one gathered here, but also in the wider community outside these walls, and not recognize that there is at work in this world a sinister force that opposes God’s will and purpose for our lives.
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Mark makes us look squarely at the answer. Confront and destroy. Jesus wants to confront the demons that possess us, us individually and us as a larger community, and cast them away. So, are we going to sit around and wait for that miracle? We may choose to do that. Or we can take an active role, serving as Christ’s hands and feet and voice.
The urgency of Mark’s Gospel grabs us by the hand, yanking us along, and saying, “Look! Recognize Jesus Christ as the means of grace for each and every one of you.” How amazing it would be if each time evil confronted us, we drew on that grace and stomped on evil’s tail, gouged out its eyes, brought down fire upon it – did whatever we needed to do to destroy it. That is a healing miracle that Jesus would have us do. And Mark would have us do it--immediately.