Mark 1:21-28 January 28, 2018
Listening for the Word and Responding to the Word
We are in the season of Epiphany – the season of light and revelation. The season of learning who Jesus is, as Jesus is revealed. But this is not a season limited to past revelations of who Jesus is, or was as revealed in scripture, it is about discovering what deserves our amazement in our lives today. Epiphany is about the “Ah – Hah” moment – both 2000 years ago and right now.
Listen then for the word as inspired by God.
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
Just then 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.”
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
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.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Anthem “Here I Am, Lord”
This is a challenging scripture, at least I find it a challenging text. And to be honest, I don’t have any clear conclusions to draw today. I am still pondering what it means – this exorcism healing – what does it mean in our 21st Century world? And today, I invite you to ponder with me.
I find three points of entry for thinking about this story: One – miracle, two – demon possession and three – authority.
Lets start with context. We are reading from the first chapter of Mark starting in verse 20. In the first 19 verses of the Gospel of Mark– we met John the Baptist, Jesus was baptized, led into the wilderness and called his first disciples. I would call that a very productive and action packed 19 verses.
The exorcism story just read is Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of Mark. The First Miracle of 17 miracles in the gospel of Mark in the first 8 chapters! Wow. I think that I really struggle with this story because my 21st century mind wants to medicalize the man possessed by an “unclean” spirit, but in doing that I remove myself from the story. Trying to overlay a 21st century diagnosis on a 1st century story really ruins the story when you come right down to it.
UCC preacher Kate Matthews writes: “I remember seeing a commercial on television several years ago that showed a woman standing right next to a rhinoceros, as if she could reach out and touch it (probably not a good idea). I also remember reading even more years ago that computer technology was about to transform our perceptions of reality, at least on the screen, by its ability to create just such an effect, that is, a woman standing right next to a rhinoceros (a metaphor for the cold that was afflicting her). We’ve forgotten the days when “special effects” often looked silly [“ignore the man behind the curtain”] [creature from the Black Lagoon], because today amazing things routinely happen on the screen, right before our eyes, although it seems to take more to amaze us each year.
At the same time, scientific progress has made us more skeptical of the reality we actually encounter, and the stories that we hear. We may go along with the fun when we watch the cold medicine make the rhino disappear, but when we read a story like today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark, we’re tempted to dismiss it because, well, who really believes in “spirits” anymore?” (UCC sermon seeds) Or in demon possession? Or miracles? Or authority figures?
Well, for all of our scientific understanding and contemporary sophistication, we are still frightened by special effects – or Hollywood wouldn’t use those technical advances to such profitable success. For all our modern knowledge as Preacher Fred Craddock uncomfortably notes that “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world” (Preaching through the Christian Year B).
First entry point to the text – miracles.
Do you believe in miracles?
What miracles have you experienced when you realized that you are not the ‘be all end all’? That there is something/some force /someone bigger, more powerful, greater than you at work in the world?
Here are some potential miracles for you:
Healing during a terrible illness.
The power of Prayer.
Looking into the eyes of your baby for the first time.
A Breathtaking moment in the natural world – a sunrise, a mountain top, a crashing wave.
Meeting your life partner – how did you ever find each other?
Comfort in time of grief
Strength when you were weak- too weak to stand on your own, yet somehow, you did.
A “visit” from someone you loved who has died.
Wisdom when you needed it most or perhaps speaking wise words yourself when someone else needed to hear them and you wonder where the words came from.
Being in recovery from addiction.
Do you dismiss amazing moments as simply coincidence or good luck or good medicine or a dream? Or do you have sense of the miraculous about you? Or maybe you, like me, have that skeptic voice that is always challenging awe and trying to rationalize a miracle into something commonplace. Think back to the miracle you identified in your own life – how did it change your perception of the holy? Of God or of Jesus in your life? Maybe it did, or maybe it didn’t.
The folks in our scripture story today who witnessed the healing exorcism, experienced the “aha” moment. They are filled with wonder at who Jesus is. They witnessed the miracle that reveals to them something of who Jesus is – and thereby increases his authority in their lives.
Which brings us to the second point of entry – the exorcism of the “unclean spirit’ or “evil spirit’ or in some biblical translations “the demon possessed man”. What is it to be demon possessed? Oh, I can think of a few ways – a few very contemporary ways to find oneself possessed. Alcoholism, opiod addiction. Severe anxiety, debilitating depression. Anorexia. Bulimia. To name a few medical terms. Perhaps that is where you find yourself in this story. And I in no way want to diminish or dismiss those very real diagnoses by naming other demons that seek to possess us.
Perhaps it is being defined your work. Or in coveting or jealousy or envy or desire. Or fear or Affluenza.
And too, I find myself possessed by things which are less than God’s intent for me. How about you? (Janet Hunt, Dancing with Word) “I am grateful to say that mental illness has not been my own particular journey. Even so. I have known myself to be ‘possessed’ by things. I cling to them for I know them. And even when I know they are not good for me? “
Oh yes, too much I cling to them still:
That need to be in control, in charge, the decision maker.
A need to be busy, busy, busy to be productive, to have value.
A clinging to the need to be right and to have all the right answers.
And then there is the reliance on caffeine or chocolate or to give me a lift when I am tired, or frustrated or just about any time really. You laugh, but food has its own way of possessing.
(Dancing with the Word again): “Need I go on?
It is so that this story is mostly about the ‘authority of Jesus.’ It is about recognizing Jesus as one of authenticity and power. And surely the one possessed knew this most of all, for he is the one in the story who articulates his fear that an encounter with Jesus changes everything that ever was and ever will be. He knows who Jesus is and he knows what this means.
So while I am glad I am not him, I hope that in some ways I am exactly like him. That I can still be awakened to the power of Jesus and all it means for me. For starters, today at least I think of this in terms of not needing to have all the answers. And of how an encounter with Jesus means embracing another way than what I have known. How about you?”
An encounter with Jesus means embracing another way than what I have know – a healing, a transformation, a miracle. Which brings us to the third point – authority.
“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.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
With Authority. I wonder about authority. Who has authority in your life?
In today’s day and age, the idea of authority is all tied up with “misuse” or abuse of authority. As we have learned from the Black Lives Matter movement, some Americans have a very different experience of life in the United States and of police authority. As we have heard in the MeToo movement, authority has been abused in the workplace and doctors office, classroom and locker room. Just this week, the heartwrenching testimony of elite gymnasts – the very woman we watched and cheered in the Olympics – and others – told of authority horribly abused. And I don’t think we’ve heard the end of how elite athletes are treated – or mistreated – by coaches and training camps, and Olympic committees and colleges.
How do we understand authority in the era of fake news? When any picture can be photo shopped and any story can be spread instantly by the internet without fact checking. When those in authority don’t like a news story and can dismiss it by labeling it simple as “fake news”?
So I ask again. Who or What has authority in your life?
Does financial success or job title or college name or making the team or scoring the point or making the grade or getting the lead or singing the solo?
Does a particular sports team’s success or failure unduly have authority over your happiness or despair?
Is it authority based on respect – that is earned – or authority based on rank and position? Some are given authority by virtue of title, but the simplest person can have authority of a different kind: if they embody wisdom and integrity that others find compelling. Each one holds a different kind of power, one from the outside, and the other from within.
Jesus speaks, acts, heals, touches, leads and lives with authority. That is why he was able to call those first disciples. He speaks as one who knows the truth, he is fearless in speaking the truth to those whose authority comes from an external title or position. You know, we have a phrase that we often will use – “it rings true”. When Jesus speaks in these gospel stories, people say “ah –hah, yes, that’s true, that’s true about me.” Often Jesus speaks to a person and the response is “how did you that about me?’ When Jesus saw a person, he saw them, really saw them. He was aware of who they were. He quite often knew them better than they knew themselves. So Jesus had this amazing authority not because of any title or degrees or job or office that he’d been given. He had a unique, compelling authority.
So how we relate this understanding of Jesus as speaking with authority to our daily lives?
How do we listen and hear? Those places where we encounter the holy – in miracles and in daily life, in prayer and in community – need to be recognized and given authority.
With this story, we are reminded again, that the place where we encounter the holiness of God is also a place where we encounter human failings, or demons or uncleanliness. The place where we experience need – desperation really – in battlefields and hospital corridors, by gravesides and in divorce court, in deadlines and headlines, in the middle of the night phone call and the nursing home decision – there the demons lie and there the miracles happen and there we encounter the holiness of God. “What have you to do with me?” the demon asks Jesus. Everything, everything we find is the answer.
David Lose (working preacher.org): “Our God is a God of the broken, and our church is a fellowship of the needy. That’s pretty much all it takes to be a member of Jesus’ disciples then or now: recognition of your deep need and trust that Jesus has come to meet it.”
. “What have you to do with me?” the demon asks Jesus. Everything, everything we find is the answer.
I invite you to think of those places of brokenness or despair or fear or demon possession in your life and remember that God does not stay away because of these challenges or shortcomings but rather draws nearest to you and to me precisely in these moments. I invite you to look outward at the brokenness and despair and fear and demon possession we see in someone in our family or among our friends or at work or neighborhood or school and wonder if God might be choosing to work through us to draw that person to new life.
God is still at work casting out the unclean spirits of the world, and God is using us to continue that holy work.
Miracle, demons and authority are all deeply connected in this first miracle story – a story of confrontation, truth telling, healing and freedom.
Thank you for pondering it with me today.
In the greatest of Hope, thanks be to God. Amen.
– UCC Sermon Seeds
– Janet Hunt, Dancing with the Word
– David Lose (working preacher.org)