Sunday, February 01, 2015

Demons? No sweat.

Sermon 2-1-15
Manassas Church of the Brethren
Mark 1:21-28

They 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[m] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Mark’s gospel moves along at a steady clip. He tells a fast-paced narrative, uses the word “immediately” and “and then” as transition phrases, and keeps his readers moving right along through the narrative of Jesus. Matthew and Luke - the later gospels that used Mark’s skeleton as material for their more detailed, finer-pointed storylines - will wander into a sidestory or insert a sub-plot into the larger one, hit harder on metaphors or particular narrative styles, but Mark: well, Mark is a pretty bare-bones kinda guy.

Mark is also the only gospel writer who makes the outright claim that his book is a GOSPEL, a tale of good news, the “euangelion” in the original Greek. This is the story of utmost importance, the story of salvation, and its central character is - you know - Jesus, the Christ.

Mark is concerned with making sure we know who Jesus is. This is not a modern-day evangelism that is hoping to inspire us to a deeper personal devotion. Mark just wants to tell the story of Jesus, to make known that this guy has come and that he is The One. Capital T, Capital O. JESUS: The Christ, God’s Son, God’s Beloved, the Bringer of the Kingdom. This guy is IT.

So, Mark skips over all the birth narratives - no Christmas, here! He starts with John the Baptist, who is heralding the coming reign of God, and as soon as Jesus shows up on the scene, he gets baptized. God’s spirit descends, claims Jesus as his own, and immediately Jesus goes out to call his disciples. “Come, follow me,” he yells at some guys out fishing, and they do. They drop their nets and join this guy, the guy who is The One.

And now - fully baptized and surrounded by his posse - Mark throws Jesus immediately into a fight scene. Oh, sure, Jesus was the instigator of non-violent protest, the most pacifist peace-maker there ever was, but that definitely doesn’t mean he avoided conflict. Jesus, The One, has not come to walk away from confrontation - he has come to transform it. He has come to show the way toward God’s Kingdom, to teach and preach and heal and save and cast out demons.

And even though everybody around him is kind of confused as to what all that might mean - his own disciples are especially clueless - those demons KNOW who Jesus is. In today’s text, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue - never mind how he got permission or authority to get up there and preach, this kid from Nazareth that no one had heard of, but there he is, teaching in the synagogue about God’s Kingdom. And everybody around him was astonished, because he taught “as one with authority.” Jesus did not teach like the scribes did, the teachers and academics of the day, because even the scribes were still interpreting, still translating, still conjecturing about what the scriptures might mean, about what the coming Kingdom might look like. No, Jesus, being The One, KNEW what the coming kingdom was. He knew it, because he WAS it.

So Jesus is there in the synagogue, teaching with authority - the authority that comes from authenticity of being God’s Son - and some guy in the back stands up and yells out: “What are you doing here!? You’re just a kid from Nazareth! Are you here to destroy us?! I know who you are!”

Man with the Unclean Spirit
Ian Pollock, "Man with an Unclean Spirit"
Everyone present knows that this guy yelling at The One is not in his right mind. The whole crowd was completely in awe of Jesus’ teaching, and here’s this guy heckling from the back row - surely he’s not serious. But it turns out that the heckler is actually a demon: Mark says he was “a man with an unclean spirit.” Jesus, of course, knows immediately what’s going on, and wastes no time in responding. He “rebukes” the Spirit, and “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.”

I do not know what it looks like when an unclean spirit exits someone’s body, but it sounds pretty gruesome. Later on in Mark, Jesus will send some other unclean spirits into a big bunch of pigs who run into the sea and drown, and that’s a great visual, too. But this spirit gets off easy - it isn’t destroyed, it isn’t drowned, it’s just rebuked and commanded to leave the poor guy in the back row alone. And - wonder of wonders - the spirit obeys exactly as Jesus commanded it.

This is the FIRST thing Jesus does in his public ministry. He gets baptized, stamped with God’s approval and calls some disciples - regular fishermen who will become revolutionaries, and then he immediately enters into this conflict with the unclean spirit. The demon recognizes Jesus, even though he hasn’t done anything of note, yet. The demon is terrified - who ARE you? Have you come to DESTROY us? And Jesus dispatches with it quickly, easily, and with no apparent difficulty. “Demons?” he seems to be saying, “No sweat.”

And that’s the point: for Mark, the most important aspect of Jesus’ identity is this authority to rule over the demonic forces of evil, hatred, and scarcity present in the world around him. Jesus is The One. And The One has the power to defeat all others.

Mark goes on to tell 17 more miracle stories in his gospel, more than any other gospel. 13 of the miracles are healings, and 4 of the healings are exorcisms like this one. The miracle stories testify to Jesus’ power: power over evil, power over illness, power over nature, power over scarcity, power over the rules of physics, even, and finally, power over death. Jesus is The One, the one with power to defeat every foe, to save God’s people from every force that threatens to rob them of the abundant life of the Kingdom.

This is how Mark INTRODUCES Jesus. This is who Jesus is, from the very beginning. The story of Jesus is not rags-to-riches, it isn’t a story of hard work leading to reward, it isn’t a story of overcoming-the-odds, it isn’t even a story of miraculous transformation. The story of Jesus STARTS HERE, with power to overcome every other authority, every other principality or power vying for primacy in the lives of the people walking around here on earth.


I went to visit one of our members last week, in the hospital after having some major surgery on his back. He’s doing very well, and he gave me permission to share this little moment with you. I walked into the hospital room less than 48 hours after his major back surgery, expecting him to be reclining in the hospital bed, maybe a bit out of it from pain killers and actual pain. I was fairly certain that he’d still be down for the count.

But I walked into the room and he was sitting up in the chair, talking to his wife . As soon as he saw me, he started wriggling around and, to my great surprise, STOOD UP all of his own accord. I sort of gasped, open-mouthed, surprised to see him so mobile already. When he got himself upright, his arms shot out in front of him and I quickly stepped forward, thinking he was unsteady and needing help for balance. But he surprised me again, pulling me in - not to be caught or steady himself, but to offer me a big - if slightly tentative - hug. “Let’s go for a walk,” he said, and headed toward the door, scrambling the nurses at their station who knew he wasn’t really supposed to be walking without official supervision.

Now, I’m not a doctor and I can’t exactly endorse this guy’s insistent refusal to remain immobilized for as long as his doctors request him to...healing is sometimes slow work, and rest is a big part of it. But as I read this passage from Mark and thought about what it meant for us to live as followers of Jesus, walking around on this earth as if we belong to The One who has the authority over every other power that might try to rule us, our friend's unexpected behavior in the hospital came to mind.


For Mark, Jesus is The One. He starts out as the most powerful, the one who can cast out all demons and heal all affliction. That’s just who Jesus is. So if we’re meant to be followers of that guy, shouldn’t we also start...THERE? Shouldn’t we also start with the assumption that Jesus has come, that we are already saved, that healing is already here, that God’s Kingdom is already among us?

There are fancy theological words for this kind of thing: “realized eschatology” is a way of saying that God’s Kingdom is already here and we, as Christians, are called to act as if the world IS God’s. Realized eschatology means that while we live in a world that is broken and in need of healing, we also get to live in the knowledge that the great Healer has already come and the great Healing is already in process. We live as if we were already healed.

Because we are.

What would it look like if this attitude of being people who are already healed became our default? How would we act differently? What would the world be like?

Well, it probably makes sense to take stock of the powers that are currently ruling over us, holding us hostage, assuming our loyalty. What are the demon-like things keeping us from following Jesus?

Are we ruled by a sense of fear?
Or scarcity?
Or selfishness?

Are we being held hostage by the assumption that some things are too far gone to be reclaimed?

Are we bowing down to the demands of some economic force or market demand?

Are we letting the residual pain from our old wounds keep us from standing up and embracing those around us?

What is it that’s exercising authority over your life?

Is it Jesus?

Because what Mark is trying to tell us is that Jesus is more powerful than any other possible authority figure. And, moreover, that Jesus has already come and has already set us free from the tyranny of those other powers.

So. If we’ve already been set free, how, then, shall we live?

I can imagine that there’s a whole lot of joy in living like we’re healed. And justice, yes, and an incredible abundance of compassion. The world keeps telling us that we are broken, and it’s true. We are. But what the world doesn’t get is that we are also already healed. We can’t let our lives be small and fearful when we’ve experienced freedom. So live big. Live healed. Live with joy.

Dance a little. Laugh more. Be generous. Let go of what’s holding you back. Act as if those old insecurities and uncertainties and hurts were already exorcised. Because they are.

The people who watched Jesus rebuke that demon in the synagogue were amazed. “What is this?!” they wondered. “This is a new thing! And he’s doing it with such authority! Even the demons obey him!”

That’s who we follow, y’all, The One so powerful that even demons cower before him. And if demons cower, what else have we got that can stand a chance?

What’s your hang-up?
Where are you hurting?
What nasty spirit do you need excised?

Hold it up to Jesus. If Jesus is anything like the way Mark describes him, I’ll bet that he takes one look at your problem, smiles gently at you with all kinds of compassion - and maybe a little amusement - and says simply: “Oh, you mean THAT thing? No sweat. I got you. Why don’t you go ahead and stand up? Let’s take a walk.”


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