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.
My sermon from the 4th Sunday after Epiphany (February 1, 2015) on Mark 1:21-28. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
Today, in our reading from the Gospel according to Mark, we hear Jesus’s first public act. This is it. The stadium is filled. The first disciples are on the sidelines. The national anthem has been sung. And the star of the game – Jesus – is on the field.
It’s game time.
Jesus is in Capernaum, a small city on the coast of the sea of Galilee. He’s just been baptized by John in the Jordan, he’s put together his first group of disciples, and its now the sabbath. So Jesus walks into the local center of the community – the synagogue – and he begins to teach.
Now, unlike churches and synagogues today, a single pastor or rabbi wasn’t the only one allowed to teach. Community members, like Jesus, could come up and lead. So what Jesus does is fairly normal. And I bet it’s safe to say that the people there probably knew Jesus – so they thought they had an idea what this kid from Nazareth was going to say. But when Jesus teaches – they’re amazed. His teaching strikes them as something powerful and mighty. They not sure what to make of it.
But someone in the audience gets it.
The reading says that a man with an unclean spirit is sitting there, listening. He listens to Jesus – and then he challenges back.
The spirit asks Jesus why he’s there? Why come into this community and disturb what is taking place?
Because the unclean spirit is happy where he is. He’s happy being in the middle of the community, in the middle of daily life. We shouldn’t bring our modern understanding of medicine and science into the text and think that this man is just suffering from some undiagnosed mental health issue. We shouldn’t think that he would be fine if he had the right pill. This unclean spirit isn’t schizophrenia nor should we think this is just some silly ghost story that we tell to scare ourselves. No, to Mark, this unclean spirit represents something else. This spirit is happy living in the world – happy living in that man – happy living in the center of that community. He’s there, in the middle, causing havoc, distrust, and causing separation from God. That unclean spirit is happy building and maintaining a boundary – a boundary between this world and God. So when Jesus shows up and begins to teach – that spirit knows what’s already happened. The status quo has been broken. The boundary between God and humanity is undone.
So the unclean spirit shouts out. We can’t really tell, from the text, if the spirit is afraid of Jesus or is challenging Jesus. But, either way, the end is still the same. Jesus simply commands the unclean spirit to come out – and it does. There’s no prayer, no magic spells, nothing. Jesus just commands – and the spirit can’t do anything but come out. When it comes to Jesus and the reign of God – when it comes to the Superbowl between this world and God – it isn’t even a close contest.
It’s kinda like watching last year’s Super Bowl between the Broncos and Seahawks.
For Mark – this, in a nutshell, is who Jesus is. This first public act is more than just a healing. Jesus is uniquely empowered – he’s uniquely authorized – to declare that the reign of God is here. Jesus is here to institute that reign – to give it life and breath – to show us a glimpse of what God’s kingdom looks like – to model for us just how our life should look. The old status quo is broken. The old boundaries that keep people away from God’s love are being undone. The old rule that everything as it is now – must be that way always – that just isn’t true.
Because the reign of God is here.
This past week, I was with around 100 other pastors, chaplains, and deacons, from our denomination – the ELCA – at a retreat outside Philadelphia. We were all newish pastors and ministry leaders – all having less than three years of ministry – and we were there to worship, to learn some new ideas, and to share our stories of what it’s like being leaders among God’s people. And it was great. I got little sleep, spent 16 hour days centered around scripture, stewardship, music, and leadership. And I had intense conversations with pastors from Maine through Philadelphia, listening to what they were struggling with.
And I heard a lot about the status quo, about the boundaries that congregations setup for themselves and about the boundaries pastors bring with them into new places – not even knowing that they had them. I heard about communities struggling to see the people around them and other communities struggling as their identity changes. I heard stories of communities coming undone and others on the verge of shutting down.
And this retreat did a great job creating space for these stories. But, by the end, many of us were mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. We heard the struggles. We created space for the issues. We explored the brokenness.
But we didn’t create space to hear about the in-breaking of God. We didn’t create space to witness to all the amazing things that God is doing. We spent time with our struggles – but we didn’t raise up our joys.
And that’s pretty normal, isn’t it? How often are we devoured by our own troubles – by our own struggles with our status quo? How often do we let our troubles stew – giving them the authority to tell us what to do – to direct, manipulate, and control us? How often do we let our status quo end up becoming our default for how our lives will always be? How often do we let our unclean spirits define just exactly how things are?
Jesus’s first public act is walking straight into the center of the community – the center of life – and he announces that the reign of God is here. He announces that the boundaries we have, the boundaries we build – the boundaries we hold onto that define how we love ourselves and how we love others – Jesus announces that those boundaries don’t win. Jesus doesn’t use any special props. He doesn’t say any magic words. He doesn’t ask everyone in the community to believe in him before the healing occurs. Jesus, instead, just walks into the room. He teaches. He engages. He commands. And he breaks through.
In Jesus, God’s love is announced. God’s hope is shared. God’s identity is made real. Jesus’s teaching and his healing are intimately tied – they can’t be separated. For Mark, they are one and the same. His teaching announces that the status quo has been undone; that our boundaries are broken down. Jesus’s teaching announces that our rules separating and oppressing people, our rules that keep people stuck because of who they are, what they look like, how much they make, or who they love – those boundaries have no authority. The only authority left is God’s.
When the spirit is cast out, the text doesn’t say that it’s destroyed. It’s out there. That evil is still around. But it’s power has been uprooted. It’s power to hold sway over our lives has been undone. The boundaries it builds, maintains, and thrives on – no longer defines who we are. No longer does separation define our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. Our feeling and experience that, somehow, this separation, these boundaries, this distance trumps God’s reign, is done.
That’s what Jesus, in Mark, announces. It’s a theme that runs throughout the whole gospel – a theme that we’ll be hearing over and over again. Jesus is here. Jesus announces that the reign of God is here. Hope and Love – those now are the rules of the game. The contest between God and evil, between God’s hope and our boundaries, isn’t a fair fight. We think that the game is on – but the contest is already over. God’s won and, in Christ, we’ve won too.