Jesus Throws Out a Demon
Year B, Epiphany 4
We are continuing our sermon series Between this morning. We are, in this last week of January, situated in the space between Christmastide and the season of Lent. We find ourselves situated between the inauguration of God’s kingdom (Christmas), when God took on human flesh in the form an infant, and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom when God will overcome the power of death. The boundary between heaven and earth has been broken.
Last week, Jesus continued the work of fulfillment by calling two sets of brothers, four fishermen and this week Jesus and his newly minted disciples are on the move.
One of the things I love most about Mark’s Gospel is the misdirection the author uses throughout the stories.
This, Mark 1:21-28, is the first miraculous act performed by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. I am not going to declare the act a miracle because Mark did not. It is a dramatic exorcism (couldn’t any exorcism be considered dramatic?). Jesus, on the Sabbath, in the middle of teaching in the synagogue, with authority not like the scribes, is confronted by an evil spirit who has possessed a man. There is a lot going on in these eight verses. Almost too much to keep track of on a Sunday morning.
We have Jesus teaching, while his greatest opponents, the scribes, the legal (Torah) experts, watch nearby.
Jesus is confronted by an evil spirit.
The spirit is cast out by Jesus.
And finally, news about him spreads throughout the region of Galilee.
In these eight verses we have a variety of characters and subjects too.
We have Jesus and his followers, the congregation in the synagogue, the scribes or legal experts, and a person and their demon.
Reading these eight verses, we can quickly lose track of who the subject of the story is.
It can be easy in reading this story to quickly become “anti-scribe”. It can be easy to read this story and quickly begin to bash the scribes along with the synagogue. We can picture the scribes standing the back of the room, maybe by the coffee and synagogue snacks, while Jesus teaches with an authority they wish they had, and when the exorcism happens they, the scribes, turn to one another and murmur something like, “I cannot believe he just did that on the Sabbath” or “yeah that’s great but can he recite the law of Moses?” It can be easy for us to paint the scribes as the bad guys in this story because they did not previously help the man, because it can be easy for us to assume when reading this story that the possessed man had been possessed for more than that day. We assume this because we know people possessed by demons and we know those possessions too more than a day to take hold.
If we are not quickly drawn to the scribes and synagogue, the person possessed by the evil spirit is the next best subject to focus in on; this poor individual. We are drawn to the man. It is obvious to us that the man is sick and in need of help. He must be the outcast of Capernaum. He must, in his possessed state, be isolated from the synagogue and with that isolated from the community. To us, in one verse, it is obvious that this person is in need of help. But we know nothing else about the person. We do not know where they are from or what his story is. All we know is that he happens to be in Capernaum on the Sabbath and in the synagogue while Jesus is there. It is not even the man who addresses Jesus. The possessed man does not say a word. The only action by the man is performed by the spirit.
If it is not the scribes or the possessed man, we could be drawn to the miraculous exorcism Jesus performs. And why shouldn’t we? If Jesus walked in right now, through those doors, and cast out a demon from someone in this room, I think we, like the people of the synagogue, would be drawn to that. We might even tell our friends about what happened in church that morning. Jesus’ fame might spread through Arlington, just like it did through Galilee.
Because there is so much going on in this story, and the writer of Mark wrote such a condensed account of the ministry of Jesus, and on top of that uses misdirection, we miss it. The people in the synagogue did not miss it. Yes, they were astounded by the spirit being cast aside but they knew what was going on. They saw something different happening.
Have you ever had the moment of looking in the refrigerator for something and not being able to find it? Or opening your tool bag, looking for your red handled wire cutters but then they are not there?
Then we shout out, “are we out of orange juice?” “Did someone take my red handled wire cutters?”
And then we all have that person in our life, or in my cases persons.
“Just open your eyes and look for it!”
“Oh, that’s all I have to do. Thanks. Why didn’t I think of that?”
That is how I feel with this reading. There is so much going on between Jesus teaching in the synagogue and then casting out a spirit. There is Jesus, the scribes, the spirit, the man possessed, and the people of the synagogue. My eyes are open. I am looking, but there is so much in front of me I am having a hard time seeing what I am looking for. Between the misdirection and so much crammed into eight verses I am missing something.
Our reading last week had a similar feel. We had Jesus calling the first of his disciples: Simon, Andrew, James, and John. We see these stories and miss what the focus of the Gospel is. It’s right in front of us every week. Our eyes are open, we are looking, and yet, at least I feel like, there are times when I cannot see it.
“The people were amazed by his teaching, for he was teaching them with authority, not like the legal experts.”
“Everyone was shaken and questioned among themselves, ‘What’s this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands unclean spirits and they obey him!’”
At its very core, the subject of this story, the focus, is the authority of Jesus. He taught with a new authority unlike the scribes. After casting out the demon, the synagogue congregation saw this. They saw that his teaching was different. His teaching was different from anything they had ever experienced. After all, at no fault of the scribes because the scribes were doing what they were called to do by interpreting the law, what the people had been taught before in the synagogue was the law. They were taught how social holiness and order separated Israel from the Gentiles in the surrounding regions. Israel was different. Israel was not like its Roman occupiers and one of the responsibilities of the scribes was to teach this. What the scribes taught is not unlike many of us in the church lean towards: the law or works of righteousness that will make our lives more holy and thus us more acceptable in the eyes of God.
It is no wonder then that the eyes of the people in the synagogue were opened. They saw what was standing right in front of them.
Jesus’ teaching, and the God-bearing authority accompanying it, was different from the popular teaching of first century Jewish synagogues, along with many of the teachings of the 21st century. His authority is more than a “credible” or “reliable” reading of the scriptures. Jesus’ authority went beyond the norms of first century Jewish religious leadership.
His teachings were not interested in five steps a better life. Jesus’ teachings and authority were concerned with new life. Not new life today or tomorrow but transformation right now; immediately. That is why in the calling of the disciples and in every healing Jesus performed the results were immediate. Mark uses the word immediately repeatedly. Last week twice and this week the immediacy with which the spirit departs is obvious.
The authority Jesus uses invokes a two-pronged recognition: silence and response.
Imagine the fishermen called by Jesus last week, in the moment of being called. Mark’s account says the responded immediately by dropping their nets. There was no discussion. There was silence. There was no cost-benefit analysis. Even more, two of the disciples left their father standing in the boat with only the hired deckhands help him figure out what had just happened.
Again, a few verses later we see the same response when Jesus confronts the demon. Jesus silenced the demon, “Silence!” The silence was followed by a response, “Come out of him!” There was no banter between Jesus and the spirit who recognized him by the teaching he was doing in the synagogue; no negotiations, silence and get out.
This teaching of Jesus, teaching with authority, in the synagogue has not changed much in the past 2000 plus years.
When Jesus speaks to us today, our first response can be one of two things: we jump right into action (think point, shoot, aim) or we make up excuses, we try to negotiate. Yes, we can ignore Jesus altogether but that seems more like a lack of response than response. For us to understand what Jesus is about the command us to do, we must first be silent. Without silence we cannot hear and if we do not hear we cannot discern.
After Simon and Andrew, and James and John were called they responded. They were silent and the there was a reorientation that occurred. They left the life they were making for themselves and followed the trajectory laid out by Jesus.
The same occurs in our reading this morning. The evil spirit responded when commanded by Jesus. The spirit did not do so as to show mercy on the man it possessed but rather because the Son of God, bearing the authority of God, commanded it to. After the interruption comes the command.
Evil spirits are a hard sell today. I understand. Movies like Ghostbusters make spirits comical and movies like The Exorcist make them terrifying. But the bondage the evil spirit held over the man is something we can all understand. We see bondage as injustice and while evil spirits may be a hard sell, injustice is something we rally against. There are people in our community, neighbors or coworkers, people we pass on the street as we drive and walk to the office or come out of the dry cleaners that are suffering from one form of possession or another: addiction, mental illness, depression, unemployment, underemployment, abusive relationships, isolation, marginalization. I could keep going but we all know the list. We live among people who are possessed.
We are possessed. We hide what possesses us from one another under the guise of strength and self-control. We ignore what possesses others, we opt for the non-response, because if we are to be silent and respond to their possession what will we learn about ourselves?
The Good News of the Gospel is that not only are Jesus’ teachings different from that of the first century Jewish synagogues, along with many of the teachings of the 21st century, but his authority stretches the entirety of creation. From the time when, “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” and in a synagogue in Capernaum when he silenced an evil spirit, to 2018 where the possession of injustice seems to be on the front page of the news paper or at the top of our news feed, and all of the spaces between, Jesus’ authority calls each of us to be silent and then respond it, but the response sought by Christ is a response of grace, and not a response of oppression or obligation. There is no response of works righteousness in this time of between, only the response of grace and new life.
It is right there in front of us, all we have to do is open our eyes, or rather be silent and respond.