We’re back in the gospel according to Mark this morning, continuing on with the story we heard last week. Jesus has been baptized, preached the good news that God’s kingdom is near, and called his first disciples.
Scripture: Mark 1:21-28
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, throwing him into convulsions 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.
When we’re reading the gospels, one of the best questions we can ask is “where’s the power?”
There are three major power players in this story—each of whom believe that they should hold ultimate sway in this synagogue. But only one of them can actually do that.
There are the scribes and religious leaders. It’s the Sabbath and the people are gathered for worship, so this is technically their territory.
Then, in walks Jesus. He begins to teach, but in a way that’s new and unfamiliar. He doesn’t appeal to the old sages or this part of that commentary on the law—he simply says what he knows to be true. This is received with awe and wonder by the people, who’ve never heard something like this.
But then a third player enters the scene—a man possessed by what’s translated here as “an unclean spirit.” Contemporary readers might use the word “demon.” A spirit like this was not indestructible, but would’ve been considered far more powerful than any human, and slightly less powerful than God.
In this moment, each of these power players lays a claim to the wider world and to the crowds gathered in this place. Each has a measure of authority, and carries a sort of invisible flag that they hope to plant there, saying “this place and these people are mine.”
But of the three, only Jesus actually has the power to back up those claims.
And he does. After Jesus has gone through towns and villages saying that the kingdom of heaven has come near, that the power of God is among us, Jesus walks into a synagogue on a Saturday and shows the people exactly what that means.
As Matt Skinner notes in his commentary on preaching this year on Mark’s Gospel, Jesus in our world is an incursion. “Jesus and his message represent nothing less than God’s attempt to enter into and reclaim our existence, bringing the reign (“kingdom”) of God into places where other reigns claim to hold sway.”
Not only has Jesus spoken in a new and surprising way, but he’s acted in a new and surprising way. He’s rebuked the authorities of both complacency and evil. And by the end, it’s his name and his actions that are whispered in kitchens and marketplaces and fishing boats.
One of the questions that inevitably comes up when we read passages like this one is “are demons real, or was this just an ancient people’s way of describing illnesses or issues that they had no other explanations for?”
That may very well be true—I think some of the descriptions of people who are said to be possessed in the New Testament fit more with illnesses like epilepsy or schizophrenia—and no, I don’t believe those illnesses are actually caused by demons or can be cured with exorcisms.
But, at the same time, as preacher Fred Craddock notes, “not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.” So, maybe, there’s some room in that question for ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or.’
But even more than that, I think it’s incredibly easy to see the forces of evil and sin at work in our world. It is incredibly easy to turn on the news or fire up your computer and see where evil has planted its flag. And I do believe that there is power in calling it out for what it is.
This week, a sentencing hearing was held for Larry Nassar, who was formerly a doctor for the US Olympic gymnastics program and worked at Michigan State University. He pled guilty to hundreds of counts of sexual abuse, and before he was sentenced, 156 women and girls made victim impact statements.
Rachael Denhollander was the first to file a police report, in September 2016, and she was the last to speak in that courtroom. She notes that there were 156 victim impact statements because women and girls who came forward as early as 1995 were not believed, the reports weren’t filed correctly, and mandatory reporters were more concerned about protecting the institutions they represented—the gymnastics program and the university—than ridding themselves of an abuser.
Those people chose stability and complacency, and wound up with evil in their midst.
Her statement is powerful and a sermon unto itself, so please do go look it up if you haven’t read the whole thing already. Here’s a small excerpt, though, on the necessity of naming evil where we see it:
“Throughout this process, I have clung to a quote by C.S. Lewis, where he says,’ my argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just, unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he first has some idea of straight. What was I comparing the universe to when I called it unjust?’ Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I know it was evil and wicked because the straight line exists. The straight line is not measured based on your perception or anyone else’s perception, and this means I can speak the truth about my abuse without minimization or mitigation. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is. And this is why I pity you. Because when a person loses the ability to define good and evil, when they cannot define evil, they can no longer define and enjoy what is truly good.”
What Mark tells us and what Rachael reminds us is that we cannot fight what we will not name. Even the unclean spirit attempts to use Jesus’ truest identity as a weapon against him. We cannot fight vague ideas of sin or evil. We can, however, measure the world around us by what we know to be good—because Jesus is both the source of our good and our greatest example of it—and refuse to cede power to anyone or anything else.
Dr. Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota, offers us a question and a challenge:
“What holds us back from those places where demons dwell? What prevents us from entering into those spaces where evil seems to have power? Maybe, in the end, we don’t believe that God’s power is indeed greater than the powers who constantly and consistently insist on their own without any proof of said authority.”
This is the good news: in Christ, the kingdom of heaven has come near. The very power of God resides within us, and in every time and every place, the Holy Spirit is still speaking in us and through us: “this place, and these people, are mine.”