Were any of you, as children, scared of the dark? Maybe you were like me – turning on the lights in the stairway, and then reaching for the light switch in the upper hall before I’d venture to my room down at the end of the hallway, where I’d make sure I turned on the wall switch before I could enter my room.
And even when I got older and outgrew that fear, there was another one. At the camp where I was a counselor there was an old barn on a stretch of dirt road between two of the campsites furthest from the dining hall – the center of camp life. The barn was abandoned, and at night it stood like a big, dark, spooky cavern – home to owls and who knows-what-other wildlife. It was just the kind of setting that would have been perfect for a low-budget horror film – a person walking alone on a deserted road at night when some un-describable creature would dart out of the dark to snatch you away. A single, small flashlight was not much defense against such an over-active imagination!
I think we’ve all had that kind of boogey-man-hiding under the bed fear at sometime in our past – even if only briefly. So when we hear in the Gospel reading this description of Jesus’ encounter with the man with the unclean spirit, we probably bring this same sense of creepy fear with us, colored with a good dose of one of the “Exorcist” films. And that can make this Gospel account feel very far away from us, distant from our life here and now. So let’s back up a little and try to see what Mark, the writer of this Gospel, is doing.
To begin with, Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels, and he has no story of Jesus’ birth – no angels, no shepherds, no stars; he just starts with a brief description of John the Baptist, and then goes on from there – zero to sixty in nothing flat. In the course of a brief 21 verses in chapter 1 we move from John the Baptist to Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the wilderness, to the beginning of his public ministry of preaching the Kingdom of God, and on to the calling of the first four disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John.
By comparison, in Luke’s telling it takes four and a half chapters to get to this point; and in Matthew it takes five chapters.
If you pay attention, you’ll notice that Mark always seems to be in a hurry to tell this Gospel, this Good News; he often uses the word “immediately” and wants to rush ahead, breathlessly, to the next thing Jesus says or does. So in today’s reading, Mark has dived right into the meat of Jesus’ public ministry.
Jesus has just called Peter, Andrew, James and John from their work as fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and they have gone into the village of Capernaum, traditionally identified as Peter’s home. And they go to the local synagogue and Jesus begins to teach; although any adult male was allowed to read Scripture in worship and then comment upon it, the people in the synagogue were amazed at this newcomer’s teaching. It had a directness and sense of authority to it that they had not heard before, and so the people in the Capernaum synagogue said, in effect, “Who is this guy? And how does he knows this?” Jesus taught from the ancient Jewish Scriptures “as one with authority.”
Then there is an outburst from the man with the unclean spirit; the spirit or demon says "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." Jesus silences the demon, and casts it out of the man.
So not only does Jesus have authority concerning the ancient religious tradition, but he also has authority over the dark forces, the wild and uncontrollable, the spiritual realm. When Jesus comes, preaching the Kingdom of God, this is what it looks like: the ancient religious understandings will be plumbed and expressed in new ways, and the things that plague us, and keep us from living fully the life God longs to give us will be cast out. That’s what happens when the Kingdom of God draws near to you, when Jesus starts showing up in your life.
But what about that unclean spirit; what is that all about, anyway?
Some have suggested that it was the way first century people understood such medical conditions as epilepsy or mental illness – perhaps. Others would say that the term “unclean spirits” is purely a metaphor for a wide variety of things that plague and trouble us – all of human origin. And then there are those who will say that these “unclean spirits” in the Gospels are demonic and evil in some way – there may well be some element of that in what Mark is describing. The truth is, that all of these categories – mental or physical illness; entrenched patterns of bad behavior in an individual, a family or a community; a sense of spiritual dis-ease and even evil – all of these categories will attempt to drag us away from the fullness of life in Christ and in the Kingdom of God.
So when Jesus shows up in our lives we find that the old traditions - Scripture reading, prayer, worship, alms-giving - all take on new meaning, become alive for us in new and authoritative ways. We also find that the things that plague and haunt us, the stumbling blocks that always trip us up, loosen their hold on us - they weaken and become less important as we put Jesus front and center in our lives.
Most times that doesn’t just happen instantaneously – it’s usually a slow and steady practice of letting go of the things that are trying to master us, and holding on to the One who is the Master and Lover and Redeemer of our souls. You know what it is that gets a hold of you at your worst moments: it might be fear, or shame, or greed, or addiction of some kind; your demons might be lust for power, or laziness, or despair, or divisiveness, or negativity, or any number of qualities and attitudes that stick to you with amazing stubbornness.
What Mark is telling us in this Gospel story of Jesus in the synagogue and the man with unclean spirit, is that Jesus has power and authority – legitimacy – in every area of human life. Jesus’ authority is not just limited to the religious realm, although through him the Bible and worship come alive in a whole new way; no, every aspect of life is open to Jesus’ authority and power and sovereignty. That includes the way we treat our neighbors and our co-workers, the way we care for the environment, they way we spend money, the way we treat children, the kind of laws we pass for the good of our community and country, the way we conduct our business and love our families.
Jesus will indeed root out the “demons” and “unclean spirits” in your life, but they will be replaced by the marks of citizenship in the Kingdom of God - love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control; love for God and love for neighbor; a willingness to die to self and be born a new according to God’s pattern, in the power of the Holy Spirit; the knowledge that we are all members of the Body of Christ – not individual members of an organization, but part of a whole that is greater than ourselves and poorer when we turn our backs on it.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” The answer is – everything.
Let us pray:
O God, I know that if I do not love thee with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul and with all my strength, I shall love something else with all my heart, mind, soul and strength. Grant that putting thee first in all my lovings I may be liberated from all lesser loves and loyalties, and have thee as my first love, my chiefest good, and my final joy. Amen. (George Appleton)
Victoria Geer McGrath
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2012