Rex Piercy’s Homily from January 31, 2021

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 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 31, 2021

Mark 1:21-28

The Man with an Unclean Spirit

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.

Over the past several Sundays in this ordinary time between Christmas and Lent, we have been moving through the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Mark, the earliest of the four Gospels to be written and the shortest, is ever a story in a hurry. In a few short verses he covers a lot of ground and time.

Mark chapter 1 opens dramatically with the locust-eating, camel hair-clad John the Baptist, which then sets the stage for Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan by John. From there in rapid fashion, Jesus is driven into the wilderness of temptation, only to emerge in Galilee to begin his ministry of proclaiming the good news of God. He calls his first disciples, some fishermen, two pair of brothers, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. All four of them immediately leave their boats and nets behind and go with Jesus.

Today’s portion of Mark chapter 1 begins at verse 21, where Mark tells us that Jesus then went with his entourage to Capernaum, a little lakeside place, leaving behind his Nazareth hometown, choosing instead to make this fishing village his new base of operation. It is from here in Capernaum that Jesus launches his ministry in earnest, and he does so in both usual and unusual ways.

Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, something he had no doubt done all his life. And it is there in this little synagogue that Jesus engages in proclaiming a message about the unfolding and in-breaking of the Kin-dom of God. Preaching is what Jesus is all about. And Mark makes this clear, demonstrating the power of his mission and ministry.  What Mark gives us is not so much a theological treatise as it is a moment-by-moment action adventure of the story of how Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, brought the good news to the world.

In this brief account of a day in the local synagogue, Mark reveals what will be a pattern throughout the entirety of his Gospel. Given Mark’s fast-paced story, he doesn’t even bother to tell us what Jesus taught that day or even who made up his audience. For Mark it was not the matter but the manner of Jesus’ message that counts. What Mark tells us is the synagogue crowd’s reaction to what they heard. Mark says they were “astounded”! They recognized that Jesus was different because his teaching was different. He spoke with authority, as though authority resided in him. No need for footnotes. No appeal to precedent.

My guess is that Jesus offered them no safe and sanitized teaching. My guess is that he challenged them, engaged their imaginations in ways that were new or at least in ways that they had not heard or considered before. And they were astonished, astounded! To quote William Barclay’s commentary, “He (Jesus) spoke with the finality of the voice of God.” It was like a breath of fresh air. At one and the same time it was both terrifying and positive, and it captured their ears.

Now I have been preaching for a long time now, and I have to wonder: Have I, have we, so sanitized the good news that it’s just not amazing anymore? Has the church been so worried about offending or dividing that we have thrown a cold, wet blanket over an encounter with the Holy One? Have we been so concerned with not rocking the boat that we have stopped knocking people off their feet? And because some may not want to hear it, have we stopped telling the good news in all its terrifying and positive power?

I hope not. Because the message Mark tells is that Jesus came proclaiming the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom  of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14-15). Mark couldn’t be more clear and profound even with his sparse delivery. Jesus came to announce the in-breaking of God’s kin-dom and to invite those who would listen and follow to take on the work that there is to do, cosmic work, countercultural work, work that will turn the world upside down. Every time we gather in this, our little synagogue by the lake, we should be asking ourselves, is this our mission too?

But if Jesus’ words amazed the people in the synagogue that day, his deeds left them thunderstruck. As if turning the story on a dime, Mark reports that Jesus’ astounding preaching was suddenly interrupted by an unexpected character – “a man with an unclean spirit.” The man created a disturbance, shouting out a question, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

It’s an interesting question, but take my word for it (well, actually take the word of New Testament scholars who study such things) that what the man said to Jesus that day was really a giant brush off. It’s pretty much “go away and leave me alone.”

Like those scholars, we could spend a whole lot of time unpacking what the first century Jewish belief was about demons and demonic possession and all the rest. But that might blur the real point Mark is making here. I agree with Barclay that it does not matter whether or not we believe in all this: whether it is true or not is beside the point. The point is that the people in the first century did believe that way, and for Mark the presence of this man brings front and center what the message of Jesus is really all about – the confrontation and the struggle between God and the forces of evil, between the good news of God and the mucked up news of this world.

The word Mark used here for demons simply means “one who does harm” and of that we are most keenly aware, regardless of our belief or disbelief in actual, real demons. It seems clear that Mark presents Jesus as one engaged in a battle, a battle for the human soul, a battle against any and all who would harm the imprint of the divine on our human form. Jesus was primarily a preacher, and even when he engaged in his mighty works, they too were enacted parables to show forth the message that God wills to set us free – free from aimlessness and sin; free for abundant life now and life that is eternal.

This is a battle we know all too well. It is no accident that when we are baptized, when we confirm our baptism, when we unite ourselves to a faith community, we are asked a  question that goes like this: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

We don’t have to believe in boogiemen with horns and pitchforks to know that the happenings in this world, its moral disasters, its wars and wickedness, its physical catastrophes, and its sicknesses are all too real evidence of the evil and injustice and oppression that in Christ we confess to resist with every fiber of our being.

Whenever life’s joy is stolen, whenever hope is taken away, whenever strength is drained, we know that evil exists – in lives and in systems that burden us, that make for misery in things and ideas and politics that control us rather than us controlling them. Evil is real. We know it.

But that day in Capernaum’s synagogue, when Jesus drove an unclean spirit from a man, Mark saw something bigger than just one man being freed from the hold that evil had over him.

What Mark saw, what amazed the crowd, was not merely an exorcism, but a display of the power of a liberating God who came, in no small part, to set the captive free, to liberate the oppressed. What Mark shows us in this story is that this work of setting free is central to the good news and to the restoration of God’s vision of humanity for all who follow in the way of Jesus. Jesus’ command that the demon come out is precisely a demonstration of the Kin-dom of God staking a claim on the earth. In this act Jesus demonstrates God’s reclaiming the holy place of all humanity.

I don’t need to tell you that we are living in a time that is in desperate need of healing. In a time when the world continues to struggle against a pandemic and when our nation, among others, is called to confront the evils of racism and nationalism, healing can only take place when evil is identified, named, confronted, silenced, and cast out. The demonic possession of our politics and our economics and our systems and structures must be exorcised. And this is not the work of a new administration in Washington. It is work for all of us to do, especially for the church.

Empowered by the Spirit and partnered with Christ in the restoration of the world, we are not free to abandon our human siblings; but we freed to embrace them, love them; we are called to participate in their healing which is the in-breaking of God’s kin-dom.

The challenge for us is real, as Tom Troeger laid out in his hymn on today’s  text:

Christ, the demons still are thriving

In the grey cells of the mind:

Tyrant voices, shrill and driving,

Twisted thoughts that grip and bind,

Doubts that still the heart to panic,

Fears distorting reason‘s sight,

Guilt that makes our loving frantic,

Dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Christ, the unclean spirit

In our mind and in our heart.

Speak your word that when we hear it

All our demons shall depart.

Clear our thoughts and calm our feeling,

Still the structured, warring soul.

By the power of your healing,

Make us faithful, true, and whole. (NCH 176-2, 3)

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