Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28
What an exciting day at the synagogue. Astounding teaching, interrupted by an angry outburst, followed by a convulsion filled exorcism.
No one in attendance would ever forget this week’s worship. No wonder Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. Who wouldn’t have been talking about such an experience?
In eight short verses Mark covers a lot of ground. The Gospel emphasizes the distinctiveness of Jesus’ teaching as one with authority — not like the scribes, who presumably interpreted or quoted the work of other rabbis and scholars. Jesus, on the other hand, speaks for himself (and of himself, although they don’t know this yet). The issue of Jesus’ authority comes up frequently in Mark’s Gospel. All creation is under Jesus’ authority: waves and wind, demons and diseases. Jesus’ astounding teaching is coupled with Jesus’ astonishing deeds, a truth evident at the very beginning of his ministry. Jesus, whoever he is, is not like the other religious leaders of the day. He brings a new teaching and even the unclean spirits obey him.
Imagining the reaction of those gathered that Sabbath is a stretch given our familiarity with all that comes after this early story in Mark. We know who Jesus is: the Messiah, the Son of God. We know his authority is divine. We know he is Lord of all. We know he is the risen and victorious One who sits on the right hand of God judging the quick and the dead. The people who came to synagogue that Sabbath knew none of this, at least not yet. How, then, can we fathom the experience of witnessing Jesus teaching and healing apart from all that came after those first days of his ministry?
No wonder everyone kept asking in amazement, “What is this?”
I wonder if, even with all we know about Jesus, we might benefit from asking the same question in our contexts.
What is this new teaching?
What power are we witnessing?
What are the demons Jesus casts out?
What do we do now that we have had this extraordinary experience?
If we aren’t pondering these questions, then maybe we need to head to synagogue and hear Jesus’ teachings again. If we aren’t astounded and amazed by what Jesus is doing in the world, then we aren’t paying attention. In the words of Deuteronomy, we are not heeding the word of God’s prophet.
Mark’s Gospel presents Jesus as coming to confront and vanquish evil. When the man with the unclean spirit bursts on the scene and asks, “Have you come to destroy us?” the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Jesus has come to destroy evil, and save the ones and the world possessed by it. The “just then” of this text marks an important transition where Jesus’ teaching is put into transformative action. Jesus does not talk about the saving work of God, he enacts it. Jesus’ new, authoritative teaching crushes the powers of darkness and sets people free to be their God-created selves. The demons are the first to recognize Jesus’ identity and power because they are the very ones he has come to destroy. All the more reason for us to be on the lookout for the convulsing of evil spirits as a sure sign that the Holy One of God is nearby and we should draw closer.
I recognize that talk of evil and demons and unclean spirits does not resound with familiarity in our day and time. In fact, I admit, it sounds a little nutty. However, reading the daily news renders it difficult to deny that darkness is pervasive and requires nothing less than God’s intervention to bring light and wholeness. The challenge isn’t to find the evil, rather it is to see the places where the formally possessed are clothed and in their right mind and then to celebrate that wholeness, not disbelieve it or be afraid of it or beg Jesus to leave our neighborhood because of it.
That’s an odd reality of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms: Those who witness them often wish Jesus had left things, and people, as he found them. We are all too comfortable with the status quo, even when it is demonic and devastating to some.
This week’s Gospel lesson is about Jesus, not about us, though. Our role in this story is limited. Those who witnessed Jesus’ astounding teaching and power showed up to worship and then talked about what they experienced. They asked one another what it might mean and then they told others who had not seen for themselves about this extraordinary teacher. They spoke the truth about what had transpired, proclaiming that even the unclean spirits obey him. Surely, they were not the same after such an encounter with the Holy One of God, even if they could not fully understand or explain what happened. Is not the same true for us?
I have never once witnessed a dramatic exorcism in worship (or anywhere). I have, however, seen dramatic transformations, healing and light inexplicably overcoming darkness. Often these inbreakings of good have occurred over time, not shazam-like on a Sunday morning. They are nonetheless worthy of amazement and sharing.
I have known beloved children of God racked with addiction, now sober and reaching out to others trying to get clean. I have known families sleeping in their cars, now living in homes of their own through their own hard work and the help of those willing to walk alongside them for a time. I have known couples estranged and bitter, now reconnected, forgiving and forgiven, more committed to one another than ever before. I have known some who have exploited and cheated those over whom they had power, now repentant and working to make amends. In short, I have seen Jesus destroy all that threatens to possess and devastate God’s beloved for whom he wants abundant life. Often, I have been amazed. Sometimes I have been disbelieving. And, yes, there have been times I have wished Jesus had left things and people as they were because I didn’t want to see my culpability in their suffering or because I didn’t want to change my own behavior or because I in some way benefited from their painful circumstances.
Jesus takes on and vanquishes evil anyway. He is not like the scribes. His authority requires no outside permission or affirmation. This story is all about Jesus. Our role is to bear witness to what we have seen and heard and experienced, to wrestle with what it is that Jesus is doing and, hopefully, celebrate and even participate in it. When we show up to the synagogue this Sabbath and listen to Jesus, we should also be amazed and ask: What is this new teaching and how can I follow it?
- Notice the “just then” in this story. Are there other stories in Scripture that have a similar transition? What happens after “just then”? Have there been some “just then” moments you have experienced in worship or in other settings?
- Why is it that the demons are the ones who recognize Jesus’ identity? Look at other passages where demons talk to Jesus (Mark 5:1-13, for example). What happens in those exchanges? How do the people around them react?
- Note other instances where people are astounded by Jesus’ teaching. What are they astounded about? How do they respond to his teaching? (Mark 6:1-6; Mark 7:31-37; Mark 10:23-27; Mark 11:15-19)
- When have you witnessed an amazing transformation or turn around? What was it? How did it happen? How did you and others respond to it?
- Have you ever experienced a worship service that was amazing or astounding? If so, what about it made it so?
- Are you comfortable talking about demons, unclean spirits and/or evil? If not, why not? If so, why?
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