4th Sunday after Epiphany — January 31, 2021

Mark 1:21-28

If Jesus were to wander into church with you on Sunday, what do you imagine would happen?

Looking into the lectionary is sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

Would he find demons in residence? Would a screaming match ensue? Would a fight break out? This is the scenario the Gospel of Mark presents as the inaugural event of Jesus’ public ministry. All four evangelists had a variety of stories at their disposal as they composed their Gospel narratives, and it is worth noting that each selects a different event as the inaugural one — clueing us into distinctive emphases of their Christological portraits. In the Gospel of Matthew, which presents Jesus as a definitive teacher, the public ministry begins with the Sermon on the Mount, a massive compendium of Jesus’ teaching. Luke’s compassionate Jesus inaugurates his ministry with a programmatic statement of the nature and course of his own ministry as one that will bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. The public ministry of John’s Jesus, who came that we might have life abundantly, emerges into view at a wedding in Cana where he produces vast quantities of choice wine. Thus, it is important to attend closely to the inaugural significance of the story before us from Mark — to ways in which it sets the tone for the ministry that unfolds, and for our own ministries in Jesus’ name. So, note well: Jesus begins his public ministry in Mark by throwing himself into cosmic battle with all the demonic forces that oppress and disfigure human life. In Mark, Jesus’ ministry begins with confrontation, so we should anticipate a lot of yelling and screaming and conflict during lectionary year B, which features this Gospel. The text for this Sunday sets the wheels of Jesus’ ministry in motion.

It is also worth noting the setting of Mark’s inaugural conflict story. It takes place in a religious institution — in a synagogue where people are gathered on the Sabbath. A setting with which we are altogether familiar — and thus my original question: What do you imagine would happen were Jesus to wander into church during Sunday morning services? Consider what happens in Mark’s story.

Jesus enters the synagogue at Capernaum and begins teaching, and people are astounded by the authority with which he speaks. But then the screaming match begins. The teaching is disrupted by a man with an unclean spirit present in the assembly, as the demon who has him in grip cries 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.” The unclean spirit immediately recognizes that Jesus and the reign of God present in his ministry represent a comprehensive threat to the whole realm of demons (for whom he speaks when he cries, “What have you to do with us? … Have you come to destroy us?”) And by naming Jesus twice, with both a human name (Jesus of Nazareth) and a divine name (Holy One of God), he may well be seeking to exorcise Jesus, to gain an upper hand – for remember that Jesus, too, is possessed – by God’s own Spirit that descended upon him (literally, “into” him) at the moment of his baptism.  Jesus screams right back, rebuking the demon: “Be silent” (a better translation still: “Be silenced” or “Be muzzled,” by the power of God) and come out of him!” Jesus’ power prevails, for violently convulsing the victim and crying out in a loud voice, the unclean spirit comes out of him. (Matthew and Luke find the violence of this exit a bit disturbing and tone it down a bit.) It’s quite a dramatic development on an otherwise quiet Sabbath morning that does not fail to raise major questions in the minds of those present on the occasion. They wonder: “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” As Thomas G. Long has noted in “Shepherd and Bathrobes,” it is a somewhat odd reaction and a bit of an understatement: What is this? An innovation in Christian education? I imagine the words represent a mixture of awe and fear – even panic – associated with the disruption of the assumed order of things.

I also imagine that the response might be much the same were a Presbyterian assembly disrupted by a screaming match and a violent struggle in the middle of services on an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning — a questioning and decidedly mixed response. The people in the Capernaum synagogue were shaken to the core of their being, and no doubt wondering whether to stick around for the next act. What if pastors in Presbyterian churches, taking their lead from Jesus, were to include exorcism in their worship planning? Do you think Sunday morning attendance would go up or down?

Given that most of our congregations are worshipping online in cyberspace at present, perhaps we do not have to worry about such things. Or do we? As we wrestle collectively with the reality of a triple pandemic threat of health, race and political polarization, how could we imagine that these dangers are not present in our own assemblies and worship, even when we gather virtually? How could we imagine that we have been unaffected by such demons? That we are not in their grip? These demons have been screaming, raising a ruckus for quite some time. Are we listening? I cannot imagine that Presbyterian life as we know it will be unaffected, immune to the disfiguring power of this triple demonic threat. Will faithfulness amid these pandemics and life together in a post-pandemic church afterward finally mean confronting demons that deform and deface our life together in our churches, our communities and our nation?

While meditating on such matters, I was contacted by a former colleague in ministry with a question that initially brought me up short: “What is moral and theological evil?” she asked. I was grateful for the question, though it stumped me at first, for it helped me reflect on what the demonic looks like when it appears in our midst. What shape does it take? After a bit of reflection, I landed on a classically Reformed response, enshrined in our theological heritage. For Reformed Christians, moral and theological evil is, in a word, “idolatry.” This classic affirmation   finds expression in “A Brief Statement of Faith,” which affirms in a broken and fearful world, the Spirit of God gives us courage to “unmask idolatries in church and culture.” And what is idolatry?  Simply put, it is a lie. Not just any lie, but a big lie. It is a lie about God, and about human life and all creation in relation to God. Thus, in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he said: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor yourself’” (Mark 12:29-31). These commandments lay bare an underlying problem of the human condition: our propensity to turn in upon ourselves and to lie about relationship to God (a deception with us from the very beginning, articulated by the serpent in the Garden of Eden). We are created for life that embodies the all-embracing love of God — life in which we love God with all of who we are, and love neighbors as ourselves. Demons surface in our midst when our love is constricted — when we deem others unworthy of God’s love or our own and presume that God blesses that lie.

Make no mistake about it: this demonic lie continues to wreak havoc on our common life. Indeed, in his powerful and compelling book, “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own,” Eddie Glaude notes that James Baldwin spoke of racism as the lie that infects the very core of American life. Baldwin discerned the lie of racism in the very air that we breathe and as a foundational assumption of our common life: the lie that white lives matter more than others. Glaude further observes that we avoid reckoning with this lie, pulling back out of fear “that genuine democracy will mean white people will have to lose something — that they will have to give up their particular material and symbolic standing in the country.” These piercing observations unmask the lie — the idolatry at the heart of our common life.

Thus we are sorely in need of Mark’s testimony that the power of God in Christ is stronger than this lie — stronger than demons that have us in their grip. Thanks be to God that Jesus throws himself into battle against demons that disfigure our lives, and for the power of the Spirit that gives us courage to join him in unmasking idolatries in church and culture and in our own hearts.

This week:

  1. If Jesus were to wander into church with you today, what do you imagine might happen?
  2. What do you make of the fact that the Gospel of Mark presents this scene as the inaugural event of Jesus’ public ministry? You may wish to compare this event to the inaugural events presented in the other three Gospels (Matthew 5-7; Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:16-29; John 2:1-11).
  3. Where do you discern demonic forces at work in the church, in your community and in the world?
  4. “A Brief Statement of Faith” affirms that that the Spirit of God gives us courage to “unmask idolatries in church and culture.” What do you think of this affirmation? What significance might it have for your own life of faith and that of your congregation?
  5. What do you think of the notion of idolatry as a lie?
  6. What do you think of James Baldwin’s contention that the lie of racism is at the core of American life and part of the air that we breathe? How has breathing this air impacted your own experience?