Sermon for Epiphany IV
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Psalms 111 I Corinthians 8:1-13 Mark 1:21-28
A business woman did a lot of traveling, mainly flying. She was religious, but still was terribly nervous when flying. She found having a Bible to read helped her relax during long flights. One time, she was sitting next to a man. When he saw her pull out her Bible, he gave a little chuckle, smirked and went back to what he was doing. After a while, he turned to her and asked, “You don’t really believe all that stuff in there, do you?” The lady replied, “Of course I do. It is the Bible.” He said, “Well, what about the guy that was swallowed by the whale?” She replied, “Oh Jonah. Yes, I believe that, it is in the Bible.” He asked, “Well, how do you suppose he survived all that time inside the whale?” “The lady said, “Well. I don’t really know. I guess when I get to heaven, I will ask him.” “What if he isn’t in heaven?” the man asked sarcastically. She replied, “Then you can ask him.”
Authority comes from both knowledge and experience. In this story, either the woman or the man is going to know what happened with Jonah, depending on who encounters him. In either case, there is authority given by knowledge of the Bible. Jesus contains both authority and knowledge, with his power over word and realm.
How do we know what the world of the unseen is like? How do we know what the spiritual realm is like? How do we know what God is like? Mark is making a very simple point in this passage. He is explaining that Jesus has the authority to tell us about the spiritual realm, because Jesus is able to control the realm. The unclean spirit correctly identifies Jesus. And as Jesus demonstrates his control over the spirit, those watching marvel at his authority. At the beginning of the passage, the teacher had authority because he is from God. At the end of the passage, the teacher had authority because he could control the spiritual realm.
Does the timing of the lectionary seem strange to you? Last week we read of Jesus’ call to the James and John, sons of Zebedee. The Sunday before, it was Andrew and Simon Peter. So far in Epiphany, Jesus has been revealed as King of the Jews, Son of God, Lamb of God, Messiah, a preacher, and one who calls disciples. In today’s gospel, Jesus is presented as teacher and exorcist. And with it, comes a new title, Holy One of God, and it is spoken by a demon. A demon speaking the truth is still a demon.
Now we are moving ahead in time to Jesus’ teaching and healing in the synagogue. It seems weird, there has been no schooling, no graduation, no diploma. There has been Jesus’ baptism, his time in the wilderness that equipped him and formed him into who he was created to be. Today’s Gospel reading ends with…his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region…
We heard the beginnings of the ministries of the disciples. And now we hear who Jesus truly is. I have heard that Jesus doesn’t call the prepared but prepares the called. What about the preparation of the calling of the disciples? They were fishermen. Perhaps it was that experience, that awareness of all that fishing involves, the sights, the smells, that allows Andrew to find the little boy with five fish to share with the five thousand. Perhaps, each experience in our lives prepares us for the next adventure God calls us to.
I have said before that I believe my past experiences have prepared me for future challenges. I got involved in the Kairos Prison Ministry in 1994. Through this wonderful ministry, I learned and experienced the importance of being real, being authentic in the eyes of God and in dealing with other folks. Christianity is not about putting on a “Sunday face.” It is about having a heart like Jesus. God uses all that we have been through to prepare us for the next thing. Today we commission the Vestry – new and experienced - each have gifts to offer God. Together we will move forward – together as the Body of Christ.
In today’s reading, Mark relates the second of six episodes that provide the nature of Jesus’ ministry. Today’s account is clearly two stories, one centering on Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue and the other on exorcism. In the beginning verses, Jesus is presented as teacher, and then the exorcism and then that focus is resumed. We hear that the crowd is amazed at the authority of his teaching. The part in between is the account of an exorcism, but surprisingly what amazes the crowd more is the power of Jesus’ teaching. Mark has a common practice of splitting stories – one story begins, another episode related or unrelated is told, and then the original story is concluded. Remember Jesus going to Jairus’ house to heal his daughter and the healing of the woman with the flow of blood and then resuming the journey to raise Jairus’ daughter.
That Jesus was an exorcist is in three of the four gospels. Only John chooses not to include it. For Mark, it is a centrally important portrayal of Jesus. This is not because exorcizing demons made Jesus unique; other exorcists were also at work. Jesus’ method of exorcism isn’t different from others. Accounts of exorcism usually begin with the demon’s recognition of the exorcist, the command to come out of the possessed one, the loud departure of the demon and the amazement of the spectators. What is most striking in this text is Mark’s setting the story of expelling the unclean spirit in the context of Jesus’ teaching. Clearly, the exorcism is to show us the power of Jesus’ teaching.
I don’t know about demons. I do know that there is an evil presence in the world. Maybe one that is not easily seen. I think demons, the devil, Satan, the evil one, may be those parts of us who turn away from God. We are God’s beloved, but sometimes we have cracks in the façade of our lives - our belief in God and in ourselves fades. It is in that little crack of unbelief, that the evil one gets a toe hold, and that becomes a foot hold if not
addressed. That is why a relationship with God through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ is so important. So, we can continually know, feel, experience and communicate that love. That is why we need to know who we are and who God is within us. I believe in the basic good of every human being. But there are times when we let our faith guard down and doubt and unbelief creep in.
Jesus came not only to teach us about a new way of life, but also to give us new life by healing us, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. There are many stories in Mark about unclean spirits and demons being cast out. The evil spirits often recognize who Jesus is and ask him to leave them alone. The power of evil wants to avoid the greater power of God’s truth and wholeness. These stories continue to teach us something important – we must take evil seriously, but we must never take evil more seriously than we take God. God has the authority over all things.
Mark is known for being brief. But his gospel talks about Jesus as teacher more than Matthew and Luke. What is even more noticeable is his use of the term in connection with miracles; the teacher stills the storm, the teacher raises a dead girl, the teacher feeds the hungry crowd, the teacher cures an epileptic, and the teacher curses the fig tree. It is not so much the content of Jesus’ teaching that Mark wants to stress. When Matthew says
that Jesus taught with authority, we are given large blocks of that teaching, (the Beatitudes cover three chapters), but in Mark, essentially the same expression occurs but with no indication of what Jesus said. For Mark, the primary emphasis is on the power of Jesus’ teaching.
John the Baptist calls Jesus “the more powerful one.” Jesus himself referred to his mission as entering Satan’s house and binding him. Jesus is the strong Son of God who enters the world in which the forces of evil are crippling, alienating, distorting and destroying life. According to Mark, the powers that seek to sabotage God’s creating and caring work not only cause disease but also disturb the natural elements and even insinuate themselves into the circle of Jesus’ closest friends. But with Jesus comes the power to heal, to help, to give life, and to restore. In Mark, a battle is joined between good and evil, truth and falsehood, life and death, God and Satan. And sometimes, says Mark, the contest is waged in the synagogue. Even the structures of religion may house forces that oppose the gospel.
Jesus will not be banished to a corner of the synagogue. He refused to fit into the low expectations of the people of Capernaum. Jesus insists on being in charge, even though it will be at the cost of his own life. That is the pattern of Mark’s gospel, ending up on the cross itself, where Jesus defeats all of the powers of darkness. Mark wants us to see and experience the power of Jesus’ teaching and what that teaching can do in our lives. Teach Lord, for we are listening! Amen.