Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 31, 2021
4th Sunday after Epiphany
Of the four gospel accounts, the Gospel of Mark is the first to be recorded. Written in the style of a modern-day newspaper account, Mark rushes us from place to place to witness gospel-making, life-changing history. Just twenty verses in, a lot of territory has been covered. Already, Jesus has been baptized, driven into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan and cared for by the angels; John the Baptizer has been arrested and Jesus has started preaching the gospel and gathering disciples. Twenty verses of Scripture bring us to the synagogue on the Sabbath where Jesus is about to inaugurate his kingdom campaign. And Jesus’ kingdom campaign will shock and amaze the people. Listen to Eugene Peterson’s telling of the event, from The Message:
Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars. Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!” Jesus shut him up: “Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out. Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!” News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.
It is no surprise that this news travels fast. Jesus speaks with authority AND he makes things happen! His style of teaching differs from anything the people have ever heard. Jesus does not rely on borrowed authority. He does not offer information; instead, through the power of the Holy Spirit, what Jesus offers is transformation. Now that is something new and amazing.
You may have noticed the people are not alone in their amazement. The one who happens to see more clearly than anyone is the unclean spirit. Translations vary here—unclean spirit, evil spirit, or demon. Who or what is this? While opinions vary, one thing is clear—this is something that is contrary to purity and sacredness. It is a presence that is against the things of God. Yet it is the unclean spirit that speaks the truth, interrupting Jesus like a heckler during a campaign speech. It is safe to say that everyone in the synagogue is riveted to the scene being played out before them. The unclean spirit 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 is disturbed, for good reason, because he recognizes Jesus for who he is. Evil has come face to face with the source of its ultimate demise. Indeed, Jesus has come to do his Father’s business. Jesus has come to destroy the evil that threatens to undo humanity. Jesus has come to offer abundant life. Jesus has come to shut down the powers of darkness and Jesus CAN because he is exactly who the unclean spirit says he is: “the Holy One of God.”
Jesus’ authority is made known when what he speaks comes to fruition—word and action unite, and the evil spirit is silenced and cast out of the man. Let the healing begin! Isn’t it ironic that Jesus, possessed by the Spirit of God, faces off with a man, possessed by a demon? And in that moment, the healing ministry of Jesus is in full swing. With at least 13 miracles of healing documented in the Gospel of Mark, there is no denying that for Jesus there is a strong connection between religion and health.
Returning to the man with the unclean spirit, don’t you wonder what he is doing in the synagogue in the first place? Wouldn’t that be the last place an evil presence should want to hang out? It makes me wonder, in the midst of being nearly overwhelmed by something evil and beyond his control, is there something that draws the man to a place where he might find a glimmer of hope? Is that how he happens to be among the people that day? And while the brokenness of this man with an unclean spirit and his need for healing is so obvious, doesn’t he represent all of humanity? Whether by anger, greed, selfishness, anxiety, hatred, pride, whether by discouragement, despair, depression, whether by obsessions, addictions, disease—aren’t we all broken in some form or fashion? But for the possessed man, and for all who meet the person of Jesus, there is healing, there is wholeness, there is hope.
Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus acts with authority. Authority—it is an interesting word that refers to the power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior. Sometimes authority is given by the nature of a position—such as in the case of a state legislator or an owner of an organization. At other times, we give someone or something authority over us, which begs the question “Who or what have we given authority or power in our lives?” Does Holy Scripture and the way of Jesus influence our behavior? What about wise teachers, trusted friends, mentors? Who else has authority over us?
When it comes to authority and preaching, lately I have been pondering the advice theologian Karl Barth gave to ministers—to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Barth believed in speaking truth to power, but these days, what is truth and where do we find it? As a life-long learner and spiritual leader, I want to stay informed about global and national matters but finding the truth has become increasingly difficult. Kinney and I have long relied on PBS Newshour and NPR for daily news. Lately, though, I have been compelled to broaden my information circle to include Pulitzer Prize winning digital publications of The New York Times and The Washington Post. To keep abreast of religious happenings, in addition, I have renewed my subscriptions to Christian Century and Presbyterian Outlook. While I would prefer to spend more time reading books and, perhaps, sleeping—in these troubling times, I feel an obligation to seek the truth to the best of my ability. But I cannot stop there. Once I think I have found it, I must take it to the Lord in prayer because you see, the real truth—the ultimate truth—comes from God and God alone.
Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus acts with authority. He is a prophet, a sage, a teacher, and a truth-teller. With God-given power, Jesus demonstrates the love of God for all to see. He makes the gospel message real. The message of hope that he brings is good news worth telling. With great courage, with great humility, may God give us hearts and minds and voices to tell it! Amen.
*Cover Art “Jesus Casts Out the Unclean Spirit!” Limbourg Brothers from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Folio_166r_-_The_Exorcism.jpg.