Here on the fourth Sunday of Epiphany we continue reading our way into the Gospel of Mark – the gospel in which we will be spending most of this year in the church. By now we have met our patron saint, John the Baptist, have been told of Jesus’ own baptism by John, and seen the calling of the first four disciples. What will happen now that the main characters have been introduced? As Professor Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary puts it, “It’s time for a fight scene.”
That’s what happened when Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum. There was nothing unusual about the fact that a traveling Rabbi from Nazareth was asked to teach on the Sabbath. That would be a normal way for things to proceed in any synagogue of the time. The guest would read a passage of scripture and then would move into teaching the meaning of what is written in the Torah portion.
But something different happened next. Those in attendance noticed that Jesus was not teaching as other trained scholars might. He was teaching as though he knew the full depth of God’s word. People were astonished and said, “He teaches as one with authority.” In other words, he did not cite footnotes, or previous commentary on the portion. Instead, he taught as though his words were the truth of what is written.
By and large, most were impressed. But one man, described as ‘having an unclean spirit’, challenged him with a terrible cry “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.” It was like a scream of pain, as though the authority of Jesus was tearing him apart.
It was also a shocking breach of decorum, but Jesus seemed completely unruffled as he commanded the spirit to be quiet and leave the man. The fight was short and the outcome was immediate. The man possessed by evil was torn by a convulsion, but then was quiet and at peace. He had been made whole, no longer split apart by the demonic. Now the astonished members of the synagogue were even more impressed. The teaching of Jesus was authoritative and his authority extended to forcing demons to obey him.
Before the end of the first chapter of his Gospel, Mark has defined the grounds on which the struggle between Jesus and the rulers of Palestine will be played out. This theme, echoing through the entire rest of the Gospel, is perhaps best summarized as interrogating Jesus, “What gives you the right…. To talk in such a way, to act like this, to do these deeds, to present yourself as having such power.”
The response of those who follow Jesus, is that the authority embodied in, and exercised by, the Messiah is that of God, incarnate among us as a living statement that our God is not indifferent to human suffering and captivity.
So how do we hear this story? Two millennia after the time of these events, we live within a very different worldview and have different language and concepts for what was referred to in the first century as possession, and demonic forces. But perhaps whatever language we use for these phenomena, the question we need to address is whether or not we think that there is evil in the world around us, capable of holding people prisoner as the man in the synagogue was imprisoned.
One could look at Germany in the 1930’s when Adolf Hitler would turn a great and civilized country, highly advanced in science, arts, literature and theology into a machine that created a disastrous war. It was a war that killed 50 – 80 million people, the majority of them non-combatants, including the genocide of six million Jews.
Historians, psychologists and economists have given hundreds of different explanations for how such a massive crime could have occurred. But what if one postulates that Adolf Hitler, and hundreds of others, permitted themselves to become living conduits of the evil that engulfed the earth? Is that a form of demonic possession?
And in the twenty-first century, are we ignorant of the principalities and powers by which we are surrounded, and often controlled? The Reverend Andrew Prior, a pastor of the Uniting Church of Australia, wrote, “this morning, I stood in my large western house before a clean gas stove brewing coffee, aware that even in this act I was indulging a luxury that the world cannot afford. We know we are destroying ourselves. We know that something evil is among us, separating us from God, driving us toward our own destruction, and we are powerless.”
What he describes here is not as dramatic as a world war, but is just as deadly, and apparently impervious to our efforts to free ourselves. More than this, we live in a time when truth itself is under attack; lies are presented as an alternative reality, fear is whipped up so that we will support the filling of our prisons with the least among us, or deporting people who have lived here peacefully for decades.
Whether we think of evil on this scale or the supposedly more personal level of our individual captivity – to food or drugs or money or being right, we so often find ourselves bound by seemingly unbreakable chains. “We know that something evil is among us, separating us from God, driving us toward our own destruction, and we are powerless.”
But Mark’s entire Gospel is written to tell us that God is not powerless. Jesus came bearing that clear message. Confronted with the demonic, he simply said, “Be silent, and come out of him!” The struggle that Jesus will confront throughout Mark’s story is the conflict with those who have authority in the world and are unwilling to lose it. All these powers will push back, threaten and connive until their final solution, and God’s ultimate sacrifice: the crucifixion.
Thus ends the story of this great struggle with evil. Except that the fight is not over. For crucifixion is followed by resurrection. God vindicates the authority of Jesus by breaking through the boundary that has haunted humanity from the beginning – our ultimate captivity to death.
It is often hard for us to see the victory. So many of the things that torment us, seem impervious to our best efforts to break free. We grieve our losses and defeats at the hands of powers so superior to our own.
But here in the church we are an outpost of a vision beyond this battle. However hopeless things seem to us, our proclamation is that Jesus is here. We have not been left orphaned in the chaos, for Jesus is here. Beloved, we know that even in the grave our song is “alleluia” as he leads us to freedom, for Jesus is here.