21 They (the disciples) went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he (Jesus) entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
This church year is the year of Mark’s gospel. We have read five stories from the book of Mark since our church year began in November, four from the first chapter. And now we will be hearing from Mark for the next couple of weeks. So let’s refresh Mark’s gospel. The book of Mark is sixteen chapters long, around twenty five pages in a standard Bible. It would be a great read if you are looking for a study or devotion to begin soon, or during Lent.
Mark begins the good news of Jesus Christ with the strange wilderness preacher, John the Baptist, ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ Jesus himself is baptized in dramatic fashion with the heavens tearing open and the Holy Spirit descending and the voice of the Lord declaring this is my beloved Son. Then Jesus is driven to the wilderness where he is tested by Satan for 40 days and nights. Immediately after overcoming this temptation, he calls the first four disciples. And now today, he begins his public ministry with an exorcism in Capernaum. Capernaum is in the region of Galilee, the region Jesus is from. Right away, Mark is shows us that this Jesus is not the God we expect. We expect God to be in heaven, and Mark tears open the heavens- and now heaven and earth are mixed up. God has come near. God’s entrance is dramatic and unexpected. God has crossed the boundary from heaven to earth. And that’s only the beginning of the boundary crossing for Jesus, God in flesh in Mark’s gospel.
His first act of public ministry as reported by mark’s gospel- casting out an unclean spirit…
Jesus is teaching on the Sabbath in the local synagogue, and right away we see that his teaching is different- he teaches with authority. Although Jesus may not have any experience in ministry, I suppose this would be his first call… he has authority. He has the authority of the overcomer, who has just battled Satan in the wilderness and won. He has the authority of God. This authority is recognized by the unclean spirit, although strangely it will not be recognized by the scribes and religious folk and even his first disciples. This talking spirit cries out, recognizing Jesus as the Holy one of God, and the spirit is afraid of his power. As we studied this story on Wednesday night with our children, one of the teachers mentioned that the curriculum was too advanced for her group and she requested the youngest level, which worked well. After all, exorcism is a bit disturbing for young children. In fact, if you were not a little disturbed by this story, you must have missed the part about the talking unclean spirits, or demons as we could call them.
In fact it may cause us to wonder why we read this story in church, anyway. After all, we live in a world that doesn’t talk about demons much. Maybe because our worldview is less spiritual than that of the ancient world… Maybe because demons do not exist in the same way that did in Jesus’ time. Maybe because we simply do not want to talk about it.Whatever the reasons… it simply seems easier not to go there. And yet, it seems there are some powerful lessons we can learn from this story about Jesus casting out the unclean spirits.
This week, I attended a conference at Luther Seminary, entitled “religious but not spiritual?” with a question mark at the end. For a while now some people more along the new age perspective have claimed to be, ‘spiritual but not religious’ because they wanted to distance themselves from religious institutions. Some evangelical Christians also teach, it’s a relationship NOT a religion, in reference to Christianity. Of course, there are valid reasons why people have wanted to distance themselves from religion. And yet, as we examined this question at the Seminary- it became more apparent that we need both. Spirituality connects us to God in a personal way. And yet studies show that without a faith community in the form of religion, people do not sustain spirituality. You can’t be spiritual alone. You need a community of people to sustain you.
Nadia Bolz-Weber shared how the rituals, liturgy, and scriptures of our religion are truly the most meaningful parts of our faith. These rituals give us space to hold life’s experiences…. Sorrow, heartache, angst, joy, love. She said that religion helps us find meaning in our difficult reality, rather than hide or escape from it. At first glance, Pastor Nadia would seemingly be the last person you might expect to be sharing the beauty of religion. With her arms covered in tattoos, her spiky hair, and swearing like a truck driver (sorry truck drivers!), she lives up to her twitter handle @sarcasticlutheran. But when she talks about her congregation in Denver creating a shrine to honor the 150 children killed in their school in Pakistan- you begin to understand. You begin to see that boundary-crossing-God from Mark’s gospel- right in front of you- God speaking through a woman, with tattoos, dropping the f-bomb- the sacred and the profane co-existing.
And if we are real enough to admit it- that is how the Christian life truly is. As saints and sinners at the same time, we live in the beautiful, messy reality of this world that God created. This world is not picture perfect- there is suffering and trials- right alongside our miracles and laughter. Nor is our world black and white- and our scripture today reminds us of this. We may not all have experiences with spiritual warfare, like Jesus did. But metaphorically, we each have our demons that we battle. And here is where the power of this passage comes into play for each of us.
We all have our demons…
Some of us, like Pastor Nadia suffer from addictions like alcoholism- she is a recovering alcoholic. Other addictions plague us as well- overeating, shopping, nicotine, working too much, and many others. Some of us suffer from mental illness in the form of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other forms of chemical imbalances. Some of us battle inner demons of self-doubt, hatred, and never feeling good enough. Still others have physical ailments that cause us despair. All of these demons can taunt us telling us that we are not worthy of God’s love, of the love of other people, of self-love. They want us to alienate ourselves- because that is where they have the most power over us.
And yet, Jesus has power over all of our demons. Jesus has the authority to say, “Be silent.” And when our demons are silent- we can hear the voice of God. This voice says, “You are forgiven. You are good. You are loved. You do not have to hide. I am with you.” That is the gospel news.
Just last week here at Hope, we had some people share their stories of addiction and the affects of addiction in their lives at our confirmation class. It was a bit risky- after all some people do not feel these subjects belong in church. There are boundaries about what is acceptable to talk about- and what is not. And yet, whether or not we talk about it- it exists. And when we hide it, and when we keep silent- it allows the demons to have the power.
But when Jesus hears the demons in the synagogues, or in our case, our church- they stand no chance. Compared with Jesus’ authority they are powerless. And when people are gathered together in the beauty of Christian community sharing their struggles and their brokenness- suddenly it does not seem so hopeless- because we are not alone. That’s the wonder and power of the religious life- it brings us together, together in Christ.