The story has barely begun, and already the battle is joined. Jesus sides with humanity against every force that would bring death and disease. These forces recognize Jesus and know what his power means for them. This, however, is only the first fight. The war will go on much longer.
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and 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.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They 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.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Grace to you and peace, people of God, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s great to be back here after a few weeks of travelling. I remembered you all in my prayers and I thank you for all your support while I was away. It feels great to know that I had a home to come back to, a congregation of the people of God, to return to. You’ve supported me and my family through my absence and we can’t say “Thank you” enough. Now, as much as I’d like to just try to say “Thank you” in a hundred different ways to all of you who have helped us, that wouldn’t make for much of a sermon, so let’s get into it!
Imagine, if you will, the scene presented in our gospel reading for the day as seen by the people in the congregation. You are there, hearing Jesus teach, and you are astounded. This guy, fresh from his baptism and temptation in the wilderness, is now preaching in your worship service. You may have never heard of him, but that doesn’t matter. He is speaking in a way that completely changes the way your view God, scripture, and the world around you. He teaches with authority and he is using that authority to open your mind and your heart to connect with God in a whole new way. Then, during his teaching, something happens. A man, this guy who is sitting right in the middle of the crowd, stands up and confronts Jesus. He’s yelling at Jesus, asking ridiculous questions, and nobody knows how to react. He’s asking if Jesus is going to destroy them and is calling him the “holy one of God.” Is he being sarcastic or does he know something you don’t? How will Jesus react? It seems, given the circumstance, that Jesus responds with just the words that I would be thinking, at least. Maybe you’d also be thinking, “Be silent and get out of him!” Or, if we’re honest, maybe we’d just be thinking, “Be silent and get out of here!” Jesus casts out the demon with one short phrase: no magical incantation, holy water, or lengthy prayers and seems to continue on with the service. Can you imagine continuing on in a worship service if someone did that? It would certainly be the talk of the town by that afternoon. And it certainly seems to make an impact on the people there.
The scenario that plays out in this text seems to be a classic good-versus-evil type of scene. The man with the unclean spirit starts on the offensive and immediately goes for the trump card. The trump card is knowledge. Now, let me explain that. In the ancient world, knowledge of someone, even just knowing someone’s name, gave you a degree of power over them. It was a point of leverage and favor. To a degree, we feel that, too. Imagine a scenario when you’ve done something, either good or bad, and someone, who you don’t know, says to you, “I know you and I know what you’ve done.” I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel all itchy and maybe even a little violated. I can say with confidence that if someone knows me, and I don’t know them, they have a little power over me.
So this demon-possessed man makes Jesus aware. He knows who Jesus is and knows what Jesus is doing. He knows that Jesus has the power to do whatever he wants. He, like the rest of the people at the synagogue, realized that Jesus had the authority to teach, but Jesus’ response to him showed them his true authority. Thankfully, he uses it to help humanity. In a divine act of will and grace, Jesus silences the unclean spirit with just a few words. Wow! The unclean spirit’s trump card didn’t quite work out. This is the first of 4 different exorcisms in Mark and all of them involve a spirit who knows Jesus. The battle between good and evil, it seems, has begun.
Looking at this scene and text we can see that this is great news for us, isn’t it? Jesus, not only has authority to teach us, by his sermons and actions recorded in scripture, but also has the authority to save us from what we could never save ourselves from. The man with an unclean spirit certainly didn’t choose it. Nobody ever does, do they? I don’t know anybody who would willingly choose addiction, mental illness, genetic disorders, cancer, or patterns of domestic violence. I don’t know anybody who would willingly choose to be held in the bondage of sin. Most of the time, we don’t choose what entangles us. We can’t always control ourselves, despite what we may think. In the moment, we often can’t always help ourselves. We get angry or greedy or lustful and we just can’t seem to stop or make a different choice. In essence, we, like the man with the unclean spirit, can’t keep ourselves from being unclean. We don’t have the power to keep ourselves from sinning. But Jesus, showing both authority and compassion, freed that man from his spirit. With a simple word, he silenced and cast out that demon.
Now, we’ve thought about this from the point of view of the other people in the congregation. We’ve watched in horror and disgust as we saw one of our own people stand up, question Jesus and his authority, and we’ve been amazed at Jesus’ response. However, in reality, that’s not really who we are in this story. If we’re honest, if this scenario would play out right now, we’d probably look a lot more like the man with the unclean spirit than the innocent bystanders.
Can you imagine the response of that man after the exchange between himself and Jesus? I am sure there was embarrassment. There was certainly a sense of regret. But, most importantly, there must have been an overwhelming sense of freedom, love, and appreciation for this man, Jesus. He had just been given his life back! He had just been freed from the chains that held him captive for who knows how long! He was just healed! His words, meant to attack Jesus and give him power over Jesus, were a means by which Jesus could save him. Don’t his words mean something different after he’s healed? Listen to them again. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with us, Jesus?
Why would Jesus associate himself with us? What would make the Son of God enter into community with us? Why would Jesus choose to engage with people who, like this man and like you and me, are imperfect, sinful, and unclean? It’s because of love. It’s because Jesus came to free those oppressed by sin and shame and regret. Through compassion deeper than we could ever know, Jesus uttered seven simple words and changed that man’s life forever. And I can guarantee you that those people remembered that transformed life far longer than they remembered whatever else Jesus said that day. No sermon, however long, could live up to what was achieved in those seven words.
Everybody there, from that moment, knew that they were part of a larger story. The gospel reading says that his fame grew through the rural region of Galilee. People began spreading the word of God, like prophets, proclaiming that something had changed, something way different. Jesus’ fame grew because of the authority by which he acted, not just taught. Jesus showed that God is a God of action, not just words. God is interested in your everyday life, and not just your Sunday morning attendance. God shows you love and compassion when you are broken and doesn’t wait for you to cast out your own demons. We are freed by the audacious gift of grace.
Now, of course, this man wasn’t made perfect. He still had his struggles. He still felt the pull of sin on his life. We, like this man, still have to deal with reality of brokenness in our world. However, we face these realities with a new perspective. The name of Jesus, the holy one of God, which the man with the unclean spirit wanted to use to gain power in the situation, became the very name which freed him from his powerlessness. His question, meant to taunt Jesus, becomes our question, as we ask in awe and wonder, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In essence, we are asking, “Why would you want to have anything to do with us, broken and in pain?” Why would the Word incarnate, the Son of God, be here, among us?
The answer, as we’ve said before and I will keep saying, is love. Jesus did not just come to teach us. He didn’t come just as a prophet to inform us of God’s Word or teach us behavior modification techniques. No. Instead, he came to free us, to show us a new way of life, and to constantly be reshaping and reforming us. We are not perfect, but we are forgiven anyway. We are beloved children of God. We are freed people of God. And, as the people of God, we are the hands and feet of God and prophets proclaiming the love of God into every situation we face. There is no addiction dark enough to keep out the light of Christ. There is no illness severe enough to destroy the resurrection of Jesus. There is no personal history that negates the love of the Eternal Creator.
Jesus showed up in a synagogue in Capernaum in Galilee and begins something new. The stage is set. The battle between good and evil has started. And, thank God, the good has far more power than we will ever have. We know the name of Jesus and in that name we are set free. Amen.