From Pastor Kenny's Desk
January 28, 2018
“They came to Capernaum, and on the Sabbath Jesus entered the synagogue and began to teach. The people were spellbound by the teaching, because Jesus taught with an authority that was unlike their religious scholars.
Suddenly a person with an unclean spirit appeared in their synagogue. It shrieked, ‘What do you want from us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God!’
Jesus rebuked the spirit sharply: ‘Be quiet! Come out of that person!’ At that the unclean spirit convulsed the possessed one violently, and with a loud shriek it came out.
All who looked on were amazed. They began to ask one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching, and with such authority! This person even gives orders to unclean spirits and they obey!’ Immediately news of Jesus spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” Mark 1:21-28
It is not unusual for people to ask me if the Bible has any meaning and relevance for us today. The truth is I do believe the Bible has stories and teachings that can help shape the way we understand and experience God and live our lives as people of faith. That said, as a practical theologian and pastor, it has always been my goal to help people apply the stories and teachings of the Bible to their lives.
And then comes a passage like this one from Mark’s gospel. A passage on an exorcism, of all things, using words like “rebuke” and “unclean spirit,” … I can understand how this kind of language can stand in the way of understanding the intent of the story. Even so, I believe what this passage has to say can still change lives today.
In considering the Gospels … Matthew, Mark, Luke and John … we learn that first events give insight into the larger themes and a distinct understanding of Jesus’ mission and character. In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and (new) lawgiver like Moses. In John, Jesus creates unexpected and unimaginable abundance. In Luke, Jesus is the one who releases those held captive, heals the sick and those who are weak and proclaims good news to the poor and the God’s blessings to all. And in Mark … Jesus picks a fight with an unclean spirit.
That is, Mark’s Gospel starts with a confrontation. Whatever dramatic value beginning with a fight scene might initially promise there is little doubt of who will win this showdown. The unclean spirit protests Jesus’ presence and Jesus casts the spirit away with a command as authoritative as it is succinct. And because of Jesus’ bold teaching and power over this spirit of oppression, his fame spreads quickly.
Keeping in mind the importance of first events, we can read this scene as Mark’s signal that Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the people of God from the abundant life God desires for all people. This message matters because it is still the case: God wants the most for us from this life and stands in opposition to anything that robs us of the joy, community and purpose for which we were created.
I suggest that we take this matter of “possession” seriously and wonder what kinds of things possess us. In my life there have been occasions when I’ve been possessed by anger at a colleague or family member that has led me to say and do things I regret. I have been possessed by jealousy and envy that had led me to use my resources in ways I regret. And that’s just the beginning. Question: can you honestly say that you haven’t had these experiences also when you feel possessed by something that is so clearly not the Spirit of God blessing us to be a blessing to others?
And there are other things to be possessed by as well. Think of what it’s like to be possessed by an addiction to power and control, alcohol, drugs, gambling, brutality, rage or sex. Or how it feels to be possessed by prejudice, sexism, ableism, bigotry, fear or low self-esteem. Or maybe it’s the kind of possession that isn’t quite as obvious … or that our culture actually promotes and approves of … like workaholism, affluenza, or greed.
There are a lot of ways to be possessed and none of them contribute to our well-being. Rather than bless … they curse; rather than build up … they tear down; rather than encourage … they disparage; rather than promote love … they sow hate; rather than draw us together … they seek to split us apart. This isn’t to underplay some of the serious cultural and biological dimensions of these struggles or to suggest that with just the right prayer or healing touch they will all vanish. Rather, it is to promise that God does not want these things for us and that church … our church … at its best, is a place where we gather in Jesus name to support each other in escaping the hold these things have on us that we might grow as individuals and a community as people blessed to be a blessing.
Something else to consider is to recognize that God … especially in Mark’s Gospel … regularly shows us where we least expect God to be. In authoritative teaching? Absolutely, but also in the reality of a man possessed by an unclean spirit. Reminding us that our God is a God of the broken, and our congregation is a fellowship of the needy. That’s pretty much all it takes to be a member of Jesus’ disciples then or now … recognition of your personal and communal need and trust that Jesus has come to meet it.
Where are those places of brokenness, disappointment, or fear in your life? We all struggle in one way or another with some form of possession. The beauty of our faith is the reality that God is faithful in all things. God does not stay away from us because of these challenges or shortcomings but rather draws nearest to us precisely in these moments.
We might also look outward at the brokenness we see in someone in our family or among our friends, at work, in our neighborhood and wonder if God might be choosing to work through us to draw that person to new life. God is still at work casting out the unclean spirits of the world, and God is using us to continue this transforming work.
Mark shares this story of confrontation and freedom first because it’s at the heart of the Gospel story he tells and the Gospel story we are invited to live into and through … reminding us how God continues to be at work in our lives and the world, often … in and through us!