Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Mark 1: 21 – 28. Focus on how and why God will not tolerate evil, abuse of person or power. Check out Jody Sinkway and the choir following the sermon.
If you enjoy reading novels you know that there are many voices from the narrator’s to the characters’ vying for your attention. A person’s voice is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint and in Mark’s gospel we’re being schooled to learn to recognize the distinctive voice of Jesus the Son of God. We learn it through what he talks about, and we learn about it through his actions, which speak louder even than his words.
We also learn about who Jesus is by listening to the voices of those around him. And here in Mark 1:21-28 we hear three voices.
We hear the voices of the synagogue-goers, taking the dramatic role of a Greek chorus. They are astounded at his teaching because it has authority. He is not simply passing on something someone else has said. He’s giving them his own interpretation. And as readers we are not surprised, since the narrator has already told us that Jesus is the Son of God.
But there’s someone else who recognizes who Jesus is. It’s the voice of an unclean spirit. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You’re the Holy One of God” (1:24).
The unclean spirit is scared. He recognizes an eviction notice when he sees one. Might those internal fears be signs for us as well, and ones worth paying extra attention to?
Now each of the four gospels portrays this drama of who Jesus is in its own way. In Mark, it’s the demonic powers that attest to Jesus’ real identity from the outset, while others, including his own disciples, remain blind to the implications of both his teaching and his miracles. From the Gospel writers’ point of view, the whole world is in the grip of sin, sickness and disorder.
When that which is sinful and unclean in our lives recognizes that Jesus is coming too close for comfort, we resist. That goes for individuals and communities. We react with uneasiness, because hearing truth makes us angry. And we hear a voice inside say, “Have you come to destroy us?” But it’s not us that Jesus has come to destroy. It’s that thing inside of us that wants to keep us separate from God that Jesus has come to cast out.
Today, however, we don’t talk about evil or possession. We tend to think of these as old-fashioned terms and ideas that are better expressed by the words of modern psychology. We tend to believe that people are not really evil; they are just “troubled,” or “insensitive” or “selfish”. And all that’s needed is a little more insight or education and they will be fine.
But Mark doesn’t say, that the person was just having a bad day or that he just needed to be better educated. Mark says that there is an evil spirit in the midst of the congregation and that has to be dealt with before anything else can happen. Before worship can proceed, before hymns can be sung or a sermon preached there must be a cleansing.
I think there’s a reason that evil is portrayed as possession. The man with the evil spirit is not objecting to any specific teaching of Jesus. It’s not a doctrinal dispute. So long as the spirit can inhabit the man and the congregation it doesn’t matter what Jesus teaches. So long as the spirit gets to remain in control it doesn’t matter what gets said or prayed or sung.
There’s an expression I grew up with that sums it up. You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. Until that which possesses us is thrown out all we are doing is rearranging furniture on the Titanic.
So long as the clergy drone on and on without moving the people to act any differently, everything’s ok. When people start to be captivated by someone or something else, when the possessors lose their grip on their possessions, that’s when all hell breaks loose.
We see it all the time when people who are possessed or to use a modern word, addicted or narcissitic when these people are confronted with the reality of their addiction or their self obsession they lash back. The demon inside of them panics and will do everything within its power to remain in that person. Denial and anger are just a couple of the possessors tricks. But there are others, lying, slander, also come in to play as the demon seeks to remain inside.
But Jesus will have none of this. He doesn’t care if he has to interrupt our worship rituals and he doesn’t allow us to make peace with anything that separates us from God’s healing presence. So before anything else can happen, before health can be restored to the community the evil in its midst must be cast out.
And whether the possession is named as addiction or something else that has taken up residence in us we have this uncanny ability to want to make peace with it. But here’s the problem, at least at Mark is concerned. When churches use language such as peace and harmony to get along with any kind of evil, especially evil that has power to destroy other people Jesus won’t tolerate it. The evil has to go.
Because if evil, even if it’s subtle, is allowed to remain the congregation and its people will soon discover that their corporate life together has become a living hell. And there is only one power, a power greater than us that can restore us to health and sanity.
And the take away message for us is this. Jesus’ healing is the teaching. Being healed by God is what its all about. Learning how to put others before yourself or at the most basic loving as you love yourself. But maybe that’s the whole problem with evil. It just can’t love itself. It can only destroy and separate. Amen