(I preached this sermon on Sunday, January 31, 2021 in response to Mark 1:21-28. You can find the full service, including the sermon, on the church website).
What do you think about this Gospel reading today? What do you make out of it? When you think about Jesus performing an exorcism in a synagogue, does that resonate with you? Does it connect at all with you? Does it connect with what we experience in our lives today? On the surface, it probably doesn’t. How often have you witnessed the casting out of an unclean spirit in church? Or anywhere else for that matter, beyond the fictionalized version of exorcisms of Hollywood movies?
Probably nowhere. So why bother with this reading? We can listen to it and say that’s great and go about our lives, quickly forgetting the reading because we don’t connect with it. Or we can listen to the Gospel differently.
What’s going on here? We’re halfway through the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. Remember, the very first verse of the Gospel said that it was the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That will carry through the entire Gospel. So, what is the Good News of Jesus Christ?
It is the news of salvation – not just for after we die, but now too – freeing people from bondage, sin, and brokenness, and restoring a right relationship with God and one another as a result. It is the establishment of God’s kingdom right here, right now. It is the ending of the status quo that holds people captive and in bondage.
We see this play out throughout even just the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark.
John the Baptist’s proclamation is preparing people for Jesus – a new way. A way that will upend how the world operates. Only something that is powerful can do that. And that isn’t John. He’s preparing the way though. John knows the power that Jesus brings and how it will change the world.
At the Baptism, Jesus is named by the voice from heaven – a recognition of the power and authority of Jesus to bring God’s kingdom near – a kingdom that changes the world.
And after the Baptism and after when Jesus spends time in the wilderness being tempted by Satan he comes back to Galilee and the first thing he proclaims is that “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” Jesus brings this life changing, world changing kingdom of God to us, to the world. It is powerful enough to change the status quo of oppression and exploitation, of sin and brokenness, of the expectation that things are always going to be as they are.
And along with that message comes repentance. It means to turn away, change direction. In order for this to happen, we have to acknowledge that the way we are heading individually and corporately, is the wrong way – not God’s way. We have to deal with reality – both individually and as a society, a community, a church. Without this, there is no reconciliation. Without acknowledgement that we have turned away from God, there can be no trust, no unity, no peace.
When we are in the wrong, we can’t just move on and pretend like nothing happened and that we aren’t held in bondage. When we pretend that nothing is wrong, when it clearly is, we shouldn’t expect others to trust us. We’re living a lie. Essentially, we would be claiming that we are without sin, are whole, and doing just fine. In which case, we would have no need of a savior. No need of transformation. No need of God’s kingdom. No need of the Good News.
After this Jesus calls his first disciples, which we heard about last week. In this calling, their lives are changed forever. Because Jesus comes with authority and has the power to change lives.
And now we hear about Jesus and the disciples going to the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus teaches on the Sabbath. And he does it with authority. Did you hear that? Teaching with authority. Sound connected to what we heard since the beginning of the Gospel?
Jesus has authority and uses it to live into the Good News – to set people free from bondage and sin and brokenness and to restore a right relationship with God and others as a result.
If we only think that this is a story about an individual exorcism, we miss so very much.
When we hear this passage, it should raise several questions in our minds and hearts. Who was the guy with the unclean spirit? We don’t know anything about him except that he shows up while Jesus is preaching. It’s safe to assume that this man lived around there. He was probably known by the other folks in the synagogue. Which raises more questions. Why did no one do anything before then? Did they just ignore the man? Pretend he wasn’t there and didn’t exist? Turn a blind eye to the reality in their midst?
What does Jesus do? He casts out the unclean spirt for sure. But what he does is far more powerful than that. He lives out the Good News that he is proclaiming and telling people to believe in. He not only sets the man free. But he does something that sets all the people there free too. He deals with the reality of the unclean spirit in their midst. He doesn’t ignore it. He doesn’t debate it. He doesn’t pretend that there is nothing wrong. He identifies it and casts it out.
And as a result, he sets not only the man free, but also all the people there free too. Free to acknowledge the reality in their midst. Free to see that the uneasy status quo they had been living in was not the only option. The kingdom of God came near and changed everything – it set them free and put them in a right relationship with God and one another.
Naming the unclean spirit and casting it out does that. This isn’t just a story about an exorcism. This is about Jesus coming with authority, acknowledging and dealing with the reality of bondage, sin, and brokenness, and bringing the Kingdom of God in the midst of the people. That’s not just a story that happened 2000 years ago. It still happens today. Because we need it. We need Jesus. We need the kingdom that he is bringing near.
What are the unclean spirits that we are pretending to not see? What are the unclean spirits that we trying to convince ourselves that don’t exist? What are the unclean spirits that exist around us that we are scared to deal with? What are the unclean spirits that hold us in bondage and prevent us from living fully as God intends, and which prevent us from having a right relationship with God and one another?
We have unclean spirits in our churches, our neighborhoods, our nation, and our world. We can’t go on pretending that they aren’t here. They need to be called out and cast out. We won’t fully experience the transformative power of God’s kingdom without this.
Osvaldo Vena, a professor of New Testament Interpretation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary offered this. “Naming the demons is a way to recognize that they exist. We start with the big one, Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems. Then, springing from this one, come the others in fearful company: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, militarism, terrorism, war, greed, extreme individualism, globalization, out-of-control capitalism, media-infused fear that leads to paranoia, and governmental manipulation of information.”
I would add conspiracy theories like QAnon to this list. Such ideas are unclean spirits that are founded in fear, encourage followers to connect random bits of information in order to see an invisible hand operating behind the scenes, give followers a sense of group identity, and offer adherents a sense of control over their lives and the world around them.
The problem is that such things place salvation in someone or something outside of Jesus. And when something or someone else is our savior, we tend to follow the well-trod path of worldly saviors – using the means of violence, death, and destruction to bring about some kind of twisted utopia that is far from the Kingdom of God and more like hell on earth in reality.
QAnon and other conspiracies hold people in bondage to fear and brokenness. They destroy relationships with God and others. They contradict the creeds that we say every Sunday in worship. They contradict the faith that Jesus teaches us live out – which is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. They contradict Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies and to see the image of God in all others. QAnon and other conspiracies are the antithesis of the Good News of Jesus Christ. QAnon and other conspiracies are the unclean spirits that Jesus calls out and casts out of the church. We need to be really clear about this as a church, because pretending that QAnon and other conspiracies have anything to do with Jesus’ way is like allow an unclean spirit to speak up in a church and pretending that nothing is wrong. Nothing good comes from an unclean spirit.
Professor Vena went on to say, “Unless we name the demons, they will name us. They will control us and destroy us. But it takes courage to do so, for it will make us unpopular. Some will consider us apostates, negating the faith. I’m not sure that we are willing to pay that price, as Jesus did.”
Thankfully, this is not up to us. We don’t name the unclean spirits on our own. We don’t have the authority or the power. Only Jesus does. Jesus is the one who has the authority and the power to cast out the unclean spirits in our midst. Jesus empowers us as followers of him to name the unclean spirits wherever they are.
Exorcism is the casting out of unclean spirits. Today we hear about the casting out of an unclean spirit within the synagogue, a holy place where the faithful gather. In the remainder of the chapter, we will hear about Jesus casting out unclean spirits in a house. We’ll hear about Jesus casting out unclean spirits in a community.
Today, this is Jesus casting out unclean spirits in our churches and our faith, in our homes and relationships, and in our communities and systems that we are a part of. There is no boundary for Jesus – no places that are off limits to his authority. Remember, Jesus comes with authority and brings the Good News. Good news that sets people free from bondage, sin, and brokenness. That restores a right relationship with God and others as a result. The kingdom of God has come near dear people. It is here right now setting us free. Thanks be to God. Amen.