What Have You To Do With Us, Jesus of Nazareth? 01/28/18

What Have You to Do with Us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
January 28, 2018 ~ Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

A man with an unclean spirit showed up in the Capernaum synagogue while Jesus was there teaching. The fact that he had an unclean spirit wasn’t shocking. As one person has said, “Mark’s world is full of shadows and menace, riddled with demons who distort creation and overwhelm hearts and minds. Human beings are cast as porous creatures open to spiritual influences: Jesus himself is driven deep into the desert by the Holy Spirit, and in this story, the man in the synagogue is possessed by an unholy one.” [1]

We may be shocked by the demonic and by the exorcism. We may want to debate what that’s all about. But in the New Testament, including the Gospel of Mark, the exorcism stories are more about the story that gets told than about the exorcism itself. In other words, the question is not, “what happened?” but rather, “what does it mean?”

So let’s ask the question: if it wasn’t the demon possession and the exorcism that shocked the faithful people gathered in the synagogue, what did shock them? What caused such amazement and such fame?

The answer lies in what they kept asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (v. 27)

Lest we condemn the scribes for their apparent lack of authority, we must remember that the scribes were faithful preachers and teachers. Mark is in no way criticizing them or Judaism more broadly. His point is that Jesus is different. He’s not like the other people who speak in the synagogue. Much like me and other pastors you’ve known, the scribes relied on the words and teachings of those who came before them. I wouldn’t dare try to preach on any biblical text without first doing some research into what other wise people have said already. In that vein, let me quote a learned person who has commented on this text:

[Jesus speaks] in his own voice…In Mark and elsewhere, Jesus often cites both scripture and tradition – but not here at the outset, a signal of his distinctive prophetic standing power. In Mark’s imagination, when Jesus speaks, we hear God’s voice; when Jesus acts, we see God’s activity in the world. Jesus doesn’t simply talk about healing and liberation. He heals and liberates. In this sense, his teaching is indistinguishable from his mission, and from who he is. [2]

Which is to say, in Jesus something different is happening.

Mark opens his gospel with three healings: the man with the unclean spirit, who is healed in the synagogue, a place of public prayer; the paralyzed man, who is healed in a house, a place of private life; and the publican, who is healed in the village, the place of public life. This first healing – which is really an exorcism – is the very first action Jesus takes after calling the first disciples. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins his ministry with the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke’s telling Jesus also began by teaching in the synagogues, but without the healings. And in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first act is a miracle of abundance: he turns water into wine.

I tell you these things not to muddle you or call into question the truthfulness of the Gospels in all of their complexity and seeming contradictions. Rather, I point out these differences to highlight this: in Mark’s interpretation of Jesus’ life, the most important thing about Jesus’ ministry is his interest in the human being as a whole. He is, first and foremost, committed to the healing and wholeness of individuals and communities.

The man who was possessed by an unclean spirit had lost himself. He had lost his essence, his personality, his independence, his ability to make decisions for himself. Because of the isolation demanded of those deemed “unclean,” the man had likely lost his family and his friends; he had certainly lost his religious community. And Jesus frees him of all that is oppressing him, all that is possessing him, and returns him to wholeness and to community. No wonder they were amazed.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Just this: healing, wholeness, liberation. Not just for the man with the unclean spirit. Not just for those who walked with him 2,000 years ago. But for us, too.

Gun violence. The opioid epidemic. Sexual assault and harassment. Human trafficking and sex slavery, which affects more than 17,000 people (primarily women, but also young children and teens) annually. Institutionalized racism and the prison industrial complex. Food deserts and food insecurity. Rapid climate change and all of its attendant disasters, which promise to get worse in the very near future. Failing schools and poverty. School shootings – 11 already and we aren’t even through the first month of 2018. These are but some of the demons – the unclean spirits – that are wreaking havoc on our society. So much has possessed our culture. And when we refuse to face those demons, they multiply.

And then, of course, there are the demons we wrestle with ourselves. Alcoholism. Drugs. Family conflicts. Domestic violence. Financial instability. Pornography. Toxic relationships at home or work. Gambling. Perfectionism. Affluenza. Envy. Materialism. Mental illness. Physical illness. Spiritual illness. Fill in the blank. We all have demons in our lives and we see the demons in the lives of those we love the most.

So what are we to say in the face of such demons?

Today’s lesson tells us this: that when the demons take hold of us, Jesus shows up. He battles all that oppresses us, all that works against fullness of life, all that keeps us down and works to suppress our spirits. Jesus shows up and casts those demons out. What does Jesus have to do with us? Everything.

Do we still have the capacity to be amazed?

We are still in the season of Epiphany – a season of the church year when we are reminded to look for glimpses of God wherever we go. And so we are invited to ask: Where can we see souls set free from all that binds them, restored to wholeness – even when it seemed that all are powerless to change anything? Can we look at the broken places in our own lives, the challenges and shortcomings, the griefs and anxieties, and trust that God draws nearest to us precisely in those places? Can we see that happening in the world around us? Can we trust that God is still busy casting out the unclean spirits within and around us? Can we find clues that, just as Jesus’ first act in Mark’s Gospel was to restore a man to wholeness, God is constantly seeking to restore us to wholeness as well? And in doing so, freeing us to help restore others and all of creation?

Now, I know what some of you are saying. “That’s a load of manure. I’ve been fighting depression/addiction/abuse/trauma for years, and I’ve prayed, and I’ve come to church, and nothing has changed.”

I’m with you. I feel that way too, a lot. Sometimes the healing and the liberation don’t come the way we want them to, in the time we want them to. And I can’t explain why – people have been trying to explain why for as long as there have been people. But all I can say, over and over again, is: God is here. God is here. God is here. [3] Thanks be to God.

[1] “With Authority: SALT’s lectionary commentary for Epiphany Week 4.”

[2] ibid.

[3] Thanks to Karoline Lewis.

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