Sermon for Epiphany IV - February 1, 2009
All Saints’ Church
Most of the curious attributes of Mark’s Gospel come through loud and clear in this morning’s passage. For those who have studied Mark’s Gospel in any detail will remember that his particular account of Jesus’ life is one marked by rapid movement, with scenes shifting at lightning fast speed, all the while keeping close tabs on what many commentators like to refer to Mark’s particular use of a Messianic Secret. In just over half of a chapter, Mark has already relayed the account of Jesus’ baptism by John, mentioned that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan for forty days, started his own ministry, called his first disciples, and we come now to his first miracle, the casting out of an unclean spirit in the synagogue.
Even though we only have eight verses to examine, those eight verses are incredibly rich and convey some remarkable details about Jesus’ ministry.
The scene of this miracle sets the stage for the entire story. Jesus and his first followers begin in the most natural and appropriate location – in the synagogue. Jesus’ life and ministry was centered first and foremost on his vocation as a teacher. Even though he will end up expelled out of most of the synagogues he enters throughout his life, it is most appropriate that our first exposure to Jesus through Mark’s eyes has Jesus teaching in a synagogue.
The first attribute of Jesus’ teaching ministry is that it appears to be drastically different from what they had heard from the scribes. Apparently, this is such an overwhelming revelation that Mark brackets this short passage by mentioning at the beginning and the end of this pericope that the crowds are “astonished at his teaching” and are “amazed [at this] new teaching with authority.” I believe that Mark is actually using a literary device known as a chiasma to lead us directly to the central theme of this passage – that Jesus of Nazareth is the Holy One of God.
Mark does not tell us what is so different about Jesus’ message and teaching. In fact, we really don’t have any idea how long into Jesus’ ministry this particular event takes place, other than he and Luke place it very early in their two Gospels. The only thing we know for certain is that whatever Jesus said, it made a dramatic impact on the hearers because they clearly state that the doctrine that Jesus is putting forth is not the same as what they had heard in the past from the religious authority in their synagogues.
As Mark does over forty times, he uses some form of the Greek word eu]qu>j which is normally translated immediately, forthwith, straightway, and does so three times in these eight verses. The passage says that, “and there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, Saying, ‘Let us alone; what have we to do with thee, thou Jesus of Nazareth? Art thou come to destroy us? I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.’”
I hope you caught the pronoun use in the dialogue between the unclean spirits and Jesus because this is not a mistranslation. The pronouns used are in fact plural, and even though it says that the man in question had an unclean spirit singular, but when they speak, they refer to themselves in the plural. What are we to make of this?
The entire message of the Incarnation is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that He might defeat the powers of darkness once and for all. The unclean spirits knew this fact quite well, and trembled. As James declares in his Epistle, “You believe that God is one; you do well, even the demons believe – and shudder” (James 2:19). The demons which held this man in chains knew what Jesus’ arrival meant for them and their reign over the darkness of this world, and this is why they asked with a unified voice if Jesus had come to destroy them now.
One of the recurring themes in Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus on many occasions exhorts someone to keep quiet as to his identity, and thus, leads to the notion of Mark’s Messianic Secret. Unlike John where Jesus’ identity and mission are clear from the outset, Mark wants his audience to get to the end of the story where he will confirm all of the allusions to Jesus as Messiah that were there all along. In the miracle from this morning’s Gospel, we hear those same words again, “Hold thy peace, come out of him.” The demons have given everyone a full revelation who is standing before them, and yet, Jesus bids them to keep quiet, and simply leave this poor man alone. The time has not yet been fulfilled for Jesus to reveal himself fully.
For me, I believe the most intriguing piece of this passage comes during the discussion of the crowds after the exorcism has taken place. Mark comments on the mental state of the people when he says that they were amazed, and then comes the question that is particularly puzzling when they ask one another, “What thing is this?” The reason I find this to be so intriguing is the use of the word ‘what.’ It would seem more natural for them to have asked, “Who is this?” rather than “What is this?” A ‘who’ and not a ‘what’ just cast a demon out of a man, and yet, they ask one another, “What is this? A new teaching and doctrine?” The crowds also seem to link the teaching and doctrine together as critical components for someone to be able to command the unclean spirits. However, after a closer look, their question wasn’t as off base as it might appear from a first glance. Even though most probably did not realize what they were doing, they actually illuminated a critical piece of Jesus’ life and ministry.
The link between the teaching and doctrine is fundamental in recognizing Jesus’ control over the powers of darkness. After all, as John clearly declares in his prologue, that the Word was with God from the very beginning and everything that was made was made through him. This means that those angels which fell, those unclean spirits which tormented the man in today’s Gospel, were in fact creatures originally made by God through the very same Word who does have the authority to command them.
At the end of Jesus’ life and ministry, we come to another question that sounds allot like the one we heard this morning. Pilate concludes one of his interrogation sessions with Jesus, and he asks him perhaps the shortest but most remarkable of all questions, “what is truth?” The unfortunate problem with that discourse remains the fact that Pilate didn’t hang around to hear a response. He had no idea that the Truth with a capital T was standing right in front of his eyes. He had no idea that if he had changed pronouns and asked “Who is truth?” he would have actually received the same answer.
The crowds saw a miracle performed in their midst, they were astonished and amazed, and they asked the following questions, “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.”
Perhaps they could have asked it another way, “Who is this? A new teacher who with authority commands the unclean spirits to obey him.”
In either case, both questions lead to the same source – they lead to the Truth. As the demons declared and so should we, the one working this miracle is in fact Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy One of God. The demons acknowledged Jesus as the Holy One of God. Unfortunately, throughout his ministry, many of the people who followed Jesus saw him as merely a miracle worker, spiritual healer, or something else and never recognized him for who he truly was – The Son of God.
Jesus asked his disciples one day, who do men say that I am? After a variety of answers, he asks the disciples directly, who do you say that I am? It appears that the question here at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel has come full circle. Peter of course answers and declares the Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The question that Jesus posed to his disciples confronts each of us as well – What thing is this? Who is this? Who do you say that I am?
The Scottish preacher James Stewart said of Jesus these words:
“In Jesus we see that He was the meekest and lowliest of the sons of men, yet He spoke of coming on the clouds of heaven with the glory of God. He was so austere that they said the demons cried out in terror at His coming, yet He was so genial, winsome, and approachable that the children loved to play with Him and the little ones nestled in His arms. His presence at the innocent gaiety of a village wedding was like the presence of sunshine. No one was half so kind toward sinners, yet no one ever spoke so red hot scorching words about sin. A bruise reed He would not break. His whole life was love. Yet He demanded of the Pharisees how they would expect to escape the damnation of hell. He was a dreamer of dreams and a seer of visions, yet for stark realism He has all of us stark realists soundly beaten. He was the servant of all, washing the disciples feet, yet masterfully He strode into the Temple and the hucksters and money changers fell over one another in their mad rush to get away from the fire they saw blazing in His eyes. He saved others, but at the last, Himself, He did not save. There is nothing in history like the union of contrasts that confronts us in the Gospels. The mystery of Jesus, is the mystery of Divine personality.”
For us the questions remain: What thing is this? Who is this? Who do you say that I am? How we answer that question makes all the difference.