Mark 1:21–28 (NRSV)
The Man with an Unclean Spirit
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
There are several things in life that I cannot explain. For the most part it does not bother me one bit, but then there are times when I feel like I should be able to explain something yet I cannot. Those are the times that I have trouble with. I would love to be able to clearly explain heredity and genetics since I spent so much time studying this in school, yet unfortunately I cannot even remember the terms. Of course since most of you probably do not care to talk DNA I am probably safe in my igrorance. But then there are things like this passage that we read which I cannot fully explain, and frankly it scares me a bit. It scares me because there is something just under the surface that I know is happening both in this scripture and all around me, but I do not necissarly have the vocabulary to explain it. Scares might not be the proper term, because I do know if I am truly scared, but I am uncomfortable and nervous.
There is a reason I remain guarded because there are several different theories around this passage and other like it that cover a broad range, I cannot fully support any of these theories fully because each do not fully explain what is happening, while others from a theological standpoint contradict everything I hold to be important. So I am left in this akward state, of not wanting to diminish what is happening while not wanting to perpetuate heresy.
When it comes to the spiritual realm I hope each of us are just a bit uncomfortable, because it is a realm of the unseen. Do not get me wrong I belive that there is a spiritual realm, I believe there are benevolent and malicious spirits at work around us. I believe this not only because scripture tells us that they are present, but also because things happen around us that cannot be fully explained. As I first read this passage though I am struck by continuing evidence of a continuing battle that has raged since the heavens and the earth were created. A battle that is both seen and unseen that is fought in physical and spiritual ways, and that throughout the centuries has never let up. There is evidence of this continued battle in the various understandings and explainations that various doctrinal traditons and interpreteatons have given us about ancient observations of demon possession, some of the cases can be clearly explained as mental illness yet others passages do not lend themselves to this. I hear the stories that our missionaries tell of the spiritual wars that they have fought with Christ and they amaze and unnerve me, so just when I think I begin to have an understanding everything twists again and I am left wondering what is really going on yet again.
I admit this failing because I want us all to be honest with ourselves. Things happen and we cannot explain it. We can simply say that it is spiritual and leave it at that or we can look deeper. There is a risk in either approach, because one thought process can give more power to spiritual forces than scripture allows while the other approach leave can cause us to question the authority of scripture and leave holes in our faith. There are forces of good and evil in our world. There is a spiritual battle that is being waged, and yes we are caught in the middle. But as I wrestle with this scripture I do not want us to look at it from a different perspective than we are used to looking at it from. Not to detract from the power of Jesus and the first miracuouls feat that Mark records in his Gospel, but I want us to look at this through a different set of eyes.
To begin I want us to admit that there is evil in this world. It is not hard to see. We can watch on the news, read in the papers and on the internet story after story about revolting and inhumane activities that occur within our nation and around the world. We can turn back the pages of history and see ghastly deed that have been performed for various reason which can nauseate us and cause even the strongest among us to weep. I could say the word ISIS, Nazi, or slavery and each of would be able to say yes there is evil there. But then there are other terms that we use where the line between good and evil is blurred words like drones, Wall Street, waterboarding, Israel, Palistine, or genetic modification and we may begin to argue because some see these as evil while others may see them as justified. The blur occurs when we as humans define and redefine what evil is, what right and wrong are, and what actions are culturally acceptable. Do you sense the danger in that statement?
There is evil in this world that much we can all agree on. It does not matter what faith or lack thereof we have, every human being on the planet knows that there is evil. But where that evil rears its head can often be surprising.
I have read this passage countless times as I have walked along the pathways of faith, yet each time I have seemed to overlook something. Something that is so simple yet causes the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. It is easy visualize in our mind’s eyes Jesus preforming a maricle. We are drawn to it and begin to imagine the convulsing man from which an unclean spirit emerges. But how often do we actually consider and contemplate where this man actually is? He is in the synagogue. The place of worship. He is participating and involved in the very same activities that we ourselves engage on a regular basis. The church as we know it emerges out of the synagogue.
Jesus goes into the synagogue in Capernaum, and begins to teach and among those in the crowd is this man. But before we discuss the man it is important to expand on the scene. There are similarities and differences in the first century synagogue to our contemporary expressions of worship. They did offer prayers, they did sing hymns, and read scriptures which occurs throughout the world in houses of worship, but the difference is in the interpretation. In the first century the approach to the sermon or the teaching portion of worship was different. That is alluded to in this passage of scripture. Mark records that, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus began to teach and it astounded them, because he taught with authority, and not as the scribes. This is profound because in the first century there was a deep focus on orthodoxy. One did not speak during the teaching portion of worship without having been trained in the oral traditions of the faith. Those that spoke, spoke giving reference to the rabbi from which they learned. It was unusual for someone to speak without making some reference. Jesus spoke without referencing the teacher that trained him. He spoke as his own authority, He moved away from the oral traditions they were used to and began speaking an interpretation of his own.
Now I say that this is a difference between the first century synagogue and the church, but in actuality is not all that different. Our pastors today do not merely reiterate the sermons presented by others most write their own, but often they are filled with theological teaching they have learned from others. This in and of itself is not wrong. Each of us do this, we learn one way and when we are asked to teach we teach out of what we have taught. But what happens if someone challenges our understanding, what happens when we hear a different perspective. There are only two choices really, we are either open to the teaching or we reject it. There is a growing number of people that accept the teaching of an end time rapture where those in Christ will be gathered in the air removed from this world just prior to the last days. Many of us accept that teaching, we believe that that is exactly what the scripture teaches, and when we hear something contrary to that teaching we can become defensive. But that was not the teaching a century ago, in fact that teaching was not mainstream until after World War II. Why is it that so many of us belive that teaching as the true interpretation, because it is what we have been taught. That interpretation was not widely accepted until after the nation of Israel was reestablished, and along with that interpretation is cultural baggage from the Cold War. We as Americans were taught that Russia was the one that was going to lead the war against Israel and therefore that interpretation of scripture was correct because Russia was allied against us and Israel. We have been taught that. That of course is only one example of the teachings we have been taught. The teachings that often times are challenge as cultures shift and emerging generations begin to focus on different aspects of faith.
What is our reaction to the teachings that differ from what we have always been taught? Ultimately each of us are like those first century worshipers in the synagogue of Capernaum, we are astonished. And sometimes we are defensive. Sometimes we may even cry out a challenge. At times we may even demand for the removal of a minister or teacher because they are not holding true to the traditions. We may even consider someone to be evil because of a difference of interpretation.
Jesus was teaching in the synagogue, He was teaching with authority unlike that of the scribes, and someone cries out from the congregation, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” I stop there because I want us to be very aware that that very same spiritual battle that possessed this man still rages to this very day. What we have known can be challenged and often we can cry out like this man, “Have you come to destroy us?” I stop there because we as humans define for ourselves what is good and evil, we justify in our own minds what is right and wrong. We base our understanding on many factors but sometimes we can be led astray. “Have you come to destroy us?”
We see this man as being a man possessed with an evil spirit, someone who was indwelled by a demon and far from God, but again he was at the synagogue. We know nothing about his past or his future but we do know that he had great concerns. Was Jesus there to destroy everything that he and others had worked so hard to create? Was Jesus there to change the direction that this faith community was going? Was he and those like him going to lose their influence if the community saw Jesus’ authority as being greater than theirs? Do you see why this passage makes me uncomfortable? Do you see why I admit to being just a bit scared while I read it? I am unnerved because I have cried out at others very similar things. I myself could be this man. I could be the man Jesus is telling to shut up! And I do not want to be that man. I do not want to be a man that is so influence by evil that I cannot accept the authority of Jesus. I do not want to be the man that is afraid that if I were to listen to Jesus that everything I thought was important would be destroyed.
This is the very place that many of us are at today. There is a raging war all around and within us. And we are afraid that everything we have struggled to keep alive is about to be destroyed. Jesus said to that man, “Be silent…” Be silent. Yes I know he commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man as well. But first He said be silent. There is something important there. Something that we used to know but have forgotten. Be silent, be still, close your mouth and let Jesus speak. Admit that maybe just maybe we have been influenced and led astray by various things and maybe we might have focused on the wrong things. Maybe in our struggle to keep things going we have forgotten what is really important. Maybe we are that man. A man or woman sitting in a church listening yet being led by something else, something unclean, perhaps something evil. What is evil? What is sin? These questions have been asked before, we might say that it is a transgression of the law, but I think it is more than that, I think sin is anything that detracts and distracts our attention from God and the people that God loves so much that He gave his very life to redeem. Evil is when we consciously decide to live a life of sin. We cry out with this man, “Jesus, Have you come to destroy us?” The answer is absolutely yes! Yes he has come to destroy anything and everything that hinders reconciliation. Yes He wishes to destroy this illusion of self-justification of evil that keeps us from loving him and or neighbors. Yes he wants to destroy you and me, so that He can then redeem and restore each of us to being who we deep down know we are. He wants us to be individuals and a community that is defined as loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others. And that all begins with us being still and letting His authority direct our paths.