Outing Evil, sermon for Epiphany 4B, Jan. 29, 2012 on Mark 1:21-28

Outing Evil

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught

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them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 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.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

At the seminar yesterday we began by looking at features of some of the mythologies of the ancient world, from ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia.  These myths tell of the world of the gods and goddesses.    Sometimes they fight and kill one another, sometimes they create worlds and people to live in them.

Why myths?

Why do people tell myths?  Certainly the people who first told the stories of Marduk or Baal knew that they were making them up, so who would believe them?

That’s a very modern question.  People did not repeat their mythologies in the hopes that others would believe that one day the god Marduk killed the goddess Tiamat.  Rather, mythologies were told to explain why things are the way they are.

Why, ancient people wondered, is human life such a drudgery of work, sunup to sundown, and we live in constant fear that calamity will come upon us and leave us damaged, starving or dead?  “Well,” the ancient Babylonians would say, “when Marduk killed goddess Tiamat and her helper god Kingu, he had leftovers and he made humans out of them so that we could work like dogs all our lives and keep himself and the other gods fed with sacrifices.”  We were made for this difficult life: the myth of Marduk explains it all.

Myths explain reality

We humans have myths to tell us who we are: Are we important or just after-thoughts?  Are we made for a purpose, or are we simply at the mercy of forces greater than ourselves?  Can we achieve immortality, or is this all there is?

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The myths we tell, tell us about good and evil.  Myths tell us who is “us” and who is “them;” who our friends are, and who the enemy is.

That’s why there can be a “war of myths.”  Two different stories that disagree about these issues: who are we?  who is our enemy?  what is important?

Jesus and the War of Myths

I started this way in order to set the stage for hearing the story of Jesus that Mark tells.  Mark is showing us Jesus engaged in a “war of myths.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 143)

What do we see Jesus doing in Mark’s gospel?  We see him casting out “unclean spirits;”  we see him healing people.  In Jesus‘ day there were exorcist and faith healers, that much was common.  But Jesus was engaged in a “war of myths” that made people around him so upset, by chapter 3 they were already planning, Mark tells us, “to destroy him.” (3:6).  Nobody would have any reason to want to destroy an exorcist or a faith healer if that’s all he was doing.  Jesus was doing much more, and for what he did, they wanted to destroy him.

Who knows Jesus’ identity?

Let’s look at the way Mark tells the story.  At the start, the very first thing we read from Mark 1:1 is the voice of the narrator, Mark, telling us inside information.  He says,

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus [Messiah] Christ, the Son of God.”

The first thing Jesus does is get baptized in the Jordan, coming up out of the water, a voice from Heaven says to Jesus:

11 “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

So now we have heard Jesus’ identity announced twice: by the narrator, Mark, and by God himself.

Jesus and the Spirit

Next, the Spirit drives Jesus out into a creepy wilderness in which he withstands the Satan’s temptations for forty days – the same number of days as the number of years the Israelites were in their wilderness of temptation – coincidence?  Hardly.  Israel, who was called, God’s “son,” (“out of Egypt I called my son” – Hosea 11:1) didn’t do so well with their wilderness temptations.  But Jesus, God’s “beloved son “cannot be conquered by the evil one, the accuser.

So Jesus returns from the wilderness, travels along the shores of the lake they call the sea of Galilee, and calls disciples to follow him in his mission to scoop up people for the kingdom of God.

The small synagogue

They leave their nets and boats and follow him and the first place we see them come to is the synagogue in Capernaum.

Synagogue in Capernaum, Galilee

It’s not very big really.  Maybe it could hold as many people as our church can, not many more.  Certainly the locals who attended Sabbath services in that synagogue all knew each other, even without name tags.

So, as this story goes, Jesus goes in and assumes the role of a local rabbi – a teacher (the word “rabbi” actually means, “my teacher”).  Teaching, in the synagogue, was teaching the bible, the torah of Moses.  Mark says,

21 “They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”

Jesus’ amazing teaching

The focus is on Jesus’ teaching.  What does he teach?  The odd thing is, there is no sermon here, no Beatitudes, no parables.  All we hear is the people’s reaction to the teaching:

22 “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

We do not hear what he teaches yet; all we hear is that his teaching is different.   We hear who it is different from – the “scribes.”  And we hear how his teaching is different, it’s “with authority.”

Authority can come from your education or from your job title, but of course Jesus has neither.  Authority can also come from experience.  You listen to an experienced fisherman to learn about fishing.

Could direct experience of God’s Spirit been the source of the authority behind Jesus’ teaching?  Probably so; in any case, the people were quite aware of it; in fact were “astounded” by it.

The man with no name

Now the camera focuses on one particular person in the synagogue hearing Jesus’ authoritative teaching.  Mark describes him simply by saying:

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 “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit”

Small town, small synagogue, one conclusion: everybody knows this man.  Everybody knows him and knows about his “unclean spirit” (which is just a normal way of saying demon).  And yet there  he is, at home in their synagogue.

Mark is telling us this story on two levels at once.  Yes Jesus was an exorcist, and yes, he cast out demons.  But the way Mark sets up this scene, we are meant to see that this man is in his own comfort zone – everyone around him is comfortable with him in their place of worship.  What’s going on here?  The next part starts to reveal the message.

We hear the man with the unclean spirit :

 24 “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.” 

Jesus’ identity is now announced for the third time. A third person with insider information, a demon, knows Jesus’ identity.

The forces of evil are in combat with God.  The forces of evil know that God is their enemy who plans to destroy them.  This is the war of myths in action.

Attempted naming

The demon tries to gain control over Jesus, God’s beloved son, by naming him; naming is how you control spiritual forces in Jesus’ world of the first century.  The demon names Jesus, “the Holy One of God.”

The demon’s attempt to overpower Jesus, God’s son, is a total failure.  In the war of myths, Jesus has the upper hand.  He is the one who has authority from his direct experience of God’s Spirit.  Mark tells us what happened:

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.” 

The Authoritative Teaching

At the beginning of this scene and now again at the end, we hear about Jesus’ authoritative teaching, and how it amazed the people.  But all we saw Jesus do was an exorcism; we heard no teaching.

That is, unless the teaching that Mark wants us to hear is about the war of myths.  Remember, myths tell us who we are, who are the good guys and the bad guys, who are our friends and who is the enemy.

In this story, the enemies that do battle are the forces of good and evil.  The enemy Jesus does battle with is evil.

It is the kind of evil that has captured a person and has him under total control, and uses him for his own purposes.  It has so taken over this man that it has stripped him of his god-given identity; he doesn’t even have a name; he’s like a statistic.  To everyone he is simply the “man with the unclean spirit.”  The fact that he is being dominated and abused by evil bothers no one.

The demon knows Jesus has come to do battle with all of the spirits of evil, even if they are making themselves at home in the heart of the synagogue, the temple, or the tombs.

Who is the enemy?

In that synagogue, and among those people, according to their story, their myths, the enemy was not the forces of enslaving, destructive evil; the enemy was Rome.  The enemy was political.  The enemy was economic.  The enemy was the non-ethnically pure person.  The enemy was the one who broke sabbath.

But to Jesus, the enemy was evil that enslaves people, evil that has people in its power and destroys them.

Jesus is teaching us not to mis-identify the enemy, and his teaching has the authority of personal knowledge, personal experience.

But we do constantly mis-identify the enemy.  We think the enemy is the market, or the government, or the economy.  We could reach our true potential to be fully alive, fully human if only we could conquer that enemy.

Or the enemy is the people we are at odds with; people in the family who make us unhappy, people who live near enough to us to cause us grief.

But the true enemies we face are the ones that have the power to enslave and to destroy, which is what evil always does.  The true enemies are all of those powers that keep people in bondage – poverty, oppression, discrimination, violence and abuse.

The true enemy is also apathy: being OK with the plain fact that there are people around us who are suffering under these evils, as if it were simply another normal sabbath day at the synagogue.

Which myth is true?

Which myth do we believe explains reality best?

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Who are we?   We are people whom God has called out of darkness into his light.

Who are we?  We are people who have been rescued from the kingdom of evil and who have become citizens of the kingdom of God.

Who are we?  We are people whom God has called to join him in his mission to confront evil in all its forms: in our hearts and in our world.

Who are we?  We are people of the Spirit whom God has called and commissioned to go out into the world with his authority, to bring healing, love and mercy to the people he made in his image.

We are committed to calling every form of de-humanization by its real name: evil, and to know to whom belongs the victory.

We are here, not to “be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.”

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