Sermon on Mark 1:21-28, for January 8, 2018, Epiphany +4 B
They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught 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.
I was reading a prayer that caught my attention recently. It was a morning prayer; a prayer of praise. The author gave thanks to God for human consciousness itself. That struck me.
What an amazing gift: to be a human with consciousness! Not just to be alive, like the grass and trees are alive, and not just to have consciousness like the fish and birds do, or even dogs or chimps.
We are aware of so much more: we are conscious of beauty, of music, of communication through words, and hence, through literature. We are capable of rational thought and of passing down accumulated knowledge through generations unlike any other animal. We are able to love, as only humans can know love. And we are able to know right from wrong. Unlike the animals who act on instinct, or perhaps on trained responses, as Genesis says, we are “like God, knowing good and evil.”
What is it like to be fully human? The way the Genesis story puts it, we are made “in the image and likeness of God.” Both male and female, it says, are made “in the image and likeness of God”. What does it mean to be fully human? It is to be nearly God-like in these capacities.
In Bible Study, we have been going over the Genesis stories. We have been contrasting ancient Israel’s Creation stories with those of nations that were nearby. The contrast is huge and intentional. Instead of the world we live in being an afterthought – something made out of the leftover pieces of a bloody violent conflict, as another creation story Israel’s neighbors told, in our story, the world is intentionally and freely made by God in perfect goodness. And after God makes this good world and makes humans in God’s image and likeness, God blesses them, saying “be fruitful and multiply.” Humans are originally blessed, and beloved. That is our story.
A Story Too Good to Be True?
That is a beautiful story. But I guess we should ask, “Is it a true one?” If it is, how do you go from that story, to the world as it is?
How do you go from good and blessed, to the massive opioid crises in our country and the destruction of lives and families, and children in its wake?
How do you go from good and blessed, to 11 school shootings already this year – and January is not even over!
How do you go from good and blessed, to countless horror stories of sexual assault, and the cover-up of assault, and the shushing and shaming of those who had tried to report it?
How do you go from good and blessed, to boasts about the size of nuclear buttons, as if pushing one would not mean the instant deaths of scores of millions of people made in the image and likeness of God?
And, how do you go from good and blessed, to vulgar language, used to utterly despise whole continents and nations of people, made in the image and likeness of God?
God’s Thoughts on Humanity
In Bible study, we have just gotten to the beginning of the story of the flood. In the introduction to the story, the biblical author says that God looked at the world that had begun so good and so blessed, but had become so wicked, that God was sorry he had made it at all, and it grieved God’s heart. In that amazing bit of anthropomorphization, we get to hear God’s personal analysis of what humans had become. God says,
“every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5)
It sounds like the bitter exaggerations of a jilted lover. I think that is how it is supposed to sound.
Well, my point is not to make us all depressed about how bad the world is. We all know how bad the world is. My point is to set the stage for what I believe that Jesus was doing. Jesus came along in a world which had its own laundry list of horrible things that had gone wrong and among people who had been as de-humanized by them as the people in our world have been, with a clear-eyed vision and a plan of action aimed at nothing less than the re-humanization of our humanity.
So, he starts with the foundational assumption, or belief in the goodness of creation and the goodness and blessedness of all humans, made in the image and likeness of God, and intentionally seeks out broken people with the goal of restoring their humanity to them.
Jesus’ Role in the Human Story
This is exactly what happens in the story we read from Mark’s version of the gospel. Jesus shows up on the Sabbath – the holiest day of the week; the day everyone is focused on God. And Jesus goes to the place where they gather together, the Synagogue, which we would call the church (whether or not, in his time, they had special synagogue buildings yet).
What does he find? A person with what Mark refers to as an “unclean spirit.” In his context, that means that man had experienced a profound level of dehumanization. How? What kind? Had his life been overwhelmed by a destructive force you could only describe as demonic – like the demonic force of opioids, or like the demonic force of racism or self-absorption or greed? Yes, any of those are likely candidates. All of them are dehumanizing. All of them can take a human from the condition of good and blessed to one in which
“every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”
And Jesus confronts the unclean spirit directly. He is never okay with letting evil simply stand as is, destroying lives and community. He takes it head-on.
In the story, the personified demon in the man with the unclean spirit recognizes the challenge that Jesus represents, so he tries to get the best of him by striking first. He says,
“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.”
In that world, you try to get the upper hand by naming the power – so the demon tries to name Jesus’ power source – but Jesus blows right past this attempt without even acknowledging it. Instead, Mark tells us,
“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.”
Well, it looks like a scene from Dark Mirror, or Twilight Zone. Shrieking and convulsing, if it were a film, would probably earn it an R rating. It is not for “younger or more sensitive viewers.” But a direct confrontation with the dark forces that dehumanize could not be a children’s film, could it? Quite the opposite.
Learning from the Story
What can we take from this story? What would it mean to have the power to simply command an unclean spirit to come out of a person and by doing so, set them free? Well, this story comes from the first chapter of Mark’s story.
It is still early days for Jesus. What has happened, up to this point? Jesus has been baptized, he has been in the wilderness for forty days being tempted by dehumanizing evil forces, and has returned in the power of the Spirit, calling disciples to follow him, to become people whom he will teach to fish for people.
And this is the first thing Jesus does. He fishes for a man who has sunk under waters that, like a flood, have so overwhelmed his life that they now define him. He has an unclean spirit. By rights, with an unclean spirit, he should not even be there in the synagogue on the Sabbath – unless the people of that place have grown so at home with dehumanization that they have not even noticed him, or paid attention to his demon – that would be an even sadder state of affairs; a community okay forces that are killing its people.
So Jesus fishes for him, and pulls him up out of the demonic waters he is drowning in, and restores his humanity. And that is what he is going to spend his whole life doing. Fishing for people in trouble. Fishing for people who have become alienated from God, people who have been pushed to the margins by others, people who simply do not know that the Kingdom of God is at hand and that they are good and blessed by God.
Where are We, in the Story?
Where do we put ourselves in this story? It is possible that you have been identifying with the man with the unclean spirit. Maybe you have been overwhelmed by a force that is destroying your life. You are not alone. Whatever it is, that force does not have the right to define you. You are so much more than your worst day. You are so much better than your worst decision.
There is hope for you because God is for you. That is what Jesus shows us. God is for you and with you and God wills your restoration to full humanity. And this community is here to help you! You are good, and you are blessed. No matter what you have gone through, nothing can change the fact that you have been made in the image and likeness of God. You are beloved beyond your wildest dreams. And we are here to make sure you know that!
Who else could you be identifying with, in this story? Perhaps you are like the disciples. You have had an encounter with Jesus that has moved you. You have become a follower of Jesus. You have just witnessed something powerful. Now you know what Jesus is about. Jesus is about finding people who have been dehumanized by the world as it is, and restoring their humanity.
And that is what he has called you to join him in doing. He calls it fishing for people. It is about spreading a net, and gathering up people who are under water, so that they can come up for air and live again.
That is what we are here to do, as a church. We are here to learn from Jesus so that we can take up his mission. By our non-judgmental, open-hearted embrace, by our welcome, by our love, we are continuing Jesus’ mission, restoring the full humanity to people who we know have been made in the image and likeness of God, no matter what they have gone through.
We are also here to support each other. In a world like this one, we need each other. We need to gather to reaffirm that the world-as-it-is is not the world as it must be. We are here to imagine another world which operates on other principles. We are here to assert an alternative way of living that values goodness and compassion above security and success.
We have become followers of Jesus whose faith in the goodness of the Creator sustained him spiritually, even in the face of opposition. And we have gathered to demonstrate a new way of living that is possible, because we too have been restored to humanity, by embracing Jesus’ vision. We are good, and we are blessed. And we have a mission to accomplish.