Bible Text: Mark 1:21-28, Deuteronomy 18:15-20 | Preacher: Rev. Jenn Geddes
Let me preface this sermon by saying I know nothing about American football, truth be told, I know nothing about any style of football. In University I went to the games and yelled when the ball was going in the right direction, but that really is about it. My mother, on the other hand, is a huge fan. As a result I felt I should do a little research for this afternoon’s game and assuming that some of you are like me I thought I would share what I found out. According to nfl.com the match up between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots (and yes, I even had to Google who was playing in the Superbowl) has the potential to be an outstanding game. It is a match up that pits a legendary coach and quaterback combo against the greatest defence of the era. Tom Brady, that’s the qb for the patriots, is heading into his sixth super bowl appearance. Russel Wilson, the qb for the Seahawks, I am told conjures up memories of a young Brady who “plays wise beyond his years. Now the two passers collide.” I really do not know what any of this means but it does make it sound like this afternoon’s game is going to be exciting. Makes you want to watch the game doesn’t it. It appears that it will be an equal fight and whoever wins this Superbowl will have some authority among other teams. Many commentators are calling it a classic old guard-new guard match up with the stakes at their highest.
The match up between Jesus and this unclean spirit was hardly fair. More over, the scene in this Capernaum synagogue, a place of prayer, teaching, worship and community, centres around the question of Jesus’ authority. Mark wants us to know at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry that Jesus’ authority will be contested. Jesus’ very presence, words, and actions threaten the other forces that claim authority over people’s lives, be they religious teachings, idols, distractions, or darkness. In particular the religious authority but others as we discover in this story, have something to lose, have a lot to lose.
It is a difficult passage because we are uncomfortable with the subject matter. Possessions, exorcisms, demons and unclean spirits are all subjects for horror films rather than our real life experience and there have been many discussions over the years about whether this person was suffering from a possession or mental illness and perhaps in the future I will go down that road a little further but it also strikes me that whether it was one or the other that is not the point of the story. Regardless of his situation Jesus heals this man. I also decided that I needed to look at it from a socio-historical perspective. The people who witnessed this event and certainly Mark and the early readers all believed and interpreted that this man was suffering from the presence of an unclean spirit and so to delve into the story we must also look at it from that perspective, how the original readers would have understood it.
This man, with an unclean spirit, seeks Jesus out in the synagogue. The first question he asks is a strange one, “What have you to do with us?” It seems to convey something more like, “Why are you here to pick this fight? Couldn’t you have just left things alone?” It appears that Jesus, by his sheer presence in this sacred place has upset the order and crossed a margin. Time and time again Jesus crosses an established boundary and tears it down.
The next question, “Have you come to destroy us?” appears to be a fearful acknowledgement on the part of the unclean spirit that their end is in sight. This spirits’ fate is sealed because at that moment it leaves the man’s body- where it goes Mark does not elaborate. But the authority and power it once had with this man is gone. In some ways this man foreshadows teachings Jesus will share about the religious authority- how they who thought they would be first will actually be last. How the structured order will be turned upside down. How what once had great authority over other’s lives will no longer have power. It also foreshadows Jesus’ death- that what once gripped and crippled the people- sin and death- will be no longer, will have no position of power.
Also those present at this astonishing event are surprised and it resonates with reactions that Jesus will have throughout his ministry. I love the language used to describe how the people felt, “they were amazed!” The fact that Jesus is allowed to teach in the synagogue is not necessarily remarkable but what captures their attention is the manner in which he teaches- with such authority, with such knowledge and wisdom, with such confidence in the Word of God. The religious authority and scholars of the Torah see this as a challenge. If you recall from last week the disciples are northerners, what do they know about the Torah? What authority do they have? Matt Skinner, a new testament theologian calls Jesus’ teaching style, “More declarative than deliberative. That is, he interprets the law and speaks on behalf of God without engaging in much dialogue about the traditions, as the scribes were known to do… at minimum, this passage provokes us to stop assuming that “the way things are” must always equal “the way things have to be.””
This is early on in Mark’s gospel and so he is establishing a clear understanding of Jesus’ nature. Mark clearly chooses to portray Jesus within the prophetic tradition that is referred to in the Deuteronomy passage. Mark establishes that it is Jesus who has the ultimate authority, who is the ultimate winner, who provides the ultimate forgiveness, who is the ultimate mediator between God and God’s people. It is also important to note that Mark portrays Jesus as one who works on God’s behalf in particular ways. Notice how Jesus is not the one who declares any authority. Jesus doesn’t even demand that people listen to him. Rather the attention and fame he receives are through his actions of healing a man who is tortured internally by the presence of the unclean spirit. At this very early stage in his ministry it is not through his words but through his actions that others see him as someone to pay attention to. Jesus demonstrates his power as one filled with God’s Spirit through an act of liberating compassion.
I tried to imagine what it would be like for those first observers those people who came to the synagogue for prayer and ended up having a trans-formative experience. How amazing that would be. I wondered, where and when are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority? The theme for this Sunday calls for a discernment of the presence of God’s love and justice in the midst of words and deeds. We should be amazed at the continual liberating compassion of the gospel in the actions of those around us. Today, Superbowl Sunday, often has a different focus but if you recall we are still in the midst of epiphany, a time of year when we focus on God revealing a presence in our world. It is not just about acknowledging these past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness, authority and wisdom. It’s about being amazed now! Through Christ we are part of a winning team! Amen