Over the last few Sundays our readings have put vocation — calling to God’s service — before us: Samuel; the first disciples; and Jonah who tried to flee a Word he could no more escape can he could elude his own shadow. A variant on the same theme continues for the next three weeks (until Lent starts): how Jesus spoke; related to people in need; touched the untouchable; was unafraid to be alone. All of this is still within the richly packed first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, the first of all the Gospels.
We've heard parts of Mark 1 recently — on the Second Sunday of Advent, the Baptism of the Lord, and just last Sunday, as he began to preach the beginning of the kingdom in our midst:
"After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (1.14-15)
The kingdom is not merely a good idea or a promise; it is a life-changing and transformative reality, revealed in the Word Jesus proclaims.
Now Mark introduces us still more deeply to Jesus, not by telling us about him, but by showing us Jesus in action. Over the next Sundays, we see Jesus preaching, healing, sharing a meal, praying by himself, daring to touch a leper and – this Sunday — driving out an unclean spirit.
Today's scene begins simply. That Jesus is a powerful, convincing preacher is not surprising to us; but here, at the beginning of his ministry on an ordinary morning on the Sabbath day, Jesus captivates the unsuspecting congregation because he is so different from the teachers and preachers they are used to:
"Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were astonished at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the students of the law. (Mark 1.21-22)
There is no reason at all for us to demean the life-long students of the Law, as if they are all literalists or hard-hearted sticklers on rules. Perhaps they just loved the Torah and dedicated their lives to it. The point here is simply that whereas most students and teachers gained their knowledge by study, Jesus speaks from his own sense of his inner, godly reality. This inner authority — the power to speak surely and freely, true and unafraid — is straight from God. As such the purity and power of his word astonishes – more literally, knocks off their feet — those who heard him on that ordinary morning in that small-town synagogue.
Enough for one day — but Mark then complicates this already compelling scene by a sudden interruption:
"Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (1.23-24)
Most remarkable: the impure spirit, which holds the man hostage, knows name and place: You are Jesus, and you are from Nazareth. It knows more grandly the unique reality of Jesus, calling him by one of the loftier titles in the New Testament: You are the Holy One of God. And the unclean spirit can even predict the future: You come here, O Jesus, O Holy One, you announce the Kingdom, you speak a word of power from your very depths — and now you are going to end our kingdom, which seems to be a place of ignorance, deceit, preying on the weak.
Mark is deliberate in inserting this scene. It is one thing, wonderful enough, for Jesus to show up and teach and preach as he had planned, in accord with the ritual order of the day. But to encounter a disruption raises the tension — as would be case if in the middle of Mass someone stood up and started shouting in a very loud voice at the priest, a person apparently possessed by a foreign spirit. What to do then? Let the ushers intervene? Call 911?
What can Jesus do in a sudden confrontation, less expected than his encounter with Satan in the desert? But now the solution is easy, for Jesus rather quicky deflates the scene. He shows that his astounding, authoritative voice is also a voice of more immediate power. He simply rebukes the spirit and orders it out of the man:
“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. (1.25-26)
Be quiet. Get out of him - right now. Leave him be. Be gone! Once again, the people react powerfully:
"What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him! (1.27)
His words open up reality, and open the way to God, and change individuals right now, setting free this possessed man. But as a living Word should, the speaking of Jesus also gives power to the congregation. For now the word about Jesus spreads, not yet because he himself is travelling around, but by word of mouth that races ahead of him:
"News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (1.28)
This new speech — in the voice of people who previously only listened — is not gossip, mere tidbits of news about Jesus. People astounded by the Word of Jesus run out, run home, and tell others what they saw and heard, bringing hope and freedom to those willing to trust what is said to them. But it continues, as those people too, who were not even in the synagogue, run off and tell others. And so the Good News is preached, not just by Jesus, but by everyone who has ever allowed the Word of God to penetrate them and set them free.
So in the end this is, as always, about us. It all begins in the Word, rightly spoken and rightly heard. In church and out of it, we hear a lot about Jesus. But how do we speak about Jesus — whence does our word arise? From books we’ve read, from online homilies such as this one — or from our personal encounters with the Holy One of God? Do our words testify to the coming of the kingdom right here and now? Dare we tell about the time when God banished our own unclean spirits? All this is possible, if we keep it simple, just listening, being touched, being liberated, and then, in new freedom, learning to speak: if we speak to our neighbors what God has spoken in our hearts and lives, then our word is alive with God's Word.
Mark has more to say. In the next two weeks, we will hear more about Jesus as healer, Jesus in prayer, and Jesus in solidarity with the excluded and marginalized. But it all begins, Mark tells us, in ordinary synagogues and churches, among ordinary people — and by the sign of an occasional dark spirit in our midst, driven out by the holiness of God among us.