May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
First impressions are important in life. Authors have learned that, and often the opening scene of a story gives great insight into the themes that the book or movie will deal with as it unfolds. The gospel writers are a lot like authors of stories in their artistic endeavor; they are most often more interested in getting the meaning across in their story of Jesus' life and ministry as they are to get the historical facts straight about it. So we are left wondering if Jesus cleansed the temple at the beginning of his ministry like John describes, or if he did if after he rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday like Mark says. Because of this, each time we read an excerpt from one of the Gospels, we are invited to notice the details of their artistry in the story that they tell in order that we might grasp the theological claims to which they give witness. And the detail to notice in today's Gospel text is simply that Mark begins his account of Jesus' public ministry with a confrontation.
The first events give us great insights into the important themes of Jesus' life: In Matthew, Jesus goes up onto a Mount to teach and preach; and the major themes of Matthew's gospel revolve around Jesus as a teacher and a new law-giver like Moses. Jesus first turns water into wine at the wedding at Cana in John's Gospel, and he continues to be the one who creates unexpected, unimaginable abundance of life all through that account. Luke describes Jesus declaring in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth that he is the one who was to come according to the prophet Isaiah, and he continues to release captives, heal the sick and infirm, and proclaim the good news to the poor and the Lord's favor to all throughout his gospel.
As we heard already this morning, in Mark's Gospel, Jesus starts his ministry with a confrontation. Now, one might just think that the author is getting our attention by starting everything out with a fight scene, much like a James Bond movie might grab your attention with the main villain's henchmen chasing 007 down on skis or cars or boats or some other mode of transportation; but there is something about this scene that sets the stage for Jesus' life in all of Mark's Gospel. There is very little doubt over who will win this showdown, and even though the unclean spirit protests Jesus' very presence, he dispatches this supernatural essence with a short but authoritative command. He has authority: he has proven it right here in his words and in his actions. Because of Jesus' bold teaching and power over this spirit of oppression, his fame spreads quickly all over Galilee.
In this first public scene, Jesus bursts onto the scene to oppose all forces that keep God's children from the abundant life that God desires for all of us. This is important to consider as this is not only important for the people of Jesus' time, but it is also important to us. As a matter of fact, we should just consider our time as being Jesus' time as well, for as we are told about him already, his message was, The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news! The time of fulfillment is still now, the Kingdom of God is still near, and Jesus is still at work to oppose all the forces that keep God's children from the abundant life that God desires for all of us. God still wants the most for us from this life, and stands in opposition to anything that robs us of the joy and community and purpose for which we were created.
That is good news indeed for us today, that the power of God through Jesus Christ opposes all of the forces of evil that seek to rob us of all that God hopes and intends for us. And as strange as demon possessions may seem to us in this 21st century, when we hear and believe this good news, it is not quite as foreign to us as it first appears on the surface. I have a feeling that you will join me in remembering times when we have experienced this phenomena first-hand.
Who has not, on occasion, been possessed by anger at a friend, neighbor or family member that has led us to say and do things that we regret. Who has not been possessed by jealousy and envy that have led us to spend our money or somehow change our lifestyles in ways that we regret. Who has not in some way felt possessed by something that is so clearly not the Spirit of God blessing us to be a blessing to others?
Remember that this man in the Capernaum synagogue is a good, church-going person like you and me! Unclean spirits don't only possess those we label as, un-Christian. To be sure, because of how this spirit addresses Jesus, we can admit that we are good fertile ground for these evil spirits to cultivate! In addition to what I have mentioned above, for some people the experience of possession is even greater and more damaging as they have felt possessed by addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or pornography; for some, it's a hidden but pervasive prejudice that keeps them captive; Or maybe they've been possessed by more society-approved unclean spirits like workaholism, affluenza, or greed.
This man is the epitome of all of us good, church-going people who (even though we are people of faith) are sometimes possessed by an "unclean spirit." The good news for all of us is that Jesus still has authority, and still shows his authority over such spirits, sending the Holy Spirit into our lives and the life of our congregations to bless, build up, encourage, promote love and draw us together.
I am certain that you can all share experiences where you or someone else has had sudden encounters with grace and mercy. Or, maybe there are instances when you have seen that over time and healing, restoration and peace have made a gradual difference in your life. Sometimes the road to healing and restoration takes both time and company. Sometimes it's not about a single effective prayer, but the steady, on-going love of a grief support network, or twelve step group, or a prayer chain, or parenting group, or notices about anger-management classes, or whatever. God is at work in all these ways and so many more to free us from the unclean spirits that still possess us.
Today, as we focus on those things that possess us in order to lead us away from the Holy Spirit and God's will and kingdom, I invite you to contemplate and name some of the things that possess you and that you would like the support of your Christian brothers and sisters to escape. Maybe you simply name it in prayer; perhaps you call someone who is trusted, or email them; perhaps you will make an appointment to speak with me or just invite one of your Christian brothers or sisters to talk about life over coffee.
Whatever you do, do it with full knowledge that the power of the evil one is still at work in the world even in the church to divide and to cultivate fear and doubt and guilt, trying to lead us away from the God who loves us and keeps sending his Holy Spirit to heal us.
I believe that Jesus is still in the business of freeing us from those powers which seek to rob all of God's children of the hope that God offers for us. The time is still fulfilled; the kingdom is still at hand! May we continue to be healed of those things that seek to possess us and lead us away from the God and God's family; and may we indeed be possessed by the Holy Spirit, which continues to be an active and dynamic presence in our lives, in the church, and in the whole world; may it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord Amen.