The Rev. Dr. Ross McGowan Wright
The Church of the Good Shepherd
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 28, 2018
Text: Mark 1:21-28
And Jesus rebuked [the unclean spirit], saying “Shut up and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit came out of him after convulsing [the man] and uttering a loud cry.
This is the second time in Mark’s Gospel that we see Jesus confronting demonic powers. The first time occurs immediately after his baptism. He comes up from the waters of baptism; he is filled with the Spirit – and then the Spirit of God drives him into the wilderness to do battle with Satan for 40 days. From a spiritual epiphany to armed combat. And now at the beginning of his public ministry, as soon as he begins to teach, he confronts the demonic realm again.
This time, the battle erupts in the synagogue in Capernaum, a town on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Jesus and the disciples show up at the synagogue for Sabbath worship. It is customary for a visiting rabbi to address the congregation. The fact that Jesus immediately assumes the role of teacher speaks volumes about his self-confidence and self-understanding as an authoritative teacher of Israel. And in fact, when people hear him, “[they are] amazed at his teaching” because he teaches them as one has authority. “Authority” in this case means “power” – power to get things done; power to overcome obstacles. Power, as we are about to see, to defeat “Satan and all the forces of wickedness which rebel against God.”
As Jesus is speaking, without any warning, there is a loud shout – more like a shriek – from the middle of the congregation. “What do we have to do with you, Jesus the Nazarene? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the holy one of God!” Suddenly, Jesus stops speaking, all eyes turn in the direction of this shriek. The words come out of the mouth of a man. But we learn nothing about him. We do not know his name or what he looks like or anything about his history. He is simply: a man with an unclean spirit. This complete absence of personality is telling. The spirit living in him has devoured his personality; sucked the life out of him.” Evil is parasitic: it has no life in itself, and it cannot create anything. Evil can only live only by preying on goodness. C. S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, is the correspondence between a junior devil and a senior devil. The junior devil’s assignment is to destroy of faith of a new convert, whom they refer to clinically as “the patient.” Lewis points out that demons have no life in themselves; they can only live by preying on the lives of others.
Although we know almost nothing about this unfortunate man, we learn a lot about the unclean spirit. It recognizes Jesus. It senses Jesus’ hostility. It knows that it is threatened, and so it goes on the attack. At this point, all the other details of the synagogue service and Jesus’ sermon fade into the background. We are about to witness battle between Jesus and the forces of evil.
The unclean spirit takes the first shot by announcing its presence with a loud shriek. It would have been better for the spirit if it had kept a low profile. But throughout Jesus’ ministry, demons “seem to experience a fatal attraction to Jesus.”When he is present, evil comes out into the open. Evil can exist only in the presence of goodness, so in the presence of ultimate goodness, the roaches come scuttling out from the dark corners.
After announcing itself, the evil spirit It makes three statements. First, “What do we have to do with you, Jesus the Nazarene?” This is an Old Testament idiom, which means something like: What do we have in common? or What is the cause of hostility between us? The spirits sense Jesus’ hostility toward them. The evil spirit knows that Jesus is as different from it as light is from darkness.
Second, the spirit says “Have you come to destroy us?” It immediately senses that it is in the presence of a superior power. Here, the spirit speaks for all demons, all of the powers and principalities of evil. It knows that Jesus is the conqueror of all demonic forces. This is the death knell of the kingdom of darkness.
The spirit’s third statement is an attempt to control Jesus: “I know who you are – the holy one of God!” If someone knows your name, they have a certain amount of power or influence. When someone can call you by name, they can get your attention. In the evil spirit’s logic, to call Jesus by name is to exert power over him. It is a challenge. It uses Jesus’ name like an incantation. But there is never any doubt about who is in control here – as we are about to see.
And then, Jesus launches the counter attack. “And Jesus rebuked him, saying ‘Shut up and come out of him’!” “The expression Jesus uses here means something like: Shut your trap. It is slangy and rude”– and as abrupt as a slap in the face. The evil spirit has been nattering away with its incantations and formal protestations. Jesus utters five short words (in the Greek): Shut up and come out. Nothing else needs to be said, because these words come from the lips of the one who stood at the grave of Lazarus and said: “Lazarus, come forth!” –from the one who said to the stormy waves: “Be still,” and there was peace. The unclean spirit convulses the man and departs with a shriek – a death cry.
The word of God in Jesus Christ is power – power to get things done, power to to destroy unclean spirits and every form of evil that rebels against God.
I must tell you honestly that there is a lot that I do not understand about Satan and the powers of darkness. And I do not understand how God intervenes in these matters. But I do know this: Jesus Christ is a witness that God is for us and against all the powers of darkness that threaten our life and seek to bind us. Jesus Christ is the witness that God takes out part. God takes the field against the powers of darkness for our sake. He is for us:
Where the word of Jesus Christ is spoken, there the power of God engages the strongholds of darkness. As Paul says: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God unto salvation.” The teaching of Jesus is not information. It is the power of God. And so we can pray with confidence these words from The Great Litany:
That it may please thee to strengthen such as do stand;
to comfort and help the weak-hearted;
to raise up those who fall;
and finally to beat down Satan under our feet,
We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.