Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
January 29, 2012
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
So today we come in where Jesus has just called the first disciples, and they have come to Capernaum, a town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Mark tells a story about what happened. Jesus went into the local synagogue, the house of prayer and study for Jews who were not then at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, being I guess a sort of visiting rabbi, began to teach the people in the synagogue. Mark says that the people were “astounded” at his teaching and with the authority with which he did it. Mark doesn’t explicitly tell us what Jesus taught them, but we can assume I think that it was something along the lines of Jesus’ first public proclamation in Mark. It comes a few verses earlier, where Jesus says “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” Surely Jesus was teaching about the Kingdom of God, which, after all, is what he teaches in all three of the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Then Mark says that as Jesus was teaching there was a man “with an unclean spirit” in the synagogue. The unclean spirit recognized who Jesus was, then Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. It did. Then the people in the synagogue reacted to what they had seen and heard by saying “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Now, if you’re like me and a lot of other people today you perhaps react to this story by saying something like “Unclean spirits? Really? Give me a break! I don’t believe in unclean spirits. Let’s move on. There’s nothing in this story for me.” It’s an understandable reaction. We don’t believe in evil spirits the way the ancient world in and for which this story was written did. Some Christians still do exorcisms, but their doing so strikes most of us as a bit kooky at best. True, I don’t believe in unclean spirits the way the ancient world did, and you probably don’t either. Still, for all that, I think that there is a big, important lesson for us in this little story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue and performing an exorcism there.
To get at that lesson, let me ask you a question about this text. Do you notice anything striking or odd about the way this little story is constructed? You see, this story is in fact very carefully constructed, and it’s constructed in a particular way to make a particular point. The story has basically three parts. In the first part Jesus teaches in the synagogue, and the people are astounded at his teaching and his authority. The second part is the exorcism of the unclean spirit out of man it was possessing. The third part is the people’s response to the exorcism. They were “amazed” and say “A new teaching—with authority.” Notice the structure. One: Jesus teaches and the people are amazed at his teaching and his authority. Two: Jesus performs an exorcism of an unclean spirit. Three: The people are astonished at Jesus’ new teaching and his authority. The structure of this story is Jesus’ teaching with authority, exorcism, Jesus’ teaching with authority. The exorcism is bracketed at the beginning and at the end by references to Jesus teaching with authority. The story is constructed like a corned beef sandwich on rye, only it’s an exorcism sandwich on authoritative teaching.
This kind of bracketing, where one theme appears before and after an apparently unrelated middle piece is a common device in the Gospels. Whenever you see it you need to slow down and take notice. That bracketing of a story by another theme before and after it is a literary device that is trying to tell us something. It is an ancient author’s way of saying these two things, the theme of the brackets and the story in between them, really do go together. Like corned beef and rye go together, each taste contributing to the flavor of the whole sandwich. So when you see this structure, look for what the two pieces, the bracketing piece and piece that it brackets, have in common. Or look for how the piece in the middle tells us something about the meaning of the bracketing pieces.
In our case this morning the author is apparently making a connection between Jesus’ teaching with authority—the bracketing piece—and Jesus’ power over unclean spirits—the bracketed piece. But what could that connection possibly be? Those two things really don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. Indeed, I’m not sure we can see a connection between the two if we insist on thinking of the unclean spirit literally. After all, Jesus didn’t teach the unclean spirit out of the man. He performed an exorcism, a demonstration of spiritual power not teaching power. I do, however, see a clear connection between the two pieces of this sandwich if we can get beyond our automatic literalism and think of the unclean spirit as a metaphor.
So I ask: For what in our lives or in our world might “unclean spirit” be a metaphor? Understanding what “unclean spirit” meant in Jesus’s world is a good starting place for answering that question. In Jesus’ world, to be “unclean” meant not to be the way God intends and wants for you to be. It meant to be out of synch with God, out of harmony with God’s will, with God’s teaching. So try thinking of “unclean spirit” as meaning something about us, about our world, that is not the way God intends and wants it to be. Perhaps it is some behavior of ours, something we do or fail to do that is wrong in God’s sight. Perhaps it is a value we hold that is not a value of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps it is a habit of thought about some people that does not reflect respect and even love for one whom God loves. When we think of unclean spirits in that way it gets really easy to identify all kinds of unclean spirits in ourselves and in the world. In myself I can identify unrighteous anger, envy, greed, and lots of others. In our world I can identify militarism, consumerism, prejudice, disregard for the wellbeing of the poor and the vulnerable, oppression, injustice, destruction of God’s creation, and lots of other unclean spirits. Thought of this way we and our world are simply teeming with unclean spirits.
Our passage from Mark tells us that there is a connection of some sort between these unclean spirits and Jesus’ teaching. I think that we have already gotten a hint at what that connection is in our understanding of an unclean spirit as something that is other than what God intends and wants it to be. How, after all, do we know if something is an unclean spirit in this sense? How do we know that something is other than the way God intends and wants for it to be? To answer that question we have to know what it is that God intends and wants, and we Christians learn what it is that God intends and wants precisely from the teaching of Jesus.
The teaching of Jesus shows us how things in ourselves and in our world are unclean spirits. It does that by shining the light of God into our darkness. In the light of Jesus’ teaching all our unclean spirits appear like cockroaches scurrying around in a previously dark corner into which we have just shone a flashlight. The teaching of Jesus shows our unclean spirits for what they are, and seeing them for what they are is the necessary first step in our exorcizing them.
The teaching of Jesus does something else too. Awareness alone will not exorcise our unclean spirits, but in addition to teaching Kingdom values Jesus taught his disciples, and us, that we have the power to complete the exorcism that begins with the light of his teaching. He told his disciples that they would do even greater things than he had done. After he had taught them he sent them out to teach and to perform exorcisms themselves, and they did it. As disciples of Christ they too had the power to overcome the unclean spirits, and so do we. We have that power because the Holy Spirit is always and everywhere all around us and deep within us. We have that power because we know that God is always with us as we confront the unclean spirits in ourselves and in our world. We have that power because we know that God calls us to the struggle, sustains us in the struggle, and forgives us when we fall short.
So. Are you ready to become exorcists? Maybe you already have been one in some ways; but the unclean spirits are legion, and there are always more of them that we need to cast out. Jesus is our model. Jesus is our inspiration. In him we know what to do, and in him we have the power to do it. Thanks be to God. Amen.