St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, January 31, 2021 The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Revd. Canon Claude Schroeder. Sermon on Mark 1. 21-28
In this season of Epiphany, we have been celebrating and considering the means by which Jesus Christ becomes visible and known in the world. In our Gospel lesson today from St. Mark, we have another wonderful and powerful “epiphany.” Who is Jesus Christ? He is the Holy One of God comes to release His people from the grip of the unclean spirits of the Evil One which has holds them captive!
This manifestation of both the power and identity of Jesus Christ comes to us perhaps as a bit of challenge. In our modern world, we generally believe that evil is simply a personal and/ or systemic problem, that can we address by means of education and legislation, government programs and improved technologies, all of which require a lot of effort and a lot of money! But the conception of reality that emerges from the pages of the New Testament suggests that this is inadequate. There are radically evil, demonic spiritual forces at work in the world which actively assault, enslave, corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and from which we need to be protected and delivered. Jesus Christ has come to do precisely that.
Having been baptized by John in the River Jordan, where He was anointed by the Holy Spirit, and having been tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his public ministry of preaching, teaching, and performing miracles. In His preaching Jesus announce the kingdom of God, that is the reign and rule of God on this earth, and the presence and power of God in your life, is at hand. This is the Good News!
In His teaching Jesus shows us what means to come under and live our live your life under God’s reign and rule.
And in His miracles, Jesus gave signs which demonstrated that the kingdom of God had indeed come in power. Jesus also called men and women to follow Him, to be His disciples and to bear witness to this kingdom and to share with Him in the work of making it known.
S0 it was that Jesus went with his disciples into the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath day to teach the people, and where he encountered a man with an “unclean spirit.”
What is this “unclean spirit?”
In the Scriptures, what we call “spirit” refers that aspect of our being that enables us to communicate, know, have communion and receive life from God. Our spirit is a bit like a radio, when it is turned on and properly tuned to the right station and the right frequency, receives the cleansing, enlightening, and enlivening energies from God, like invisible radio waves passing through the air. This is what happens when we “tune in” to the liturgy of the Church such as we are doing this morning.
“For us”, writes St. Paul, “there us one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.( 1 Cor. 8. 6) For St. Paul, to speak of God is to speak of Jesus Christ. To speak of Jesus Christ is to speak of God. We know of no other God other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, before whom the Angels and Archangels and all the powers of Heaven continually do cry,
“Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts,
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of Thy Glory”
Today we join “the glorious company of the Apostles”, “the goodly fellowship of the Prophets”, “the noble army of Martyrs”, and “the Holy Church throughout the world” in acknowledging the “Father of an Infinite majesty, His Honorable, true and only Son, also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.” (Te Deum, BCP, 7,8)
But what happens the radio is turned off, or is tuned into the wrong frequency or the wrong station? Then we run into problems… There are unclean spirits not from God also transmitting on the airwaves, spreading lies, corrupting and influencing people’s hearts and minds, enslaving them and leading them into sin and death.
In the Church, we have names for these unclean spirits. Chief among them is the spirit of unbelief, which says, “There is no God, and we are all alone, and there is no hope.” Then we have spirit of pride, vainglory, envy, hatred, greed, lust, anger, fear, anxiety, and despondency to name but a few…
When in Holy Baptism, a person unites themselves to Jesus Christ, they renounce these unclean, demonic spirits. (BCP, 535) And in the case of adults coming to Baptism, the priest prays,
“O Lord of hosts, before the might of whose presence the armies of evil are put to flight, deliver thy servants from the power of Satan! “(BCP, 536)
How is that for a prayer!
And then, “Cast out of their hearts every evil imagination and everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of thee.” (BCP, 536)
We have echoes here of the prayers of exorcism which traditionally preceded the rite of Holy Baptism in the ancient church.
This, for the newly baptized, marks the beginning of a life-long spiritual struggle, conflict and battle against the unclean spirits who are our spiritual enemies. Because guess what? They are not about to leave you alone.
But in our story today, what on earth is a man with an unclean spirit doing in the synagogue? In the very place devoted to teaching the Law of the Lord, which as the Psalmist writes, “is an undefiled (clean) law, restoring the soul. (Ps.19. 7). Well, unclean spirits have a way of infiltrating and taking up residence in our holy places, but also our marriages, friendships, and places of work, where they wreak havoc and wound human souls.
St. Mark describes in the previous verse how the congregation in the synagogue was amazed at Jesus’ teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (Mark 1.22) At this point, when the man with the unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?,” he is really giving speaking on behalf of the scribes, and giving voice to their opinions. Later in Mark’s Gospel the scribes will accuse Jesus of performing miracles by the power of the prince of demons. (3.22) In Mark’s view then, the teaching of the scribes is demonic. Rather than healing and liberating, their teaching oppresses and enslaves.
“But Jesus rebuked him saying, Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.’ (Mark 1.26,27) In casting out the unclean spirit, Jesus restores not only the man’s voice and body, but restores him to the fellowship of the community from which he had been separated.
It is here that the congregation is amazed for a second time. They kept on asking one another, “What is this?A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (Mark 1.27)
What we have here of course, is not a new teaching, but in fact an old teaching, but with a new authority, the authority of love, and a new application- not to dominate and consolidate power, but to see people free from the unseen forces that afflict and manipulate them.
So what is the teaching?
It is everything Jesus said and did that is recorded for us in the Gospels!
It is also the teaching that when Moses, in our first lesson this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy spoke the Word of God to the people which said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command,” ( Deuteronomy 18.18) Moses was speaking about Jesus Christ, whom God has raised from the dead.
The teaching then not only the teaching of Jesus Christ, but the teaching concerning Jesus Christ. It is the teaching concerning His Birth, Baptism, and Epiphany, including His preaching, teaching, and miracles. It is the teaching concerning His suffering and death on the Cross, His resurrection on the third day, His ascension into heaven and sending of the Holy Spirit. It is the teaching concerning His coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. This is the teaching which we confess in The Apostles Creed.
We live in a time and places the likes to reduce everything to a matter of perspective and opinion. All opinions need to be heard, all opinions are equal. But such an approach to truth is of a piece with what the scribes were teaching in the synagogue. It is not only unclean, but exposes people to spiritual attack. When in our worship we confess The Apostles Creed, we are not giving voice to some human opinion. Rather we are acknowledging the authoritative teaching concerning Jesus of Nazareth, that He is the Holy One of God, who has come to liberate us and set is free from all the unclean spirits that are intent on destroying us.
So how do we go about sharing in this ministry of deliverance, that the kingdom of God might be manifest in our midst?
It begins by holding fast to the teaching of God and Jesus Christ as recorded in the Scriptures, and the teaching concerning God and Jesus Christ as recorded in the Creeds of the Church. This is a protection for us against the “unclean spirits.”
Secondly, we need to be able to name and identify the unclean spirits that trouble us, or to quote the Baptism service, “every evil imagination and everything that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.” (BCP, 536)What possesses us? What wreaks havoc in our hearts and minds? What distorts our humanity?
In the Scriptures to name something or somebody implies the exercise of authority(Genesis 2. 19,20). This explains why Jesus commands the unclean spirit to be silent. Jesus does not allow the unclean spirit to name Him, and in naming Him gain authority over Him. We need in turn be able to name and rebuke the unclean spirits, lest they name us, and in naming us gain authority over us, and turn us into their mouth-piece.(2)
And finally, having named and rebuked the unclean spirit, we pray for deliverance. Prayer, as one commentator points out, is not a pious exercise designed to put our minds at ease, and make us feel better, but rather it is “an intensely personal struggle within each disciple, and among us collectively, to resist the despair and distractions that cause us to practice unbelief, to abandon or avoid the way of Jesus.” (3)
How shall we pray?
Following the teaching and example of Jesus in today’s Gospel we pray simply, briefly, and directly, such as we find in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and The Great Litany in our Prayer Book.
“From all uncleanness in thought, word, and deed;
from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Good Lord, deliver us.” ( BCP, 31)
- Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1995), 142.
- Myers, Binding the Strong Man, 142.