Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, 2015
Text: Mark 1:21-28 (ESV)
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God the Father and from Jesus Christ our Lord.
St. Mark doesn’t just give us a historical account of the Life of Jesus of Nazareth, he gives us a theological account. Therefore to properly understand any portion of the story he tells we must understand its context. The casting out of an unclean spirit in a Capernaum synagogue is not unrelated to what precedes it or what follows it.
Let us review than what happens in the first twenty verses of the gospel according to Saint Mark to help us understand what happens in our gospel lesson today. First John comes preaching a baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins as he prepares the way of the Lord. After Christ’s baptism and temptation and once John has been arrested, Jesus comes into Galilee preaching the Gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the Reign of God has drawn near, repent and believe the Gospel.”
Together, Mark’s short descriptions of the ministry of John the Baptizer and Jesus’ own preaching set the stage for what the Gospel story is really all about—repentance and faith. In Christ the reign of God comes to a world that has been in rebellion since the fall. Neither man, nor nature is as it should be. Sin corrupts both and both lie in bondage and under the influence of the one Paul calls, “The prince of this world.” Mark calls him, “The strong one,” “Beelzebub,” or “Satan.”
It is not insignificant that at the first account of Jesus entering a synagogue to teach the Word of God, Mark tells us there is a heckler in the audience. A man with an unclean spirit. As the people are amazed that Jesus teaches with authority, the demon interrupts saying, “What do you have to do with us Jesus of Nazareth. We know who you are, the Holy one of God.”
Even in the place where God’s word is publicly read, Jesus finds Himself in enemy territory. The inbreaking of God’s kingdom into a fallen world is not pretty. There is screaming, rebuke, violent shaking, and a great cry. This is war. For the Reign of God and the Prince of this world are at odds with each other. Neither can exist without casting out the other. Either Satan is in control or Jesus is. There is no middle ground, there is no chance of a peace treaty—an agreement to rule in cooperation.
The demon calls Jesus by name and identifies Him as the Holy One of God. He calls his enemy out and the battle is engaged. Jesus rebukes him saying, “Muzzle it and come out from him.” And the demon is defeated. At the word of Christ, this demon departs from this man. He does not do so willing as is seen in how he shakes the man and cries out in a great voice. In amazement the people marvel, “What is this? A new teaching with authority; He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey Him?”
The Battle lines are drawn. It is Jesus versus Satan and his unclean spirits. It is the King of Kings, the Holy One of God against the usurper, Satan. This is the world view of Saint Mark the evangelist. It is not the worldview of 21st century America. I would venture to say that this is not your world view. When we see someone struggling with a crooked body and a deranged mind we call it a mental condition, a handicap, or an illness. When someone is not able to break away from drugs, gambling, or pornography we call it an addiction.
Now when we read the biblical accounts of unclean spirits and the harm they cause to people it is easy for us to go one of two routes. Every time we see a person with similar symptoms we can say, that person has a demon. Or we can rule out demonic activity because we now have a medical diagnoses to attach to those symptoms and say, “there are no demons and there never were, the Bible just used a common primitive explanation for things that weren’t understood back then.”
Either of these approaches misses the point that Mark and the rest of Scripture is making. I can only think of a few illnesses named in the New Testament. There are several lepers, Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever, there is a woman with a flow of blood, and a man who has dropsy. For some others symptoms are named, but no diagnosis is given: such as blindness, a withered hand, or lameness. But there are many instances (and we will hear of some in the weeks ahead) where Jesus heals many of infirmities. We should not be too quick to conclude that some of those in the great crowds who come for healing had symptoms similar to those having unclean spirits and those whom we see suffering around us.
Jesus knows when He is dealing with illness and when He is dealing with demonic. I don’t know that we are always able to discern the difference even if we are open to both possibilities. But the Gospels were not written so that we can diagnose ailments save for one. The ailment that affects all of us—sin.
Jesus comes to battle Satan, those lines are drawn. But he also comes to call sinners to repentance. John Prepares the way of the Lord by preaching baptism of repentance. Jesus preaches the Gospel, saying, “The time is fulfilled, the reign of God has drawn near, repent and believe the Gospel.”
When Christ enters the world it is to cast Satan out. Christ will not share what is His with Satan and what Satan takes from God, Jesus comes to redeem. Thus when Jesus demonstrates His authority over unclean Spirits we ought to remember that we are called to live under that same authority. For in Adam’s fall the human race took up sides with Satan and rebelled against God. You were born into this rebellion and the only way out of it is to repent and be brought into the Kingdom of God that is found in Christ Jesus.
It is common when demons are exorcized that they come out with a great cry. But in the great triumph over the strong man who enslaved this world, it is Jesus who cries out with a great cry and breaths His last hanging upon a cross. In Jesus’ death reconciliation is made. The temple curtain is torn open the barrier between you and God is removed. Sin is washed away. You can cross the battle lines and enter the Kingdom of God.
That is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. That is the Gospel, the good news that Jesus proclaims. The reign of God is not just an idea, it is found in Christ who is the figure head of the reign of God, because He is the ruler not of this world, but all things. He has authority to open and close doors. He has authority to cast out unclean spirits. He has the authority to teach the way of God and that is a teaching that is used to bring sinners to repentance.
The message for you then in every miracle is to repent. Whether it is an exorcism of the demonic, the restoration of a broken individual, or the command of nature every miracle serves to show you that you are not in control. The world is broken and the demons fight to keep it broken and Christ fights to restore it. And that same brokenness is found in you because of your sin. That brokenness may take the form of illness, lack of control, addiction, or even demonic possession. And the devil and his unclean spirits will fight tooth and nail to keep you broken and Christ fights to restore you.
That is call to repentance. As soon as you hear Christ call you to repent of your sin you are hearing the call into paradise, into the eternal kingdom of God. Yet how many people choose the brokenness. How many people refuse to repent and never know the freedom of the reign of God. But those who do repent, those who reject the ways of the devil and joyfully run to gracious and merciful reign of God in Christ Jesus, though they suffer—though they spend a lifetime crying out with a great cry as Christ tears them from the grip of the strong one, yet do they know the freedom of belonging to Christ who has authority over all things.
This is where you find yourself today. Being called to repentance by Christ who proclaims the good news that though the devil rages, Christ has rebuked him. For Christ’s last great cry on the cross is the announcement to the devil that you are no longer His but belong to the Holy One of God. Your freedom has been paid for, heaven is open to you.
And now as the devil knows His time is short and seeks to cause trouble for those who are Christ’s, Jesus comes to comfort you. Here today the Reign of God has drawn near. Hear today Christ’s authoritative voice has forgiven your rebellion, Here today the ruler of all things comes to strengthen you with His body and blood. How do you know that you are saved? Christ places the price of your redemption in your outstretched hand.
When you receive the Lord’s Supper you receive the key to heaven opened to you in baptism. The devil cannot shut you out for Christ has let you in and casts out the wily foe.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria