GOSPEL READING Mark 1:21-28
The Holy Gospel according to Mark.
Glory to you, O Lord.
The Man with an Unclean Spirit
[Jesus and the disciples] went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer
So, today I’m going to talk about evil spirits, unclean spirits, the demonic. Go ahead and wiggle in your seats…it is an uncomfortable topic for most of us in the 21st-century, blessed with the scientific method. We are quite happy to be Jesus’ followers when it comes to feeding the poor, praying for one another, proclaiming God’s way of justice and mercy, but casting out demons? In Mark’s Gospel, casting out demons isn’t something incidental to the Good News; it is an essential part of it—there are four exorcisms in this shortest Gospel. Most of us dismiss it or are freaked out by it, rather than grateful, excited, or even curious about it.
Let’s dive deeper into today’s story, exploring it from the perspectives of its four characters: Jesus, the demon, the man who was possessed by the demon, and the crowd at the synagogue. Inhabiting the story through these four lenses could help us believe, despite our unbelief.
First, Jesus. Jesus is fresh from his baptism and wilderness experience. Immediately after he is baptized, the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness for his showdown with Satan, and Jesus resists temptation for forty long days. The wilderness experience is so taxing that God sends angels to wait on Jesus. Perhaps his encounter with the demonic shapes Jesus’ compassion for us and clarifies his mission. Yes, people make mistakes and are sinful, but there are forces far beyond us and way outside our control that seduce us away from God. In this brief story, still in the first chapter of Mark, Jesus is in the local synagogue “teaching with authority.” He doesn’t know about God, he knows God directly—and there is a big difference. And in the midst of his teaching, a man with an unclean spirit interrupts him, yells at him, disturbs the whole congregation. Jesus responds with calm strength, rebuking that spirit, and freeing the man for the abundant life God meant for him to live.
Secondly, the Unclean Spirit. This demon is smart; he knows, before any human being does, who it is he is dealing with: The Holy One of God. He vies for dominion in this man’s life and doesn’t want Jesus’ interference. You see, in the presence of Goodness, Evil often interrupts and tries to get our attention. One of the ways it tries to hold on to its power is by shaming the person it occupies. Shame is a powerful force, and demons exploit it to bind and restrict people all the time!
This Unclean Spirit seems to have a community of other evil spirits and rightly feels threatened by the presence and power of the One who knows God, the One whom we come later to believe is God, and so he cries out: “What have you to do with us?”
Thirdly, the man who is possessed. Did he feel incredibly embarrassed and ashamed? How much choice/control did he have in all of this? Was there a terrible struggle within him? His true self, the part that bears the image of God, desired liberation and wholeness. Maybe that’s the part of him that drew him to the synagogue, a holy place. He likely felt trapped by this Spirit, knowing and thinking, “That’s not the real me.” Can you relate to this at all? Like when a young parent loses their temper with a toddler? Or when someone living in the grips of an addiction doesn’t recognize the person they’ve become? Can you relate to that idea of the gap between who you most truly are and how you sometimes act?
And finally, there is the crowd, the folks in the synagogue. They had been amazed, almost entrapped by Jesus’ teaching, his clear authority, his presence. Were they disgusted when the man came in screaming? “Why can’t he get control over himself?” Were they afraid? “What if that happened to me?” Did they feel threatened? “What if I don’t have as much control as I thought I did?” Surely, all of them were shaken up after Jesus rebuked the demon. In those moments, they had seen God’s power triumph over the forces of evil, and they went out to tell others about it— to process what they had seen.
So as we reflect on this story from these points of view, let’s note these interesting observations…
Evil exists. This story doesn’t offer us any satisfactory explanation for where evil spirits came from, much less why they exist, much less why this particular demon afflicts this particular guy. The story simply acknowledges the reality. Evil is a force that leads toward death—physical or literal—over which we often have little if any control; we are held in bondage by it.
Optimistic human beings tend to overestimate our ability to overcome evil, and our pride gets in the way: “If I only do x, y, and z, then I can handle this (fill-in-the-blank: addiction, rage, violence). If I really focus on eliminating this problem, I can overcome it.” Consequently, we are reluctant to ask for God’s help. When we are dealing with evil, with the demonic, the sooner we can admit our need for help, the better. Like the first step in 12-step wisdom: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
God’s power is stronger than Satan’s. And the second step says: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
And coming to believe in this Power, we are able to ask for divine help.
Sometimes this comes directly from God, as it did for the man in the story. Jesus was there. Jesus rebuked the demons. The man was free. But for most of us, divine intervention is mediated by other human beings: a wise therapist, spiritual friendships, 12-step programs. And divine intervention happens through what we are doing right now. In worship God draws our attention toward God’s good purposes and equips us—yes, us modern-day disciples—to cast out demons.
Now it’s understandable if this Good News is hard to take in, to process, to believe. In the fourth and final exorcism that Jesus performs in Mark, Mark anticipates how hard this stuff is for us to grasp. You remember the story: the healing of the boy with the unclean spirit.
The father desperately approaches Jesus, afraid for his boy’s life. His son is regularly cast into water and fire. The father prays, perhaps as we do today, “I believe; help my unbelief,” and that was enough. Jesus freed the boy from the demon for the life God intended for him.
Throughout history and our vocational journeys of life, we have all faced big questions. Questions like, “Are we there yet?” “Why?” “What does this mean?” And “What is this?” Okay, maybe one of these questions isn’t quite like the others. But that last question appears in this week’s Gospel reading. “What is this?” The question speaks to amazement. To sense-making. To awe and discovery. And it’s a discipleship question. In witnessing Jesus show up and do what Jesus does in this story, naturally there will be questions for those who see it as I talked about earlier.
The questions are being asked by the crowd in Capernaum who witness the healing act on the Sabbath in the synagogue. It shouldn’t be lost on us that this is the second time already in the Gospel of Mark where a voice has announced for all to hear who Jesus is. The first came from heaven during Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11), and now we have an unclean spirit saying the same thing. It would be perfectly understandable for anyone to ask, “What is this?” Or “What does this mean?”
These are discipleship questions to be sure. But I wonder if they might also connect with the themes from this week’s Psalm 111. The psalmist sings, “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1).
The psalmist gives words of response. It’s almost as if the psalmist provides the words of how a steward might respond to witnessing God’s life-changing and life-saving love in real-time. For that’s what happened in the Gospel story. Yes, Jesus did teach, and I’m sure he was a riveting teacher. But let’s be honest. If we were in the room that day, we probably would have been even more impressed with how Jesus healed the man and commanded the unclean spirit. Because we all know, actions and deeds often leave an impression greater than words. Actions make the teaching real. And so, within the very first chapter of Mark, we have already seen a piece of Jesus’ life-changing and life-saving mission at work.
Amazement and awe are a part of stewardship. If we believe that stewardship is all about how we respond to what God has done, will do, and promises to do for God’s people, how could we not be amazed? How could we not ask questions such as “What is this?” Not so much with judgment and doubt, but with awe and wonder. Trying to learn and make sense. Trying to come and see what this Jesus of Nazareth is up to and why.
Once again, if we were connecting the dots with the psalmist, we might recall how Psalm 111 closes. The Lord, “sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:9-10). The psalmist fills in the gaps of what the Lord is up to and gives a good snapshot of what Jesus has come to do, that even the unclean spirit immediately realizes.