“Showdown in the Spirit!”

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 28 January 2018
(Deuteronomy 18:15-20 Psalm 111 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Mark 1:21-28)

“Showdown in the Spirit!”

There are many stories of Jesus healing individuals throughout the scriptures. In fact, in Mark alone, of the 18 miracles Jesus performs, 13 of them are stories of Jesus healing another person. I find that truly amazing!

A few things to notice about this healing story. By the time we get to verse 21 of Mark’s Gospel, we’ve met John the Baptist; Jesus has been baptized, has gone to the wilderness, come back and has invited four disciples to join him in his mission. All this in only 20 verses! Gospel writer Mark does not waste words! And then just as Jesus is ready to begin his ministry, this encounter with the unclean spirit takes place.

The other thing to notice is that this is more than simply a story of healing or even simply an exorcism. The evil spirit speaks and confronts Jesus. And then as a crowd gathers around, in their amazement they begin asking the question of authority—who gave Jesus his authority to speak as he is doing!

Jesus will have none of it! The ministry of Jesus begins with a showdown in the Spirit!

Mark wants us to know from the very outset of his Gospel that the authority of Jesus will be contested, pushed back against and disputed. Mark wants us to know from the very outset that the authority of Jesus will be challenged by other forces that claim authority in peoples’ lives.

Each week, a lot of magazines come across my desk, usually free copies hoping for a new subscription. I am always amazed at how many of them, and many of them in not so subtle ways, promote a vision statement that goes something like this: “if you haven’t found success with God, you haven’t found the true God!” They talk about “successful” Christianity. You know, I thought we had moved beyond the “honk if you love Jesus” bumper sticker fan club, but recently I have seen more of them than I had in several years.

Jim Wallis, writes in one of his books entitled, The Call to Conversion, that “the Gospel message is being molded to suit an increasingly narcissistic culture. Conversion is proclaimed as the road to self-realization . . . religion as a way to uncover our potential for personal, social and business success.” He writes that, “modern conversion brings Jesus into our lives rather than bringing us into the life of Jesus. We are told that Jesus is here to help us do better what we are already doing; that Jesus doesn’t change our lives, he simply improves it!”

What a tragic distortion of the Gospel!

In entering human history, God shattered all previous conceptions of who God is and what humanity is meant to be. Only a few verses earlier, Mark makes it clear what his purpose is, to share with us “. . . the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…,” and now, as Jesus begins his ministry, his very first encounter is within the boundaries of the synagogue (traditional sacred space) on the most sacred day for the Jews (Sabbath), and it is an immediate clarification as to whom is in authority. For us, it signals what this Good News of Jesus Christ is all about.

This healing story is very different from so many of the others where Jesus cures blindness or deafness, or a person who is not able to speak, or a woman’s flow of blood, or even raising a little girl or a young son from the dead. This is so different!

This healing is about a spirit, an “unclean” spirit as Mark calls it, that has enveloped, taken over, taken charge of a human being, thus distorting this man’s entire way of living and experiencing God.

One of the nuances of this story is to realize that this unclean spirit is not this man himself; this spirit is different from the individual he is controlling. When Jesus strips this spirit of its ability to inhabit and thus control this person’s body and mind, it loses the authority it thought it had. Thus, what Jesus does in driving out the unclean spirit is to remind us that even where evil is still present in the world, the power and authority of Jesus is more commanding and superior than that of any evil spirit.

So what we hear in this Gospel text is a story of both hope and healing.
Hope given. . . . . in a world where it can seem as if the evil spirits have been given free rein to take control and maintain unlimited and unmitigated authority. Hope given . . . . . to remind us that the authority in control is that of Jesus for us to hold onto, stand upon, and cling to.
Healing offered. . . . that comes out of the relentless tenderness of Jesus; into our individual lives, into our communal lives and into the life of the world.

This is the often times disturbing love of God revealed in mercy and forgiveness. This Good News is a reminder that unlike ourselves, God loves us not for what God finds in us, but for what is found in God. This Good News is a reminder that not because we are good does God loves us, but because God is so utterly good that God loves the loveless, the unloving and the unlovable. God does not detect what is good-natured, appealing, attractive in us and then respond to it. In fact, it is because God, in Jesus, is the very source of such love. God acts. God does not react. God initiates love. God is love. And that is the Good News!

So when Jesus begins his ministry, he begins it by confronting any other understanding of God’s authority and God’s love for humankind. And when we, sinners that we are, are misguided and misled by any other authority in our lives, it is the authority of God’s healing love that will generate a showdown in the Spirit creating an amazement of God’s relentless tenderness to our very souls! Amen.

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