Deuteronomy 18, Mark 1:21-28
Don’t you wish you could have been there that Sabbath? For one thing to hear what Jesus sounded like this first sermon. Of course there would have to be subtitles, since our Aramaic isn’t too good. But the voice and face would have conveyed what the others got. After all, Mark doesn’t even mention the content of the sermon. Just that everyone who heard this new preacher was astonished. He spoke as one with authority not as the scribes and Pharisees.
What is authority?
A DEA (Drug Enforcement Authority) officer stopped at a ranch in Texas and talked with an old rancher. He told the rancher, ”I need to inspect your ranch for illegally grown drugs.”
The rancher said, “Okay, but don’t go in that field over there…” as he pointed out the location.
The DEA officer verbally exploded saying, “Mister, I have the authority of the Federal Government with me!” Reaching into his rear pants pocket, he removed his badge and proudly displayed it to the rancher.
“See this badge?! This badge means I am allowed to go wherever I wish… on any land!! No questions asked or answers given!! Have I made myself clear?! Do you understand?!!”
The rancher nodded politely, apologized, and went about his chores.
A short time later, the old rancher heard loud screams, looked up, and saw the DEA officer running for his life, being chased by the rancher’s big Santa Gertrudis bull…
With every step the bull was gaining ground on the officer, and it seemed likely that he’d sure enough get gored before he reached safety. The officer was clearly terrified. The rancher threw down his tools, ran to the fence and yelled at the top of his lungs…
“Your badge! Show him your BADGE!!”
Exousia is the word that Mark uses. Authority. The power to do something. Literally it means out of essence or being of something. There was something in the essence of Jesus that radiated this sense that he could make things different.
I wonder what he preached about? Did he use the text from Isaiah 61 that Luke says was his scripture when he preached for the first time back in Nazareth.“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Did he offer some of the teachings we have in the Sermon on the Mount that in Matthew is his first teaching? Did he talk about how the upside down kingdom of God? Or maybe a parable? Did he tell the outrageous story of the loving father who received his bad son back into the house when he came broken and needy. Did he talk about how there was a place in God’s kingdom for people who had been lost like that?
Whatever he said he did not hide behind what other “authorities” had said. He spoke with his voice and authority. And what he said or how he said it or both threatened to change how they had understood things, threatened to make things different. Was that it? Was that what provoked a member of the congregation just then?
There was a commotion and someone in the crowd stood up and started talking, right in the middle of Jesus’ sermon, mind you. You assume that this was someone the people probably knew. It might have embarrassed them for the sake of the man, for the sake of the guest preacher, for the sake of the service. Why didn’t the deacons usher him out? Did they know this man? Did he come to church often?
Martin Copenhaver, a pastor in Illinois, writes of having a man named Bernie in his congregation and choir with Tourette Syndrome, who exhibits his condition by barking without warning. Bernie’s disability has kept him from holding down a job, and in fact his family couldn’t handle it and turned him out. But Bernie was a gifted musician and one day he joins the choir in this church that has accepted him. Sounds great when he is not barking. Most times Bernie would turn the bark into a coughing fit to try to cover it. People in the church get used to it. First time a visitor hears it they may ask, “did someone just bark?” They look around and the rest of the congregation doesn’t react. it happens again. And the visitor wonders “what kind of place have I wandered into?”1
“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.”Now the unclean spirit does not lie. It knows Jesus’s home address. It accuses Jesus of having come to “destroy us”, to undo evil permanently. And calls Jesus the “holy one of God” .
But Jesus does not seem to miss a beat. He zeroes in and addresses not the man but something in him. “Shut up and leave him!”
The man is convulsed momentarily, but then he is in his right mind. And now the congregation is really impressed. This is some kind of preaching, if the preacher is able to command demons out of people and the demons obey!
Word got around that Jesus had power, authority, could make things happen by just saying the word. In a dramatic way we see that Jesus’ preaching about the effective rule of God is not just words. It is backed up by real change.
What are we to make of the unclean spirit? I don’t know if you feel comfortable with talking about possessions. People can get possessed about possessions, poltergeists, haunted houses, Ouija boards. Charles Williams warned in Witchcraft that one of the great ironies of church history is how people who got passionate about exorcising evil ended up doing Devil’s work. The Inquisition is only one example of people going to such extremes to fight the Devil, that they ended up acting like him. Devil wins when we fall into using the devils methods. Mark tells us Jesus wrestled with temptations 40 days before he began his ministry. Matt and Luke tell us one of those was over whether Jesus was willing to use the Devil’s skill set to accomplish his holy purpose. Jesus saw right through the offer. If you use devil’s tools, the devil has won. Getting too fascinated with evil may be just the thing to loop us into giving evil too much power in our lives.
As someone said, whether you believe in the devil or not, watch out for people who talk about keeping his company.
But on the other hand we can dismiss evil as a chemical imbalance or a neural flaw, or some other “it’s only”, with the result that we can surrender responsibility of the evil person and even our responsibility to address it. As if evil was just there and nobody could do anything about it. “You can’t change the way things are.”
Doubtless many times we need to be humble about how much we are going to be able to change the world.
A young minister complained to a church mentor he was frustrated that he had not been able to change the people in his congregation. The old man offered, you don’t understand. God didn’t put you there to change them but to love them and minister to them. Do that and leave changing to God.
But sometimes we have seen people get so stuck in sick behaviors, self-defeating lifestyles, we just get jaded and lower our standards and our hopes to maybe just things not getting any worse.
Sometimes the problems we are stuck in are so intractable we think nothing we do or say will make any difference. Think how Wilberforce faced the evils of slave trade, 2
William Harrison was the offspring of prosperous slaveholding Virginians, despite his attempt to present himself as a country boy who had come out of humblest conditions to be a great Indian fighter– “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” When the issue arose whether to allow slavery in the new Western states, Harrison waffled. He did not think slavery was something that ought to be spread, but he was swayed by folks who said if you don’t allow rich plantation owners to bring their slaves, they won’t move here and invest in our territory. Can’t ask people to just let go of so much of their resources like that. Can’t change things.
“When the civil rights movement was building in the mid-1950s, President Eisenhower responded to a church sermon on the need for civil rights legislation by saying “You can’t legislate morality.” Morality only changes gradually. Martin Luther King responded that while Eisenhower was correct in one sense, he was missing something else: “A law may not make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me.” Law can never make a society perfect, but it can make its rules a little more just. The law can’t change hearts, but the law can lead.
“Years later, Dr. King wrote in his marvelous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” of the cost of waiting. “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.'” 3
I think sometimes we need to hear this gospel lesson so we can know that Jesus is more than talk. Jesus has the power to alter the way things are, Jesus can change the status quo.
Walter Wink has done a great deal of work exploring what unclean spirits and powers of evil meant and mean.
Paul writing about meat offered to idols says he can see the point of those who are superstitious about eating anything connected to the old gods they recently worshiped. But he himself shares the opinion of those who think that there are not such things as those gods to begin with, so their existence is not an issue in eating the meat– it is just meat. On the other hand as Paul continues, my eating such meat in front of someone who still has superstition about those gods might nudge them into doing something against their conscience. So Paul says he will give up eating the meat like that –but not because there are such things as pagan gods or demigods.
On the other hand, Paul writes in Ephesians 6, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
There are forces at work in my life and your life that are “superhuman” they are greater than any one of us. It is what is going on when decent people do terrible things because they are caught up in some immoral system? Call it “the system,” the spirit of the times. Racism, hatred, fear, panic– all can be powerful forces that have a transpersonal reality– they are bigger than an individual- they are principalities and powers.
You know people probably who are decent, responsible, and caring people until they get drunk. And then the restraints that keep ugly possibilities at bay break down and the demons get loose. Domestic violence, gambling away security of your family, road rage–addictions of every sort– it is as if something else has come in and taken control. Yanked the steering wheel out of your hand and you can’t fight away from this possession.
Matthew 10:28: And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
Our freedom is real, but we are never isolated. We are influenced and we are an influence. If we are good, there have been influences which helped you do right. If you have gone wrong there were influences that paved the detour from the straight path.
When we choose what is right, it is with God’s help, though the choice is ever our own. and in doing what is loving and right we become freer still.
When we chose what is wrong we become more tangled in web of lies, a slurry of confusion, less free, emptier, co-opted. Fear that which can destroy body and soul.
We cannot blame the Devil or our genetics for our mistakes. They may have helped tilt us in the wrong direction but they did not push us into it. When the serpent strikes up the conversation with Eve he directs her attention to other things than her duty. But he does not force the fruit into her hands or into her mouth.
If we are defeated we bear some responsibility.
But we may not be able alone to right the wrong, to regain our freedom.
It make take a lot of steps to get back to where life can be what it should again.
Maybe 12 steps is one way:
THE TWELVE STEPS OF ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
What a healthy balance of doing what we can and asking for God’s help for what is too much for us alone!
That “higher power”, we know it is personal. You can address that higher power. The God who comes close to us in Jesus is able to come closer still in the Spirit.
But David, do you believe in the devil or unclean spirits? Do you believe in the powers of evil? Are such powers personal?
I do not know how to speak of such things. They are hidden.
Karl Jung suggested that these dark possibilities are in fact the shadow of our own self. The shadow I could say of our freedom. For if you are free personally, then it is surely possible that you could do wrong with that very freedom. So that in you lies the seed of good and evil.
But sometimes it seems that that “evil urge”, as the Jews speak of it, is other than me– is something opposed to me, against me. And at that moment it is possible to speak of it as a foe, a force that is intentionally against me, attacking me.
Luther felt the devil trying to push him into despair and depression. He wrestled with those temptations and threw his ink well at the devil. But he wrote:
A mighty fortress is our God
a bulwark never failing;
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever…
Did not Jesus teach us to pray, “Deliver us from evil”? … or as the Greek says “from the evil one”
For thine is the power… the authority…
When the disciples were sent out Jesus gave them a message to preach, and the power to heal and cast out unclean spirits. They returned amazed and Jesus said, (Luke 10) “17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” 18 He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 4
Oh, the battle is on.
John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. (KJV)
I John 3:8 The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.
1 Peter 5:8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith,
Jesus said to his disciples before ascension, his life transcended earth– “all Power is given unto me (by the Father) all power in heaven and earth.
Therefore– Go into all the world making people into students of the way
And lo I am with you always.
Jesus has the power to command evil to let go of us, to come out of us, to come out of families and churches and communities, and let us be free.
Salvation is more than a word, it is a deed. Jesus heals the whole of who we are– body, mind and soul. The goal of Jesus is to redeem us not so much from punishment for sin but from the power of sin over us and in us.
In the epilogue to his book The Powers that Be, Walter Wink wrote: “The passion that drove the early Christians to evangelistic zeal was not fueled … by the desire to increase church membership or to usher people safely into a compensatory heaven after death. Their passion was fired above all by relief at being liberated from the delusions being spun over them by the Powers [and principalities]. Being thus freed determined them to set others free.”5
The passage in Mark’s gospel does not focus on the origin of demons or disease; or the spiritual or medical origins of demon possession and the presence of diseases but rather on the ability of Jesus to effect both conquest and cure. 6
Thanks be to God. Amen
1This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers
By Lillian Daniel, Martin B. Copenhaver, 98.
2“In our culture, if we don’t accomplish something in six months or a year we will often abandon it and move on. But Wilberforce relentlessly put this bill on the floor of Parliament — year, after year, after year for seventeen years. He fought for this thing until finally it was passed on February 23rd, 1807.Then he turned around and spent the next twenty-five years fighting for the abolition of slavery itself. British Parliament passed that bill in 1833 and then three days later Wilberforce died. Before his death, William Wilberforce heard that slavery was abolished.
3Mark Byrnes,” The Past Is Not Past,” blog, March 13, 2010.
4Barnes’ Notes on the Bible
I beheld Satan … – “Satan” here denotes evidently the prince of the devils who had been cast out by the seventy disciples, for the discourse was respecting their power over evil spirits. “Lightning” is an image of “rapidity” or “quickness.” I saw Satan fall “quickly” or rapidly – as quick as lightning. The phrase “from heaven” is to be referred to the lightning, and does not mean that he saw “Satan” fall “from heaven,” but that he fell as quick as lightning from heaven or from the clouds. The whole expression then may mean, “I saw at your command devils immediately depart, as quick as the flash of lightning. I gave you this power – I saw it put forth – and I give also now, in addition to this, the power to tread on serpents,” etc.
52 Walter Wink, The Powers that Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998)
6Gino Geraci 05/15/11