Preached on 28 January 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
The very first action of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark’s gospel is nothing less than battle.
Jesus, on whom the Holy Spirit descended at his baptism just a few verses earlier, battles the unclean spirit that has hold of a man who shows up at the synagogue on the Sabbath and interrupts Jesus as he is teaching.
The spirit knows exactly who Jesus is, even as the people gathered are murmuring amongst themselves, “who is this who speaks with such authority? What is this new teaching?” By contrast, the spirit shouts,
“I know who you are; You are the Holy One of God. You have come to destroy us.”
In this one scene, Mark lays out his central message and many of the themes we will see again and again throughout the gospel. In Jesus, the Holy One of God, the kingdom of God is breaking through. It is breaking through every barrier: heaven and earth, clean and unclean, holy and unholy in order to do battle for us.
This battle is not for land or power, but for the soul. This particular battle takes place in the synagogue in a land under foreign occupation. On the one hand, the Romans may be tolerant, but on the other hand, they don’t hesitate to let the people know that they can crush any who oppose them. Mark is writing this right about the time of the great Revolt, possibly right before the destruction of the Temple. Those reading it have probably already seen that destruction.
Jesus crosses the boundary between clean and unclean. God goes where no one wants to go in order to do battle for this person’s well-being. And he is restored to himself – freed from the unclean spirit. He is restored to his family and to his community; no longer excluded because of his impurity.
The Romans may be powerful, but they can’t do that. They have no authority over spirits of any kind.
We will see these themes throughout Mark’s gospel – boundary-crossing, purity, restoration. We will see Jesus casting out demons, breaking through every kind of barrier and wall his culture or the world may try to put up, restoring people to themselves to wholeness and dignity, restoring them to their families and communities.
The battle is not about power and money and territory but about the health and wholeness of all of God’s living Creation.
This story reminds us that this battle, like all battles, all wars, takes place on human bodies. The man convulses as the spirit goes out of him with a shout. Whether the battle is against drugs or for political power or about global corporations battling for higher profits and market shares; whether the battles are over political issues from immigration to education to health care to environmental regulation to taxes; these battles are all waged on human bodies. Not to mention the countless battles waged around the world with guns and bombs.
God cares about every single one of those bodies. Jesus came to do battle with all the forces of evil for the well-being of every human being.
The battle in today’s gospel is with an “unclean spirit” over a man who comes into the synagogue while Jesus is teaching. Now “unclean spirit” is pretty vague and I don’t know that it’s helpful to try to dig into it and try to diagnose what actually ails the man. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
We do know something about cleanliness, however. As a society we are obsessed with it. Go to the grocery store and you will find aisles of cleaning products for every imaginable purpose. Think about how many appliances and other tools you own whose purpose is to clean something. We even clean things that aren’t dirty! I wonder what drives us?
Then there’s the flip side – how we respond to what we consider “dirty.” Are we willing to reach across that boundary as Jesus does? Do we see them as less worthy of God’s love? And are we worried that we will be contaminated and thus become less worthy? When I say it out loud like that, it probably sounds silly. And sometimes that’s what it takes to overcome our fears and biases.
I wonder if we equate physically dirty with spiritually unclean? What might we call an unclean spirit today? What are the things that destroy our spirit? That keep us from God and one another? That prevent us from becoming our true, best selves? What would it mean for us as a society or even as a community of faith to have an unclean spirit?
So, how is your worth measured?
It’s not cleanliness
It’s not now much you consume or possess.
It’s not how much you produce or how much money you make.
It’s not how smart you are or what you know or how ignorant you are.
It’s not how powerful you are or what you can get away with.
It’s not your athletic ability or age or youth or good looks or nice clothes.
It’s not even how many people love you or admire you.
No, your worth is measured by God’s love.
The Good News is that you are worthy because you are God’s beloved child and God’s deepest desire is your well-being and wholeness.
And anytime an “unclean spirit” tells you otherwise, makes you feel less, tries to destroy your spirit, you can remember that central Truth and be restored to yourself. You are God’s beloved child.