The text for this sermon is Mark 1:21-28. Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on February 1, 2009, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany.
Dear Friends in Christ,
So, this is Super Bowl Sunday and many of us will be perched in front of our television screens tonight to watch the much anticipated battle between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals. Its entertainment, the outcome bestows bragging rights, some will benefit financially, and whoever the winner is, it will not personally affect any of us here in a long-lasting way.
Now contrast the Super Bowl battle with the battle that was described in today’s gospel reading: the battle between Jesus and the forces of evil. The battle that does and will affect each and every one of us personally, in this life and the next. Want to talk about a Super Bowl that matters; now we have something to talk about.
The story of Jesus’ encounter with the forces of evil comes at the beginning of his ministry. In Mark’s Gospel we have read of his baptism and the words he heard from God, “You are my Son; in you I am well pleased.” We read of his temptation in the wilderness by Satan. We read how we called his disciples. And the very next thing we read in Mark is what Jesus did on the Sabbath Day: he went to the synagogue, as was his regular and weekly custom. He was asked to not only read the scripture, but to also teach the worshippers. It is here in this setting that Jesus first reveals who he really is and publicly demonstrates his divine authority.
Mark would have made a fine movie director. He sets up his telling of this story from Jesus life in a way that we see it from 3 different angles: Jesus view, the view of the people in the synagogue that day, and the view of the evil spirits.
Jesus simply did that day what came naturally to him. He spoke God’s words to them. We aren’t told what he said. Oh, I wish we had those words. What we do have is the reaction of the people who were listening. Mark tells us “they were amazed.” Why? Because he taught them as one who had authority and not in the way their usual teachers taught them. I’ve pondered what that means. Here’s what I believe. The scribes or teachers of the law quoted others, usually prophets of old, especially Moses, and well-respected rabbis. Jesus did it differently. He said, “I say to you.” All the other teachers would say to the people things like “go and offer a sacrifice at the temple in order to have your sins forgiven,” but Jesus said to the people directly, “Your sins are forgiven.” The rabbis all encouraged the people to believe in God. Jesus said, “Believe in God, believe also in me.” The Greek word that Mark uses for “authority,” telling us that Jesus spoke with authority, means “out from himself.” Jesus’ teaching comes from out of his own self, and is not dependent on human beings. The gospel writer Mark very much wants us to recognize in his first chapter that Jesus was not an ordinary human being but instead is a superhuman being. He indeed is the Son of God, the one who has come to rescue the human family from the demonic forces that want to enslave us.
Now comes the battle. In the middle of his teaching, a man in the synagogue, possessed by an evil spirit, cries out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” And Mark records what Jesus did. He said, “Be quiet! Come out of him!” And the evil spirit shook the man violently and came out with a shriek.
Isn’t it interesting that of all the folks in the synagogue that day, the first and maybe only one to recognize who Jesus really is was the demon-possessed man. He calls him “the Holy One of God.” He knew he was divine and is rightly afraid. And we get our first glimpse in the ministry of Jesus what authority and power God wanted him to have.
We also first encounter a rather sad theme that runs through Mark’s gospel. Generally, the people did not recognize who Jesus really is. As the gospel of Mark unfolds, you’ll see that many people came out to see Jesus, but many simply wanted to see a popular faith healer in action. They were so slow to realize who was in their midst.
Let’s take a closer look at what was going on in the synagogue that day. The first thing to notice is that the man did not burst into the synagogue, disrupting the service. Mark tells us that this was a man within the synagogue, probably a respected lay person and a productive member of society. The synagogue leaders would not permit any other kind. A second thing to notice is that this man’s affliction is only identified an evil spirit. The demon is not tied to any sickness. What then was this demon doing to this man? We cannot say for sure but I would suggest that the demon’s influence in this case could have been a moral one. I don’t know what moral issue this man had but it was tearing him up. What do you think it was? You pick one: a demon of hate, revenge, perverted sex, unbridled lust for power, uncontrolled greed, distorted ambition, fear guilt, envy, and jealousy. Or perhaps it was the demon of lust, negativism, slander deceit, revenge, greed, gossip. Which one? These demons are all around us and uncontrolled, these demons will destroy life.
A third thing to notice is that this man had given authority to this demon. He was possessed. The demon had gained control and he had lost control. The demon, speaking in the plural, confronts Jesus: “What do you want to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth. Do you want to destroy us?” Folks, the overwhelming answer that Jesus gives over and over in the Gospel of Mark is “Yes! I have come to destroy sin, death and the power of the devil!”
One Bible scholar has noted that the Gospel of Mark, the very first gospel account written, seems to have been written as training material for early Christian evangelists. There are two main thrusts in this gospel: Who is Jesus and How Should We Respond to Jesus? This is the year of Mark, so 90% of the gospel readings this entire year will be taken from Mark. We’ll read the first 8 chapters that show Jesus doing so many miracles, including lots of healings. At some point though, we will be reading the last 8 chapters of Mark that emphasizes another message. It is the section that speaks about our response. It is the story of Christ’s passion. Even though he has all authority and power in heaven and on earth, Jesus Christ humbles himself and becomes obedient to God, even to dying on the cross.
Modern day Jews continue to have real problems with Jesus. They do not understand why we think he is anything more than a prophet. Jacob Neusner is a preeminent scholar on first-century Judaism. He has written more than 500 books on this subject. One of his books is entitled “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.” He calls it his “inter-millennial interfaith exchange.” In the book, Neusner engages the Jesus he finds in the Gospels in a conversation about matters of Jewish faith and practice. And while there is much he respects and admires about Jesus, says that point of his personal separation would come in what we heard today – Jesus’ separation from tradition. He understands that Jesus spoke “on his own say-so, and not out of the teachings of the Torah.” He understands that Jesus saw himself “as Moses or as more than Moses.” He understands that Jesus taught as one having authority, and not as one deriving his authority from another. And this is where Neusner says that Jesus has crossed a critical line. He calls what Jesus says “blasphemous.” “When Jesus speaks on his own authority, he is putting himself on the level of God.”
Dear friends in Christ, this Jewish rabbi has understood it very well. This is what Christians believe and teach. It is our faith. Jesus is God.