The beginning of Mark's gospel is almost frantic. It pulses with energy, right out of the gate. There's a rhythm, a heartbeat that propels the opening lines forward, sweeping us along. The speed of it is almost unbecoming, a little too energetic, and so most translations clean up Mark's Greek for us, slowing things down to a tempo more appropriate to what we expect out of God, the sort of reverential plodding we might assume is right for. But Mark's got a favorite Greek word that I don't think we gain by losing, even for the sake of good English and a more religious and respectful pace. The word is euthys, "immediately."
Immediately, Jesus rises out of the baptismal waters, and the Spirit descends; immediately he's "cast" into the wilderness; immediately he calls, immediately Simon and Andrew, James and John drop their nets and follow; immediately they enter the Capernaum synagogue; immediately there's a man with an impure spirit; immediately his fame grew everywhere; immediately they left for the next place.
From the moment Jesus steps onto the scene, into the Jordan River, he's on the move. Something is happening; a new kind of life, a new kind of energy has been launched into the world, and Mark wants to gather us into it, into this good, head-spinning and earth-shaking news. He grabs our hand and runs, like an excited kid in a candy shop, from one Jesus-defining moment to the next, following this new life, this new energy, saying: "Look at this, and this, and this! Come and see! Come and see!"
Immediately, immediately, immediately! There's no hesitation in this good-news-grace, there's no hemming and hawing about what's next, or who's worthy, or where would be a good place to set up the Kingdom of God ministry. This grace, this good news, is on the move; the heaven-tearing Spirit is blowing through, the kingdom of God is at hand, the time is now! Strap yourselves in, St. Mark says, 'cause this is going to be a wild ride.
Let's pray: Living God, open us up to the wonder of your presence, to the movement and energy of your grace. Catch us up, today, in your life-giving ways and means for this world. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight. In the powerful name of Jesus we pray: Amen!
So, at the beginning of today's reading, we're coasting along by sheer momentum. Jesus goes immediately into the synagogue and begins to teach. From the Sabbath day crowd you can hear the gasps and hums and laughter and grunts as Jesus speaks an uncommon word with even less common authority. It's clear from the peoples' breathless response that this is not a nicely polished sermon by a properly educated, seminary graduate. This is an earth shattering word, a wild truth that seems to spill out of Jesus. It's a word with authority.
Mark doesn't tell us what Jesus says, but we might make a reasonable guess: something like his first sermon in Matthew's gospel, I expect. Something like: blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Something like: you've heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I say, outdo each other in forgiveness; common sense tells you to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. He may have preached something like: don't save up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, but store up treasures in heaven by radical, unmitigated, even reckless generosity. He might have said something like: if you think badly of your neighbor--if you call them fool, or idiot, or "Trump supporter"--you're as guilty as if you'd killed them and deserving of the same punishment.
He might have said something like: be careful that you don't get so good at religion, or social justice, or whatever you think it is that will save the world that you can comfortably ignore the One who made it all and promises to redeem it all, 'cause that's going to end badly. He might have said something like: it's gonna be hard for rich folks to get into heaven; God might be able to do it, but it'll be a miracle. He might have said something like: the Way of God is a narrow way; it doesn't look much like Easy Street--you're going to want hiking boots, not dress shoes. He might have said something like: when the time comes, you can more or less expect to be judged the way you judge others.
Or maybe it was more like the first sermon we hear in Luke: The Spirit of the Lord is upon to me to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed--and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, which (as you all know) means a radical redistribution of basically everything that keeps us radically separated from one another. The word of the Lord, thanks be to God.
And suddenly, immediately, you can hear the record scratch or the brakes squeal, and while most of us sit with our mouths open, either in wonder or shock, at what he's saying, the whole thing grinds to a halt when some guy at the back has the guts to shout out what we've all been thinking: "What are you doing, Jesus? Are you here to destroy us?"
I think it's curious that this guy, who disrupts Jesus' sermon, doesn't seem to have anything obviously wrong with him. Clearly he's been admitted into the religious life of the community, which means he doesn't have an obvious physical or psychological problem, like most of Jesus' healings. He's not leprous or crippled or out of his mind. Unless we're missing a detail, it seems that the spirit that's held him captive has been quite content to keep silent, to keep the confinement from the rest of the congregation. This is an otherwise private and quiet confinement. Nobody else seems to know about it. (St. Peter suggests that this is evil's favorite strategy: The devil, the Accuser, prowls like a lion, and the lion's trick is to isolate his prey from the pack, so he can attack.)
It takes the authoritative word of God to roust the man's impure spirit into self-protective action. Even the demons recognize Jesus, St. James reminds us: that's not the special privilege of the pious and pure; it's just that the demons have the good sense to tremble--and that seems to be what we're seeing.
Now, I'm a good, born and bred, United Church kid, so I don't claim to know much about exorcisms. Not a lot of them happened in my childhood churches. I don't have any particular problem with the idea; the gospel writers certainly didn't, and not because they were poor, unscientific souls who didn't know any better, but at least because they recognized a brokenness in the world that can't be explained by just people behaving badly. So, I don't know much about exorcisms, but I recognize the cry that comes from the back of the congregation, immediately, when Jesus' authoritative word lands. And I recognize it not because I've heard it, or something like it, lots of times in churches (which is true), but because I've felt it in my own heart. Biblically speaking, impurity, uncleanness, which defines the spirit that is holding holding the man captive, is simply opposition to the will and way of God in the world. Blessed are the pure of heart for they will see God. The impure heart will have a rather different response, Jesus seems to suggest.
Here's a remarkable thing, which I think might have something to do with why Mark puts this story right at the beginning of his gospel. It's precisely the voicing of this opposition, in Jesus' presence, that leads to healing. Maybe, this story is a bit of grace, right at the beginning, just after we watched Simon and Andrew and James and John heroically drop their nets, leave everything behind--security, family, a more or less certain future, left lying on the beach--so that they could follow Jesus. Perhaps Mark knows that most of us are not much like the fishermen brothers who drop their nets immediately and follow this One who is completely strange. Perhaps Mark knows that our natural inclination is to grind to a halt when Jesus says the sorts of things he's in the habit of saying and does the sorts of things he's in the habit of doing, in our midst.
I don't want to suggest that we are demon-possessed. But I don't know any Christians, with a modicum of self-awareness, who don't recognize what, for instance, St. Paul's going on about when he admits to the Roman congregations that, as often as not, he doesn't do what he should and does do what he shouldn't. I mean, he's working on it--he's not promoting this as a standard--but even Paul seems to struggle against something he can't quite explain. When I want to do good, evil always seems to be close at hand, he confesses and wonders, deeply and candidly. Elsewhere he says, Our struggle isn't against flesh and blood, but against a different kind of power--a spiritual power that requires a kind of spiritual armour. Even the ones who drop their nets immediately, and follow after Jesus without hesitation, turn out not to be not quite as on board with Jesus' holy ways and means.
And it's hard to imagine that anyone who's lived very long in the world, and gotten familiar, even comfortable with its ways, can hear Jesus, can meet Jesus, can feel Jesus' Spirit coursing in and around us, and not wonder, at least sometimes, (aloud or in the silence of our hearts), what on earth he's doing, if he's not trying to destroy us. When he shows up and demands our lives, our stuff, our time; when he says, Come, follow me, and starts walking off in an entirely different direction that we were quite happily heading; it can be hard not to wonder why he would do that to us. When he tells us to surrender our pride for the sake of love, or the hard-earned fruits of our labor for the sake of justice and generosity, or our self-sufficiency for the sake of mutual and holy dependence, it's not uncommon for some part of us to question his authority to say these things, let alone call us to do these things. It's not uncommon to become self-protective in the face of God's intrusive word.
And so, the story that has been moving at breakneck speed grinds to a halt as the voice cries out, "What do you have to do with us, Jesus, Holy One of God; are you here to destroy us?" And if the popular caricature is true, the answer is yes. Isn't that what's supposed to happen to folks who step out of line? If the caricature is true, we can expect a holy smiting of this rebellious and impure one.
But that's not what we see. The Good News Train, that seemed to be moving unstoppably, doesn't run, full-speed and indifferent, over the challenge. Instead, Jesus stops, mid-teaching, at takes authority over the spirit that's binding the man, this power that is keeping him from knowing the life that God wants for him, this power that is robbing him of the freedom to follow, to be bound to the One whose desire for him and for all things is life that is truly life--life abundant and beautiful. Jesus' authority is grace. His authority is not shown in a hostile takeover; it's not shown in swift punishment of the rebellious and impure. Jesus' authority is revealed in perfect freedom from the things that hold us captive.
And whatever language we want to use for those things, whether they're spiritual battles or we prefer more socially acceptable terms, we've all got them. If you've ever sat in church and thought "I'm the only one who struggles with..." or "If anyone knew..." rest assured that's a lie: you are safely among a bunch of people regularly fall short of the glory of God, and are saved by grace alone. Our sins and rebellion are never quite as interesting as we tend to think they are; they're never as powerful as we give them credit for. But we do need freedom from them, if we'll be fully what we're made and called to be. If you're struggling with something, talk to me or someone you trust; let's pray together; let's trust that Jesus can overcome the things that keep us tied up and weighed down.
If you don't feel like you're struggling with anything, why not take a risk and pray, and ask if there's anything that is keeping you silently bound, something you need freedom from in order to walk more fully, and freely, in Jesus' way?
And, of course, that process may not feel immediately great--Mark gives a pretty vivid image of what it can be like when that stuff comes out of us, what with the convulsing and shouting. A heart transplant is quite invasive surgery. But Mark seems to want to show us that it's worth it.
It's right that the story ends in amazement, with Jesus' name spreading all over Galilee. Because it is amazing. It's amazing that our rebellions and impurities are no match for Jesus, strong as they may seem. It's amazing that we can come into his presence bound, and leave free; that we can come to him with heavy burdens, and find the rest our souls need; it's amazing that he uses his authority not to destroy us in our imperfection, but to destroy the things that keep us from living and moving in the rhythms of unstoppable grace; he uses his authority to restore us to the hope, peace, joy, and love that we're made for; he uses his authority to call us, to set us free for life not angels or demons, nothing in heaven, earth, or hell--not even death!--can destroy.
When the Son sets us free, we are free indeed.
Thanks be to God.