A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock
[Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28]
Bev’s father (God rest him) was a man who liked to be in control. As with many of us, he liked it when life worked according to plan, which is to say according to his expectations and facilitating efforts. (I’ve read about people like this!). So it always caused me to chuckle when, in a situation that had more disorder to it than planned order, he would in a matter-of-fact-kind-of-way offer this revealing existential wisdom: “When in doubt, read the instructions.”
When Jesus was just beginning his public ministry, he and his disciples made their way to Capernaum, a large village on the Sea of Galilee that was soon to be Jesus’ “home office” and base camp of his emerging movement. According to St. Mark’s gospel, at Friday night’s sun set, the sabbath began; and Jesus (good Jew that he was) went to the village synagogue, where he (it turns out) had come to worship and teach. And thus, it seems to me, is the story of this morning’s gospel lesson. Jesus had read the instructions and knew what they were for and what they were about, which undoubtedly caused the people in the synagogue to say that he spoke with authority. Members of the Capernaum congregation were astounded by what they heard from Jesus because what he said had integrity. It came from his own understanding , which in turn came from his own commitment to living the words he spoke. In fact, Jesus embodied those words. The people rightly sensed that Jesus’ words were not a function of how well-read he was or what seminary he trained at or what impressive positions he had held. No, Jesus’ words and his message came from his faith in God’s faithfulness. He preached and taught with authority. This is to say that Jesus gave voice to the Author of life -- God.
The people listening to Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue were “astounded” by his teaching because in them they experienced the transforming integrity of a faith that is lived and known. Yet, before the congregation had a chance to line up to shake the young rabbi’s hand and say, “Nice sermon, Rabbi!”, something more than words occurred. Mark tells us that a man with “an unclean spirit” wandered into the worship space; and in this state of possession he cried out: “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.”1
You know what happened next. Mark tells us that Jesus “rebuked” the demon and told him to keep quiet and to release the man. Convulsing with agitation and spasms, the “unclean spirit” bowed to Jesus’ authority and left the man. Stunned by such a demonstration of authoritative power and healing, the congregation wondered aloud, “What is this? A new teaching that does what it preaches?”2
To this piercing question, the answer lies in my father-in-law’s quip about reading the instructions. In a very real sense, Jesus not only knows the instructions; he is the instructions. And his actions in casting out the “demon” – that destructive power of possession that works against what God has created – Jesus’ healing actions are direct epiphanies of the will of God and what life looks like with God. As such, this was not a new teaching. Nevertheless, it was an old teaching that was now ready to blossom in new and surprising ways. And Jesus was that blossoming.
In terms of “demons” and public healings, folks like us usually tend either to glaze over these events or pitifully reject such things as “superstitions”. But as I mentioned at the outset of this sermon, Jesus has read the instructions. He is the embodiment of the instructions; and as such he has the Author’s authority to put the will of God into action. Jesus’ healings restore life, which clearly entails (as the Baptismal Covenant says) liberation from all separating powers “that draw us from the love of God”.3
You see, the issue of “demons” is really about being possessed when God, who is the Source of all life, is removed from the life-equation. When the center is vacated, all manner of things rush in to fill the void that is created. And beside the fact that each “God-substitute” promises a shortcut around life’s challenges, none of the shortcuts work! Yet, the impact of inviting them in does much more than leave a mark.
The historical fact is that the many gospel stories about Jesus and his public acts of healing are the main reason crowds flock to be in his presence. The fact that Jesus was a healer of human brokenness drew crowds that followed him around and grew to unexpected – and ultimately to threatening -- levels.
And to the worshippers’ question, “What is this? A new teaching?”, as I have already said, the answer is “no”. It is not a new teaching but rather an old and promised teaching of Exodus, of deliverance and liberation from everything that enslaves God’s beloved. However, what is new about this Exodus reality is that in Jesus God’s Exodus is manifest not simply to one tribe of people, facing one expression of enslavement. Rather, in Jesus this new life is granted to all God’s people, delivering us all from the destructive possession of fear and death. Hence the reason in our worship we shout: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!” The healings that the Lord does act as windows into heaven, revealing what life with God is like and what our life with God is meant to be: Whole and healthy.
Two things in closing.
The first is that there is an important difference between being healed and being cured. Yes, the two are deeply related, but they are not the same. Being cured is about a remedy. Being healed is about being restored. While I may desire a cure to what ails me or threatens those I love, being restored entails a “larger” issue: being restored to God and the life the Holy One gives. Restoration to Communion with God may or may not include a cure, but it always entails new life.
And now the second closing item. The distinction between healing and cure is, I think, the reason Jesus tells those who have been healed not to tell anyone about who did it. The risk in breaking this confidence is that people being people will tend to focus on the celebrity who fostered the cure and miss the overarching fact that the renewed wholeness of life with God is the true gift: therefore, nothing can separate us from the life and love of God – not even lacking a remedy.
I think the point of this gospel text can be summarized by the saying: “Keep the main thing the main thing.” And the main thing is always life with God, which we call Communion. Amen.
1. Mark 1:24
2. The Message. Mark 1:27
3. Book of Common Prayer. Holy Baptism, p. 302