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The book of Mark is the first full book of the Bible I ever read. I read it during an Easter service when I was maybe 10 years old. Easter services can get kind of long for a 10-year old, and my parents had recently banned the practice of trying to turn every page in the hymnal during the service. I don’t know why I picked the book of Mark, but it just happened to be the only Gospel that I could have read in that short amount of time. Because Mark is the shortest of the Gospels. When you compare it to the other Gospels, Mark looks less like the full story and more like an outline.
It’s a bare bones Gospel. In the book of Matthew, after Jesus had been fasting in the wilderness for forty days Satan tempts him. Three times, once with the bread, once at the Temple, and once on a mountaintop, Satan tries to tempt Jesus and Jesus responds with Scripture. In the book of Mark, that whole story takes less about three words, “tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12). Mark keeps it short. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole lot for us to read in it. It just means that in order to understand it, you have to pay attention. When you read the book of Mark, you’ve got to notice the geography, you’ve got to notice who is an insider and who is an outsider, and you’ve got to pay attention to sandwiches.
I like to tease my Dad a little bit about how he’ll make a sandwich out of anything. If there’s bread on his plate, he’s bound to put something inside it. The author of Mark is the same way. The author of Mark loves to make sandwiches out of the stories.
Mark makes sandwiches by setting up parallels in his story that make a symmetric structure. There’s a parallel between how the story begins, and how the story ends. There’s a parallel between what happens next and what happens next-to-last, and so on. In academic circles, they call these chiasms. But it’s easier for me to just think of them as sandwiches. And like any good sandwich, the different layers complement each other and bring out the significance of the other parts.
Our passage for today is about as good of an example of this kind of thing as it gets. At the beginning of the story, Jesus came into Capernaum to teach. At the end of the story, the report of his teaching goes out to Galilee. The next thing that happens is that they are all amazed at his teaching with authority. The next to last thing that happens is that they are all amazed that he commanded the unclean spirit with authority. The third thing that happens is that a man with an unclean spirit cries out at him. The third-to-last thing that happens is that the unclean spirit comes out with a loud cry. And then in the very middle, the meat or veggie patty at the heart of the sandwich, there is this encounter between Jesus and the unclean Spirit.
The unclean spirit cries out, “What of us and you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the holy one of God.”
And Jesus says, “Be silent. Come out of him.” That’s the heart of the story.
By setting this story of exorcism inside the sandwich of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue with authority, Mark is using the story of Jesus exorcising the unclean spirit to introduce the primary conflict of the Gospel. Jesus is bringing a new teaching, with power and authority. And that new teaching is going to put him into conflict with the old order. The conflict between Jesus and the man with the unclean spirit is meant to reflect the coming conflict between Jesus and the scribes.
In that conflict, the unclean spirit cries out to Jesus. It says, “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” It’s interesting that the unclean spirit uses the word “us.” The unclean spirit is assuming, or perhaps trying to get others to assume, that it is united with the man it possesses. The unclean spirit puts the man it possesses and itself on the same side. The spirit is implying that a threat to one is a threat to the other. “Have you come to destroy us?” it says. To attack me, it seems to be implying, is to attack the man here. The implication is that this is not so much an unclean spirit, but an unclean man, and the only way to stop it will be to destroy them both.
But Jesus doesn’t buy it. Jesus separates them. He does not treat them as one, but as two distinct entities. He does not conflate the man with the evil that possesses him. “Be silent,” he says to it. “Come out of him.” Both in the singular. What Jesus sees is that there is a distinction between the demon that possesses and the one possessed. When evil takes hold of a man, Jesus does not destroy the man. He destroys the evil. And in doing so, he liberates the man, raising him up to new life.
There are debates about what demon possession in the Bible really was. Were there demons walking around then, and are they still walking around? Or is the better explanation something medical, like epilepsy or mental illness. To be honest, I don’t have any idea. The goal isn’t to figure out how to impose our modern understandings on to the biblical text. The goal is to figure out how to impose a biblical understanding on our modern lives.
Whether depression and mental illness were the demons of Jesus day, they certainly can be demons in ours. There is no doubt in my mind that we can be possessed by a spirit that leads us to damage ourselves and others. The voice inside you that tells you lies to make you feel bad about yourself: that you are not good enough, that no one really likes you, that what you do does not matter. The inability to express emotion as anything other than anger.
And what Jesus does in a situation like this, is he refuses to conflate the person with the spirit that possesses them. Jesus has the ability and the authority to draw out the wrongness from us, to redeem the damage in us, and to free us from the damage we might do. At its very heart, that is the good news of the Gospel.
I’ve told you that Mark makes sandwiches so that each part of the story can help to interpret the other. Mark is setting up this conflict between Jesus and the scribes, using the possessed man to help us understand its nature. There is a fundamental conflict between the new teaching and authority that Jesus is bringing and the authority of the world represented by the scribes. But just like the unclean spirit and the man, the conflict between Jesus and the scribes is not a zero-sum game, where one must be destroyed for the other to survive. The system is not the scribes, and the scribes are not the system. It is a case of possession, in which a group of people were caught up in a system that delivers cruel results. Jesus has not come to destroy but to draw out the spirit that leads to destruction.
Conflict is inevitable. The famous preacher William Sloane Coffin once said that Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not to never make any. And in many ways, like in Christ involves choosing conflict when it would be easier to avoid it. But the key to this, is to remember that whether that conflict is within us or between us and our brothers, there is a difference between the person and the disease.