Who Is This? (sermon on Mark 1.21-28)

Tom Wright begins his commentary on today’s gospel with this story:

Not long ago there was a great disaster at sea. A tourist boat, loaded with cars and holidaymakers, had failed to shut its doors properly; the water began to pour in; the boat began to sink, and panic set in. People were screaming as the happy, relaxed atmosphere of the ship turned in minutes into something worse than a horror movie.

All at once one man – not a member of the crew – took charge. In a clear voice he gave orders, telling people what to do. Relief mixed with the panic as people realised someone at least was in charge, and many managed to reach lifeboats they would otherwise have missed in the dark and the rush. The man himself made his way down to the people trapped in the hold. There he formed a human bridge; holding on with one hand to a ladder and with the other to part of the ship that was nearly submerged, he enabled still more to cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned. He had literally given his life in using the authority he had assumed – the authority by which many had been saved.

Our gospel reading for today is all about the authority of Jesus. Like the man in Tom Wright’s story, he wasn’t ‘a member of the crew’ – in other words, he hadn’t been properly educated by the rabbis, and he had no formal position of authority in the recognised religious structures of the day. Today we might say that Jesus was a layman and was never ordained as a priest. And yet, as Mark tells his story, we get the picture of Jesus as a man whose words have unusual authority, not just in teaching, but also in confronting the forces of evil.

We all instinctively yearn for this, because sooner or later all of us begin to get the sinking feeling that our lives are out of control. We’ve been going along quite nicely, thank you very much, proceeding with our plans for our career and our family and our retirement, but then life throws something completely unexpected in our direction. Suddenly the global economy goes into free fall, and the investments we were relying on for a comfortable retirement lose a huge amount of their value. Or, just as it looks as if our plans are shaping up, a visit to a doctor reveals the unpleasant truth that we’ve got a serious, perhaps life-threatening illness. Months of unpleasant treatments lie ahead, and even after that the outcome is not guaranteed.

‘Forces beyond our control’ – that’s the phrase that so often is used. Reporters ask the chairman of the board of the corporation why they’ve had to lay off so many workers. “It’s the global markets”, he replies; “We’re subject to forces beyond our control”. Governments pass stimulus packages, hoping that something can turn the ship around, but even then there’s no guarantee that it will work. This is bigger than one human being, even if that human being happens to be the president of the most powerful country on earth.

That’s what Mark’s story is about today. People are used to human impotence in the face of the forces of evil, but suddenly, to everyone’s astonishment, a man strides onto the stage and begins to say and do things that they thought no mere human being could say or do, and the forces of evil have to sit up and take notice of him. Who is this man? That’s the question Mark wants us to consider.

Let’s remind ourselves of the context. Jesus has come back from his first struggle with the devil when he was tempted in the wilderness. He’s begun to announce the message that the kingdom of God has come near – in other words, God is taking authority again in his world and confronting the dark powers that have enslaved his creation. Jesus has called his first disciples to follow him, promising that he will make them fish for people. Now it’s the Sabbath day, and as loyal Jews and worshippers of the God of Israel, it’s natural for Jesus and his followers to go to the weekly service at the synagogue.

In the synagogue Jesus begins to teach. We’re not told how that came about. The synagogue was governed by elders, and it was their responsibility to make sure someone was there to interpret the scriptures for the congregation. On a similar occasion Luke tells us that Jesus was invited to come forward and read a passage from the scriptures and explain it to the people; we can perhaps assume that something like that happened here.

But when Jesus begins to speak, the crowd notices right away something very different about his teaching: ‘for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ (v.22). We can perhaps guess what that means. It was the custom for the scribes to appeal to other authorities when they were explaining the scriptures to the people. “Rabbi so-and-so says this about the text; Rabbi such-and-such disagrees with him and takes this line…” and so on. I believe this is still true today in orthodox Judaism; when rabbis are teaching from the Talmud they will often appeal to the writings of great scholars from years gone by.

But we remember from the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus didn’t teach like that. The formula he sometimes used was, ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you’. In other words, if he thought that the interpretations of previous generations were wrong, he wasn’t shy about saying so, and he felt no need to back up his opinions by appealing to a higher authority. He simply stated the truth as he saw it: ‘This is the way it is; end of the story’.

We can imagine that some people were offended by this, and were thinking to themselves, “Who does this man think he is? Where did he get these big ideas about himself?” But just as they were starting to ask themselves this question, something dramatic happened. Look at verses 23-26:

‘Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and 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” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him”. And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him’.

What are we to make of this story? All of Jesus’ contemporaries would have accepted without question the existence of the Devil and of lesser evil spirits, sometimes referred to as demons; Mark here refers to an ‘unclean spirit’. Indeed, all of the writers of the New Testament assume this belief – that, behind all of the evil in the world, there is a powerful and malevolent force which is in rebellion against God, and is determined to impose its will on human beings and use them for its evil purposes. Jesus simply takes this for granted and acts accordingly, and so do the other New Testament authors.

Modern people are more sceptical about this; they tend to see it as a superstitious holdover from a pre-scientific age. According to this way of thinking, ancient people believed that mental illnesses and diseases were caused by demons, but nowadays we know that they are caused by germs and by childhood traumas. So a modern interpreter of this story is more likely to see this man as suffering from some sort of mental illness, and Jesus as being somehow able to reach into his tortured psyche and bring him some healing.

I want to say quite clearly that this is not my view. I think that if the Lord and his apostles accepted the existence of unclean spirits and acted accordingly, then I have no reason to disbelieve. Furthermore, without going into details, I’ll simply say that I’ve seen enough in my thirty years of pastoral experience to know that, as Shakespeare says in Hamlet, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, then are dreamt in your philosophy’. Interestingly enough, at least one modern psychiatrist, Dr. Scott Peck, also believes this; in his book The People of the Lie he fully accepts the traditional belief in evil forces and even in exorcism, and he defends this belief from the point of view of a practising psychiatrist.

However, even if we follow the path of modern interpretation and see this as a confrontation with a mental illness, what is happening in this passage is truly amazing. Most doctors, when confronting some mental illness such as Multiple Personality Disorder, have to spend long hours in counselling sessions over periods of months and years to even begin to bring some healing to these troubled souls. But Jesus simply speaks a word of power, the man goes into convulsions, and then he’s at peace. So even if we take the modern line of interpretation that this is mental illness of some kind, the question still remains: ‘Who is this? Who is this who has the power to bring healing to these suffering people with just a word?’

And this is exactly the question Mark wants us to ask. Modern readers of this passage tend to fixate on the question of whether or not evil spirits exist, but ancient readers wouldn’t have done so – to them, there was no question about it. To them, the emphasis would have been on the authority of Jesus, and Mark emphasises this by using the word ‘authority’ twice in the text: Jesus’ teaching is authoritative, and so is his confrontation with the forces of evil.

What exactly is that authority? Today we live in a pluralistic age and a lot of people would much prefer us to reduce Jesus to the level of just an ordinary human teacher. Many human beings have founded great world religions, and Jesus is just another one like them – very wise and good, no doubt, but still just a human being.

But the point that Mark is trying to make for us in the first half of his gospel is precisely the opposite: Jesus is doing things that no other man could do. Whether or not he has the right to do so – and of course, that’s a controversial issue for his first hearers, just as it is for us today – he’s teaching people directly with the authority of God, rather than appealing to human authorities to back up his opinion. But just as people are asking themselves who he thinks he is, he shows by his easy victory over the unclean spirit that this is not just empty chatter: he has real power, a power of the sort his hearers have never seen before.

Mark is painting us a picture of the strong Son of God, God’s anointed king, who is boldly walking into a world full of lies and evil, speaking the truth and setting people free. He can do things no one else can do, because he isn’t just like anyone else. The unclean spirit is actually telling us the truth for once: this is the Holy One of God, God’s anointed servant, the Son of God himself. This isn’t just another religious philosopher giving us timeless religious wisdom on the same level as the others who came before him and after him. What is happening in Jesus is unique, and the further Mark gets on with his story, the more we’re going to realise that we are called on to give some sort of response to this man. Who do we think he is? And what are we going to do about it?

Which of course is where it gets personal for you and me. Apparently the unclean spirit had no choice in the matter: Jesus wanted to set a suffering human being free, and his authority was so strong that when he spoke a word of command, it had to come out of the man. But God in his infinite grace and mercy has given you and me a choice. God has no desire for us to obey him out of compulsion; he wants us to freely surrender our will to him, because we love him and trust him for ourselves. And so the strong Son of God gives us a genuine choice in the matter. In last week’s gospel reading we read about him coming into Galilee, announcing the good news of the kingdom and inviting people to turn away from their sins, to believe in him, and to follow him. Whether or not people respond is up to them.

So this is the challenge Mark is bringing to us: who do we think Jesus is? We’ve already seen him casting out an evil spirit with a word; as we go on in Mark’s story we’re going to watch as he heals people of all kinds of diseases – as he claims to be able to forgive a man’s sins and then backs up the claim by raising him from a bed of paralysis – as he calms a huge storm on a lake simply by speaking a word – as he raises a little girl from the dead. In each instance the hearers ask the question, ‘Who is this man?’

Mark is asking us, ‘Do you think an ordinary man can do things like this? And if not, who is this man? I’ll tell you who he is – he’s the Son of God, the Messiah, the one whom God has sent to be the true King, and he’s calling people everywhere to turn away from their previous allegiances and follow him as their Saviour and Lord’.

This is nothing new for us Anglicans, of course; we hear it every time we have a baptism service. The baptismal candidates are asked, ‘Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?’ In each case, they reply, ‘I renounce them’. They are then invited to affirm their faith in Jesus and their commitment to him: ‘Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to obey him as your Lord?’ and in each case they reply, ‘I do’.

 This is our baptismal commitment to Jesus. We are those who have renounced the powers of evil, accepted the Christian teaching that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus, and committed ourselves to following him and obeying him as not only the Lord of all, but our Lord as well. So as we listen to this gospel reading that underlines the authority of Jesus in such a dramatic way, let’s renew our own commitment to joyfully submit to his authority and to follow him as his disciples day by day.


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