Read Mark 1:21-28
The title of today’s sermon is “I Want to Break Free.” It’s the title of a song by the band Queen. They wrote this song because they felt constrained by the world’s norms and expectations. The song came to mind as I was pondering today’s scripture.
I heard it this week on the TV show, Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist. In the show, the person singing this song is Zoe’s brother. He’s a lawyer, and he’s about to win his 100th case, so apparently he’s a very good one. But he and his wife have a new baby, and this is his first time in court since the baby was born. He doesn’t want to be there; he wants to be home with the baby.
The reason the show is called Zoe’s Extraordinary Playlist is that she’s the only one seeing and hearing people sing what’s on their hearts, while the rest of the cast goes on about their business unaware. The characters themselves don’t even realize they’re singing. But because Zoe hears the song, she is able to encourage her brother to confess his desire to quit being a lawyer and stay home with the baby. It turns out his wife has been dying to go back to work, so all works out well.
That scenario is similar to what happens in our gospel reading today from Mark. Zoe has the power to help people in an extraordinary way because she hears these heart songs and can help people to identify what’s happening inside them. Jesus has the power to identify unclean spirits and to cast them out because he is the Son of God. The songs that Zoe hears are like the unclean spirits because they happen uncontrollably, and they keep popping up until the people singing address the situations and feelings that are causing them to sing. Jesus takes control of the unclean spirit and commands it to be silent and leave. Because Jesus knows what it is and how to handle it, he resolves the situation quite expediently. And all the people are amazed.
One commentator I read this week says that this story in Mark is a demonstration of the power of preaching. I would definitely agree that it’s a demonstration of the power of Jesus’ preaching. We should be amazed at the power of Jesus. That’s who’s at work in this gospel story, and that’s who we’re pointing to with our preaching, and that’s who we’re turning to, and trusting in, and obeying as we seek to live out Jesus’ words. Jesus is the one who inspires us and calls us to be this church on this street corner in Sterling, KS and on Facebook Live.
Mark tells us twice in this short passage that Jesus speaks with authority. The word in Greek for “authority” also means “power,” and so some Bible translations use that word instead. There is power in Jesus’ words. Jesus is telling us about something revolutionary. “The Kingdom of God has come near.” In essence, he’s saying that God is in our midst. This is apocalyptic, world-changing news. And Jesus demonstrates his power and authority, as well as the nearness of the Kingdom of God, by casting out the unclean spirit.
It’s an exorcism. Jesus performing one is not what’s unusual. What is remarkable is that he does it with just a few words.
Have you seen the 1970’s movie The Exorcist? In that movie, an evil entity has taken possession of a teenage girl, played by Linda Blair. The evil entity causes her to do and say extraordinary and horrible things. There is an amazing depth of evil on display. Her mother consults doctors and psychologists, but they are unsuccessful, and so she turns to the church. When the priest comes to perform the exorcism, he brings along support people and holy water. He also has his Bible. The priest’s presence enrages the demon. His holy water burns it. The priest reads from the Bible and that enrages it more. A violent struggle ensues. But the priest is persistent and unshakable and eventually the demon is forced to leave the girl.
In Jesus’ time, it’s likely that similarly elaborate measures were taken to confront demon possession. But Jesus doesn’t need all that. He simply says, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:25). And the unclean spirit comes out. Mark says there was some convulsing and shouting, but I don’t imagine it was quite so dramatic as in that 70’s movie.
Jesus speaks with power and authority. The unclean spirit obeys, and the people are amazed. The Kingdom of God is truly here.
One of the questions we may be asking is what is an unclean spirit?
- Is it an entity like Satan or a demon?
- Or is it the sinfulness of the man?
- In Jesus’ time there wasn’t the scientific understanding of mental illness that we have now, so was it that?
I think we need to be careful about writing this off as just mental illness. The text says that Jesus told the evil spirit to come out, and then it did. This is described as an exorcism, not a healing. If we say the man had a mental illness, that creates the expectation that spirituality and trust in Jesus are all that’s needed to deal with it, and that it can be cured. Those are dangerous expectations. Mental illness can be managed, but not always cured. This may involve medication or therapy or both. Jesus is an important part of the equation, but not the only part.
We should also note that the man who is possessed by the evil spirit in Mark’s story seems to have no agency in what happens. We don’t know why he was in the synagogue that day. He doesn’t ask Jesus to do this exorcism. He doesn’t speak at all in this scene. Only the unclean spirit speaks.
Why did this happen to this particular man on this particular day and time? Only God knows. Sometimes God reminds us that the Kingdom of God is near by doing something unexpected.
Did anything jump out at you as we read this passage? What initially jumped out at me was the unclean spirit’s question to Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?” That seems like an odd question to be asking. Why would this unclean spirit expect violence from Jesus?
According to pastor and author Richard Beck, in his book “Reviving Old Scratch,” “. . . confrontation between Jesus and Satan [is] the grand dramatic plotline of the Gospel accounts, and of the entire Bible.”
1 John 3:8 says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” Beck points out that we see this in all four gospel accounts. “Jesus moves throughout Galilee driving out demons and preaching about the kingdom. Exorcism was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry and the focal demonstration of his kingdom proclamation. That people were being set free from the power of the devil was the sign that God’s kingdom had been inaugurated in the person of Jesus. The kingdom of God and exorcism go hand-in-hand.”
It’s not surprising, then, that today’s passage is the first story of ministry that Mark tells, and that this is the second time, only 21 verses into this gospel, that Mark has shown us a confrontation between Jesus and Satan. The first was in the wilderness where Jesus was tempted by the devil. This second time, Jesus’ opponent is characterized as an unclean spirit.
What we often see when evil is at work is the exploitation of our human vulnerability. In Genesis, when the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat the apple, he exploited their doubts, asking, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit of any tree in the garden?” (Gen. 3:1)
A couple of years ago, our local Rice County law enforcement sponsored a seminar about human trafficking. Throughout his talk, the speaker asked us to remember the phrase “exploitation of vulnerability” because this is how perpetrators of human trafficking lure their victims, exploiting vulnerabilities like loneliness, low self-esteem. I thought of this phrase as I was listening to Christian Dashiel’s sermon two weeks ago on Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). Christian talked about how the devil was attempting to exploit Jesus’ humanity, specifically a vulnerability we all share, our insecurity.
It might seem, as we watch current events, that this battle between good and evil is playing out right now. And we might feel hopeless and powerless to do anything about it. Maybe there is a battle happening. If there is, it’s that Satan is continuing to exploit our vulnerabilities to keep us from God. Jesus is the one who fights this battle for us. We need to keep on turning to him.
Addiction is a vulnerability some face. The 12-step process of Alcoholics Anonymous is right on track with the approach we see in this story in Mark. Jesus identifies and calls out the unclean spirit, basically naming the problem, and taking authority over it. Similarly, the first step in AA is to name the problem and admit that you are an alcoholic and accept that you are powerless over addiction. The second step is to trust in a power greater than yourself. In Mark’s account of the exorcism, we see Jesus demonstrating that he is that power.
I have sometimes wondered what it would be like if we did church a little more like an AA meeting. I would greet you saying, “Hi, my name is Melissa, and I’m a sin-aholic.” Or maybe I would need to be more specific about my sin or vulnerability. “Hi, my name is Melissa, and I’m a …” There are so many sins I could put there.
Two weeks ago, Christian told us that Martin Luther King Jr named three evils of society: racism, militarism, and excessive materialism. So I could say “I’m a racist.” I’m working on learning how to be anti-racist, but it’s a process. I don’t think I’m a militarist, and I might argue that I’m not excessively materialistic, but you might see how many books and frogs I have and think otherwise.
Pointing out each other’s sin is not what Jesus is calling us to do, however. Admitting that we are powerless over our own sin, though, whatever it is, is an important step. It might be racism, militarism, materialism, addiction, narcissism, judgmentalism, sexism, agism, selfishness, pride, and the list goes on.
In 2 Chronicles, we read about Solomon leading a service to dedicate the new temple and asking God to be present in it. God’s glory cloud becomes visible in the temple at the end of the prayer, and later that night God comes to Solomon and says,
“If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chron 7:14)
We tend to focus on the prayer part of this verse, but it also calls us to humble ourselves, and seek God’s face, and turn from our wicked ways.
We do need to trust in the power of Jesus and keep on trusting as we keep on praying. But in our prayers, we also need to be repenting and asking for forgiveness for ourselves and for our nation.
Our church has made a commitment to be a Matthew 25 church, to work on eliminating systemic racism and poverty, and increasing the vitality of our congregation. We will increase our vitality the more every single one of us in engaged in this mission. This includes praying for forgiveness for our role in racism and poverty, even if we didn’t realize we were playing a role, and asking God to forgive our nation.
We need to keep asking Jesus to help us to know how to take action. More and more, I’m seeing the importance of this. In Matthew 25 Jesus says that at the final judgment he will separate the sheep from the goats, and welcome the sheep into his kingdom. What makes them different is not whether they know Jesus. They all knew Jesus. What separates them is that the sheep did what Jesus had showed them to do, and fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, helped out the poor and imprisoned, but the goats did not.
So let’s all be in prayer, asking Jesus to help us to break free from anything that’s keeping us from doing all that Jesus has called us to do.
Let’s all be saying, “I want to break free.” And in God’s grace and the power of Jesus, we will.
 “…this passage gives testimony to the power of preaching itself, and to the important role it plays in both Jesus’ ministry and that of his followers. New Testament scholar Brian Blount argues that in Mark’s Gospel, what we witness is a boundary-breaking, world-upending Jesus who inaugurates, through his very being, the apocalyptic reign of God in our midst. The vehicle through which God announces and effects that reign is preaching. “Preaching,” he writes, “represents on a tactical, human level what God is doing on the mythological level, entering human reality with the purpose of transforming it.” LEONORA TUBBS TISDALE in Feasting on the Gospels–Mark: A Feasting on the Word Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
 Beck, Richard. Reviving Old Scratch (p. 32). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
 Beck, Richard. Reviving Old Scratch (pp. 30-31). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
 https://www.facebook.com/121448544535400/videos/3718542864859597 Sermon begins at 16:30.
 See link posted above in item 8.