21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
An Open Letter to Those Gathered at Centennial Lutheran Church, roughly 9:20 am, Sunday January 29, 2012.
I am writing this letter to you as a sort of warning. So, before we begin, let me say this: if you wish to keep Jesus at a safe distance, if it is your hope to remain unchanged and sort of generically affirmed, please leave now, and know that you do so without any judgment whatsoever. Given the cultural air we breathe, I can certainly understand how you have come to expect this from Jesus, but that, to be as honest as possible, has nothing at all to do with the Jesus we have just encountered. That good guy Jesus, the Jesus who sits idly by giving us nothing more than a thumbs up from across the room no matter our fate, no matter our conduct, no matter our darkness, that Jesus is an idol. He is not real. And we have nothing if not the real Jesus here. And he is not for the weak and fearful. It is going to require all your strength and courage, and like that first crowd at Capernaum, there is a good chance you will leave today in some sort of astounded trauma. And this is where your God created trust, your Holy Spirit inspired faith, is so very important. For what might initially feel bizarre, feel even a bit violent, this will actually be good for you. So good, in fact, that you just may walk away with a freedom that you did not know was possible, and a with a comfort you have scarcely imagined to be real.
As your preacher, however, I cannot pretend as though this going to be easy. I cannot water down the process for you. As much I would like, for reasons like my desire to be liked or thought of as accommodating and kind, there is no way to make this process easier, more palatable. Because, you see, there are some incredibly hard truths in today’s Gospel lesson. Truths that feel foreign or even invasive and are so hard, that they will in fact put us to death and raise us to life, but no one dies willing, and we have constructed this whole thing called civilization in the thin hope that we will never have to confront these truths.
But Christ cares too deeply, loves too purely for that; a confrontation is inevitable and much hangs in the balance in terms of our response. At this point, it would be fair for you all to be wondering just what I might be talking about, so let’s get to it. What is at stake here begins with the question of radical evil. Evil that is independent, that is spiritual and can master us in ways that are terrifying and furious. Evil as irredeemable as the Holocaust and as subtle as possession. Now, before you think that spiritual evil is the intellectual relic of a bygone era, or is something to be endured only by the truly sinister: look again today’s story. Look where the man with the unclean spirit is. He is in the synagogue, in the gathering of the faithful and the pious. Yes, later in Mark’s Gospel there will be a man possessed and living in a grave yard which makes a bit more sense intuitively, but we are not there yet. Instead, this evil is much closer than we would like to think. This unclean spirit, he is comfortable taking up residence in the middle of a community gathered in the name of God, in what should be a holy place, a place in which this spirit simply should not be. But that’s just the thing, that is the insidious arrogance of evil. It will claim what is not its own, but because it possesses a strength with which humans cannot contend, it will do this again and again, and it will do so with subtlety so that we do not even notice that it is there.
And left alone, undetected and unbothered, this unclean spirit will continue about his destructive work. He will continue to shrink this man’s sense of worth, allowing him to persist in any number of destructive habits that will keep him from God and from others, and what is more, this unclean spirit will work most effectively when he has convinced the man that he, the spirit, is not real. When the man has long ago assumed that whatever that darkness was, it had only to do with his biology, his psychological make-up or even a rough childhood. But this is where things get really, really interesting, because the unclean spirit is no longer allowed to go about unbothered. Instead, it responds, responds with cruelty and taunts to the words of Christ in the synagogue. Immediately in Jesus’ teaching, the spirit recognize that its’ time is up. It has been detected by the one who just a little bit ago did battle with its type out in the wilderness for forty days. And in this presence, in the presence of the Christ, the Beloved Son of God, evil can no longer go undetected. You can here in the cruelty of the unclean spirit’s response. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” There is something about Christ, perhaps what the Evangelist calls his authority, that this evil simply cannot stand. Even as the spirit attempts to speak for the whole crowd, to get them on its’ side, it knows that the game is already over. For Christ, the one who alone is capable of destroying evil, he is also willing to do just that. There is something Christ’s presence that will cast out all evil, will cast it out of God’s good creation so that health, healing and forgiveness may be restored.
Now again dear people, I said that this was going to be difficult, and perhaps by now, you can get a sense of why I would say such a thing. For part of what I am asking you to do is to leave behind the spiritual naiveté, to put away the childish things of our deeply scientific Western-world view. Indeed to step into a reality which is far wider, much deeper, indeed more real than what can be observed or verified by human reason. However, I am afraid that is just the beginning of the difficulty. Because one of the implications of today’s texts, if we are honest with ourselves, is that we all harbor a darkness which is going to be revealed and struck down by the brilliant light of Christ’s love. Now please hear me clearly, I am not accusing anyone here of being possessed by an unclean spirit, but I am suggesting that, if we search ourselves for even a few moments, we will come up against some rather nasty things: things like Pride, Despair, Loneliness, Mistrust, Greed, Anger, Fear and legion more. And this is where it will get really difficult, because these will not be able to stand near Christ, either. They too will come under his judgment and will be tossed aside by his authority. And that sounds bad, I know. In our culture of unending affirmation where love is understood as the opposite of judgment, this is nearly unintelligible. What is so strange is that we do not feel this way about our bodies; it is not like we allow cancer or infection to stay in our system; we do whatever is necessary to get them out. And the same thing is happening here, happening in our baptism for the forgiveness of sin, happening in the body broken and the blood poured out. In these things, you are released from all that would haunt and destroy you. For this Christ has come to make you his own, and the stakes are too high for him not to do so completely. So, yes, this is going to be difficult. There will be some death involved, but it will be the death of those things that keep our spirits in bondage and decay. For the light of Christ has named you, has brought into safety and has raised you from the dead. It is not easy, but nothing worth it ever is.