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. Mark 1:21-28
Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark starts with a bang. Jesus comes to Capernaum – a nice little town on the banks of the Sea of Galilee – a respectable little town – and goes to the synagogue where he encounters a man possessed by a demonic power.
The man begins to shout at Jesus. Boy, I’m glad we don’t have any crazy people shouting at me while I’m trying to preach. Being confronted by really off-the-wall crazy people in the street is uncomfortable enough. Imagine having one sitting next to you in chapel. (If this happened everywhere that Jesus went, that was sure to make him popular!)
Only this man isn’t just crazy-sick. He’s in the grip of demonic power.
It isn’t fashionable to take the devil seriously anymore. Still, even those great theologians – Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – told us about an unseen malevolence that transcends human evil. “I rode a tank, held a general’s rank when the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank,” sang The Rolling Stones in 1968. Unlike the Stones, however, Jesus had no “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The demon recognizes Jesus. “”What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The unspoken answer is, “You’re darn right I’ve come to destroy you.”
It’s time for a showdown with the devil. It’s time for Marshall Dillon to stand at the end of the street in Dodge City, face down the villain and drop him in a blaze of gun smoke. Only here, there’s no gun and there’s no smoke. There’s only the word of God. Be quiet. Come out.
Have you seen the film version of The Exorcist? Casting out demons always looks so hard in the movies: chanting prayer upon prayer, sprinkling holy water, anointing with oil. It takes hours. More chanting, more sprinkling, more anointing, and still the battle rages on. Linda Blair’s demon fights back with insults, vomit, twisting heads and banging beds. There is grave doubt about who will win this fight.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says two things: be quiet and come out. That’s all. The battle is over before it begins. Exorcism is a cinch for Jesus. Be quiet. Come out. And the demon obeys.
The demon’s defeat is glorious. He whines and screams and convulses in a fit. Do you remember how the Wicked Witch of the West screamed when Dorothy tossed the bucket of water on her? “I’m melting.” It was terrifying and wonderful all at the same time. She got what was coming to her, and so did this demon.
This opening to Mark’s story of Jesus reminds me of the beginning of a one-sided football game. It’s an 80 yard run on the opening possession of the game. I sometimes fantasize about Superman playing football. Give him the ball. Touchdown! Give him the ball again. Another touchdown. Give him the ball again. This game is over before it has begun.
Yet that’s not Mark’s story, and that’s not our experience. In Mark’s story of Jesus, there’s more to Jesus than his divine power. The people in this story react with wonder and confusion. In fact, if you read the gospel through, you’ll find that people normally misunderstand Jesus and the divine power that he displays.
Here, it is the demon, and not the people, who really understands who Jesus is. He is the holy one of God who has come to destroy the power of Satan. But Jesus tells the demon to be quiet. That’s not the kind of publicity he wants. The demon’s words are accurate, but they are incomplete. Only when we get to the second half of the gospel, when Jesus begins his long march to the cross, do we get the complete picture of who Jesus is.
Mark very much wants us to know that Jesus can’t be understood without the cross. Why? Because the people of Mark’s day were still living in world where the power of Satan was very real and strong. At the time Mark wrote his gospel, the church had already experienced its first tastes of the persecution that would grow ever stronger for two centuries. The Roman army was at the point of capturing the city of Jerusalem and destroying God’s temple. The world was a mess. It still is.
If Jesus was just Superman in sandals, why was this happening? Why wasn’t he marching into every town and bringing the devil to his knees? It’s because of this: while Jesus – and his followers – are bearers of divine power, they are more than that. They are bearers of divine love – displayed in an image more like the suffering servant of Isaiah than the conquering warrior of Joshua.
As the old song said, “There is power, power wonder working power” and it’s found most of all “in the blood of the lamb.” We see God’s hand from time to time in things we call miracles where God steps in and saves the day. Hallelujah, right? But we see God’s hand more frequently when we grasp what he has done for us in Jesus, and when we live in that sacrificial love with and for others.
Even Jesus’ acts of power brought only localized, temporary and imperfect experiences of God’s perfect kingdom. After all, this poor nameless fellow of Mark’s story is still living in this world. He’s demon free, but his mother may still nag him and his boss might still be a jerk. He can still trip and break his leg or get cancer. Some despicable person can still do horrible things to him or his family. He can probably find a dozen ways to screw up his own life in the space of a week, even without a demon living in him. Who knows what his life is like or what the future holds. What will he do with his new-found freedom? What will we do with ours? (The Apostle Paul makes it clear that we all experience a form of spiritual bondage in this world.) This fellow still needs the grace, hope and power the gospel has to offer, as do we all.
Our Lord plundered the dominion of Satan though acts of power, to be sure. But our Lord plundered Satan’s kingdom even more by giving of himself for us. If this were a boxing match, Jesus’ encounters with the demonic staggered his opponent but didn’t knock him out. The knock out punch came from the most unlikely act of all: Jesus’ death on a cross. But having said that, it’s like we’re still seeing double. In one moment, we see Satan falling to rise no more. In another moment, we see his power still at work in this world.
The victory Jesus won over the power of evil will become fully visible to all on the day of Christ’s return. The fatal blow has been delivered, but on the day of Christ’s appearing the power of evil will be destroyed forever. As we wait for that day, we’ll get to see God give Satan a good swift kick every now and then to remind us of the coming day. That’s reason for celebration. Every day, though, offers us the opportunity to live in faith, hope and love in the shadow of the cross.