Category Archives: Gospel of Mark

Confronting the Demons Mark 1:21-28

The evangelist Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples “went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in the 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.’”

It came right out of the blue, of course–in the Gospel of Mark everything important happens fast. Sometimes things happen so suddenly that we miss their deeper meaning entirely, and we don’t really begin to realize what is going on until it is all over and Jesus has moved on. The Lord is always ahead of us in Mark’s gospel. And we are always trailing along behind, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on–just like his first followers.

In this case the action takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum. After he left Nazareth and began his public ministry, Capernaum, the home of the disciple Peter, became his base of operations. If you take one of those Bible tours of Israel, you will be shown the ruins of a synagogue just a few steps from the traditional site of Peter’s house. This may be the very place where Jesus worshipped—or not. In any case Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum on a bread and butter Sabbath and suddenly all hell broke loose. There was nothing so extraordinary about that day—apart from the presence of Jesus there, teaching originally and brilliantly–“as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” as the evangelist puts it. (What would I give to have been there to hear him, however? How about you? What a wonderful convergence of holy circumstances, to be in that holy place on that holy day in the presence of the Lord.)

Then all at once the face of evil appeared. “There was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,” Mark tells us. And we are amazed, because that is the most surprising part of the whole story. But should we be?  Really? Because where else would an unclean spirit be more likely to show up on a bright and sunny Sabbath morning than at church?

I can’t claim to have had the widest possible experience of evil—in any case nothing to what some people have had. I have never experienced a Nazi death camp or encountered the agents of ISIS, who behead journalists, butcher their prisoners and burn people alive to make a rhetorical point. I haven’t seem more than newspaper reports of the horrific mischief that Boko Haram is up to in North Nigeria. There are some real experts on the demonic out there, people with first-hand experience of evil in its direst forms, people who have suffered its ruthless effects, and I cannot claim to be one of them. My experience of the demonic is limited. But I wasn’t born yesterday either. In my long life I have occasionally encountered genuinely evil people, and it has always been in the church that I have met them. They often appear to be quite respectable and “nice.” They look as if they belong there. They often make quite a show of their piety. Like the Pharisee in the temple they love to kneel and make a spectacle of praying. And then suddenly the mask comes off and the face of the demon leers out at you. Yeow! It is a shock that goes far beyond mere surprise.

And I know for a certainty that some of you are suffering from the trauma of encountering evil in a holy place. I know how profoundly shaken you are, and in part I am writing this for your comfort. But I am also writing for my own comfort, because I am also trying to recover from that same experience. And it is taking me a lifetime to get over being astonished, stunned, and utterly gobsmacked, (as the British put it when they are being lower class,) by meeting up with demons in church. The memories of those close encounters with the noonday devil still occasionally upset my sleep.

I suppose that only goes to show how really simple and naïve I was—and probably still am. We should know better, beloved. Having read the gospels, particularly Mark’s, you and I should be better prepared. Demons in the church? Why of course there will be demons in the church! Where else would demons be?

Mark’s gospel is like the exterior of a Gothic cathedral–there are gargoyles and devils crawling all over it. Jesus encounters demons everywhere—sometimes singly and sometimes in legions (see Mark 5:1-13). Reading Mark you might well get the impression that the rural Palestine of the first century was the very portal of hell. But in fact evil was no more present then than it is now. It was no more present there than it is in our own nation and our community and, I daresay, in our own church. It was the presence of Jesus that drew it out of the darkness where it hides. Holiness draws evil to itself. And the presence is not a necessarily sign of nastiness and moral decay—in fact, the holier place the more likely evil will be to crop up there. And quite suddenly.

In all probability those decent, observant Jewish people of Capernaum were also shocked by the sudden manifestation of evil in their synagogue that Sabbath morning. Utterly gobsmacked. And they would have shivered—literally. (Evil is frequently accompanied by intense cold. I have experienced that supernatural chill myself. It is like a window being opened into a dark, frigid universe of despair, which is what hell is.)  And they would also have felt utterly helpless against it. That’s the worst part of an encounter with true evil, that sense of helplessness and isolation. That is the source of its power, the ability to create that feeling of defenselessness in decent, ordinary folks.

When they encounter the demonic in the church or anywhere ordinary people do the ordinary thing—they hide from it. Confronted by hell they get the hell out. They recoil because evil is ugly and vulgar and repulsive. It is the ultimate bully, and although in reality it is weak, it looks and acts horribly strong. Its entire strength resides in its fearsome appearance. So they step back, they flee, they seek a safe hiding place—they scatter in the face of evil like Jesus’ disciples did when he was arrested.

But step back from evil is exactly what Jesus did not do. That is the whole message of the Gospel of Mark—Jesus confronted evil and overcame it decisively and forever. He did that for us, so that we would no longer be helpless in the face of the demonic where ever we encounter it—in the church, in our families, in the life of our nation.  “Have you come to destroy us?” the demon in our story asks. And Jesus’ unspoken answer is—yes, of course. That is exactly why I am here.

And the demons know that. They recognize The Holy One of God when no one else does. They fear him and at the same time they are drawn to him, like iron to a magnet. In Mark’s gospel only the demons know who Jesus really is. His true identity remains a secret from the disciples, from the crowds, from his own family. But the demons recognize him. That’s why “he would not permit the demons to speak,” we are told, “because they knew him” (Mark 1:34). The powers of evil know him as the instrument of their ultimate destruction.

And on the Cross Jesus stood alone against them and broke their dominion definitively and forever. But battle is not over. By no means. The face of evil still leers  out at us from the morning paper. We meet up with it in the most unexpected places. Evil has no strength of its own, only the appearance of strength, but for us appearances are still very powerful. It is easy for us to be overwhelmed by them, shocked, baffled–gobsmacked.

We no longer need to fear evil, but when we meet it, especially in holy places, it still fills us with fear and disgust. The risen Lord gives to us, his followers, the same authority to cast out demons that he had (Mark 3:15). The problem is that confronted by evil we are afraid to use the power we have in us. Instead we recoil. We leave the flock and try to hide. We are scattered by it, like Jesus’ first disciples were. Scattered like frightened sheep. Evil always seeks, first and foremost, to isolate us from one another and attack us alone. And we have all experienced that one time or another, haven’t we?

Now I realize that this has been a rather depressing read up until now—all this somber talk about evil and demons. So by way of making a point and lightening things up a little let me tell you a pretty good Uncle Ole story:

My Uncle Ole and his pal Arne went hunting deer in the badlands of North Dakota with a bunch of the boys from the Sons of Norway Lodge. They camped out there by the Little Missouri River and drank a lot of Miller High Life and whooped it up a little, and then the next morning they split up in pairs and went out to hunt. Ole and Arne were together, as usual. The day passed. Then just before sundown Arne came back to camp, puffing and panting, and dragging behind him an eight point buck. It was a magnificent deer!

“Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway, “that’s sure a real nice deer you got there.” And they all had a Miller to celebrate Arne’s triumph and whooped it up a little. It wasn’t until the deer was skinned and field dressed that they noticed that someone was missing. “What happened to Ole?” the Sons wanted to know.

“Well, that there’s a long story,” said Arne, looking more than usually sheepish. “What happened was this. I shot this here nice buck, and we was dragging it back together when Ole started to feel light-headed. ‘I’m feeling kinda sick, Arne,’ he said, and then he sorta passed out on me.”

“But Golly Moses, Arne,” said the Sons of Norway. “You mean you just left Ole lying there all by himself and brought back the deer instead.”

“Yah,” said Arne, looking even more like a sheep than before, if that were possible. “I gotta admit it wasn’t a very nice thing to do, but I figured no one was likely to come along and steal Ole.”

Arne wasn’t really a bad person, just human, and being human he did a bad, bad thing. He got possessed by evil–anyone can be. Cases of possession are hardly less common in the world than the flu—and certainly no less contagious. Evil can infect decent people and make them very sick indeed. It can twist sisters and brothers into the most awful shapes. It can sweep through churches and denominations and religions like brush fire. Even whole nations and political parties can become possessed. That’s what happened to Germany in the 1930’s.  That is what is happening in parts of the Islamic world even as we speak.

Speaking theologically, evil is not really “real,” since it was not created by God and everything God creates is good. But even in its unreality it is still dangerous because it separates us from each other. Evil confronts us all together as a church and a nation. It is never our sole problem. But we treat it that way. We may know in our minds that it is bad to leave our friends behind. But when we meet evil where we least expect it, we allow our feelings to master us and we run off and hide. We leave each other to face the music alone.

Now Jesus could confront evil alone and he did. But without putting too fine a point on it, you and I aren’t Jesus. We need his presence with us. In the twisted face of evil our best defense is always each other, since in communion with one another is where we experience the presence of Jesus most powerfully. So when we are startled by the face of evil, where ever it may appear, we need to quiet ourselves, rise above our emotions, and seek out our brothers and sisters. Remember, beloved–against the frigid wind that blows through the universe, our best defense is to huddle together.

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THE IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TEAM MARK 1:1-14

According to the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, “he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And [he] said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Everything really important happens fast.

This is certainly true in the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest of the gospels–only sixteen chapters long and cut off abruptly at the end. It has been suggested insects may have eaten the end of the ancient scroll, and if that could be proved it would certainly be a jolt to our fundamentalist friends. Imagine! The inerrant Word of God eaten by beetles! But setting that disturbing thought aside, we are left with a muscular, energetic little book, The Gospel in a Big Rush.  In it everything important does indeed happen fast.

In spite of its brevity, Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus is endowed with a special authority because it is the earliest we have.  It is a primary source for Matthew and Luke, and because it is located so comparatively early in the developing Jesus tradition, the Lord of Mark’s gospel in many respects more closely resembles the historical Jesus than later versions. Jesus’ words in Mark are as close as we will get to the “ipsissima verba Dei,” the very words of the God made man. And in Mark the Lord is always in great hurry, which the historical Jesus probably was, squeezing his whole earthy ministry into three short years. He rushes from one incident to the next as if he has a cosmic train to catch–which in the profoundest sense he does. In Mark Jesus lives on the razor edge of eternity, constantly aware of his own impending death and impelled onward by the Spirit toward his ultimate destiny. His heartbeats are numbered and he knows it. So it is only right that in Mark’s Gospel his first public utterance is about the shortness of the present moment–“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” There are no hours left to waste on trivialities.

Everything important happens fast. So in his little book everything is immediately this and immediately that–Mark uses that word “immediately” 39 times, more all the other gospel writers combined. So it is that when the Lord calls the fishermen Peter and Andrew, the evangelist tells us that “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” They didn’t dilly-dally around. That is crucial to the meaning of the story–they responded to the emergent situation without delay. But you and I can take a moment to consider this–What if they hadn’t? Would Jesus have cooled his heels while Peter and Andrew tried to decide whether they really wanted to be fishers of people rather than fishers of fish? (In the Sea of Galilee those would have been a variety of tilapia—locally known as “St. Peter’s fish.”) Would he have hung around while they went home for lunch and talked the whole thing over with the missus?

We rather doubt it. In Mark the call to discipleship precedes and supersedes every other consideration, and it must be made quickly. Those who follow Jesus are intended to be his Immediate Response Team. And his call to “follow me” is never issued twice—certainly not in the same way. So when the Spirit of Jesus offers us an opportunity to follow him, beloved, we have to get busy and do it immediately. The biggest temptation we face is our tendency to dither, to revisit, to tweak, to endlessly reexamine, decide and then make revisions to our previous decisions. The things we consider longest and most deeply in the end we do not do. Everything really important has to be done fast.

Of course, we are all perfectly aware that rash decisions can be disastrous. I remember once a young couple came to me in distress. They had been living together for some time—“trying each other out” in the modern way—but they were planning to get married in the fall. I was to do the deal.  Now, however, all that was in jeopardy. They both said they still loved each other, but there had been a big fight, no prisoners taken. At the end of it she had told him she couldn’t trust him anymore and had given back his ring and gone home to her parents. He was genuinely perplexed by the heat of her anger. (I’m afraid this young fellow didn’t have what they call “an important mind.”)

So this is what happened. They had been saving up to buy a house together. Then one evening as he was driving home from work in his old clunker of a pickup, and he suddenly decided to stop at a dealer’s lot and look at the latest models. No harm in that. Right? (I bet you can already guess what had happened.) But he fell into the clutches of a salesman with a ready grin and a firm handshake who showed him a shiny new red pick-up truck and let him take a test drive. Before he left he had signed all the necessary papers. “It called out to me,” he said. Those were his very words—“ipsissima verba.” And he was naively amazed when his fiancé burst into tears when she saw his new sweetheart. “It was my money,” he said defensively. “I worked real hard for that money. And it called out to me.”

Now I could tell you those two patched it up and lived happily ever after, but I’m not going to do that. Partly because they don’t really exist, never really did–except as a negative example of what can happen if you respond immediately to the wrong sort of call. Act now! We have all heard those voices calling us to an immediate response. Don’t delay! The world is full of subtle and insistent salesmen with firm handshakes and ready grins, and they exactly know how to tap into our deepest fears and wishes. I know how to make you happy. I know exactly what it will take to fill your emptiness and mend your broken life. Try my product! Act now!

This was one of father’s favorite Uncle Ole stories. Uncle Ole was driving down a country road one summer’s day, when all of sudden oily black smoke commenced pouring out of his engine and his truck started to make a loud clunk, clunk, clunking noise. So he climbed out, raised the hood, and fanned away the smoke, but after he had poked around inside there for a while, he felt someone watching him. So he looked up and, lo and behold, a cow was looking over his shoulder.

“You’ve got a bad alternator,” said the cow, as plain as day.

Well North Dakota is a wonderful place, that’s for sure, but even there cows don’t ordinarily talk. Uncle Ole was so surprised that he took off running and didn’t stop until he reached the nearby farmhouse. Frantically he knocked on the door, and when the farmer answered, Ole gasped breathlessly, “A cow, a cow just told me what was wrong with my truck.”

The farmer only shook his head. “Was she a black cow with white spots?”

Ole nodded his head. “Yah.”

“Did she have one brown eye and one blue eye?”

“Yah,” said Ole, “that’s the same cow all right.”

“Oh her!” said the farmer. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She doesn’t know anything about cars.”

The world is full of experts who claim to know everything about everything and unafraid to tell you so. There is even a lovely, long word for such a person—ultracrepidarian.  It means one who criticizes, judges, or gives advice without knowing what he or she is talking about. And yes, I have fallen for the glib line of patter such people give us and you may have too. (Some of you may even have been married to one.) All of us have played the fool at one time or another. It hardly matters. Let’s just not let it happen again. What’s the point of getting older unless we learn something in the process? The truth is that no salesperson who promises us happiness or peace of mind can deliver on that promise. The only spring from which those things flow is a ready obedience to answer the call of Jesus Christ when and where ever that we hear it.

And what that call means varies for each of us and changes as our lives go along. It was different for each of those fishermen—Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John in the gospel of Mark. It was different for Mary the Mother of our Lord and for Mary and Martha of Bethany and for that woman of mystery Mary Magdalene and for that other woman with no name and a checkered past whom Jesus met at the well of Samaria. They each had a call, but each call was as different as each she could be—individual unto herself. The only thing that every call of Jesus has in common is its urgency, its immediacy, its grave demand—Come and follow me. And Jesus is always impatient with our dithering. As he says to Judas in  quite another context—“What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27).

So how do we know what Jesus is calling us to do? How do we discern the voice of Jesus calling us from among the babel of other voices we hear?  Well, if I tried to answer that one, beloved, I would be no better than that black and white cow who wanted to tell Uncle Ole what was wrong with his engine. I’d be just another ultracrepidarian—Heaven help me! But there is a guide to follow in the examples of those people in the Bible like Peter and Andrew and James and John and so many others Jesus called along the Way. They were never called to do anything easy or to anything that someone else could do just as well. In baptism each of us was given a summons to obey and a task to do, and in our obedience to that calling lies our peace,—and nowhere else. But obedience to the call of Jesus never serves to un-complicate our lives, beloved. Those first followers of Jesus probably never agreed on much, but they all would surely would have concurred on that. The call of Jesus messes up all our human plans. It turns our lives up-side-down. It is never, ever a summons to do what you would have done in any case if left to your own devices. And the call of Jesus is always time sensitive.

The time is grown short. So, as St. Paul writes early Christians in Corinth, from now on let those who have family responsibilities act as if they were free, and let those who weep forget their misery, and let those who are happy forget why they are happy, and let those who buy act as if they were penniless, and let those who are attached to the things of this world let go of them. Why? “Because the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).

I was checking out at the Walgreens Drug Store here in Tarpon Springs the other day. Things were particularly weird and wild—you know how things can get. An old man was wandering around, talking to himself, obviously drunk.  A woman was cursing her little boy and slapping him around. Everyone was being more mean and boorish than usual, and the nice Greek woman at the counter was standing there, surrounded by those tabloids with their lurid headlines, taking all this in. When my turn came I remarked, “Things are pretty rough in here.”

“They often are,” she said. “You know, I think the End of the World is at hand. There are signs of it everywhere. Look how people act. Everything is falling apart.” It seemed like a rather strange thing for someone ringing up your aspirin and dental floss to say, but this is a strange world. And in truth is, I have frequently had that very same thought.

“Yes,” I replied, “it does seem that way. But when the power of love takes over from the self-serving politicians who govern us, then we’ll know for sure that the End is near.”

Whether the end of the world is at hand is beyond the knowledge of us human beings. Now you have a handy name for those who think they know for sure—ultracrepidarians.  But this much is certain, beloved, each of our individual worlds is coming to an end. Our end is always impending. We all live our lives on the brink of eternity. Our response to that rather scary truth, however, should not be fear or denial, but obedience. God has given each of us exactly enough time to accomplish the task we have been given. Our heartbeats, beloved, are numbered. We each have exactly enough—which is not an excuse to waste our time dithering and worrying about things that won’t happen anyway. Quite the opposite. It is the best possible reason to get busy and do what needs to be done.

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