Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 4, 2018
Mark 1:29-39 Commentary
Usually we are far too casual about God’s kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” we say each time we intone the Lord’s Prayer, but when we finish our prayer and open our eyes, we do not see any such kingdom. It is difficult for us to conceive of a kingdom that is not also a definable place on the map–a realm with borders and with visible signs that this particular place is different from all other places.
Most of us know what such markers might be like. Cross the border into Canada and immediately lots of things look different: highway signs, street signs, traffic lights. Everything is in kilometers, some traffic lights have something called a “Delayed Green.” The lines painted on the roads may be a different color. In England the entire flow of traffic is reversed, which is why some of us very nearly get hit when crossing some London street because we instinctively look the wrong way to see if any cars are coming. (Winston Churchill nearly died in New York City once when he made this same mistake when crossing a street and looking the wrong way to check for traffic.)
A kingdom or country or nation or realm would rather be like that, we think. Kingdoms are defined by their different customs, signage, currency, and habits. So it is perhaps no surprise that when even Christians pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, they quietly assume that this is something that will happen only, or at least mostly, in the future. When God’s kingdom comes, we’ll all know it because living inside the borders of that kingdom will be just as obvious as being in a different country even today. But although we do believe in the reality of the New Creation that is yet to come, it is nevertheless wrong to relegate God’s kingdom to any other place, dimension, or time than this place, this time.
As Dallas Willard has written, the kingdom is real and it is real NOW. Because a kingdom is that realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens. In a sense, we all have our own little kingdoms in life–those places where what we want happens. If we say it, it goes. Maybe this is in our households, maybe it happens at work in the department of which you are the manager. But wherever a person can say, “Well, that’s the way I want it and so that’s the way it is going to be,” then that is in a real sense a kingdom, a place where your influence rules and makes stuff happen.
That’s why the kingdom of God is real and that’s why we can see it, right now today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the Fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a believer refuses to participate in sinful activities, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
When the Son of God came to this earth, he announced the arrival of the kingdom. That kingdom is so real, and is such a viable alternative to all things evil and dark and wrong, that of course it only makes sense that the demons knew who Jesus was and fled before him. What’s more, if this same Jesus, who himself embodies the fullness of every kingdom virtue, could walk the streets of New York or Chicago this very day, don’t doubt for a second that he would even now cause any number of unclean spirits to come out of the woodwork.
Someone once suggested that the reason there were so many demons around Jesus all the time may be similar to the reason why when you go to the E.R. at the local hospital you find so many injured people. It would be rather foolish to see injured people at the E.R. but to then say, “Earlier today I was at the mall but I didn’t see any injured folks lying around there! How come so many cluster at the hospital?” The answer is so obvious as to make the question absurd. So also here: as the very incarnation of God’s kingdom, Jesus attracted and drew out and unmasked the forces that opposed him.
Once upon a time and far, far away Jesus did this, but it doesn’t have much to do with us, does it? Mostly the realm of the demonic is remote from our daily experiences.
So what do we make of Mark 1’s presentation of Jesus the exorcist? Is this demon business something that used to exist but is now just a throwback to a bygone era? If you go through an antique store with your grandpa, you’ll run across lots of outdated stuff. Maybe you’ll ask Grandpa, “What’s this thing?” and he’ll reply, “Well, long time ago we used this to make toast.” Is that what Mark 1 is like–a kind of theological antique, a relic from an age long gone?
If so, then a big gap opens up between our faith and our lives. So maybe what we need to do is take the Bible’s language seriously in the belief that on some level, this does describe a vital aspect of reality in also this day and age.
There are realities and spiritual forces at work in this world that are undeniably anti-God and anti-Christ. We err if we think that the demonic was only long ago and far away. We err if we limit the presence of the demonic to only caricature-like spectacles of The Exorcist variety. The devil is, among other things, an opportunist. When the Bible tells us that the devil prowls about like a lion, looking for whom he might devour, that may mean that this prowling will take many forms and it won’t necessarily be lion-like in every instance. The “devouring” may well take many forms, starting with whatever is expedient. If in a given culture what we might regard as “obvious” forms of demon-possession or demonic activity would be too easily spotted (and so probably resisted), then another form will be taken.
In the frightening film Devil’s Advocate actor Al Pacino is a very convincing demon in a designer suit. He’s also a lawyer and, lawyer jokes aside, the point of the film is that the law is as susceptible to demonic influence as anything. The devil will always survey the landscape to see where the cracks are, and they won’t always be the same from one society or place to the next.
In some ways, then, reading these texts about “Jesus the Exorcist” connects us with a world so remote from our own and from our typical experience that it may as well be a story about talking animals or aliens from outer space. In other words, we conclude that whatever necessitated Jesus’ being an exorcist back then no longer applies to us now. That was then. It is not now.
A good sermon on Mark 1:29-39 will surely make people a bit more thoughtful on such matters.
Mark 1:34 is the first clear instance in Mark of the motif known as “The Messianic Secret.” There was a slight hint of this in Mark 1:25 when Jesus tells the unclean spirit to “be quiet,” but this is the first instance where we are told that Jesus actively was preventing knowledge of his true identity from getting noised around too much. And it will come up again and again from here on out. Possible reasons for this secrecy have been bandied about for centuries. But it does seem that Jesus knew that for him to accomplish the work he came to do, he could not let people too quickly seize on him lest they turn him into what they wanted him to be as opposed to what he knew his Father would have him to be (and for that to happen, he’d have to trek all the way to the cross). Mark drives us as readers to the cross. And so there is a sense in which even for readers of this gospel that every instance of hearing Jesus silence those who know his true identity is a goad for us, too, to keep reading, to not impose on Jesus (even yet today) our own ideas on what he should be like, what he should say, what he should do. Our job is not to jump to conclusions or force prior agendas. Our job is to keep following, even though we know that the path down which we follow Jesus is going in the opposite direction of where we’d prefer to go.
In a cartoon I once saw there were two somewhat rough-looking characters emerging from a church after a worship service. As they walk down the church steps, the one man is saying to the other, “Well, the news wasn’t all bad–at least I ain’t made no graven images lately!” Among other things, this little cartoon may remind us that in church, we can be rather casual in tossing around language that you mostly don’t encounter the rest of the week. We even read whole stories from the Bible that are so different from anything we have ever experienced–or even anticipate experiencing–that there may be a quiet and subtle disconnect between what we say in church and the rest of our lives.
If the gospel is true, however, then any apparent gap between what we talk about in church and what goes on the rest of the week must be only apparent and so not a real gap. That is to say, if there is simply no such thing as “graven images” in life, then talking about such an unreal thing in church ushers people into a realm of fantasy, a fictional world that has no true connection to the actual world.
We need to ponder this sometimes when dealing with passages that treat the presence of demon and the demon-possessed as a run-of-the-mill reality in Jesus’ day. Is there ANY such thing still around today?
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