Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 28, 2024
Mark 1:21-28 Commentary
Jesus has called his first disciples and now they have all gone to Capernaum. It’s the sabbath and Jesus takes the opportunity to teach those who gather in the synagogue. Immediately, the people are impressed: this rabbi is different. He speaks and the people can recognize his authority—it felt like a sharp contrast from the scribes they were used to hearing from.
The scribes knew their stuff when it came to the law, but as the people listened to Jesus, they realized they were in the presence of someone who had a mastery of the law that went beyond knowing the information. Jesus had the law’s power in his very presence, and the people were astounded. But just they wait… They are about to see firsthand that they didn’t even know the half of it.
Because just then, everything is disturbed; an unclean man enters the room and starts shouting. Or rather, the unclean spirit within this man makes itself known and uses the man to speak to Jesus.
The unclean spirit uses an idiom to try to dissuade Jesus from getting too involved in this world. It literally says, “What is it to you and us?” which is a saying that means, “Why bother us? We have nothing to do with each other!” (Hence often being translated as “Leave us alone!”) And then, whether it’s hoping to use flattery or it can’t help itself from stating what it knows to be true (and rightfully fears), the unclean spirit tells Jesus that it knows who he is, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the holy one of God.” God’s enemies knew he was coming before we captives did. The shadows that trapped humanity feared the light coming to the world.
We don’t have to wait long to see what Jesus thought of this unclean spirit. With just a word, Jesus limits the power of the unclean spirit. What is translated as the command to “Be silent” can also be “Be muzzled.” The word is in the passive tense, so the command is the acting power itself. In the command, Jesus makes the unclean spirit feeble, weak, unable to continue to use its words to exert its power. By doing so, Jesus proves that the unclean spirit does not have real authority—it is just masquerading like all other evil spirits and forces in the world.
After taking away the unclean spirit’s power to do more harm, Jesus casts it out of where it does not belong, exorcising it from the man. Jesus doesn’t just cut the cancer out, he gets rid of any source cells that might repeat the pattern and he brings healing to this man. The process creates its own scene as the unclean spirit struggles against the power of the holy one’s words. But it does as it is commanded: it comes out.
And the people thought they were overwhelmed with Jesus’s authority before! What they have just witnessed leaves them nearly speechless; they say, “What is this?!?!” They realize that they are seeing something completely new—this is a new kind of teaching with authority. This is the kind of teaching, nay the teacher who controls the forces that control us. Jesus is so much more than we could ever imagine. No wonder they started to spread the news.
But did they understand that what they had just witnessed was also a metanarrative about the authority, power, and purpose of Jesus of Nazareth? Could they have known that what Jesus did with this one unclean spirit, he will do with all evil spirits and the evil one himself? That Jesus will spend his ministry muzzling evil and reversing the binds on humanity, bringing healing and freedom, even unto his death and resurrection?
The unclean spirit asked Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus does not directly answer, nor is it clear whether we should conclude that the unclean spirit has been literally destroyed when Jesus casts it out of the man. That literal end for evil will come at Christ’s second coming. What is clear here, though, is that Jesus is dismantling the evil one’s plot for world domination through its minions of unclean spirits and that Jesus is not afraid to face down evil. Jesus also shows through word and deed that the authority of God’s law (aka God’s will) is for his people’s wholeness and healing. Amen and amen.
There’s a quasi-inclusio in our passage this week. (It’s not a direct repeat of a word, but a return at the end of the section to the ideas introduced at the beginning.) We open with Jesus and his newly formed group of disciples coming to Capernaum and the people in the synagogue being impressed with Jesus’s authority. We end those same people causing word of Jesus’s awesome authority as a teacher spreading throughout the region.
Considering how much of the Gospel of Mark includes Jesus telling people to not tell others about what he has done, it’s interesting to note that that’s not how he chooses to begin. There is, however, some conversation among biblical scholars as to whether Jesus is practicing a version of the “Markan Secret” with the unclean spirit—Jesus silences it when it speaks of Jesus’s true identity.
Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2024 Year B Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here.]
Though muzzles are a bit out of vogue, they have been used to control, limit, and keep others safe while an animal is a danger. Think of that eery (and iconic) cinematic image from Silence of Lambs as Hannibal Lecter wears a face muzzle because he’s bitten a nurse… So with just a word to this unclean spirit, Jesus shows part of what his mission about: he muzzles evil and casts it out from its position of power in our lives, and he does so for our safety, protection, and future health.
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