Based on Mark 1: 21-28

Mark is an interesting gospel.  It’s the first of the 4 gospels to be written, in the 6th decade of the first century, and it became the source for Matthew and Luke’s gospel.  Although ancient tradition denotes authorship to the John Mark who is mentioned in the book of Acts, it is truly not known who the author is.   The author of Mark’s gospel doesn’t use much embellishment in his recounting of Jesus’ life.  He tends to get right to the point, and things move quickly along.  When you read Mark you’ll soon see that of his favourite words is ‘immediately’, also translated to ‘at once’ which gives a sense urgency to his writing, a sense that it is imperative, it’s important to understand  just who Jesus is, and what he does. 

This gospel begins with John the Baptist calling the people to repentance and then baptism, culminating in his baptizing Jesus, where the heavens are torn apart by the Holy Spirit.  It’s like the Holy Spirit breaks through earthly barriers,  descending upon Jesus, empowering him, infusing him with God’s Spirit.  And God’s voice acknowledges Jesus as his beloved Son.   Immediately, Mark says, Jesus is driven to the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan, where he overcomes the evil forces, and is waited on by angels.  After John’s arrest and imprisonment, Jesus takes up John’s message of repentance and begins choosing his apostles.  And all this in the first 20 verses! Mark’s not wasting any time getting to his main message—helping people to understand and believe just who this Jesus of Nazareth really is!

So, Jesus and his four newly chosen apostles, Andrew, Simon-Peter, James and John have come to the village of Capernaum.  On the Sabbath, they go to the synagogue, and Jesus is teaching those who are gathered there.  The people are astounded at his teaching, because it is so different from what they hear from the scribes.  In fairness to the scribes, they were scholarly-lawyers, and their role was to interpret the laws of Moses and “how it should be applied in new situations and made decisions when different laws clashed”[1] and then present those teachings to the people.  Jesus’ teaching was new, different, astounding his listeners because he taught as one having authority.  Now the Greek word which is translated to authority is best understood in the strong sense of ‘divine power’.[2]  This new teacher is more than someone who just knows and understands the teachings, he teaches like he has the authority, the power, the right to tell it and preach it.  This teacher was filled with the power of God, and he was amazing to hear.  Wouldn’t you have just loved to hear Jesus preach?    Interestingly, the person who recognizes the divinity, the divine power within Jesus and his teaching isn’t one of the scholarly lawyers, or even a devout person in the crowd, but a person who was possessed with an evil spirit.  And this one cries out, as if on behalf of all those present: “What do you want of us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the Holy One of God.” (v.24, NLV) And Jesus tells the spirit to be silent, and commands it to come out of the man, which after a nasty struggle, it does. Ever wondered why Jesus told the spirit to be silent?  According to commentators I read, there’s more to it than Jesus wanting peace and quiet.  Jesus’ commanding the demon to silence has to do with the power and authority the demon would possess over Jesus in actually naming him the Holy One of God[3].   Ancient peoples believed there was power in names, and saying or loudly proclaiming “the other person’s name was thought to be a means of overpowering your opponent.” [4] and hence, gave you control over them. 

Initially I felt this ‘power over others by naming’ sounded a bit silly, just another of those ancient superstitions.  But then, think back to your childhood, were you ever called nasty names by other kids, maybe the school bully, or a sibling, or worse yet, an adult?  Recall how that made you feel and how that gave them a sense of power over you.  Maybe there is something to this power through naming concept.

 And that got me considering things like evil spirits and demons and such.  In the bible we read of evil spirits that possess people, got hold of them, took them over, and controlled them.   These days, we appreciate that many of these biblical demons were likely to be situations of now medically treatable health conditions, like epilepsy, other kinds of disease, or serious mental health issues.  So today we can easily view this exorcism as a healing, and “Mark, more than any other Gospel writer, emphasized Jesus’ miraculous power to heal and to exorcise.  Of the eighteen miracles recorded in Mark, thirteen have to do with healing, and four of the thirteen are exorcisms.”[5]  Yet still, we’re not big on believing in demons these days. 

That started me on a train of thought about what evil is, and what things we need to be healed from.  Evil is the opposite of good, the opposite of God, and all that God is.  Evil leads us away from a life focused on God’s will and desire for us.  Like any good and loving parent wants for their child, we know our loving God, our creator wants what is good for us.  Know this, God by God’s own nature cannot wish or create bad or evil upon us.  It is not in God’s nature!  God is good, God is love!  And we know this because Jesus, God incarnate, came to earth and show us just precisely that, as Jesus’ healings clearly demonstrate.  Jesus overcame the evil of the world. 

Evil has many faces and many levels.  It can be insidious, it starts small and grows. Like that first cigarette or joint or pill that leads to addiction. I have heard cancer called an evil monster, the very definition of demon! And could we go so far as to call Covid 19 evil?  There are social evils and demons in our world.  Consider the hurt and pain humanity has caused over the millennia by the belief by some that they are superior to others—and it’s still going on; one person or group of people dominating and subjugating another to their demands and will, controlling by force. 

  The bible is full of stories of war, of greed and power struggles that hurt and damage so many others.   Greed and a desire for power are evil forces, to be sure, that continue to malign, oppress, control and damage God’s people, God’s creation.   This is not what God wants for us.  This is not how what God’s kingdom is all about!

And how can we deal with these evils?  The first step is to recognize and acknowledge that there is an evil.  The expression “name your demons” came to mind, and I wondered if that might well have originated from these bible stories. Before you can deal with it, you have to identify the evil, the demon, you have to name it.  In the naming is the recognition that it exists, and the beginning of understanding of the origins and consequences of the behaviours and actions. From that can come the beginnings of a plan to remediate them.  It easy to name the big evils; power hungry leaders that oppress the peoples of their countries for their own gain, and the suffering that causes so many. Think of the wars fought over the desire for money and power, or racism of one type or another.  Sexual predation another biggie, drug trafficking and the list can go on and on.  Many of these are beyond our individual reach to change on the macro level, yet still we see the consequences in our local communities, to which we, as Christians, can respond.   

So then, what about those ‘little demons’ that each of us carry around, things that we may do that hurt others, or even those behaviours that cause self-harm?   I daresay we all have something that has a hold on us, things we need healing from, things that are destructive and detrimental, to some degree or another, things that sometimes overcome us, control our behaviours, and lead us to do things that are harmful.  Addictions are, by nature, self-destructive and to be sure, when taken to an extreme, some more harmful than others:  drugs, alcohol, gambling, smoking, eating, even food!   Shopping can be addictive, ever heard the phrase retail “therapy”? Or compulsively checking a phone or other electronic device.   Things people come to rely on, become the go-to, to bring a false sense of comfort to a pain we hold inside.  Unhealthy emotional needs caused by hurtful past experiences can raise their ugly heads and lead to behaviours that just cause more hurt and pain to others, or to ourselves.  Depression, anxiety, other mental health issues are often symptoms, and Covid restrictions are just making them worse.  Although, not a term we use much in modern day parlance, we could call these behaviours evil or demons. 

So, what to do?  We start by naming it, and this often means talking to someone you can trust to listen empathically and help you recognize it.  In the naming of our demons, we take their power away too.  Because by naming them and their effect on us, we recognize the power they have, and that’s the first step in healing, in the recognition of what we need healing from.  And that’s the demon we take to Jesus, to exorcise, to rid us from, to heal us from.  I wish it could be as instantaneous as our healing story from Mark’s gospel for today.  And sometimes it is, but often it takes more than one prayer or even two prayers.  It can take many, many prayers. It can take many visits with Jesus.   We believe, we know Jesus has the power, he is the healer who can rid us of our demons.  And this is what Mark was telling his community  of early Christians almost two thousand years ago.  And it’s still true for us today.  Amen.

The Rev’d. JoAnn Todd, Rector

The Regional Ministry of Hope

[1] The Oxford Bible Commentary.  John Barton and John Muddiman, editors. (Oxford University Press Inc: New York, NY. 2001)  890

[2] [2] P.C. Enniss in Pastoral Perspecitve for Mark 1: 21-28 in Feasting on the Word, Volume 1.  (Westminster John Knox Press:  Louisville Ky, 2008) 312

[3] Osvaldo Vena in commentary for Mark 1: 21-28  Accessed Jan 25.21

[4] The Oxford Bible Commentary. 80 

[5] P.C. Enniss in Pastoral Perspective for Mark 1: 21-28 in Feasting on the Word, Volume 1.  (Westminster John Knox Press:  Louisville Ky, 2008) 310