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What is This?

January 29, 2012, 7:00 pm & 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Pastor Emeritus

Deuteronomy 18:9-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28;

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“What is this?” they asked. Does that not sound like the wrong question? I would have expected, “Who is this?”

All sorts of titles have been floating around Jesus these last several Sundays after Epiphany.1 “King of the Jews” as the Magi’s visit, “Son of God” as Mark begins his gospel,2 God’s “beloved Son,” at his baptism,3 “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” as Jesus walked by John the Baptist and his disciples,4 “Messiah,” by Andrew as he asked Peter to join him in following Jesus,5 and today: “The Holy One of God.” This last one, however, is from a most unusual source–a demon-possessed man who has come into the synagogue in Capernaum as Jesus begins to teach. Interrupting Jesus, the man accuses Jesus of coming to destroy him. Actually, he asks, “have you come to destroy us?”–which means the man is possessed by a host of demons, not just one.

I was amused, when consulting various contemporary commentaries, by the linguistic gymnastics indulged in to rationalize or otherwise explain away the New Testament’s acceptance of demon possession, while, at the same time, trying to recognize the man was deranged. My first thought was, “They need to visit the church anywhere in the Global South.” Any African preacher I know would be confused by their attempts to rationalize demon possession, simply because they have seen it. The world they live in is as close to the world Mark was writing from as I can imagine. In the Global South, exorcisms are a common solution to illness, a chain of unfortunate circumstances we would simply call “bad luck,” or even something as mundane as a headache. They would understand the deranged man was possessed. We think ourselves more sophisticated than them, because we have more scientific names for his condition. But then again, if you were here last Good Friday, you would find yourself not so convinced of any difference. Ask Beverly about the man who wandered in off the street that day and, in the middle of her sermon, began to shout and groan about needing help. My point is simply this: whether we call it schizophrenia, derangement, insanity, madness or demon possession, there is something going on there that is not normal and cannot be rationalized away. And, as I learned long ago, doing my Clinical Pastoral Education in the state mental asylum in Philadelphia, such people have an uncanny ability to perceive truth. Never lie to them; you can’t fool them. That is the case here. The man says to Jesus, “I know who you are. You are the Holy One of God! Have you come to destroy us?”

Let’s back up a minute and put all of this into chronological context. Immediately after John baptized Jesus, Mark tells us that God’s Spirit drove him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan for forty days. Either while Jesus was in the wilderness or shortly thereafter, John the Baptist’s preaching got a little too personal for Herod, who had John arrested. John’s voice silenced, Jesus emerges from the wilderness. Returning to Galilee along the eastern shore of its Sea, just southeast of Capernaum, Jesus encounters four fishermen–Peter, Andrew, James and John. He invites them to join him–follow him on the way. They do and Jesus begins to preach the gospel of God. At first blush, Jesus’ preaching sounds strikingly like John’s, who was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But a closer look reveals a significant difference. Whereas John was preparing the way, Jesus has come announcing the way has arrived, saying, “the Kingdom of God is here–at hand.” Only then does he add “repent.” But rather than repeat John’s “and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins,” Jesus simply says, “believe in the gospel.”6 Gospel, of course, means “good news.”7 “Repent,” of course, means “turn around,” “head another direction,” “change your mind,” or better yet, “change your purpose–reorder your life.”8 Jesus is announcing good news about God that is life-changing, inviting all who will to follow and join him in living out of it.

It is now the next day–the Sabbath–and the five are in the synagogue across the street from Peter’s home. Jesus has begun to teach. Folks are rapt with attention. Who is he? Certainly no one they have seen or heard before. Yet, here he is teaching them, and in a way that no other rabbi has taught. He did not quote former rabbis, nor rely on other sources as the rabbis did. He did not build his teaching on previous traditions as the scribes did. Rather, he taught with an authority. Not since Moses had there been one who spoke with such power and conviction–as if from God’s mouth to their ears. Was this the prophet Moses had said would one day come? Was this the forerunner of the Messiah, or had that been John? Was this the Messiah himself, the herald of God’s new age and reign? At that precise moment, the demoniac enters and causes his stir: “I know who you are–the Holy One of God. Have you come to destroy us?”

Jesus looks up, focuses his attention on the man and shouts, “Silence! Come out of him!” Well, the man was anything but silent. Instantly, he fell to the ground in a frenzied fit of convulsions. Just when it looked as though the seizure would tear him apart, a howling cry of anguish emerged from him as the evil spirits left, leaving the man a limp heap on the synagogue floor.

Folks were astonished, so much so that rather than attend to the man, they all began to debate and argue among themselves over what it is they had just witnessed. In fact, we don’t hear from or about the man ever again. Rather, Mark turns our attention to the worshippers in the synagogue. Jesus had been teaching them with authority unlike any they had ever heard, but who would have, could have, expected this? What is this? This is teaching of an entirely different order. His authority extends over even the unclean spirits; they, too, obeyed him.

This is more than a young, emerging rabbi teaching scripture in a way heretofore unknown in Judaism. This is more than an episode of being interrupted by a deranged man and the exorcism that followed it–Jesus’ first miracle, by the way. And, as one commentator has suggested, it matters not whether you and I believe in demons and possession or not. After all, modernity’s sophisticated unbelief has hardly eradicated the evil it represents.9 We may have changed the clinical diagnoses we use to describe evil’s work in people, but the evil is still here. So, whatever this is, Jesus has power over it and has come to destroy it.

He came to the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach and preach his good news about God. Put yourself in that synagogue and listen to him: “God’s presence, power and reign have broken into this world; reorder your life.” If you knew with absolute certainty that God was present, at work in you and those around you to bring a world of justice, mercy, and peace, how would you change your life? But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We constantly forget and think we are on our own. Consequently, we get sucked into the old, demonic ways of doing things. Do you believe the good news of God’s love and power in your life, forgiving, redeeming, and calling you to new life? What, then, must change?

While Jesus is saying this, the minions of the Evil One he had successfully grappled with in the wilderness enter under the cover of a deranged man to interrupt and keep Jesus from announcing his good news. But on seeing him, they are so startled they not only name him for who he is, they announce why he has come. He has come to destroy the powers of evil that blight life, and he will. For now, Jesus simply casts them out.

What is this? Their question is the right question after all. This is the power of God breaking into life to redeem it, to reclaim it, to call it to a new way of life and empower it to do so. This is God at work to liberate life from the power of evil, in order that it can serve God’s purposes.

That is what happened that day in Capernaum. I said it was Jesus’ first miracle, but not his last. The episode continued to be reenacted again and again, until evil rose up in one last desperate attempt to destroy him, this time, on a Roman cross. But once again, God’s power and authority over evil were revealed. His tomb became the birthing room of new life for all who do more than listen or ask “What is this?” For those who believe the good news, who repent and entrust themselves to him, the reign and power of God breaks in, not once, but again and again. God is still at work freeing people–dare I say freeing us?–from demonic forces in life that reduce it to subhuman levels. More, God is present to empower us to be members of his new creation: people who have been redeemed, reclaimed, called and empowered to a new way of life–the way of Jesus Christ.

The Word of the Lord; thanks be to God!


  1. ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, means “manifestation.” Epiphany, traditionally celebrated on January 6 in the Western Church, and the Sundays that follow upon it until the beginning of Lent, focus on the various ways Jesus is manifested to people.
  2. Mark 1:1
  3. Mark 1:11
  4. John 1:29, 36
  5. John 1:41
  6. Mark 1:15
  7. εὐαγγέλιον euaggelion,meaning: good news.
  8. μετανοέω metanoeo, meaning: to change one’s mind or purpose.
  9. Fred B. Craddock, p. 92

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