Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:21-28 Part 1
What if we were reading Mark's gospel for the first time, with little or no knowledge of the story he is telling? We would be learning about who Jesus was (and, by inference, is). Story by story, Mark would be introducing us to Jesus of Nazareth. He would be trying to establish in us what today we would call a "Christology." In last Sunday's reading, he presented Jesus as preacher: "Jesus came preaching." This Sunday, Jesus is teacher— "he entered the synagogue and taught"—and exorcist: "he rebuked the unclean spirit."
This is one way we might approach these Epiphany texts—as pure Mark, without the benefit of Luke and John or Matthew or Paul and the later church, as if our congregations were hearing Mark for the first time, letting the epiphany of Jesus gradually unfold, maybe as Mark's first readers did—step by step, story by story. Jesus, after his debut as baptized and commissioned by God, appears before us as preacher, teacher, and exorcist.
In this Sunday's text, because of widespread interest in the supernatural in today's popular culture, Jesus as exorcist may clamor for attention. The preacher will have to decide how much attention to give here. That we humans are tormented by "demons" of one sort or another is unquestionable, and that Jesus can "cast out" many such tormentors is also popularly attested. The preacher may want to help the congregation identify demonic force—racism, classism, material consumerism, religious self-righteousness—that cry out to Jesus for relief. Generally, though, our experience is that freedom from such demons does not come as quickly or as miraculously as in the story. What role do the various psychological, counseling, and medical sciences play in today's "exorcisms"?
What impresses Jesus' audience seems not to be the exorcism itself, which was not that unusual in Jesus' day, or even the content of his teaching (if we read only Mark, we would know little of Jesus' teachings). Rather, it is the authority of Jesus that astounds. First his teaching, then the exorcism, are met with the very same response from his audience: "Such authority!" Although Mark does not implicitly state it, we readers have sensed the nature and source of that authority: it is a derived authority, made explicit at Jesus' baptism. It is God's authority (so: "as one having authority") made present in Jesus and in the inauguration of the Reign of God.
The sermon might reflect on the nature of that authority, which is to reflect on the nature of Jesus' person—Christology. What kind of authority was it? The authority of a political official or military figure? Even allowing for the "sternness" of the Jesus of Mark's gospel, we do not get the impression that Jesus forcefully imposed his will on others. Was it an authority based on social standing or professional rank, supported by a privileged birth or the proper credentials? No, quite the opposite. That is more descriptive of the authority of the scribes who would become Jesus' opponents and who in the story are set in direct contrast with Jesus by Jesus' audience: "he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes."
Let's consider our own experience. The persons we respond to and allow ourselves to be influenced by are not necessarily the authorities designated by office: boss, mayor, police sergeant, even bishop or trustee. We may respect and obey persons who hold power over us, but our positive response is most generously given to persons who seem authentic to us, who are trustworthy, believable, real—persons who do not try to manipulate themselves into believability, who are not skilled in the art of being all things to all people. We are influenced by persons who we know have power but who do not use it over us, whose personal integrity attracts our faith and confidence.
In these first few verses, Mark does not provide enough evidence for building anything like a complete picture of who Jesus of Nazareth is. But the story provides hints. It is a Jesus who is at home with ordinary folk and whose exceptional character—his baptism and his unique relationship with God—does not get in their way. It is a Jesus who has been to the wilderness; driven there by the Spirit to go through what every mortal from highest to lowest must go through every day: jousting it out with Satan the tempter. It is also a preacher-Jesus whose message was not one of religious rules and regulations from a far-off God of yesteryear, but a message of good news about a God come near, available and accepting.
And Mark's Jesus is not one who stands by helplessly while one of God's children gets thrashed around by one of life's demons, but wades right in and, as the presence of God in the midst of the battle, commands "Get out! Let the man go, for God's sake!" Suddenly the torment is over, and the man becomes, as we like to say, "right with God."
Here, Mark introduces us to a Jesus who disassociates himself from institutional power and privilege and instead, identifies with persons who, since day one, have been kept on the outside. A Jesus who, even though uniquely called and commissioned by God, can be trusted to use divine power redemptively. This is a Jesus, we discover, who is no stranger to us and no stranger to God. To draw near to him to is to draw near to God.
Paul B. Brown Memphis Theological Seminary Memphis, TN