Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
We come to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel. And like the other three Gospels the beginning paints something of the picture that will be a constant throughout the Gospel. David Lose summarises the other Gospels:
In Matthew, Jesus climbs a mountain to teach and interpret the law, like Moses. In Luke, Jesus announces that the Lord has sent him to proclaim good news, release, and healing, a message that exemplifies his ministry even as it is met with rejection. And in John the first thing Jesus does is multiply the wine and blessing at Cana, living into the “grace upon grace” promised in the Prologue.
So what does this “first thing” tell us about Jesus according to Mark’s story? That he has come to oppose the forces of evil, defined not generically but rather as anything and everything that robs God’s children of life.
Each of the Biblical scholars I read when thinking about my sermon had a list of “unclean spirits”. The scholars for the USA wrote of things they have been overwhelmed by in their nation. Lists like, systemic racism, polarized worldviews that tend to demonize each other, environmental disregard and degradation, and another list, homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home… The list went on. I didn’t see any list include illicit stock market trading, so maybe they wrote there articles a week ago.
These scholars were keen bring the Gospel narrative into the present, the 21st century and ponder what forces of evil would Jesus oppose today. In the US it feels like the evil forces have had access to the microphone and the amplifier has been turned up to full volume. People have been reeling with shock from the violence, the polarised world views, and systemic racism. For many it must feel like Joe Biden has come onto the stage and muted the amplifier. Finally, people can hear themselves think, and they can have conversations without yelling at each other.
I don’t know if we pay enough attention to the Baptism service. We ask four questions: Do you turn to Christ?; Do you repent of your sins?; Do you reject selfish living, and all that is false and unjust?; and Do you renounce Satan and all evil? If we pay attention to anything it is turning to Christ. It is easier to talk about the positive side, turning to Jesus. Even here there is a temptation among Anglicans to see Jesus as meek and mild, happy to meet our needs if we generally behave nicely. CS Lewis complained that we had trimmed the claws of the Lion of Judah and made Jesus a household cat.
But as Mark tells the Gospel, Jesus spoke with powerful authority, even confronting and silencing evil. So, if we genuinely want to turn to Christ and raise our children in this faith we need to think seriously about the other three questions on sin, selfishness and evil.
Sin is the things that I do that hurt those I encounter and damage the space I inhabit. If you recall the evocative story of Kane and Abel you will remember God saying, your brother’s blood is calling to me from the ground. Kane’s murder of his brother is etched into the earth as Abel’s blood soaks in. So part of turning to Jesus is looking in the mirror at the things we do that hurt other people. We have to confront the unclean spirits within ourselves. We might think we are being kind to colleague by not discussing a difficult issue with them, but then we talk behind their back to another colleague. Or we pride ourselves on not being racist but when we see a person of colour driving a better car our immediate thought bubbles up, how come he has a better car than me. Or we yell at our spouse or children terrifying them under the belief that their behaviour needed reprimanding. For most of us our sin is subtle, and we can rationalise our thoughts and behaviour.
Fortunately, grace abounds, and we usually need decades of re-evaluating our thoughts and behaviours. Never-the-less it is part of the work that we are called to as disciples of Jesus. Set aside time this coming week to pray, Lord help me see my own sins for what they are. And help me begin the process of transformation. It won’t hurt to write that prayer down and repeat it regularly during lent. The subtlety and rationalisation of sin make it difficult for us to name our own sin.
The last two questions of baptism are more challenging: rejecting selfishness and all that is false and unjust plus renouncing evil. These things tend to be corporate rather than purely individual. We as a nation may be keen to see the vaccinations rolled out in Australia. But I am not sure if we have thought much about our neighbouring nations. What can we do to help East Timor and Papua New Guinea? Does Indonesia need help before we start here. What about the pacific nations, have we made any commitment to them? We were selfish with East Timor’s oil maybe as a nation we can choose selflessness rather than selfishness. As disciples of Jesus keen to reject selfishness we can write to our politicians and ask hard questions.
Evil is also large-scale corporate sin. We know with cigarettes, gambling, the gun lobby in the US and environmental issues those making massive amounts of money will fight tooth and nail to keep their business thriving despite the damage it does. Most of us do little to make sure our share portfolios and superannuation funds are not supporting companies that exploit people, animals, and the earth itself.
As I said earlier, the US scholars had long lists of the things they regarded as unclean spirits. My invitation is not so much to make a list but to reflect at various levels. What are the subtle sins that you and I rationalise, have we allowed nationalism to create a deeply selfish nation based on falsehood and injustice? And do we let and even facilitate big corporations growing wealthy while exploiting humanity.
Jesus taught with authority and rebuked the unclean spirit. We are invited to join Jesus as his disciples. As disciples we are given authority to reject selfishness, falsehood, and injustice and to renounce the forces of evil. We can only embrace the authority when we repent of our own sin.