I wrote this sermon nine years ago, when I ran homeless programs for 120 people. I can imagine many of our residents as the man with an “unclean spirit,” people who blurt things out in our comfortable space. But he asks the right questions-“What will you do with us, Jesus?”
There is a powerful urgency here in Mark’s Gospel that is easily missed because of the way we read the Bible. We are most likely to read the Bible in small doses. We take a verse, or section or maybe a chapter of scripture and read it to gain insight for our daily living. Devotional reading is quite valuable to the soul, but we can see different aspects of scriptural truth when we look at the sweep of the story. Let’s look at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel more from a literary perspective to see what the author intends.
In literature 101 we would note that the first chapter of Mark is very compact and action oriented. In a mere 28 sentences, we have the ministry of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the arrest of John, the calling of the disciples, and this first episode of teaching and healing in the temple in Capernaum. That’s six scenes in 28 sentences. Mark is in a hurry to tell this story. Matthew and Luke take almost 5 chapters to get to this point. The second thing we would note in literature class is that the most common word in this first chapter is “immediately.” In Mark’s Gospel, the word “immediately” appears 31 times in only 15 chapters. It is used more than the words faith, hope and love. Mark is not writing “War and Peace,” his writing style is more like a car chase scene from “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Mark is telling us that Jesus is a man on a mission. At times we can see Jesus as a teacher, a contemplative, someone who takes the time to listen, but here in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is action-oriented. Our text today bears this out. We read that Jesus amazed people with his teaching. He teaches as one with authority. We aren’t told a single word about his teaching. In fact, in the entire Gospel of Mark, there is only one major parable, the parable of the sower. If you want to know what Jesus taught, you better go to Matthew and Luke. Mark is telling us how Jesus lived and how he died.
While Jesus is teaching, a man with an unclean spirit interrupts the lesson. We don’t really know what Mark meant by “unclean spirit,” but I can imagine that this is the type of person most of us would avoid on the street. This is the kind of person that shouts things out at inappropriate times. There is a man who lives on Academy Street who spends the day walking around his three block world near my house. He is always talking to someone, even if no one is there. He waves at cars, he sings, he yells at people. I often talk to him when I walk to work, and sometimes he recites poetry for me that he has written. It comes out in the form of a relentless rap that is a combination of brilliance, fantasy, insight and insanity. When someone like me listens to him and shakes his hand, he holds on and won’t let go, and you stand there smelling Wild Irish Rose on his breath, wondering how long you should be polite and when you need to undo his group and move on.
This is the guy I imagine wondering into the synagogue and shouting out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazereth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You are the Holy One of God.” If this happened in our sanctuary, the ushers would probably start the scramble, and we would all feel a little nervous. But someone would find a way to get him outside, give him 5 bucks and send him across the street. We would tell him where the homeless shelter was and ask him if he knew about the Lunch Box and we would go on about our business. But Jesus sees this as an important moment. That man with an unclean spirit understands who Jesus is better than anyone else in the room. He is on the margins of society and the margins of sanity, but he knows exactly who Jesus is. Remember that the disciples don’t figure it out until Chapter 8, when Peter says, “You are the messiah, the one sent by God.” This man of unclean spirit is way ahead of everyone, and he want to know, “What are you going to do with people like me? Are you going to destroy us?”
“Be silent and come out of him!” And then the man convulses and cries out loudly and the unclean spirit leaves him. I still have no idea what an unclean spirit is, but I am impressed. Mark still hasn’t told us a thing about what Jesus taught, but he has showed us that Jesus had a power over things that people label as unclean. Mark is making this point: that the will and purpose of God present in Jesus is engaging and fighting against the purposes of evil that exist among humanity. This battle is not fought just at the highest levels of government or industry, but right in the midst of common folk like us. The battle of good versus evil, right versus wrong, life versus death happens amidst the people who are gathered for worship. Christ has come to shatter the domineering designs that shackle people to lower standards for life than God intends. Christ has come to free us from the demons like prejudice and pride, greed and guile. Christ is among us, whenever we gather in church, to demonstrate a power among us. If we devote ourselves to anything less than a divinely directed destiny, we have missed the goal of faith.
This week I attended the Martin Luther King breakfast run by the Catherine Street Community Center. I was very impressed with a young high school student who won this year’s annual award. When he received the award he said, “At first, I was very excited about getting this honor. I knew how proud it would make my family and my church and it was a great feeling of accomplishment. Then to understand the meaning of the award, I began reading the works of Dr. King. I was humbled, and I realized that this award called me to engage in the struggle that he gave his life for, and I can only hope I’m worthy to the task.” That young man had asked the question, “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” He realized that life is more than honors and fame, awards and rewards. The purpose is rather to engage in the urgent struggle to live out God’s will.
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazereth? We are not always sure. I don’t know every single day what God wants from me. Some days I am just like that man with the unclean spirit. Isn’t there a part of all us that sometimes feels unclean? We don’t always understand why things are happening, events and emotions control us in ways we do not want. We are searching for some power that can set us free to live in the right way.
Mark’s Gospel helps me understand this-that Jesus stands ready to help us caste aside that which binds and constricts us, the demons that defeat our best and highest purposes. Christ stands ready with the power of grace, which breaks the power of sin over us. In him is the gift of true life. Jesus has much to do with us.
I was directed to your site by textweek, and just want to thank you for the very fine reflection and for sharing yourself online. Grace and peace,
What gifted insights you offer! I have been finding such depth and breadth here at BloomingCactus for some months. Thanks for the grace-filled help you give me in my ministry.
I am especially taken by your turning the man’s question back onto us, “What have you to do with *me* Jesus?” Especially powerful for a preacher to slip into the shoes of the “crazies” who so easily get associated with demons. Good to shake people out of complacent prejudices.
This opening up… How can I be vulnerable, though, without inappropriately dumping on the congregation? Regular question for me.
P.S. Craig says “Hi!”
Thank you Bert and Allen,
There are many times that I get angry with people and fall into the trap of moralizing at them or “preaching” at them. What a shame that word can be used in such a negative way. When I stop and remember that I have had to travel a journey to be where I am, I am better able to invite others to take a journey rather than expecting them to know everything a good Christian should know. This is the advantage of stepping into a biblical character’s “skin” and try to let them speak for themselves.
Allen, so good to hear from you after a long time. Give my best to Craig and let’s catch up off line.
What a powerful insight to this passage. Thank you for a spring board. Rev. Sandy Felkins, Tuscaloosa, Al.
I read your blog from time to time and find it refreshing. Also good to see what other ANTS alums are doing.
You were wondering about the term “unclean spirit”. In Bible study this week we learned that the Greek word for that term is the opposite of catharsis, “akathartos”, in a sense, bound by something and needing release or to be purged.
Keep up the good work! And forward my best to Allen and Craig.
Thank you so much Tod for your writing on Mark 1:21 – 28. It has helped me immensely with my sermon for tomorrow. Every blessing
A great insight into the gospel of “Mark” and “unclean spirit”. You have a sharp creative edge.
I was looking at Gandhi’s Seven sins and doing some other searching for things that make us unclean when I came arcoss your blog.
Thanks for sharing your experence and insights.
I am searching for the time and energy to make a blog, but I have many miles to go. Right now I am just an envious bystander. Many blessing and good luck in your new ministry.
thanks for this blog…i found it especially insightful this week. I am using your title for my message title! from a Quaker pastor in the adirondacks
Hey Cynthia, great to hear from you, too!
You sent me on a word journey. Yes, “unclean” comes from the root Greek word “kathairo” which is also translated “to prune trees and vines from useless shoots.” Thus, “akathartos” or “unclean” might be legitimately interpreted as “unpruned” or “overgrown.” Thus “What will you to do with us, Jesus?” reads for me, “What CAN you do with me Jesus, as I am all overgrown with too much unkempt ‘growth!?'” Pruning back, even some of the “good growth,” might lead Jesus to heal me from my overcommitments/failure to prioritize that I may be even more useful to the Commonwealth Of God’s Love! Congregations, likewise, can become overgrown with good things and not do the task(s) God longs for them to do!
I couldn’t sleep tonight and happened across your reflection on Mark 1:21-28. I am awake!! Thank you. Dan
I couldn’t sleep tonight and happened across your reflection on Mark 1:21-28. I am awake!! Thank you. Dan
Glad to hear from many old friends (and new ones too). Cynthia and All, I appreciate the group effort to add some Greek exegesis to the text. Maybe some of you can say how your sermons went and what feedback you got preaching about exorcism.
Sermon went well. I was supply preaching to a church in downtown Bridgeport that has dwindling numbers and a poor self image. So I preached about needing to be healed of “stinking thinking”, thinking of ourselves as being less than powerful or other than God’s, that worship is our catharsis, a time to refocus our minds on Christ and to be healed. It was also their Sunday for annual meeting when fear most often rears its head so they appreciated the shot in the arm.
Just wanted to say, what a wonderful insight into the text.I was scratching my head as to what to make about this lectionary for this coming Sunday ‘Exorcism? or just authority’? but thank God spirit has led you to share this with us!
AMEN & AMEN,. & AMEN …ETC..thank you for the wonderful insightFUL WORDS YOU PROVIDE FRESH FRUIT …that shares our CREATORS loveing power in such a “A HA ! way” I am co happy i ran across you on Textweek.. thank you thank you…thank you. don
Just wanted to say, what a wonderful insight into the text.I was scratching my head as to what to make about this lectionary for this coming Sunday ‘Exorcism? or just authority’
Perhaps Jesus would not have let go of your Wild Irish Poet so quickly, but may have asked him where he lived, went and saw and then invited him home…
Actually, Jesus did much more than that. He removed what was binding this man with an “unclean” spirit. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what happened with the man from that point on? We often have the compassion to house the homeless, but Jesus calls us to even more than running shelters or even to invite someone home. He calls us to radical love that can release the captive. Since I run two homeless programs for over 120 people, I certainly value offering food and shelter, but experience has taught me that is not enough. It is worthy to make the captive more comfortable, it is deeply challenging to figure out how to make the captive free. Thank you for your alert comment!
Refreshing insight…I was really struggling with this weeks lectionary and this was certainly a great remedy! So glad I don’t have to shout while preaching and talk all about casting out demons!
Thank very much for your reflection. I hope you don’t me using some of your ideas next time I am preaching. I am blessed.
Peace to you
A wonderful hymn to go with your exegesis/sermon is “Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit” by Thomas H. Troeger, 1984. No. 264 in The United Methodist Hymnal.
Thanks Michael and Yana. Yana, my hope is that people are using this site to gain ideas for preaching. Just give me a link and tell your friends!
Robert, good idea on the hymn selection. I think the hymn is in the UCC hymnal as well. I don’t think it is in the Lutheran hymnal where I preach.