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.