Epiphany 4, Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28
This morning we read in the gospel of an encounter between Jesus and a man gripped by evil. How will that speak to us? The first chapter of Mark’s gospel throws us headlong into the beginning of the three years of Jesus’ ministry, three years that literally changed the world. From his baptism by John, where the heavens are ‘torn apart’ (10), the Spirit ‘drove him out into the wilderness’ (12) where he was tempted by Satan, on to choosing his first disciples, then into a synagogue where he encounters a man with an ‘unclean spirit’.
I want to open this passage up, loose it from the corner of Mark’s gospel it is hiding in. Because it is echoing, if we have ears to hear, the early chapters of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and it has a surprising message for us today. First, back to Genesis. It’s just worth saying that the first few chapters of the Bible are essential reading for understanding the rest of it. Here goes. The first 3 chapters of Genesis give an account of the creation of the earth, the sun, moon and stars, and all the orders of plants and animals including humanity in the form of Adam and Eve. Just so you know, I’m not inclined to treat these chapters as literal, historical truth but I am inclined to say that what they tell us about God, the world and humanity are profoundly true: that is, they are full of meaning. In Genesis 2, God places the first couple in a beautiful garden and tells them, pretty much, that they can do and eat anything they like but don’t eat from that tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 3, the serpent, representing the powers of evil, Satan or the devil, worms his way into Eve’s confidence, questions what God has said, then lies to her and convinces her to try the fruit of exactly that tree. She does, and shares it with her husband, Adam. Suddenly their eyes are opened. They know that they are naked, and are immediately ashamed of their new knowledge, of what they have done. They hide, hide from God, or try to. But their nakedness is much more than physical, it is spiritual. Before, they had nothing to hide from God, now they have disobedience to hide, now they know evil as well as good where before they did not, they are confused and shamed. In the next few chapters of Genesis there is a steady degeneration into more and more evil as almost everyone chooses not the path of the good, but the path of the bad. The word for devil in Greek is diabolos, from where we get the word ‘double’. Double paths. A choice. Adam and Eve took the wrong path, the double path, the diabolos path, and it didn’t turn out well. Almost all the time, humanity has followed the same path, full of the knowledge of good and evil. It leads to violence, death, deceit, hiding. Unfortunately, it is all too true.
It’s often said of Jesus that he was ‘sinless’. I find that a bit of a sterile word, even boring, and anyway, defining someone by a negative – he was ‘without sin’ is odd. Better, and truer, to say that here was a man who took the right path, who lived the life intended by God, who lived life in all its fullness, who was true in the sense that he was straight, and right, and good. When Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness, he resisted the temptations and emerged the victor. Where Adam and Eve failed the test, took the other way, the double path, Jesus did not. Boring, sterile – never. The opposite. Full of life. A man who turned water into wine at a wedding party when everyone was drunk already. A man who healed the sick. A man who was angry enough to drive the money-lenders out of the temple. A man who told stories so powerful that we still talk about them today. A man unafraid to call out injustice. A man who wouldn’t countenance evil. A man everyone wanted to know. Good isn’t boring. The devil doesn’t have all of the best tunes.
And then, in Mark 1:21, he walks into a synagogue in Capernaum and teaches. And everyone is astonished. But this man is unlike any other. He is, as we have already said, walking straight and true, he has already faced down the powers of evil and declined the invitation to walk the path paved with what we might call ‘alternative facts’, the lies and half-truths that, if attended to, would have led him to failure and ultimately, to evil. And in the synagogue, the place of worship and prayer, of scripture reading, of community (in other words, a lot like church!) a man with an unclean spirit, seeing and hearing him, cries out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ (24). I was wondering what provoked the outburst, and I thought that perhaps Jesus, in his teaching in the synagogue, opened up the particular evil the man was gripped by – he named it. We don’t know what the particular form of evil the man was engaged in, but you can imagine that if you’re hiding something terrible, you might blurt out the truth if someone put his finger on it.
What is happening here? How can we understand this? One way of doing so, which is probably the literal way of understanding, is that the man was possessed by an unclean, or evil spirit. If we were living in parts of the world outside of the so-called enlightened West, that is exactly how it would be understood. Certainly, when we lived in Bangladesh, there was strong belief in evil spirits and their powers amongst all the religious communities – Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Animist. That may be the way some of us here would understand it, or some might struggle with that view. So I would like to say, this man was possessed by evil. In some way, he had given in to evil, to the double path, in such a way that it had eaten him up, he was overcome by it. The non-Western way of understanding this would be to say that he had opened himself to evil so much that a spirit of evil, a demon had entered him so that he no longer had any power at all to resist. He was in the grip of evil. I’m afraid that all of us are infected by evil in some way, we all have the capacity to do wrong, to hurt or destroy – and we sometimes do – but this man was in a special category. What is evil? It’s whatever destroys or diminishes life or the creation.
One of they really important things to notice here is that this man was in the synagogue. In whatever way his particular involvement with evil was expressed, he sought and found cover within his religious community. This has the ring of truth. Religious communities – including the Christian church of course – have often given cover for evil and there’s a long history of that right up to the present day. We only have to think of the sexual scandals that have been uncovered in the last few decades within the church, and the ruined lives of the victims that have resulted.
Again, this man’s evil was hidden within the synagogue, the religious community. Evil is often hidden, covered up. Think of the way that the horrible sex scandals in the church had been hidden from view. There is another echo here of the Adam and Eve story, where they both tried to hide from God after their disobedience, their eating of the fruit of the tree of good and evil. But this man, or if you like the spirit of evil within him, recognised in Jesus someone who was profoundly good, deeply and truly un-evil so that when he encountered him, as he heard his teaching he couldn’t help himself from shouting and in fact outing Jesus as the person that he truly was: the Holy One of God. In fact, the evil came out of hiding because it could not hide from this man. Once the evil was revealed, its hold over the man was lost and Jesus was able to expel it and restore the man.
Phew. This has been a tough sermon to prepare and hard to deliver. Am I coming up against evil within me that doesn’t want to be exposed? I don’t know. But the question is now, what do we do with it? I’m not proposing that we begin hunting down evil within our church or start rehearsing scenes from the Exorcist. And we’re none of us Jesus. But, we take his name and we are his followers. There’s a lovely verse in Hebrews that says ‘Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters’ (Heb 2:11). We too will encounter evil. There is plenty of it loose in the world. There is the institutional evil of big corporations that exploit both the environment and communities simply for profit. There is massive social injustice across the world and in our own country, suppression of human rights, discrimination against all sorts of people based on nothing more than ethnic origin, religion, educational levels, gender and sexuality. There is wholescale war going on against the environment, the created order. There is large-scale sexual abuse against women and children: trafficking, endemic rape in some cultures, the sexual abuse of children. That may seem a long way from that synagogue in Capernaum but really, it’s individual evil writ large: greed, lust, contempt for human life, treating the world like it’s a shop with a broken window waiting to be raided. It’s what happens when individual evil goes unchecked. Then there’s evil closer to home. Women and men, made in the image of God, sleeping rough in Broad Street. And then there’s individual evil. I have met a couple of people in my life who literally made my flesh creep, whose cold disdain of humanity and greed for personal gain was like a negative spiritual force field around them. These are people who have gone far down that ‘other way’, that double path, people who have chosen lives that in some way deny the fullness of life to others and ruined their own souls too.
What I have tried to do in this sermon is to talk about what we don’t often talk about in church, of evil. To take it out of hiding, to try and understand where it comes from and what it does. Our following of Jesus will mean both that we will become more aware of evil, and also that evil will become aware of us, just as the man in the synagogue recognised Jesus for who he was. We probably won’t be loved much for standing up for some of the things I have mentioned, for calling out evil when we encounter it. But that shouldn’t stop us doing it. In the Lord’s prayer we pray, ‘Deliver us from evil’ and that is our prayer.