Texts: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
The long light of morning sent shafts of light into the synagogue of Galilee on the Sabbath. The congregants hurried to take their places, jostling for a good view. No one wanted to miss the guest teacher. As with other synagogues, they frequently drew from the wisdom of travelling rabbis, skillful teachers trained in the tradition of one of several prominent rabbinical schools.
The Rabbi would read and interpret a passage from the Torah - the first five books of the bible. Everyone looked forward to hearing what new insight or story the Rabbi had to share. When the rabbi finished speaking, people could question and even argue with the Rabbi’s teaching. Some of them took special pleasure in this part, looking to match wits with the Rabbi and show that local folks could hold their own with a trained scholar.
There was particular anticipation that day knowing that the rabbi was raised in Nazareth just one long day’s walk away. Maybe not exactly kin, but some local men had met him by the lake and gave the Rabbi high praise. Yeshua was his Hebrew name, or Jesus in Greek. It was an old and meaningful name: “God saves”.
The synagogue was full of chatter when Rabbi Jesus arrived accompanied by his new friends. Silence fell quickly as the rabbi took his seat. Watchful eyes turned to the man as people evaluated the teacher. He quickly found his place in the Torah. Reading with a calm, strong voice full of confidence, Jesus made not a single error in his recitation. As if this was not just a man reading scripture, but a holy Word pouring out from a place of deep internal authority.
Then with his eyes focused on the people and a thoughtful expression on his face, Jesus began to explain and apply the text. As he taught, the people responded with murmuring and sometimes outright queries. Who is this rabbi? Where did he learn these things? Who were his teachers? Some fidgeted in their seats anticipating the religious debate and loud arguments on points small and large that were to come as soon as Rabbi Jesus finished speaking.
But before Jesus even finished speaking there was an outburst from the middle of the packed crowd. A man rose up with blazing eyes, pointed to the rabbi with a shaking finger and roared, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I have seen who you are, the Holy One of God.”
The demon spoke as if it was one single entity with its helpless host. It demanded to know the nature of the relationship it had with the rabbi. Friend or foe? People were surprised to hear the demon crying out the name of God’s Spirit which it seemed to recognize within Jesus.
This demon infested man was no stranger to the synagogue crowd. He held no job; hadn’t worked for years. He’d been a bright boy but in his early manhood his temperament changed. He paced the streets for days and nights restless and wild eyed. For no apparent reason he might screech at passersby, sending them scurrying into a shop for safety. At other times the man was almost normal. It was impossible to know what he might do at any moment.
Local people had a name for the man – demon infested. He had kinspeople in Capernaum. So although they never entirely accepted him, neither did they reject or banish him. They just knew to be watchful whenever the man was around.
So when the rabbi Jesus spoke to the man there was a sharp intake of breath. People stepped back. Some moved to stand behind the synagogue’s stone columns for safety. What would the man do? How would his demons respond?
The rabbi looked at the man straight on. Speaking directly to the demon Jesus said, “Be silent and come out of him.” Tough no-nonsense words of censure. Words spoken with absolute confidence and yet unexpectedly in such a way as to honor the man while confronting the demon that hovered breathing foul impurity within him.
Jesus didn’t see a demented, dangerous man. He saw a creature of God’s own making, caged by a powerful force beyond the man’s understanding. Jesus called that demon out. And so it left the man, bursting out of him with brute force, loudly cursing.
The synagogue erupted then. “What a teaching! Where does the authority come from that speaks in this way? The demon is gone! Gone!” And the people hurried away to tell others what they had seen and heard in the synagogue that day.
Why would Jesus want to silence the demon when it is announcing who Jesus really is? Perhaps it’s because the demon is not interested in participating in God’s reign. It wants to lay claim to Jesus and his message about God’s reign. All the demon knows is its own lust for control.
The idea of participating in the reign of God versus using God-language and outward piety to control and gain people’s trust is the issue behind Moses’s warning to in Deuteronomy to prophets and to the people of Israel. Announcing untrue things in God’s name is dangerous and fails to further God’s reign. It is destructive and even demonic. Yet when a trustworthy prophet speaks God’s Word rightly, it is constructive and people are accountable to God through it.
The struggle to control the content of information is a problem we know all too well. From infancy we constantly hear messages and are shaped by them. By them we are formed. Do we hear judgment and hate? It is a demon that speaks and intends to possess us. Do we hear privilege and exceptionalism? This too is a demon. Like viruses demons are vectors of infection.
It’s not easy to get outside of a demon’s cage. It means turning to God with true desire for God’s reign. It’s confessing, and getting the help we need to live demon-free. The good news of Jesus is that this is entirely possible for all of us. Yet freedom comes with responsibility as Paul told the Corinthian Christians. Whatever we say and do is an invitation to others to join us. Our influence should never cause someone to become infected by demons and alienated from God.
Jesus knew that the man was not his demon. He was being used by the demon. The demon’s separation from the man rough. Yet this was the only path to the man’s restored life, and nothing less than resurrection. It is the true demon-defying message of God’s reign that we all need to hear, to embrace in ourselves, and to announce with all our hearts. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.