4th Sunday after the Epiphany – Vicar Ethan Stoppenhagen
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (Series B)
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
January 31, 2021
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
I don’t usually put a title on my sermons, but if I had to do it for this one, I would call it, “My Spiritual Journey into Pentecostalism, Part 2.” For those of you who weren’t here, Part 1 of this spontaneous new series was my sermon from two weeks ago in which I preached on the gift of the Holy Spirit. It was a moving day; everyone was set ablaze with the Spirit. And as I look out today, it seems like that’s already worn off. So let’s try to stoke the fire again.
Now, I would again like to emphasize that I am not a crypto-charismatic, despite continued accusations to the contrary. If anyone is a crypto-charismatic, it’s Mark! Two weeks ago, we saw how Mark jumps right into the action, with Jesus, already grown up, being baptized by John in the Jordan. There Mark emphasized Jesus receiving the Holy Spirit. Now this week, the story quickly continues with Jesus’ first miracle: the casting out of the unclean spirit. While other Gospel writers record the start of Jesus’ ministry with the water turned wine or the healing of the blind men, Mark focuses on the spiritual battles that Jesus has come to fight. He emphasizes how Jesus has come to conquer the demonic forces of our sinful world.
But just like it’s hard for us to talk about the Holy Spirit, it’s even harder for us to talk about the un-holy spirits. We struggle even to acknowledge their existence, let alone recognize their ongoing battles against us. Demons are the things of horror movies and video games, not of everyday life. We think, sure, they were just more active in Jesus’ time, but now they’ve quieted down. But this simply isn’t the case. Our modern world tries to explain away or mythologize them, but demons do continue to exist. They continue to afflict us and tempt us. And by failing to acknowledge their presence, we unwittingly give them more power over our lives.
Christ, however, has already conquered in the battle against the devil and his minions. The unclean spirits are no match for Jesus, who, as the Son of God, has a divine authority and power. He first showed this authority in his teaching that day in the synagogue, astonishing everyone with his words. But immediately there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. Notice how Mark uses the word unclean. He doesn’t call it an evil spirit or demon. That’s because to be possessed by a demonic force made one perpetually impure. And if you were unclean, you were unable to participate in the daily life of the Jewish community until you had been purified. But the demon-possessed, like the lepers, were always impure. Because of that impurity, they were often forced to live on the outskirts of society, so that they couldn’t hurt or harm anyone else.
This possessed man would not only have been ostracized from community life. He would have been forced out of life itself. The unclean spirit had taken control of his entire being. His words were no longer his own. His movements weren’t under his control. Even his imagination, his very thoughts were under the power of this demon. His body was no longer his own. The spiritual battle that raged within him was just as much a physical battle. And because of it, his life had essentially ended.
We might not realize it, but we aren’t much different than this man. He’s exactly what we would be without Christ and the Holy Spirit in us. We talked two Sundays ago about how we receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism. But we can’t receive the Holy Spirit until the unclean spirit in each of us has been cast out. We’re under the power of the devil until Christ has made us his own. That’s why Luther’s baptism liturgy included an exorcism. The pastor says to the baptized, “Depart you unclean spirit and give room to the Holy Spirit.” That’s all it takes; that simple word. Once that demon has been defeated, the Holy Spirit comes and takes its place to give us new life.
And new life is exactly what the demon-possessed man received. Jesus announced, “Be silent, and come out of him,” the demon came out, and suddenly the man was exactly where he needed to be—in the synagogue at the feet of Jesus, at the feet of Life itself. Jesus simple word had not only conquered the demon that possessed him. Even more, Jesus’ word restored his life. And now he could clearly hear Jesus’ teaching, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” For in that Gospel, Jesus not only offers redemption. In it he gives new life, as the man had just experienced—and not just eternal life, but new earthly life. This man’s whole existence had been radically altered because of Jesus’ life-giving Word. Jesus liberated him from bondage to Satan to live as God created him to be.
Not only has this man’s life been restored, but he has been restored to his spiritual community. His healing takes place in the synagogue, so that when Jesus casts out his demon, he’s immediately restored to his community. In his mind, the man would never be able to separate his new life from the believing community. And Jesus was revolutionizing that community with his teaching. The man was not alone in his new life. Every person in that synagogue who heard Christ’s teaching was astonished and changed. His teaching had power and authority not just to change minds, but to change hearts and entire lives as well. For the people in that synagogue, there was no doubt that Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life.
Just because Jesus has defeated the unclean spirits, that doesn’t mean he has destroyed them. The prince of this world still has power to drive us away from Christ. We continue to face the barrage of temptations from the unclean spirits. How powerful those temptations are! They tempt us to defile our bodies and minds, to abuse the gifts he has given us, to despise other people. And when we cave to those temptations, the demons keep harassing us. They tempt us to doubt God’s forgiveness. They tempt us to fear death. They tempt us to feel abandoned by God.
But in the end, the demon’s words of temptation are completely powerless against God’s word of forgiveness. Nothing can overpower his promise of life and salvation. That’s why when he freed you from Satan’s grasp and gave you the Holy Spirit, he didn’t hang you out to dry. Instead, he synagogues you, literally, he “brings you together” here into the body of Christ. Here speaks his words of forgiveness to you, so that you can speak it to one another. Here he heals you with his medicine of immortality, his true body and blood, so that you can care for one another. Here he equips you for battle to face the temptations of the evil one, so that you can offer yourselves for one another.
You might not be able to see it. You might not feel it. But here he takes hold of your life and transforms it, giving you new ways of seeing and hearing and speaking and doing so that you shine as beacon of hope into our dark, demon-possessed world. Finally, here he prepares you for that last day, so that when you see earthly death, you see only eternal life and the peace that surpasses all understanding.
In the holy name of Jesus.