31 Jan – Immediately – Psalm 111, Mark 1:21-28
When the news of new Covid 19 cases in Avalon first broke I was, as you know, with my parents in Frenchs Forest, and it was breath-taking how quickly states shut their borders and Covid became association with the Northern Beaches. Meanwhile in Frenchs Forest my dearly loved dad was arguing Frenchs Forest was not actually on the Northern Beaches: that what was happening, was happening in Avalon and, let’s face it, anything could happen in Avalon! Meanwhile, the residents of Avalon had a theory of their own. They claimed the virus did not start there but had been introduced by people holidaying from the Eastern Suburbs.
It reminds me of being in Japan thirteen years ago with three young children all with a nasty virus causing vomiting and diarrhoea – Grace was almost admitted to hospital – and making the mistake of referring to it as a Japanese flu. “Oh no,” I was told very firmly, “This is not a Japanese flu. This is the Russian flu.”
It is a very human tendency to locate that which is undesirable, that which is wrong, that which is evil outside us, outside our group, outside the boundaries that form our identity. It is the predictable thing people say to the news cameras after a murder or after a family violence incident or after a couple is run down by a teenage driver, “This doesn’t happen here. This is a good area. This is a good street. We are good people.” It is a defence mechanism that, in many situations, serves us well. It helps us identify and remove ourselves from danger. But it also blinds us to the immediacy of evil in our lives.
Which is what is so surprising and so true in our reading from Mark’s gospel this morning.
Here is Jesus at the start of his ministry. He has heard God’s call to action in John the Baptist’s preaching. He has been baptised and empowered by the Holy Spirit. He has been tested in the wilderness. He has begun preaching and gathered his first disciples and he comes to Capernaum and goes immediately (Ruth Powell also mentioned how the writer of Mark uses ‘immediately’ to bring urgency to this gospel – it appears three times in these eight verses!) to the synagogue and teaches, and here, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, he is immediately confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. Not in some Gentile community, not in Samaria (that would be convenient), not in the wilderness this time or among the tombs of dead, but on the holiest of days and in the holiest of places, the place where, if they read Psalm 111 as we have done this morning, they had come, “to give thanks to the Lord…in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”
Was this man, one commentator wonders, a first-time visitor (that would also be convenient) or was he on the church council, the diaconate (a much less comfortable thought)? The writer of Mark, however, is not concerned with the man’s role, but that this challenge to Jesus’ authority in the heart of this community reveals all the lies we tell ourselves that the evil is out there and the good is in here. This challenge reveals the immediacy of evil.
The great Russian novelist and ardent Orthodox Christian Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it in these words, “The line separating good and evil passes not though states, nor through classes, nor between political parties either – but right though every human heart – and through all human hearts.”
This story forces us to acknowledge the things that are undesirable in our own lives; our selfishness and self-centredness, our cruelty, inadvertent and deliberate, the things that hold us captive, the evil found in our hearts.
Something else is ‘immediate’ in this first chapter of Mark, however. We’re told in verse 15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” In the teaching of Jesus, in the actions of Jesus, in the person of Jesus, the kingdom of God, is now also immediate to human beings. It has come near.
But the writer of Mark teases us in this story. We’re told those in the synagogue “were astounded at Jesus teaching”. We’re told he taught as one with authority. They exclaim at the end, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” But we are not told what this teaching was! We are not even told exactly what it was not – although commentators say that the scribes did – exactly what I am doing here – quote other commentators! In contrast there was a directness, a relevance, an authenticity, an immediacy in Jesus’ teaching about the immediacy of the kingdom, about the love and mercy, righteousness and justice of God.
This week I stepped out of holiday mode briefly to join a Zoom meeting about the upcoming Special Assembly and at that meeting, Scott Higgins (I could say the known Baptist blogger and social justice advocate, but better known to us as John Higgins’ brother) gave a devotional and in it explained briefly how his family came to be Baptists by accident. His parents had been attending a small Anglican church but were worried that there was little there for their growing family. Scott remembers, however, his parents laughing when they pulled up outside the very ordinary brick Baptist building, but what was inside – Scott said – blew them away. Here were people who genuinely loved Jesus and wanted to follow Jesus. Here were people for whom life in the kingdom of God was real and immediate.
In the teaching of Jesus, in the actions of Jesus, in the person of Jesus the kingdom of God has also come near to each one of us. It comes as a challenge forcing us to reveal the evil we have hidden in our hearts. It comes as a release – a freeing – of years, of decades, of fear and guilt and oppression. It comes as an invitation to turn from the direction our lives were headed and go in the direction that leads to life. To recognise – as our Psalm said – that God has sent redemption to God’s people.
And with the immediacy of the kingdom comes an urgency to respond immediately – to begin living this kingdom life, acting this kingdom, being part of this kingdom life now – as the language of Mark indicates.
Immediately, verse 23 says, as Jesus was teaching, he was contorted by the man with the unclean spirit, who cried 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,” but here he is cut off by Jesus. Naming in this culture, just as naming things today, implies an association and a power over. “Silence,” says Jesus, “and come out of him.” And the text says that “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him”.
We do not share the text’s understanding of demon possession. We do however understand the impact of deep psychological distress, on individuals and communities. And we are aware, as Ruth mentioned last Sunday, that there are still cultures – the Melanesian world where she and I grew up – that believe in evil spirits and were overjoyed to find, in the message of Jesus, a great Spirit, greater than all evil. However, we understand exorcisms, Old Testament scholar Williams Loader writes, “those reported from the ancient world or from present day cultures unlike our own, something real is happening. People are being set free. Physical contortions and highly dramatic moments will occur in many different therapies, whether the frame of thought is demonology or modern psychology.”
This week, with her being named Australian of the Year, our attention has been drawn to the story of Grace Tame, and as I listened to her speak and heard her story and continued to reflect on this passage in Mark there were deep resonances: between who is given the power to name and hence to heal and who is not; between the physicality of the psychological damage that we inflict on ourselves and on others – Grace spoke of having recovered from a point where her muscles atrophied and she couldn’t walk; and between the closeness, the immediacy, of this terrible evil – not a stranger, but a teacher. And while our reaction might be to single out and send to perdition those capable of such acts, Grace wants the emphasis on education, on having the uncomfortable conversations, and on empowering survivors.
And as she spoke, I also heard a resonance with the writer of Mark’s ‘immediately’! For while we know that recovery from this kind, from all kinds, of psychological or physical or spiritual abuse will not happen in an instant, we are all called in this instant – to make a noise as Grace said – to join with Jesus in giving the voiceless a voice, in silencing oppression, in exposing the evil that lies within all of our hearts and by living out the love and mercy and justice and righteousness of the kingdom of God.
The immediacy of sin is met by the immediacy of God’s kingdom and we are called to respond by immediately – by the Spirit’s power – living the kingdom life.
So, let us respond – immediately. Let me lead you in a prayer of confession before we sing our next hymn. It is one I have adapted from a prayer written by Cheryl Lawrie who oversees the Uniting Church’s work injustice, community services and prisons, and there is a spoken response. When I say, “Cast out our demons, Lord,” please respond, “Make us new again.”
Loving God, we thank you for this extraordinary world, and its reminders of resilience, grace, hope and life:
for the green growth sprouting vigorously from blackened trees and branches,
for the blue sky no longer hidden by smoke,
for the courage of countries fighting an enemy too small to see,
for the courage of survivors speaking out about abuse.
In these things we see glimpses of who you are – and we are grateful.
Yet if we reduce you to being like the cycle of nature or the best of humankind,
we hide again the depth of evil and we diminish your power to overcome it;
to cast our the very real fears that paralyse us,
to banish the demons of oppression and destruction and self-loathing.
Forgive us, God, when we do not trust you to deal with the unspeakable awfulness in our lives and world.
In the silence we name the parts of our lives and our world that we believe are too broken to ever be made whole.
Cast out our demons, Lord. Make us new again.
Forgive us when we contribute to the brokenness of the world and the lives of people around us.
In the silence we name the things we have done that separate us from you and from others.
Cast out our demons, Lord. Make us new again.
The Scriptures say that redemption comes from our God,
that Jesus stands in our midst offering forgiveness and freedom and life,
that those who are in Christ are a new creation,
everything old has passed away; see, the new has come!
Hear then Christ’s word of grace to us. ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Let us say together, “Thanks be to God.”