‘The kingdom of God has come near!’
These are the words that we heard Jesus say in last week’s gospel lesson – this is the great announcement, the great proclamation Jesus puts at the very beginning of his ministry. And the entire gospel according to Mark and all of Jesus’ deeds described in it are an interpretation of this kingdom of God come near, how it unfolds. It comes near in and through Jesus Christ. It can be experienced in his words and deeds – and the words and deeds of the ones he calls to follow him. It comes near in the turning around of circumstances, the displays of God’s power in surprising places and situations. It comes near when the world is turned on its head.
The very first thing Jesus does as he starts his ministry is to call disciples, followers, assistants in bringing the kingdom of God near the people – again, we heard about this last week. In today’s gospel story, we hear about the second thing he does. Jesus walks into a synagogue in Capernaum to teach. Capernaum is a town on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and the gospel according to John states that Simon Peter and Andrew, the first disciples of Jesus, are from Capernaum. Looking at the timeline, it makes sense that Jesus would call his first disciples on the shore and then teach in their synagogue.
Now we don’t get to know what he teaches. This story is all about the reactions to his teachings.
First we hear that there are those in the synagogue who are astounded, because Jesus teaches with authority. And the astonishment may stem from the fact that Jesus is a stranger, a nobody, from Nazareth – just a couple of weeks ago, we heard that nothing good can come out of Nazareth – a carpenter’s son. That Jesus doesn’t have the pedigree or the credentials that would cause people to expect his authority. Who is this guy?
But not only the towns people listen to Jesus’ teachings. There is a man with an unclean spirit, we hear – and at this point I want to get into the whole issue of what that could mean. In any case, here we have a man who is possessed by some illness or another, a man who isn’t himself, a man whose identity is lost as he is struggling with the powers that hold sway over him. A man who is overpowered by his ailment. A man who is excluded from life in society. And I think most of us have met people like that in our lives, people who seem raving mad in the streets of San Francisco or on BART, people who suffer from addictions, people who are overcome by depression.
Now this unclean spirit in the synagogue listens very closely to what Jesus says and teaches. And where the townspeople are astonished and baffled, this spirit knows that the kingdom of God has come near, that the days of dark forces in this world are numbered, and who Jesus is. ‘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.’
This is mind blowing and absolutely unexpected: the forces of the dark recognize Jesus before anyone else. Even Jesus’ disciples will wrestle with the question, who Jesus is, for quite a while. And this is at the heart of the story. The kingdom of God has come near, not in the mighty temple in Jerusalem, but in a synagogue in the provincial town of Capernaum. And not the pious recognize the presence of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, but this spirit.
It may be lost on us today, but when this story was first told and consequently written down by Mark, it was a scandalous story. A story that shows that, with God, nothing is as expected. The world is turned on its head.
The exorcism, the driving out of this unclean spirit, is merely a consequence of the acknowledgement of Jesus’ power: Jesus commands the spirit to leave the man it possesses, and the spirit can’t resist, but has to obey. The kingdom of God has come near. Dark forces are overcome by the power of God. New life begins, a life restored to health and wholeness, a life restored to community with neighbors and with God.
Now I already said in last week’s sermon that Mark is very intentional about the composition of his gospel account. It is not by chance that Jesus’ first public act is an exorcism. This act sets the tone for all things to come: as God’s kingdom arrives, other powers have to be driven out. Ultimately, the power of death will be driven out by Christ’s death and resurrection. Before there can be new life, there has to be transformation. The world needs to be turned on its head.
There is a certain tension in our lives as Christians. God takes us as we are, God embraces us with our flaws and our shortcomings. This is grace. And nothing can separate us from the love of God, as the Apostle Paul writes.
However, this could be misunderstood as a blank check. This could be understood in a way that I can do whatever I please, that I don’t have to change, that no transformation is necessary in my life. This could be understood in a way that we as a society just accept things the way they are and don’t try to mend its every flaw.
Yes, we are loved by God, unconditionally, but the kingdom of God is far where we don’t share this love and mercy we have so abundantly received; the kingdom of God is far away where and when we continue to ignore or even coddle the dark powers that are at work.
Let’s think about unclean spirits that possess us today, individually and as a society. Things like mental issues or addiction may be among them, but I am not primarily focusing on those, since we all know that it takes much more than the will to overcome them to be restored to wholeness, that these are serious health conditions that need professional treatment. No, some of the things that possess us today are much more subtle: fear of the other. The belief that a strong economy will fix all problems. Irrationality. The stubborn clinging to our opinion and our worldview, even though there is reasonable evidence that these are untrue or the partial truth. And then all the ‘–isms’ that poison human life together: sexism, racism, consumerism, fundamentalism, extremism, exceptionalism – and I could go on and on – did you know that there are 3824 words in the English language that end in ‘-ism’?
All these ‘-isms’ keep up from embracing the kingdom of God come near. And, yes, we need an exorcism (oh look! Another word that ends in ‘-ism’!) for all these ‘-isms’, we need for these possessive powers to be driven out before the power of life, the power of love can take over our hearts and this world, before the kingdom of God is realized among us. And yes: the exorcism, the driving out of all these powers would turn the world around. Imagine a world without them.
Ultimately, it is up to God to liberate us from all the spirits that possess us. However, we need to at least be willing to let go of these spirits. And this is something we claim we want – when we pray things like ‘create in me a clean heart, o God, and restore a right spirit within me’, or even ‘thy kingdom come’. To paraphrase scholar Richard Rohr, when we say ‘thy kingdom come’, we also have to pray ‘my kingdom go’. And so it takes our participation in that process of liberation and transformation – our openness to being liberated.
And how we react to Christ and his teachings is an important part of this. Are we merely astounded? Do we listen politely and think, that’s great – but don’t let Christ or his teachings influence us and our existence? Or do we, like the unclean spirit in today’s gospel lesson, realize what’s at stake? Do we acknowledge the authority of Christ? Are we willing to surrender to the power of God?
The kingdom of God has come near. And it is a kingdom of grace, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, justice, and love. It is a kingdom where crying and pain and mourning and death will be no more. This is what God envisions for us and for all creation. This is the power we are invited to surrender to. This is the world turned on its head we are invited to enter. This is the new life that has been promised to us. Could you give me any good reason why we should or would resist?