The first demonstration of power by Jesus in each of the gospels matters. They matter because they set out the theme of the Gospel. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon about the law. In Luke Jesus resists the temptations before being rejected when he preached in his home town. In John’s Gospel Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding, an act full of meaning and symbolism of his coming death and resurrection.
But in Mark’s Gospel the first thing Jesus does is perform an exorcism.
So for Mark what possesses us matters.
That might sound like a really strange thing to say but as we work our way through this brilliant Gospel this year we’ll discover, I hope, just how true that it. And why it’s so important.
Jesus has ended up in Capernaum. It’s a little fishing village on the north shore of the Galilee but it’s one of those places with some pretty significant geography. Moving things by water was much quicker than by land so the lake was busy with cargo going north and south between Lebanon and Egypt. People passed through.
It was also just round the lake from the Roman garrison at Tiberius… just far enough away to not have to worry too much about the soldiers. In the other direction to the east of the lake is Gentile country. Capernaum is quite literally on the edge in all kinds of ways.
The other thing Capernaum is close to is some natural hot springs at Tagba. Hot springs were, and still are, a place sick people go to try to get well. To get rid of the things that cause them pain.
So place is important. Capernaum will become Jesus’ base for his ministry and it’s position will allow him to spend time with all kinds of people from all kinds of places. But what matters first here is even more important.
Have you ever had an ear worm? You know, a song that gets stuck in your head and just won’t go away? Annoying, isn’t it! But think… if something so silly and meaningless as a song can get stuck in your head, then imagine what it’s like when something more sinister gets in there and won’t go away.
Possession isn’t like the horror movies. Possession is an idea that takes over your mind. This man is in the Synagogue, among his friends and neighbours. He’s there at the time when he’s supposed to be worshiping God, but his thoughts are elsewhere on whatever desires or obsession fills his mind. He’s thinking about what he wants, what he can have, what he can control.
The use of power and violence has become acceptable. Encouraged at some levels even. But when someone challenges you, suggests there might be an issue, a problem, then the reaction can be pretty strong.
Let me give you an example about the use of power. In the TV debates we now get during elections Jeremy Corbyn when he led the Labour Party was asked a question that potential leaders have been asked for decades now. Would you press the button? Would you sanction the use of nuclear weapons? His answer caused shockwaves… He said ‘no’. And people were appalled.
Now there are plenty of problems with Corbyn, but not being willing to obliterate another country and cause what would almost certainly result in a nuclear war that would destroy the world was apparently something that meant he was unfit to be Prime Minister. Just let that sink in for a moment. Not being willing to take actions that would at the very least kill millions and leave vast areas uninhabitable for decades was a problem.
Or, to give a more current example, there is little doubt that what is happening in Gaza is an appalling use of force… and the world is standing by, allowing it to happen. To happen with bombs and bullets made here.
Isn’t it amazing how ideas take root. Isn’t it fascinating how power takes over.
Jesus’ reaction to what possesses this man is straight forward. Come out. Leave him alone. It’s a healing. The end of his torment. The triumph of God over evil.
But like most of Mark’s Gospel this is about more that one man’s problems.
Here, right at the heart of this religious country, in the very place and at the very time where God is supposed to be first in people’s thoughts, is an unclean spirit.
This story is the story of Israel. The religious authorities collude with the Romans and with their own local leaders to maintain their own status and power. The people are distracted from God by all the things that still distract us… worry, self-reliance, pride, arrogance, fear…
For the rest of Mark’s Gospel Jesus will battle with all of that. He will stand up against all of the things that possess people’s minds: power, corruption, greed, ambition, fear, domination… Mark sums it all up in the idea of Empire. A whole system created to keep people in line, to direct their thoughts away from their problems by providing small distractions.
The Romas called it bread and circuses. Make sure the people have just enough to eat to keep them working hard. And when times get tough and they start to complain you give them some extra along with some entertainment. Some kind of spectacle to distract them. Add into that the idea of a threat to your way of life from ‘outsiders’ which only we can keep you safe from and you have a pretty heady mix that’s hard to resist… especially when there is also severe punishment for not towing the line.
But it’s all a lie. A great big illusion. It’s an idea that possesses us. So much so that 2,000 years later we still can’t imagine another way, even though we know it’s not right!
Our religious life is often no better. There’s a man with an unclean spirit there in the middle of their worship. He doesn’t turn up at the end. He’s there with everyone else. And they don’t notice.
Perhaps they don’t notice the unclean spirit because they all have the same issues. They are possessed too. They have all bought into the same lies.
Nobody can see the problem until someone so different, so outside of the system comes along. And as soon as they see Jesus teach with the authority, the power of God, they see the problem. It’s so obvious. The contrast is so great to what they have been told until now that they all see it.
And the man with most to loose reacts.
I think we all have a bit of that.
We know the things that get in the way of God. In the way of the world being how God intends it to be. And perhaps we are in our own ways possessed too by those things because we can’t or won’t stop. By a way of life that is absolutely and undoubtably destroying the planet.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
The Good News is that Jesus has authority over all of it.
We are not alone.
We are never alone.
Even when things seem at their darkest.
Even when things seem hopeless.
Even when it’s all to much…
God is there.