“Have you come to destroy us?”

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Mark 1:21-28

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Good morning! What a pleasure and honor it is to share the good news of Jesus Christ with you this morning. I’d like to thank Dean Hill for asking me to preach today and my colleagues here at the chapel for their support and encouragement.

Today is the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. We are in the liminal time between the celebration of the birth of Christ, and Ash Wednesday. It’s not a memorable season like Advent, when we’re so excited to get to the birth of Christ that we sometimes jump ahead into its celebration a bit early. Or one of Lent, during which we fast, meditate, and prepare for the death and resurrection of Christ. No, the season after Epiphany, in some churches, particularly the Catholic Church, referred to as “Ordinary Time”, is when we hear the stories the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry. It’s when we learn of Jesus’ teachings, healings, and interactions with the people he encounters along the way. We use green paraments to highlight not only the growth and development of Jesus’ ministry, but our own spiritual growth and development through hearing and engaging the retelling of Jesus’ ministry on earth. We are then called to go out into the world and share that spiritual growth through the love of Christ that we share with all people.

This liturgical year, we grapple with Mark’s gospel to help us understand this period of Jesus life. Mark is the shortest gospel and believed by scholars to be the earliest retellings of the life of Jesus. The episodes within Mark’s scripture are much abbreviated, or “raw”, as one commentary I read put it. We get the facts and figures of Jesus’ work in the world, but not much flowery description. But in a way, Mark’s gospel is perfect for this Epiphanytide, this “Ordinary Time.” The gospel jumps right into the action of Jesus’ baptism and ministry. There is no description of the birth of Christ or the events leading up to it, like in Luke’s Gospel. Instead, we encounter the fully grown adult Jesus, baptized by John and announced as the Son and Beloved of God who then begins the work of God in the world. Mark is primarily concerned with conveying who Jesus is as the Holy One, the messiah, and that his authority comes from God. This is fully expressed through Jesus’ words and deeds.

In Mark’s gospel, we and the people Jesus encounters come to know who he is through his acts of teaching and healing. The focus is on Jesus’ authority in these situations. In today’s gospel reading, he is unknown to the people in the temple, but commands their attention through his words and actions. It is only the unclean spirit, or demon, or evil force which possesses the man in the synagogue who recognizes Jesus for who he is and the power that he can potentially wield. “Have you come to destroy us?” is one of the questions posed to Jesus by this evil force. The unclean spirit recognizes that Jesus possesses the authority of God, and questions how that power and authority will be used. Whether this is a sarcastic comment questioning the power of the Holy One, “Have you come to destroy us?” or a genuine inquiry of fear from the unclean spirit, “Have you come to destroy us?” we are not sure. But it gives us an interesting starting point for understanding the type of authority Jesus brings into the world and how our understanding of this authority can shape the ways we understand our Christian identity.

“Have YOU come to destroy us?”

First, let’s focus on the you in this question: “Have YOU come to destroy us?” The “you” obviously refers to Jesus. But Jesus is relatively unknown to the community he is within. The reaction of the people tells us so – he teaches them as one having authority, but not like the way that they had heard from the scribes. Jesus teaches in a NEW way. Not focusing on traditional interpretation of the Torah, as the scribes do, but by relying on the authority of God. The scripture does not share the words that Jesus spoke, but we know from other passages in Mark that his teachings challenge the systems that have led the participants and the leaders of the service into complacency.

We might be able to relate to this reliance on tradition in our own contexts – we become complacent not only to our styles of worship, but how we find ourselves interacting with the social structures that surround us in our everyday lives. “That’s just the way things are.” “This is the way it’s always been done.” But that blind trust can lead to problems like systemic injustices and oppression. What Mark demonstrates through this teaching is that Jesus points out the inadequacy of the teaching going on in the synagogue to reveal the true meaning of God’s relationship with people on Earth. We are called to seek out justice and righteousness, as the Psalmist today reminds us: God’s righteousness endures forever. God is gracious and merciful.

The people in the synagogue are astounded by Jesus’ teaching. From the immediate recognition of Jesus’ authority the story quickly transitions into the man with the unclean spirit getting up and shouting at Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Why has Jesus come to this synagogue to teach? How will Jesus’ teachings change the relationship between good and evil forces in the world?

Jesus’ teaching is founded in God, from whom his authority derives. His speech is powerful and authoritative because it speaks the truth. Jesus is a prophet, because he speaks the truth that is found in God and God’s will for the world. This authority is visible to those who hear him speak, as is obvious from last week’s gospel, in which Jesus promises Simon, Andrew, James, and John that he will make them “fishers of people” and they drop their nets and follow him. Jesus’ authority is unmistakable. But it isn’t what we might expect from the Messiah.

“Have you come to DESTROY us?”

It is established that Jesus is authoritative in his teaching, but do his actions match his words? Let us refer back to our guiding quote for this sermon, “Have you come to DESTROY us?” The word used by the unclean spirit is destroy in reference to how Jesus will use his power. Destruction is a violent word. It conjures images of razed lands, where no building is left standing. Or the complete obliteration of a person, a system. It might be what you would expect that the Holy One of God may bring to the Earth in order to control or subdue it. It might be what you would expect if it was your way with engaging with the world – to seek pain, violence and destruction instead of life-giving, healing, community. That is what the unclean spirits do, even to the point of causing self-destruction to their hosts, as described in Mark chapter 5.

We know from our own experiences that those with authority and power can slip into using that power for their own ends, to the point of injuring others. Without concern for the greater well-being, without that direct connection with the divine will for justice and righteousness, a person can create a great deal of damage by favoring certain groups of people with their power in ways that divide and amplify systems of oppression. Jesus has the power of God on his side, and it is precisely because of this connection with the divine that he utilizes that power to restore rather than destroy.

Jesus does not destroy. Yes, Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit telling it to “Be silent” and come out of the man, but there is no destruction. The spirit obeys, albeit putting up a fight on its way out, but it leaves. Jesus doesn’t destroy the spirit – where it goes to, we don’t know. But additionally, he doesn’t destroy the unclean spirit’s host, the man. Instead he restores the man to health. He “heals” the man. Jesus does not seek to obtain power for himself in this situation, as the evil forces might do. He serves humanity instead, restoring the man to his full humanity.

Jesus is a teacher and healer during his ministry; not someone who destroys. Can you imagine describing Jesus as a teacher and destroyer? It just doesn’t seem to fit the conception we have of him. He commands power over those things which are damaging to both the individual body and the communal body. He demonstrates that his authority can overcome the unclean spirits, the powers of evil, through the restoration of the person. We may extend this metaphor to say that this person, who is possessed by the unclean spirit, could also be ostracized from his community if his behavior were to continue. We know as much from the story of the man possessed by the legion of unclean spirits in Mark chapter 5 who is physically removed from the community. Jesus restores both the man in the temple and the man exiled to their communities. And in both instances the communities are amazed.

Jesus has power and authority, but he uses in a way that nonviolently transforms. As the Spider Man movies have taught us “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or as saint Luke states in Chapter 12, verse 48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Jesus is tasked with the greatest power and responsibility. In order to do the work of God on Earth, he must use his power and authority in a way that restores the earthly community to one of support, love, and inclusion.

“Have you come to destroy US?”

The final factor in this question posed by the unclean spirit is, who is “us”? Up to now, I have been talking about an unclean spirit. Suddenly it is multiplied by the spirit itself – “us.” We may understand this “us” as all evil forces, as those things which prevent flourishing in the world. If we read this passage with a historical critical lens, we may side with commentators who situate the Jewish community in Capernaum as a community under the Roman Empire – perhaps then the “us” are the imperialists who continue to oppress those in their community. Or it may be that this unclean spirit is an actual pre-scientific understanding of what a health concern looked like. But one thing is clear – the forces that recognize Jesus know who he is and recognize his potential power when no one else can.

Today we may see the “us” as the powerful forces we encounter in our lives that keep us from having a full relationship with the divine and from completely expressing God’s love to ourselves and others. These forces may be spiritual, biological, societal, or political. They may make us feel powerless and out of control, just as the man who is possessed appears to be. We may feel like there is no way of overcoming them or destroying them, as it were.

But there is hope. Because Jesus displays that there is the possibility of healing and hope in the face of such challenges. By bringing us a new way that is full of love and care for others, the healing and restoration of our communities is a possibility. As Paul reminds the church in Corinth, it is love that “builds up.” Love builds up our relationships with each other, and it also builds up our relationship with God. We may not be able to destroy the evil that exists in the world, but we are capable of taking away its authority and power over our lives.

Moving toward the future

The gospel for this week reminds us of the great acts of Jesus but also should spark us into action. Jesus, after all, was a radical. And by radical, I mean the definition which comes out of the Latin root, radix, which literally means root. Jesus comes to fundamentally change the way we understand our relationship with God and with each other. His new way of teaching is simplified and relies less on tradition and more on the authentic word of God found within the scriptures. He astounds and amazes the people by using his authority both to teach and to heal and restore. But we must remember that not everyone accepted Jesus’ teachings or his acts of healing as coming from God. He encounters these challenges again and again throughout the gospel of Mark, eventually leading to his own death. He challenges the status quo in a new, nonviolent, but revolutionary way that scares those accustomed to the old ways.

I imagine people’s reactions to Jesus’ teaching to be like the first time I read James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation. As a first year Master’s level student, it destabilized me. It made me question everything I thought I knew about Christianity and emphasized the inherent privilege I possess as someone who is white. It highlighted the systems of oppression found within American society and particularly within the field of theology, which had been primarily developed by Western, white perspectives up until the writing of this book. It felt foreign to me, a challenge to my what I then thought were my brilliant theological ideas, and I just didn’t get it. And, like the unclean spirit in this passage, my reaction, at first, was to reject it. Because it didn’t speak to me. Because it scared me. Because I felt threatened by it. But that kind of teaching is exactly what I needed to grow, to at least try to better understand the lives of those who are oppressed by society. It made me look at the scriptures in a new way. It opened up avenues of many different and varied theological perspectives arising out of theologies of liberation that help shape my personal theological and ethical ideas today. The challenge was a good thing because it opened my eyes to new ways of being in the world. New ways that I am by no means an expert at, but new ways that I can continue to grow into.

There are many times in our lives when I’m sure we wish that Jesus would show up and get rid of the evil and oppressive forces in our lives. That it would be as easy as a command uttered for negative forces to leave us. But it’s not. At least it isn’t for us (it may still be for Jesus himself). We can’t make our personal demons or our societal demons leave us by willing them to go away. But what we can do is recognize them and engage ourselves to reform them. In order to do this properly, however, we must first be able to recognize those forces which have taken priority for us that are in conflict with God’s will. If we can acknowledge the demons then we can take their power away. If we ignore them and pretend they aren’t there, then we allow them to still have power over us. White supremacy, sexism, homophobia, addiction, and hate as well as many other insidious social ills surround us. Our job is to name them for what they are and systematically dismantle the influence they have in our collective lives. This is by no means any easy or pleasant job, but one that speaks to the justice and righteousness found in God.

We are called to be purveyors of Christ’s love in the world. If we recognize Jesus’ authority and how he uses it to bring about change, we can learn from it. Authority and the power that comes with it can easily be mismanaged and improperly used for self-aggrandizement. Jesus is our example – he possesses God’s authority, but uses that authority to serve others. Our power also comes in serving others, as Martin Luther said, being “little Christs” for our neighbors. Through service of others, learning from others, and being in community we can imagine a better future for ourselves. In this Season after Epiphany, this “Ordinary Time,” let us continue to grow in spirit and love.

“Have you come to destroy us?” No, Jesus has come to restore us.

Amen.

-Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 

 

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One Response to ““Have you come to destroy us?””

  1. Robert Donohue says:

    Good Morning, Yesterday by chance I heard Chaplain Jessica Chicka’s sermon on WBUR Boston. I’m not a practicing Christian, though Christ is my teacher and I draw my moral code from his words and actions. As I returned from grocery shopping I sat, transfixed, by Chaplain Chick’s message. I was unable to leave the car even after arriving home. The chaplain’s words reminded me of the Christ I grew up with and how the loving kindness of His life permeated my understanding and how much I rely on those messages today. I wanted to tell someone and though I don’t speak of Jesus openly among my friends and family I feel I need to find a way. Our world is in as much turmoil and disillusion as I can ever recall. This sermon gave me hope. Bless you! Peace of Christ, Robert

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