Mark 1:21-28 — What Are We to Make of Jesus’ Power to Cast Out “Unclean” Spirits?


A sermon preached on January 31, 2021 based upon Mark 1:21-28 entitled, “What Are We to Make of Jesus’ Power to Cast Out ‘Unclean Spirits’”?

I’ve committed myself to an in-depth study of the Gospel of Mark for twelve weeks leading straight through Holy Week, and I am grateful for those who have gathered with me on Zoom Thursday evenings to share in this journey as together we focus on Jesus and what it means to be his disciple.  This sermon arises from that study and our discussions.  It will be unusual in that most of what I will say will come before the reading of our Gospel passage.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed is as the one sent by God with power and authority to overthrow the spiritual forces of evil at work in this world, and the passage we will hear this morning is the first in which this theme that highlights this theme.

Before we listen to the story it is important to talk a bit about the nature of evil. The simplest way to keep in mind what evil is always up to is to remember the little oddity that the word “evil” is the word “live” spelled backwards. Evil is that force at work in the world that diminishes and destroys life – the power that works against God’s gracious intentions for the world. God wants us to live life abundantly.

So where is evil located?

Well, it’s out there in the world, but it is also found inside of each one of us.  Hopefully, with a little soul searching all of us can identify places within ourselves where what I’m calling “evil” has a foothold inside us. Typically, such evil enters our lives through the psychic wounds we received in the past — perhaps in childhood, perhaps later in life – painful experiences that became the occasion for the life force within us to be weakened in a wide variety of ways.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this as a lingering sense of unworthiness that haunts you, leading you to feel undeserving of love, or incapable of freely giving love.

Perhaps there are places in your life where a persistent bitterness taken up residency, leading you to close down your heart – refusing to trust in the places where trust is precisely what is necessary to live life deeply and richly.

Maybe you’re aware of an inner darkness that leaves you feeling as though you not really safe, leading you in turn to compulsively strive for control – oftentimes over the lives of others – in ways that are destructive.

This inner evil I am speaking typically gets expressed in unholy attachments that diminish our internal freedom and with it our capacity to experience joy and give and receive love.  Desires that are not evil when they have their proper place in the order of things take on a destructive quality when they become overly important.

In the Bible these attachments are called idolatry.  Nowadays we more commonly refer to these as “addictions.” The evil rendered by certain forms of addiction – to drugs and alcohol for instance – are pretty easy to recognize.

But those of us who are free from such addictions are prone to our own kinds of unholy attachments.

To name but a few…

We can be overly attached to the image we project to the world and the need to control how others view us, as well as to our power and status in this world – reacting severely when others call it into question.  (We will see this happen in Mark’s Gospel when Jesus challenges the authority of the scribes and Pharisees – otherwise “good” people are moved to commit evil violence.)

We can be overly attached to work and our need for success.

One attachment that Jesus talked a lot about was our tendency to make a god of money – eclipsing our innate gratitude and generosity as people made in the image and likeness of God. (“How much is enough?” one of the Rockefellers was once asked. “Always a little more.”)

We can get overly attached to a particular ideology and to the need to always be “right” in a way that destroys relationships.

In every instance, evil is experienced as a form of bondage that limits our capacity to love, the very thing that is at the heart of what it means to be truly alive.

As followers of Jesus, we seek to open ourselves up to the grace of God that can heal our inner wounds and deliver us from this inner bondage, but this is an ongoing process that lasts till the end of our lives here on earth. It’s not the sort of thing where we can claim to have “arrived” in the sense of permanently freeing ourselves from the powers of darkness.

What I’m calling “evil” is within ourselves, but it is also outside of us in the institutions – the structured associations of people — through which we live out our lives.  To name a few:  families, religious institutions, political institutions, businesses – even the local little league. At their best such institutions enhance life far more than they do harm.  But oftentimes institutions can go over to the dark side.  Typically, this involves people holding authority within these institutions clutching to their power and the status quo – the ways things “always” have been — in a way that harms the lives of the people impacted by these institutions. In the Gospel of Mark we see Jesus challenging the evil that has taken hold of religious institutions that held tremendous power in his day.

We also hear a lot about “unclean” or “evil” spirits in Mark’s Gospel that seem to take possession of people.  What are we to make of this?

To get a handle on what Mark is getting at, I want to talk about what I think is an important distinction between what it means to be simply a “sinner” in contrast to being somebody who has become “possessed by evil.”

All human beings are “sinners” in the sense that the struggle between good and evil runs right through the center of every one of us. Our better angels wrestle with our demons. We are sinners saved by grace.

What separates the run of the mill “sinner” from someone who is “demon possessed” is that the demon possessed person has lost sight of this ongoing struggle. They deny the potential within themselves to do great harm – and by doing so, end up diminishing and destroying the sacred gift of life.

Our saving grace is our capacity to humbly acknowledge the ongoing struggle within our souls been light and darkness – our capacity to experience guilt where appropriate and own the ways we have done harm to ourselves and others, seeking where possible to repair the damage that has been done.

The God who gives life and gives it abundantly doesn’t want us to wallow in guilt — the Good News that Jesus came to announce includes the truth that God’s forgiveness and a new beginning are readily available to all of us.

But our inner darkness needs to be acknowledged.

In our spiritual lives, a line can be crossed in which we “lose our souls” – or at least our souls get so deeply buried that we no longer no how to find our way home.  For the time being evil triumphs.  The “demon” takes possession of a life.  When this line is crossed a person becomes convinced that there is no struggle taking place inside them between good and evil – that all they do and think is right and justifiable – that the problem is always out there and never in here.  They project their own inner darkness outward, doing great harm to others.

The same thing that can happen in the life a single human soul can also occur in the life of an institution that loses its capacity to critique itself.

There is no such thing as a perfect institution. Forces of evil struggle against forces of good whether we’re talking about a family, a church or government.  Hopefully the good produced by the institution far outweighs the evil.  But a similar line can be crossed where the institution loses the capacity to acknowledge ways it damages the people who come under its influence. Such an institution can said to be demon-possessed.

In regard to political institutions, this is why democracy is so very important, because when a democracy is at least to some degree functioning properly it provides a safe guard from a nation ending up like Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia.

Throughout history, tragically religious institutions have been particularly prone to what I’m calling demonic possession.  If you are intent on viewing yourself as somebody who has no darkness within you – well, religion can be just the place to hide out.

And so in this morning’s Gospel lesson, as Jesus begins his ministry he goes to the local religious institution – a synagogue – on the Sabbath and some really strange things occur.

And so finally we reach our Gospel reading for this morning which takes place in the 1st chapter of Mark beginning in the 21st verse.  Prior to this Jesus has been baptized by John, received the Holy Spirit and spent 40 days in the wilderness tempted by Satan, the Father of all lies.

They (that is Jesus and the four fishermen he has called to be his disciples) went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught. 22The people there were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 

It is striking that we aren’t told what he taught.  We can assume he spoke of the Kingdom of God that was breaking into the world in his ministry.  But it seems less the words he spoke and more the way in which he spoke that caught his listeners’ attention.   He spoke to them out of an authority that arose from within him that was unlike the authority of the scribes that comes merely from their academic study.  Where — we can ask along with his listeners that day in the synagogue — did this authority come from?

The obvious answer is that it comes from God and the Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus a few verses earlier when he arose from John’s baptism.

But notice a couple of things.

First, in submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus acknowledged that he fully shared in the human condition. He knows first hand the struggle in which we find ourselves engaged.

Secondly, notice that the very first thing the Holy Spirit did was drive Jesus out into the wilderness specifically to be tempted by Satan for forty days.

Consider what that means:  A temptation isn’t real unless there is a desire inside us that could potentially respond to the temptation.

So Jesus spent forty days without distraction looking squarely in the face all the desires of his heart – all the things that had the potential of becoming for him what I have called an “unholy attachment” – desires that could tempt him to lose his true center in God.  Having faced down the demons, so to speak, he knows of what he speaks and authority with which he now speaks in unmistakable.

In what follows, the Greek words Mark uses convey the sense that Jesus has come to that synagogue looking to pick a fight with the demonic powers that have gravitated to the primary religious institution of the day, around which all communal life was ordered.

Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he 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.’ 

Jesus’ authority threatens the authority the demons — they know it, and are not happy about it one bit.  Take note of the fact that the words that come forth from the demon-possessed man: “Have you come to destroy us?”

The evil isn’t just in this one man – it’s in the institution represented by the synagogue.   Jesus is intentionally challenging the authority of the demons that have taken up residency there – the systemic evil that has come made the synagogue oppressive and harmful rather than life-giving.

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

And so Mark presents to us the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God who has come to free us from the power of evil – the forces inside us that diminish our lives and the lives of others – and the forces that take hold of the institutions that are intended by God to bless our communal life.

Where is there bondage in your life?  Where inside you – and where outside you?

Jesus has come with the power to set us free. It is good news we share, that if Jesus could deliver that man taken possession of by unclean spirits that day in the synagogue, so he can set us free from the powers of darkness.

He invites our trust – that we might let go of our tight grip on things that have become unholy attachment, and experience the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus comes to set us free, and to invite us to become agents in the liberation of others in his name.  We are offered power from on high for this hold work.