4th Sunday after the Epiphany
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As we have been working our way through the season of Epiphany, we have seen a variety of ways in which Jesus Christ is revealed as the Son of God…how He reveals Himself, and how He is revealed in other ways. Today we see another way in which He was revealed - through the words of an unclean spirit, that is, a servant of the Wicked Foe - Satan.
In Mark’s Gospel account, the very first miracle that Jesus performs, the first sign of power that He uses to reveal Himself is the casting out of an unclean spirit - a demon. For Mark, casting out demons was one of the most emphasized aspects of Jesus’ ministry throughout his Gospel. But let’s not forget that in order for us to say that Jesus had power and authority over unclean and evil spirits, we must first admit that they exist.
There are those today who tell us that there is no such thing. They tell us that the devil is like the boogey man - a made-up story to scare people into doing what you tell them. “Follow God’s Law or the devil will get you!” I have been rebuked for even talking about the devil in a previous sermon, by someone I know who sees it this way. This is how they describe the devil, and make him out to be nothing more than a manipulative idea.
I can’t help but be reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies, The Usual Suspects. In describing a truly evil character in the story, one who was so secretive and evasive no one was actually sure he was real…a con man says this: The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. I find it interesting that this movie quote from a 1995 film can also be attributed to different philosophers and theologians going back at least 150 years. This idea is not new.
Remember: the devil is the Prince of Lies. He’s very, very good at what he does. He tricks us into misunderstanding God’s Word. He tricks his victims into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do. He twists truth so that either we can’t see the truth for what it is, or we end up believing some distorted version of the truth. And that is how we find ourselves wandering into dark places.
Let me be clear here: acknowledging the existence of the devil does not give him power over your life. But by acknowledging that there is such a thing as evil, that the devil does work in the world around us, that he is constantly trying to interrupt the work of Christ and interfere in the relationship God wants to have with each one of us… by acknowledging that the devil is out there and he is doing these things, we can at least partially diagnose the reality of our problems.
The root of our problems is Sin (with a capital S). Sin is anything that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Sin is being focused on self, not on God or on others…being focused inward instead of outward. And how did Sin enter into the world? That’s the story of the Fall of Humanity, how the first humans were evicted from Eden, where they lived in harmony and peace with God…in communion with him and with each other. But the serpent tricked the woman into eating the forbidden fruit. He lied to her. He twisted God’s own Word and used it to tempt her to break God’s Law…and she fell for it. She’d never encountered a lie before, so I don’t really blame her.
But this is exactly how the Devil operates. He knows God’s Word better than any scholar. And he knows who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do. And that is why the unclean spirit in today’s Gospel reacted like it did. It reacted in fear, because it knew it was facing ultimate defeat. It knew that Jesus had complete authority and the power to go with it. It knew that it was in trouble.
So why did this unclean spirit start shouting out loud who Jesus is? As Mark’s Gospel tells it, it seems obvious that this is a desperate attempt to hurt Jesus’ mission. The first thing Jesus commands the spirit is to be silent. Jesus isn’t ready to reveal himself yet. It’s possible the spirit knows this and is trying to interfere somehow before being cast out. But whatever the reason, this unclean spirit knew EXACTLY who Jesus was. And in it’s fear of destruction, it shouted this out to everyone in the synagogue.
Whether Jesus was ready to reveal himself or not that day, His demonstration of authority in casting out this evil spirit definitely showed everyone there that He was no ordinary teacher. Did you notice how the people at the synagogue reacted? “And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”
They saw this as a new teaching - with authority. Jesus cast that spirit out, and He defeated the Wicked Foe in His death and resurrection. The devil knows this, but he and his minions are unwilling to accept defeat. Remember: the devil twists truth for his own purposes. He’s lost, but if he can make people think he hasn’t, he can still influence them.
I look around at the chaos of the last 12 months, and I’m convinced that the devil’s hand is in it. He’s doing what he does best: twisting truth, finding ways to hide the truth or cloud it so much that we can’t see it. Ask yourself: when you turn on the TV or read on the internet, do you know what’s true and what isn’t? How did we get to a place that we don’t know who to believe anymore? Who’s responsible for that? Certainly seems to me like the work of the Prince of Lies.
And so we all need to remember that: the devil has already lost. Jesus has already defeated him. And just as He did in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus casts out the devil just by commanding him. In the words of Martin Luther’s famous hymn:
Though hordes of devils fill the land All threat'ning to devour us, We tremble not, unmoved we stand; They cannot overpow'r us. This world's prince may rage, In fierce war engage. He is doomed to fail; God's judgement must prevail! One little word subdues him.
That’s all it takes - one little word. If you’re curious, Luther says that one little word is “Liar!” - when we call out the devil for who he really is.
One theologian offers this instruction: “Christians must not fear or ignore the devil. Both positions are dangerous.” We know that Jesus has already defeated him, so we don’t need to fear him. But to ignore him is also bad; it lowers our guard.
Let me close with this story: A friend and associate of boxers, American writer Wilson Mizner was himself a talented fighter. One night Mizner and boxer "Mysterious" Billy Smith visited a San Francisco bar, where Mizner started a fight with some longshoremen. At the end only one longshoreman was left standing. Although Mizner rained punches at him, he stayed obstinately upright. Suddenly, Smith noticed what was happening. "Leave him alone, Wilson!" he shouted. "I knocked him out five minutes ago." On investigation it turned out that a punch from Smith had indeed knocked the longshoreman out cold, but had also wedged him vertically between two pieces of furniture.
Here's an accurate picture of our already-defeated but still standing enemy Satan!
Remember that image - the longshoreman knocked out cold but his limp body stuck upright between pieces of furniture - that’s how impotent the devil really, truly is. He can taunt us, he can confuse us, he can even scare us. But he can’t undo our salvation; that is already assured for us. He can’t undo Christ’s resurrection; that’s already accomplished and is the proof of the his own defeat. And he can’t prevent God’s promises to us: those are already guaranteed by the God Who always keeps His promises. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.