Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Year B

Mark 1:21-28

The Rev. Denise Vaughn

The Epiphany Journey

I once had a conversation with someone who taught Sunday school and organized activities for young people that at times focused on the seasons of the church year. She said, “I understand what is going on in Advent and Lent, and of course Easter because they are full of images and meaning. Even Pentecost is easy to understand, wind and fire, the birthday of the church and God’s spirit loose in the world. But, Epiphany? I just don’t have a hold on Epiphany. It’s not quite clear to me what it’s all about and I expect this person is not alone in this. Epiphany is a word that means “showing” or “manifestation,” and it is a season of the church year that speaks to the question posed in the ancient carol—“What Child is this?” Or more accurately, “Who is this man that the Christmas child has become?” Epiphany is a season that seeks to reveal who Jesus is.

On the day of Epiphany, January 6, the wise men or Magi from the east brought gifts to the baby Jesus. The gifts they bring tell us that this child is important not only to Israel, but that he is a person of global importance because of whom the Magi were. At Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptizer says that this man Jesus is the one whom he and all the prophets have foretold. He is the One God had promised. We learn at the baptism that the Spirit of God is with Jesus in a new and powerful way. After his baptism, Jesus gathers about him a group of followers, Nathaniel and Philip, Simon and Andrew, James and John to begin his ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of God. We heard how he looked at them and said, “Repent, drop what you are doing, follow me and you will fish for people. From this we learned that the keys to proclaiming the kingdom of God are repenting, believing, following, and fishing.

Today we are in Capernaum, standing in a synagogue with Simon, Nathaniel and the others, following and listening to this remarkable man Jesus; not quite sure who he is yet or what he is going to do. Mark tells us that one of the things Jesus did was to teach with authority. This meant that Jesus spoke the teachings they were accustomed to hearing but in a new way. God had promised Israel that he would raise up teachers and prophets for them; and God did, prophets to bring God’s Word and prophets to speak for God to God’s people. Now Jesus is speaking God’s word to the people and stands in the line of these prophets promised by God, yet, Mark wants us to know that Jesus was greater than the prophets. With His teaching is action. His words bring action and are effective. He is able, Mark tells us, to cast out demons.

The exorcism of the man with the unclean spirit is Jesus’ first public act in the gospel of Mark. There in the synagogue Jesus encounters a man “with an unclean spirit” who interrupts to challenge Jesus as one who has come “to destroy.” From the beginning of Mark’s gospel there is opposition to the gospel message and we see a God who over and over again crosses the boundaries. In Jesus, it was God’s time or Kairos, to break into the present world in a new way. The “kingdom of God” is at hand. Jesus goes into the synagogue to teach about this new kingdom of God by healing. He calls the unclean spirit out of the man, and all who are present are amazed at his authority.  Mark more than any other Gospel writer, emphasizes Jesus’ miraculous power to heal and to exorcise demons. Of the eighteen miracles recorded in Mark, thirteen have to do with healing and four of those are exorcisms.

Today, concerning demons, we may or may not share the same understanding of the world that prevailed in New Testament times that there are in the world evil spirits, powers with a life and an ungodly energy of their own. Yet, we are aware of the evil in our world and the forces that try to enslave us, that compel us to hurtful and selfish behavior. These forces are quite real and active today. Today’s gospel treats these powers as real, and it uses their reality to tell us who Jesus is. Jesus has power and authority over whatever powers that would enslave us and damage our relationship with God.

We read that the forces of evil know of the healing power of Jesus’ words: they are not submissive or indifferent and we may be struck or even wonder by Jesus’ word in response to the forces of evil “Be silent.” Yet, the verb literally demands an action; “come out of him!” an action which demonstrated that Jesus’ words are effective and powerful, we now know that His authority is not only in the teaching but also in the action. No oppressive force will stand or withstand the Spirit possessed Son of God and that Jesus brings into his follower’s lives the power and the authority to set them free, and bring them back into union with God.

Jesus offered his teaching of freedom inside the synagogue, using a word and an act that heals a human being. The gospels of salvation are a healing word and action.  The boundary between heaven and earth has been pierced and the reign of God is “at hand.” And this divine power is the one that Christ will give to the disciples to send them out to preach and cast out demons. This is the same Spirit that each one of us have been given in our baptism. God is present and acts in the world through the teaching and through the word that brings healing. And people are still amazed and even perplexed in the face of this authority power. As the people in this story speculate among themselves about this new powerful teacher, who is inviting them to follow him into a whole new world and way of being.

It is, however, not in exorcism or teaching that we most clearly see who Jesus is. It is the cross. For it is on the cross that Jesus completed the healing work he began that day in the synagogue. We, like those first followers, are to follow and we already know where that following will lead us. It will lead us to the cross and beyond because the gift God has given us, the teaching we are to hear, the freedom God leads us to, is deeper and broader and more grace filled than we can imagine. The road to the cross is the way to life and peace. It is the way to the kingdom of God.

It is during this season of Epiphany that we reflect on the authority of God, God’s commands, God’s purpose, and God’s promise. Through this story of Jesus’ teaching and casting out an evil spirit, we witness that Jesus is the Holy One of God, the One who brings freedom and wholeness. This first miracle in Jesus’ public ministry signifies that the evil forces that have power in this world have come to an end and that the kingdom of God has broken into the world that God created. Epiphany is the time calling us to recommit ourselves to the journey and to join with the other disciples, those who were gathered around Jesus, making once again the decision to follow him to the cross and beyond. May we go from here possessed with the power of God’s spirit working in our words and actions that we may bring healing and wholeness and God’s love to the world God created.