If you were asked to tell the story of Jesus and his saving work, how would you begin? If we ask the evangelist Mark this question, we are in for a surprise. Mark has no Christmas story at the beginning of his Gospel, as do Matthew and Luke. Nor does Mark begin his Gospel as the evangelist John does, by tracing the coming of Jesus back to the eternal purpose of God.
No, unlike the other Gospel writers, Mark begins his Gospel with Jesus as a young man ready to launch his ministry. Mark does give us a brief prologue about John the Baptist, brief accounts of Jesus’ baptism, his temptations, and his calling of a few disciples. But then what? What is Jesus’ first act of ministry in Mark’s Gospel? Answer: He casts out a demon. As Jesus begins his preaching of the good news that God’s reign is dawning, a man possessed by an evil spirit interrupts him. He speaks in anger and accuses Jesus falsely. Jesus heals this man, captive to a lying spirit, simply by speaking truthful words.
I propose that this story, placed at the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, is really about the life-giving power of the truth in contrast to the destructive power of falsehood. It is a story of a deranged man whose words and actions aim to create suspicion, doubt, and division about Jesus and his preaching of the good news of the dawn of God’s reign. In this brief story of an angry man consumed by lies about Jesus and God’s coming reign, we have a digest of the far larger story of our world engaged in conflict between human falsehood and the truth of God. Make no mistake about it, this story of the meeting of Jesus with a man driven by a lying spirit, exposes the reality of our world today saturated as it is with anger and lies and countless unholy spirits which surround us, threaten to indwell us, and take possession of us all.
Now I don’t want to spend time this morning speculating about what would qualify for demon possession in our post-modern world. We think of ourselves as sophisticated modern folk, and we are likely to raise our eyebrows and smile at this strange and, as we might call it, primitive story. If pressed to give some sort of explanation of what is happening here, we would probably call it as a case of schizophrenia, or some other form of mental or character pathology. Instead, what I want us to take from this story this morning--which the evangelist Mark obviously considers important enough to place at the very beginning of his Gospel--is the life and death difference between the destructive and the transformative use of words, the life and death difference between lies and truth. Words matter, because truth matters.
I confess that my interpretation of this story in Mark’s Gospel has been influenced by the events surrounding the inauguration of a new President of our country. There were many stirring words spoken on that occasion. For me, however, by far the most eloquent words were those of a young woman poet, Amanda Gorman. She described herself as “a skinny black girl, descended from slaves and raised by a single mother, [who] can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.” Then the poet spoke movingly of a country hurt and divided, where “just is, isn’t always justice,” where a “wounded” world might yet become a “wondrous” one, where “mercy might merge with might, and might with right,” and “love become our legacy.” I was spellbound by the young poet’s words. I suspect you were too. The poet reminded us of the power of words when they speak the truth and awaken our hope of a new and better day.
So let us ponder together this story of a clash between Jesus and a demon- possessed man as a brief and gripping drama, about words that divide and destroy and words that heal and offer hope. The drama plays out in three distinct acts. Act 1: Lying spirits are at large in the world. Act II: Jesus speaks the truth, and it is life-giving. Act III: The majesty of Truth.
Act 1 of the drama opens in a synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus is proclaiming the dawning of God’s reign. Suddenly, a man possessed and driven by an evil, a lying spirit confronts him. He cries: “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.” What should strike us at once about the outburst of this enraged man is that he utters a truth, as well as telling a terrible lie. He speaks the truth when he says, “I know who you are, Jesus, the Holy One of God.” That sounds a lot like what the Apostle Peter confesses later in all the Gospels in response to Jesus’ question: Who do you say that I am? Peter replies, “Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” But at the very same time the possessed man speaks words that are true, he spews a great lie. He charges Jesus with coming to destroy not only him but all the others who are listening to Jesus’ message: “Have you come to destroy us?” In his rage, the man maligns and defames Jesus. His words are a grotesque lie. Far from coming to destroy this angry man or anyone else, Jesus has come to preach good news to all who will listen to his message that the reign of God is at hand. Jesus has come to build up, not to destroy; to make alive, not to kill; to give people hope, not to cast them into despair.
Friends, have you observed that lies, especially so-called big lies, are often combined with a little bit of the truth? Do you remember being told: the virus is a serious disease (true), but it is under control and will go away quickly (a lie). Do you remember being told: there are insurrectionist groups plotting and doing bad things in the country (true); it’s not the Proud Boys, it’s the Black Lives Matter movement (a lie). Partial truth, half-truth, a little bit of the truth is allowed, but it is smothered in a barrage of divisive and destructive lies.
I am convinced that the war on truth usually goes like this: lies are told but they are wrapped in a bit of truth to make them seem more acceptable. So it was in the drama of Jesus and the possessed man. “I know who you are, Jesus, the Holy One of God” (true). “You have come to destroy us” (a lie). The damage, destruction, and death caused by lies, often camouflaged by a bit of truth, is incalculable. Everyone is hurt by them: people are set at war with each other, the community is fractured, the common good is defeated, and while the liars and their destructive falsehoods will eventually be exposed, it is often at a very great cost.
As we gather this morning, we know all too well that words continue to be abused and truth continues to be corrupted by lies that damage us all. But since we gather as a community of faith, we should also take note that perpetrators of lies do not hesitate to employ religious words in a distorted way to achieve their greater fame or wealth or power. Remember the 9-11 bombers who ploughed their airplanes into the twin towers of the Trade Center shouting, “Allahu Akbar”? I am sure that most Muslims around the world would say that even though the words “God is great,” spoken by the pilots of those planes, are true, the action that accompanied these words compromised them, corrupted, and consumed their truth in an inferno of falsehood. Similar reckless use of religious language that perverts the truth and promotes a lie is also found among some people who declare that Jesus is Lord. The confession is true; the problem arises when hearers are not told what kind of Lord Jesus is, what kind of power Jesus and his Spirit exercise, and what kind of life bears witness to or falsifies the confession of Jesus as Lord. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Yes, Christians believe that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to Jesus and to the one who sent him. But it is a kingdom marked by justice, by mutual love, by a power that overcomes evil with goodness, by a glory that shines with the radiance of truth?
When we call Jesus Lord, we should never forget that he said, “I have come not to be served but to serve and to give my life a ransom for many.” We should never forget that he said, “This is the commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus the Lord spoke the truth that God is love, and he sealed that love for us all in his passion and death. If we dare to call Jesus Lord and say we want to follow him, shouldn’t we also dare to say that what this Lord requires of us is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?
Surely, then, an important lesson to learn from the story of the lie-possessed man is that telling big lies wrapped in a little bit of truth--as in the hijacking of sacred words and using them in ways that subvert their true meaning--is one of the devastating ways evil works in our world. “I know who you are, Jesus, the Holy One of God” (true), “You have come to destroy us” (a lie).
The drama moves to Act II: The life-giving truth of Jesus’ words. What does Jesus say to the enraged man? His words are simple, disarmingly simple. He says, “Be quiet.” And then he commands the demons, “Go away,” or in a more colloquial translation, “Get Lost.”
“Be quiet, be still.” If ever there was a time in our lives when it was hard to be quiet and to be still, many of us would say it was in these past few months, or maybe the years we have just gone through. So much noise. So much shouting. So many people interrupting one another and cursing one another. It’s so hard to hear the truth when there is so much noise. And the problem is both around us and within us. Hearing the truth, really hearing it, has a precondition. It is necessary to block out the noise and begin to listen for the still small voice of what some call, our conscience, others call our better angels; I prefer to say, the voice of God. As we heard in our Old Testament reading this morning, the Psalmist knew the importance of finding quiet amid all the noise. The earth may shake, the flood waters roar, but the Psalmist hears God say to him: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Jesus spoke healing words to the possessed man when he said simply, “Be quiet.”
Now in no way does this mean that there is never a time to speak, and to speak boldly. Indeed, when it is time to speak, it is an act of unfaithfulness to remain silent. All the prophets knew this. Amos knew this: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he declared. The inaugural poet Amanda Gorman knows this too. She spoke the truth that the way ahead for a broken country is not, in her words, to further “shatter the nation but to share it,” not to seek “harm” but “harmony.” Yes, Amanda Gorman knows there are times when we must speak, and she uses her time to speak the truth beautifully.
But as the young poet explained in an interview, while she wrote her inaugural poem after all the noise of the mob that stormed the nation’s Capitol, she composed that truth-speaking poem in the quiet of her writing room and in the stillness of her spirit. Perhaps her creation of a radiant poem in quietness helps us to understand why the word that Jesus speaks to the ranting, lying man is: Be quiet. Jesus is calling the deranged man and all of us to quiet the noise of the lies that surround us and perhaps are even making a home in us. He is calling the raging man and all of us to open ourselves to that quiet listening for the true words, that quiet recognition of the kind deeds, that quiet delight in the many beauties of our God-created world that get blocked and obscured by all the noise, all the ugliness, all the cowardly behavior, all the sordid lies.
Then after telling the man to be quiet, Jesus says to all those destructive forces at work in the man-- his anger, his resentment, his hostility, his self-preoccupation, and yes, most likely his self-hatred--“Go away. Come out of him.” Is this a magical formula, maybe one we also could use to cast out the demons at work among us today? No, I don’t think so. Jesus’ words are not a secret, magical formula like “Abracadabra,” or Aladdin’s “Open Seseme.” Instead, I think these words of Jesus are a kind of shorthand, that remind us of the conflict in which Jesus is involved with the forces of evil in us and in the world, throughout his ministry. Jesus casts out demons; he forgives sins; he shows compassion for the poor, he clashes with the self-righteous religious leaders who criticize his befriending sinners; he feeds the hungry; he blesses the children even against the opposition of his own disciples. In this brief story at the beginning of his Gospel, Mark is alerting us to the fact that throughout his ministry Jesus is in different ways having to say to evil forces. “come out, go away,” forces that try by their lies to block the good news that Jesus proclaims and stand in the way of the new humanity Jesus inaugurates.
The obstruction of Jesus’ mission by lies goes on all the way to his appearance before Pilate. Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. He asks the crowd hungry for Jesus to be crucified, “Why, what evil has he done?” Here it is again: we are about to hear what is true only to have it quickly destroyed by a lie. Pilate’s word to the crowd is true: “What evil has he done? Jesus is innocent.” But Pilate feels compelled to satisfy the crowd and delivers Jesus over to them to be crucified. By this action, Pilate conspires with the lie that Jesus is guilty and warrants death. Pilate did not tamper down the noise of the crowd, or pause for silence before he rendered judgment. No wonder he did not have the courage to tell the demons of the crowd, and those within him, go away.
And now finally, Act III of the drama: The majesty of truth. When Jesus healed the demon possessed man with his simple words: “Be quiet, Come out of him,” all the people in the synagogue were awed. They were amazed, so awed were they that they said, “What is this? A new teaching? With authority Jesus commands even the demons, and they obey him.” They were amazed. Why? Because truth, the life-giving and life-sustaining majesty of truth in the face of falsehood is . . . amazing. What a wondrous thing it is if we allow ourselves to be amazed by what is true, what is good, what is beautiful. Doesn’t our world need that so badly today?
Don’t we need to find ourselves amazed at the truth of the word that God spoke when he looked on the world and the humanity he had created, and said: “It is very good.” Will we be amazed when we are once again able to breathe deeply the fresh air as we walk unafraid on the open streets, in the park, or along the seashore? Will we allow ourselves to be amazed early this coming Spring when little crocuses with their delightful but fragile apparel break through the softening winter soil? Will we allow ourselves to be amazed at the good things some do for others and especially for those in desperate need in the middle of a pandemic? Will we let ourselves be altogether amazed and grateful for the nurses who, at risk to themselves, have held the hands of dying patients, dying alone because of the physical absence of their grieving family?
But above all, will we allow ourselves to experience--whether again or for the first time--what the man with a lying spirit and all the other people in that synagogue experienced long ago--amazement at God’s healing, gracious words? That’s why we sing “amazing grace,” isn’t it? That’s what God’s forgiveness is, isn’t it? amazing forgiveness. Yes, and that’s also what truth is, whenever it is spoken and heard: precious, life-giving, amazing truth. That is what holding-on to hope is,. when we are faced with the temptation to despair: amazing hope. Truth engenders hope and defeats the lies that rob us of hope, and faith, and love.
Remember the word of Jesus: I am the way, the truth, and the life. He spoke the truth. But you cannot separate his truth from his way and his life. You can only know the truth that Jesus speaks and is, if you follow in his way and take part in his life.
Here then are three acts of a little drama at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: a drama of the lies we hear and tell that destroy us; a drama of the healing power of the truth of Jesus’ words and deeds; a drama of the amazement that happens when, against all the lies, we recognize the truth, the amazing, majestic truth of the good news of the coming of God’s new world, a world in which people from east and west and north and south welcome each other as sisters and brothers, all children of a gracious God. Perhaps the young poet Amanda Gorman would not object to my using the closing words of her stirring inaugural poem to conclude my words this morning:
“If only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” Amen