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It All Started with a Fight
Mark 1:21-28  February 7, 2021

I guess it was about a year ago when Vivienne was alone one afternoon in Fellowship Hall when a very aggressive, deranged man appeared out of nowhere waving his arms and screaming at her – demanding that she get out of “his” building.

There was crazy in his eyes, and she was terrified that he would charge at her and hurt her.

She called 911, whose operator, fortunately, heard the urgent fear in her voice and immediately dispatched officers to the church who took him away for a mental health evaluation.

I think of that incident when I read about Jesus’ encounter in the Capernaum synagogue with the unclean spirit.

A story about a frenzied, shrieking demon may seem like a strange way for a gospel writer to begin his message about the Good News of Jesus.

But here’s something to think about:

What if you got to turn back the clock and actually walk around Palestine with Jesus for three years?

If someone later asked you to write a short essay about what he was like and what it all meant, where would you begin?

What would you say first?

What the Gospel writers say first about what Jesus did tells us a lot about what they got from their time with him.

In the months following Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples all headed off in different directions to share how they understood their years with him.

Decades later, a few of them (or maybe members of their communities) began to write about their experiences.

Some just made a list of important things they remembered Jesus saying.

A few wrote a narrative account about their time together.

None of them was thinking about writing an air-tight systematic theology … something that people would try to impose upon them centuries later.

No.

They just wanted to pass along what they had seen and heard while with the man they’d come to realize was the incarnation of God Himself.

Not all the gospels that were written made it into the Bibles we pick-up today.

The Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary, for example, were later excluded from the collection.

If you put our four canonic Gospels side by side, you quickly see that they emphasize different things about Jesus.

That doesn’t mean that one Gospel writer got it right and another got it wrong … just that what impacted them most about Jesus varied from person to person.

For example, early in Matthew’s account, we read the Sermon on the Mount because Matthew understood Jesus as the new lawgiver – like the new Moses.

Luke gets his account rolling with Jesus fleeing for his life after being chased out of his hometown because he proclaimed his mission is to preach to the poor,
free the prisoners and liberate the oppressed.

John’s memory begins with Jesus’ miracle of creating a cabernet at a wedding feast because John understood Jesus’ miracles to be signs pointing to his divinity
so that people would believe in him.

On the other hand, just twenty verses into Mark’s narrative and we’re reading about Jesus’ second encounter with demonic forces that had entrenched themselves
over the world and in people’s lives.

Mark understands that you can’t just paint love over what is fundamentally corrupted.

The corruption must be confronted first.

Isn’t it curious that it was not a disciple, and not a synagogue leader but a demon who first recognized just who Jesus is?

Well, the demons understood that there is a lot at stake with the arrival of Jesus, and they were willing to put up a fight.

The demon taunts Jesus with an idiomatic phrase that is a little difficult to translate.

Commonly it is translated (Mark 1:24) “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

Another way to phrase it might be, “Why are you picking this fight … Couldn’t you have just left things as they were between us?”

Well, the demon nailed it:  God loves His creatures too much to leave things as they had been … so through Jesus, God breaks through the boundaries.

Remember that Mark’s Gospel begins with his baptism when the heavens ripped open as God spoke – breaking the boundary between Heaven and earth.

Then in today’s passage, Jesus asserts his authority across the boundary that had separated the spiritual from the physical as he orders the unclean spirit away.

We will see this throughout Mark.

God bursts through each and every boundary we think is impenetrably in place.

Political, social, religious, ethical, gender, even the final boundary we persist in thinking is beyond God’s ability to pierce: death itself.

So, for Mark, the opening of his Gospel had to be Jesus stepping right into the demonic realm and saying, “God is here – even here.”

But did you notice that at the end of this account, the unclean spirit is disembodied but not destroyed?

That is an important understanding.

Jesus’ exorcisms rip the demons out of their human hosts, but our spiritual environment continues to be a place where oppressive spirits lurk.

Of course, people in the Ancient Near East ascribed to demons illnesses, and such that we now understand are caused by other things.

But at the same time, we continue to come up against the oppressive, hateful, divisive effects of evil – what Paul calls the “powers and principalities”.

These are sometimes played-out in our own souls, sometimes in our relationships, and often times in our social institutions … and they will never leave without a fight.

In 1997, after a career as an executive, Sharon Adams decided to return to her family home in Milwaukee.

She longed to be back in the lively, close-knit community of her youth, but she returned to find a blighted, crime-infested section of town.

A planned freeway project had condemned a large swath of this area, evicting families and demolishing many homes, but when the project was cancelled city politicians lost interest in what had been a middle-class African American neighborhood and just let it decay.

Trees that once lined the streets were gone, and virtually no essential businesses remained for many blocks.

Shells of houses had long since been stripped of copper wiring and plumbing, and vacant lots where family homes had stood were littered with weeds, trash and needles.

When Sharon researched what had happened to her old community, she became angry.

Politicians had not only abandoned the neighborhood they had destroyed they used their bureaucrats to cover-up what they had done.

The powers and principalities did not care about the families and their children stripped of their homes.

But Sharon decided to stay and renovate her family home, and she met a scattering of neighbors who remained in their old neighborhood.

That’s when she met Larry Adams, a local contractor whom she asked to do some minor electrical work.

He later said he agreed because she caught his eye, so to speak.

They later went out for ice cream and a romance ensued, and that Christmas season they sat in her partially-restored home looking into the dark because the street lights didn’t work and the neighboring houses were boarded up.

They recognized that the flickering lights a few houses up were not Christmas lights but crack pipes.

Sharon had already been inspired by the words of Rev. Calvin Butts at Abyssinian Baptist Church – a notable center for black spirituality, politics and community in Harlem when she’d lived in New York.

With that Christian grounding, she saw hope for the community that had been abandoned to the life-sucking powers of poverty, crime and neglect.

That’s when she turned to Larry and said, “I want you to leave my house as-is and go renovate that house”.

As Larry started that project, she gathered other residents and began clearing and then planting gardens in the vacant lots.

It took a year to do, but Sharon says that her neighbors then felt empowered as they looked at the flowers and vegetables sprouting in what had been abandoned land.

Sharon says, “It was a call and response. You say you’re going to do something, and then you do it. And when it’s done, you realize what’s possible.”

Then, seeking help from the City, she asked, “What’s planned for 17th and North?”

They said, it was “unidentified” … and Sharon realized if you’re unidentified, it means you don’t exist to them.

Some demons shriek from tormented faces, but there are other ways powers and principalities strip us of our humanity – this time, through politicians and faceless bureaucrats.

That’s when she realized how important it was to reclaim the humanity of the neighborhood.

She decided to capture the stories of people who had lived there when the neighborhood was lively and healthy.

With the help of some college students, she tracked down former residents to
record their memories and share them with current residents.

Turning to private foundations for funding, Larry and Sharon continued to renovate houses.

About this time, they acquired a large two-story abandoned home that they converted into the Walnut Way Community Resource Center, which among other things became an employment resource for locals.

She says, “Larry was the contractor, but we hired men from the neighborhood. And I will always remember this one guy who marveled at being paid to plaster walls. And he was so surprised that he had a skill, and that it was valuable … So much of his life had been spent in prison …”

And with the steady expansion of reclaimed land and homes, they celebrated with parades and street fairs, slowly bringing life back.

After ten years, the saplings planted in the first vacant lots they’d reclaimed were bearing sweet peaches and apples.

To date, they have renovated over a hundred homes, converted twenty abandoned lots into gardens, opened a community health center, and more.

Despair and defeat are the poisoned fruits of those forces that work against God, but they can be exorcised from us and from our communities as surely as Jesus drove the demon from the man in Capernaum.

And Jesus will be our partner in this.

Remember that when Jesus expelled demons from human bodies, the demons were not destroyed.

They still prowl the world looking for people who will host them, and for institutions where they can roost.

Each of us carries some attitudes or behaviors we regret, and sometimes it seems that these attitudes and behaviors have lives of their own, as if powered from the darkness of our divided spiritual world.

Anger, cheating, addiction, chronic self-blame, and shame … you can name your own issue.

Confronting our own darkness stirs their rage and defensiveness.

But we only serve the demons when we turn on ourselves in shame:

I’m no good, a rotten person.

I’ll never change.

I can never forgive myself.

Jesus did not condemn the man in his synagogue confrontation.

No, he named the enemy within him, but he loved the man.

God so loves you that He broke through the boundaries of Heaven and Earth to join you here.

God loves you so much that He reached through the boundaries that had kept the demons hidden and safe.

God loves you so much that He gives you authority to be bold and cast out the demons of society and in your own heart.