by David Baer, January 3, 2016
Text: Mark 1:21-45
It’s inevitable. Now that New Year’s Day has come and gone, the Christmas lights that have brightened up the streets on these dark winter evenings are going to begin to go dark and disappear. I’m always a little disappointed when that happens, because the fact is that I love Christmas lights. Every year our family makes a point of going for a drive around town just to look at lights. Some of the displays are incredibly complicated, like the DeWeil family’s home on Manhattan Avenue in Waldwick, where the lights flash in time to music you can pick up on your radio. And some are simple, just a few electric candles in the windows. But everyone who puts up lights, no matter how big or small, is pushing back in a small way against the darkness that eats up so many hours of every day at this time of year.
Christmas is a good time for light. One of the gospel writers says Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Another writer says Jesus’ coming brought a new star to the night sky, and that wise men followed that star on a long journey to find the baby Christ. The church calendar follows the season of Christmas with the season of Epiphany, and we turn to scriptures that help us see who Jesus is and what the light he brings shows us about himself and about God and about us.
Now it’s just the nature of light to draw attention to itself. If someone lights a candle in a cavernous dark room, everyone in that room is going to look at the tiny little flame, not at the dark empty space that surrounds it. You don’t turn your head to look at a shadow, but you can’t help but follow a moving spotlight, turning your eyes wherever it points.
It’s a little bit strange, then, that Jesus, the light of the world, the bright Morning Star, doesn’t want to be seen. Over and over again in our gospel lesson, Jesus keeps hushing the demons who recognize him. He keeps swearing the people he’s healed to secrecy. But it doesn’t work! This is one of the mysteries of the gospel of Mark, which we’ll be reading between now and Easter. The gospel begins by telling you that Jesus is the Son of God, but whenever any person in the story figures it out, Jesus says, “Shhh! Don’t tell anybody!” What’s he doing?
Today’s reading begins with a story of healing in a synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is teaching there. His message is that the kingdom of God is near, that God’s will is about to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus is telling people to change their thinking, change their speaking, change their doing, in anticipation of God’s coming. And this message is so compelling, so much more alive with promise than anything they hear from their usual teachers, that everyone is absolutely spellbound. All of a sudden, a man comes in and confronts him: “I know who you are!” says the man.
This man is described as having an unclean spirit, or a demon. The gospel writer believed, as many people still do today, that there are actual supernatural beings that can take possession of a person’s body. On the other hand, if someone hears voices or experiences hallucinations or compulsions, we might say that this is mental illness stemming from an injury or imbalance of chemicals in the brain. But whatever the cause, this is a person in the grip of a force that is frightening and outside of his control. And if you’ve ever experienced mental illness or addiction in your family, you know it’s not just about the one person. Whole families and neighborhoods are impacted when someone is suffering this kind of illness. Whether it’s anxiety or depression or substance abuse or schizophrenia, the hurt may center on one person, but it’s felt and carried by so many others. It’s devastating and confusing and maddening, even in our time of modern psychiatric medicine, and so just think about how it would have been experienced in a family or small town in the time of Jesus.
Jesus keeps speaking. He is still talking about the kingdom of God, still determined to show what it looks like when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, but now he turns his words toward this suffering man. He speaks to the force that’s gripping him, calls it out of him, and sends it away for good. The kingdom of God has come to this one human life, and not only to him, but to the family and friends who were suffering along with him. Freedom from illness, peace in their home and their relationships, a new beginning—they don’t have to imagine or hope for these things, because they’re real. They’re here. They’re now. Jesus has the power to bring about the future he’s been talking about.
And he does it again and again—with Simon’s mother-in-law, with so many of the sick and demon-possessed of Capernaum, and with a leper who seeks him out. All the healing must have worn Jesus out, because he sneaks away early in the morning to spend some time alone in prayer. When the disciples find him, they tell him that everyone in town is searching for him, but he tells them it’s time to move on. “Let us go on to the neighboring towns,” he says, “so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And we’re told that he went throughout the region of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and casting out demons, making sick people well. For Jesus, that’s not separate from the message about the kingdom. It’s part and parcel of that message.
“I know who you are!” say the demons, and Jesus tells them, “Be quiet!” “Everyone is searching for you,” say the disciples, and Jesus says, “Time to move on.” “Don’t tell anybody how you got healed,” he says to the leper, “but show yourself to the priests and let them see for themselves that you’ve been made well.” What Jesus is doing is withdrawing himself, concealing himself, throwing the focus off his identity. Don’t look at me, he’s saying. Listen to what I’m saying. God is near. Everything is changing. See the promises coming true in your communities, in your relationships, in your bodies. Look there, and give thanks, celebrate, praise God! Jesus wants to shine the light of God’s wholeness, God’s peace into troubled bodies, minds, and communities. He doesn’t want to conceal or cover up the light he brings, but he wants people to look at where it’s shining. Look here, he says, look at this demon-possessed man made well. Look at this leper healed. That’s where God is at work.
It doesn’t work. People flock to him anyway—how could they not? And as we read the gospel of Mark this spring, we’ll see how the crowds and even the disciples get themselves into trouble when they look to Jesus without really understanding who he is and what he’s about. But for right now, maybe it’s enough to see that Jesus wants to draw our attention to the difference he makes in ourselves and in our neighbors.
At the beginning of a new year, we like to look at ourselves and assess what we want to change. That’s not a bad practice. Even the resolutions we can’t keep are worth something—two months of healthy eating or exercise is still two months. But I wonder whether we should also look back at the past year and assess what has gone right, what has given us joy, when we’ve been comforted and when we’ve been able to give comfort. Where has God’s light shined into your life this past year? What has God done for you? And what might God be able to do for you in the coming months? How might God be able to use you, to shine in and through you?
Jesus’ message is still echoing in the air around us: “God is near, near enough to bless, near enough to heal. Change your thinking, change your ways, because everything is different. God is near to you. Look, look here and see God’s light shining on you and in you and from you.” Amen.