Text: Mark 1.21-28
The Power and Allure of the Hero
I am happy to report that we have turned a corner from princesses to superheroes in my household. (Yay!) Of course I’m all of a sudden realizing that there aren’t nearly enough women heroes out there as leads and the impossible-male-fantasy way that women characters are often drawn. But that is the subject for a different sermon. I am learning all about various heroes, their ‘teams’ and their identities.
What makes a hero (or the villain, of course) a part of the ‘universe’ of characters? It is her powers. You look at the Wikipedia for any superhero (this one, for example) and you’ll get her back-story and history, relationship to other heroes and ‘Powers and Abilities’. These powers are come by in a variety of ways – mutation either by birth or by accident (eg. radioactive spider bite), because they are non-earthly beings who just innately have powers because on their planet that’s normal (think Superman), or they are really smart and have specials tools, suits or gadgets that allow them (a la Batman or Iron Man) to perform super-human feats. Or some combination of the above.
The regular humans in superhero comics, graphic novels and movies look to the super heroes in awe and longing. Astonishment and wonder. We long to be like them. We are a little fearful of them. They allow us to fanaticize and have conversations in which we ask each other – if you had a super power, what would it be? Who’s had that conversation? Or questions like ‘Flight or invisibility?’ This American Life did a whole segment about that question as a part of their Superpowers episode. The hilarious John Hodgman, (aka ‘and I’m a PC’) who wrote this segment, says:
“I started wondering about this a few years ago. I’d bring it up at parties, dinners, wedding receptions. It was more interesting to ask than where people worked or where they went to school, and clearly more fun to answer. Like a magic word, shazam, flight versus invisibility would instantly change an evening’s character, opening passionate conversation and debate.
But what surprised me more was how quickly everyone would choose, as though they’d been thinking about it for a long time.”
They’d been thinking about it for a long time! We think about power, about extraordinary power. We wonder what that would be like.
The Gospel story today is about power. It is even about a great battle of powers (very epic-hero-story, if you think about it). In Mark this is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He is baptized by Jon – we heard Jon preach on that last week – he is tempted in the wilderness – that one’s coming up in Lent – and then he stands up in a synagogue in Capernaum and begins to teach.
If you remember the Luke story of Jesus’ ministry beginning we hear what Jesus teaches in the synagogue. He quotes from Isaiah 63 – he has come to bring good news to the poor, free the captive, give sight to the blind, release the prisoner and proclaim the year of God’s favor. Yes! It is indeed amazing and astonishing to those who hear him for, is not this Joseph’s son? (He’s at home in Nazareth in that version.) Quite the sermon.
But here in Mark we are not given to know what Jesus says. We only hear reaction: it is new! It’s is not like the scribes! (Those old fuddy duddies.) Mark is all about action and reaction (another thing Mark has in common with the superhero genre). So we break straight past the talk to the interruption at the heart of the story. “Just then, there was in their synagogue, a man with an unclean spirit, crying out.”
I think it’s possible we have some imagination for a scene like this, do we not? We at least have some imagination for disruption in worship that makes it impossible to continue worship as usual. We know folks whose loud voices cry out, sing, proclaim, fight or curse in worship. We almost certainly would not attribute such interruptions to demon possession. For most of us that is not a category that has relevance today. (Except maybe in horror films) But mental illness, addiction, trauma? These are categories that we understand to have people bound. We know them to be powers that can inhabit a body and control it. They may be powers which are beyond the ability of the individual to break free. And our responses tend to be more gentle and less confrontational that Jesus’ was in this story.
For the man in the story, his being gives the forces of evil a physical embodiment. Not just one power, but powers (something like the way illness, addiction and trauma might work together!) There’s hint of it in the questions of the voice that cries out: “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Another exorcism story in Mark does the same thing – the perhaps better known story of the demons who answer to ‘Legion’ and are expelled into a herd of pigs, which destroy themselves by throwing themselves over a cliff.
In this man and in Jesus are embodied an epic battle written in a few lines and a short conversation. The demon answers it (their) own question. What is Jesus doing here? Jesus is here to destroy the power of evil. He is the Holy One of God. Everything in these verses hinges around, points like an arrow to that proclamation. This declaration is literally at the center of this text. And how does the ‘Holy One of God’ use the power of God which he embodies? Like he later rebukes the storm he rebukes the evil spirit. ‘Be silent and come out of him!’
He uses his power to free the oppressed, to release this one who his captive to evil. He offers good news and people are astonished!! They are amazed! Immediately (Mark loves that word) people start talking and they cannot stop telling each other: “What is this? This is a new teaching – with authority!” Unlike the scribes and teachers in the synagogue before him, unlike anyone they have seen before, whose authority comes from tradition, from a superior knowledge not of God but of law and establishment, the power and authority of Jesus come from the One who created and sent him. From this first moment of standing up in public, his fame begins to spread beyond Capernaum and into the region of Galilee. The frame immediately begins to widen.
The Power We Worship
If our story is not the super hero story – like that from movies and comic books – and not the Jesus-vs-Demons gospel-as-it-happens Bible story – what is our story of power? We are still in the season of Epiphany. If we can cast our minds back to the first Sunday of Epiphany to remember that the essence of that story is the revelation of God’s light to the world through Jesus. The Wise Ones encounter the infant Jesus through the light of a star. Throughout this season Jesus continues to reveal God’s power and presence. We are celebrating the means by which Christ becomes visible and known to us and to the world. Our story is (or can be) the story of where we are even now acknowledging and paying homage to the power of God revealed before us. The story of being amazed and astonished by God’s grace and power.
Two weeks ago – I know you all remember – the Seahawks won the NFC Championship. (Pause for applause?) Although I was not watching, I am given to understand it was quite an amazing game. I know this because this is the story that people all around me are telling each other. I know this because the city is swathed in blue and green and the number 12. I know this because the narratives dominating Seattle culture right now are about the strength, skill and starpower of athletes who are paid (frankly) ridiculous sums of money to amaze and astonish us with their strength, skill and stardom.
I know that a large percentage of you will be leaving here to watch the culmination of this power struggle – not between the forces of great good and the forces of evil (regardless of what one thinks about the Patriots and deflated footballs) but between two professional sports teams. (Is now the time when I should duck?) And especially if the Seahawks win this afternoon, many of you will go on to tell the story of that win – to celebrate with a parade – to buy the commemorative T shirt – for years.
How many of us will have similar conversation about the astonishing work of God in our lives and in the world? Why else are we here other than to learn together to tell the story of the astonishing work of Jesus and to learn how both follow in his footsteps and embody that power for ourselves? follow following in the footsteps and disciple the incarnate, embodied power of God – Jesus of Nazareth.
When John Hodgman continued the conversation about flight versus invisibility he discovered not only that “Everyone knew exactly which superpower they wanted and what they would do with it,” but that
“Their plans weren’t always flashy or heroic. In fact, they almost never were. Typically, this is how it goes. People who turn invisible will sneak into the movies or onto airplanes. People who fly stop taking the bus. Here’s one thing that pretty much no one ever says– I would use my power to fight crime. No one seems to care about crime.”
Of course, Hodgman’s intent was not to reveal the un-Godliness of his subjects. For him it was just an interesting experiment. No one that he talked to wanted to use their power even to do good.
Calling on God’s Power to Empower Us
The congregational covenant that SLT is developing along with discerned input from you, sounds in some places a lot like the word Jesus proclaimed in is Luke 4 message in the synagogue. This covenant also calls us to action like that in the synagogue in Capernaum.
We pledge to care for each other, including our children, nurturing the gifts of each person, and living towards just, nonviolent, and transformative relationships in community.
We renounce evil, both personal and corporate, and join God’s plan for healing the earth, and bringing just peace to its people.
We accept God’s call to share the good news of transforming love, and welcome others to faith in God and belonging into Jesus Christ’s beloved community.
While our action may not literally be a battle against a demon, it is certainly a battle against what hold us and others captive that would take the place of God. That is actually an amazing and prophetic and new teaching. A teaching with authority. A teaching that compels and astonishes.
At AMBS this past week, along with other church pastors and leaders, we heard speakers reflect on Anabaptism and being Mennonite. Again and again, folks of color, neo-Anabaptist folks from outside the church, people who have been adopted by ‘cradle’ Mennos reflected on the compelling message of Anabaptism: the peace witness, the centrality of Jesus Christ, the commitment to service and simplicity. Beside this we heard the plea to set aside the power struggles and the in-fighting for the sake of the Gospel. To focus on the good news. To find power neither in tradition or in dogmatism – as the scribes – but in the new and freeing voice of Christ.
We are not without hope in this endeavor. We have at our disposal the power of God to deliver us from evil. Jesus taught his disciples a prayer that offers those who pray it a way to recognize power in God alone, to invite and welcome God’s reign, to receive forgiveness and the power of God to be freed. I invite you to pray it with me.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom,
the power and the glory are yours.
Now and for ever.
Turns out I’ve written about superheroes a couple times before and you can link to those blog posts here.