Sermon: Possessed by the Spirit

A sermon preached for an Episcopal-Lutheran joint Eucharist, held at Yale Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel on February 4th, 2015.  Text: Mark 1:20-28.

At the Lutheran seminary where I earned my M.Div., we are spoiled with two very smart, very kind, very eccentric NT professors. These two professors alternate teaching summer Greek every year, taking a classroom full of terrified new seminarians and teaching them half a textbook’s worth of biblical Greek in two weeks.

Through observation, I know two things about how they manage to do that without forever scaring students away from theological study. First, they bring their incredible personalities into the mix. And second, as soon as possible, while we’re still working out the omega from the epsilon, they make us look at the New Testament, and the ways in which knowing Greek can make the text a lot more interesting.

And this is why, a few days in my theological education, I sat in Room 314 of Valentine Hall, looking at the word “peristeran” in Mark 1:10—the story of Jesus’ baptism. This is a word that I had always thought was “dove,” but Dr. Carlson disagreed.

“This is also the word for pigeon,” Dr. Carlson told us. “And the only reason translators chose ‘dove’ instead of pigeon is because a pretty small white fluttery thing is a nicer image for the Holy Spirit than a street bird that eats barf. And look at this preposition,” he continued, pointing to the eis. “Who has a translation that reads ‘descending like a dove on him?”

Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons.

We all raised our hands.

“What does eis actually means?” he nudged us.

“Into?” someone suggested.

“YES!” cried Dr. Carlson, jumping to his feet. “So forget that picture of a nice white dove descending on a beam of light to settle gently on Jesus’ shoulder! Jesus just got divebombed by a dirty street bird that came down into him! That’s the Holy Spirit in Mark!”

In the glow of this understanding of the Holy Spirit, there are two wonderings that I’d like to lift up to you:

  • Perhaps we should find John the Baptist’s promise that one is coming who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit a wee bit more worrying than we usually do, and:
  • Maybe we should wonder if, when Jesus was confronted by the man with the unclean spirit in that Capernaum synagogue, Jesus’ first thought wasn’t of casting out, but commiseration: “Possessed with a spirit? Yeah, takes one to know one, buddy.”

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is a man possessed by the Holy Spirit from the moment of his baptism. I’m not saying that Jesus loses agency in the way that the man in the synagogue has lost his, but it seems clear from the very outset of Mark that the Holy Spirit drives Jesus to do things that Jesus isn’t necessarily too keen on. Like spend forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, for example.

But the Spirit does more to Jesus than simply divebomb him, cast hum out into the wilderness, and generally inconvenience him for the sake of the gospel. It also gives him authority.

The Greek for “authority” is exousia, a word which breaks down to mean “out of one’s being.” This exousia seems to instill in Jesus some quality, exuded from the center of who he is, that inexorably draws fishermen and tax collectors to leave everything behind to follow him.

It is this exousia that the unclean spirit recognizes when it cries out, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

It is this exousia that the author of Mark clearly wants us to remember, because the second-to-last thing he records about this episode is about how the people were astounded, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him!”

That is a strange reaction. The people are talking, not just about the exorcism, but about the Jesus’ teaching, as though they made equal impressions.

That’s like having a conversation about the Superbowl halftime show where I say, “Oh my gosh, the dancing sharks,” and someone else says, “And did you notice the lyrical complexity of ‘Teenage Dream’?”

From @SharkSuperbowl.

But this is Mark’s point. Many commentators identify this exorcism as Jesus’ first act of public ministry in the gospel of Mark, but the exorcism doesn’t stand on its own: it’s the second half of an act that begins when Jesus starts unfolding the Word of God for those assembled in the synagogue.

It’s as though Mark is saying: this is what happens when you preach the Word of God. Powers and principalities will resist and disrupt you.

Public Domain: Wikimedia Commons.

Granted, the chances of it happening for us as it did for Jesus are slim. We are mostly an assembly of Lutherans and Episcopalians, members of congregations who would never dream of such attention-drawing rudeness as interrupting the preacher in the middle of a sermon. But:

A: You never know. And:

B: You might not ever get an interrupting unclean spirit. But you will get the anonymous notes. And the Monday morning emails. And the woman who pins you after the service to tell you that so-and-so was really offended by your sermon. And the man who quietly stops coming to worship without ever saying why. And perhaps most discouraging: you will get the people who listen to the Spirit speaking through you, and change nothing about the way that they live.

It is hard to seek out a prophetic gospel week after week for such as these, but it is these who most need to hear that gospel, for these are the people possessed, not by evil minds, but by paralyzed consciences.

As Jana Childers points out, “On Sunday mornings, most preachers do not face people who actively seek to do evil, but rather people who are complicit with the powers that hold them captive.”

These are people who are tired of school shootings, but overwhelmed by the politics of gun control legislation. Who are tired of the way creation is abused, but overwhelmed by the difficulty of finding out where their food comes from. Who are tired of children starving, and know that we should care more about Ebola in Africa, and understand that the prison industrial complex is a problem, but are paralyzed by the magnitude of those problems, and have given up in the face of the powers and principalities that overwhelm them at every turn.

And some Sunday mornings, these people are you. They are me. Reading this text, it occurred to me that Jesus actually faces my worst nightmare as a preacher: a congregant who stands up in the middle of my sermon, looks at me, and says, “What do you have to do with that pulpit? I know who you are.”

Because who I am? Is not as good as I should be. Not good enough to be standing in a pulpit, daring to preach God’s Word, that’s for sure.

But—to shamelessly paraphrase Nadia Bolz-Weber—that’s the God we’re dealing with, people.

We’re dealing with a God who loved us even when we were dead in sin, and made us alive again in Christ Jesus.

We’re dealing with a God who divebombed us with the gospel good news, filled us with the exousia of God’s transforming and redemptive Word, and sent us out to share it.

And even when that Word seems to fall on deaf ears, even when your brilliant preaching fails to make a congregation live again, even when you are convinced that your preaching that Sunday was a gut-wrenching example of what [Yale preacher] Hopie Randall aptly calls “walking the dog,” it cannot touch the inalterable fact that God works in us, and through us, and is accomplishing what God has promised, in God’s own time.

Because we’re dealing with a God who makes good on prophecy, including the one that John made about baptizing us with the Holy Spirit:

this is a God who possesses us: who claims us: who will not let us go.

this is the God who interrupts us in the midst of our doubts and self-loathing,

and says, “Yes, I do know exactly who you are. You are a child of God, baptized in water and the Holy Spirit; sealed with the cross of Christ; and you are mine, forever.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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