Grace to you, and peace, from God our creator, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus left the synagogue at Capernaum, and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. –Mark 1:29-39 (NRSV)
Why does Jesus tell the demons to keep silence? Let’s wonder about that together.
This Gospel passage is right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. According to Mark, Herod’s soldiers have just arrested John the Baptist. Jesus has just finished his forty days in the wilderness. He called his disciples a few days before. And now it’s a Sabbath day afternoon in Capernaum. He was teaching at the synagogue. We heard that the congregation …
were all amazed, 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.”
And now they’re hurrying over to Simon and Andrew’s place, for a Sabbath night supper. This passage sets the scene for Jesus’s earthly ministry.
We, Mark’s readers, get to see Jesus’s saving work at two levels at once. Mark shows us his day-to-day work with his disciples and the people of Galilee. He goes about urgently proclaiming the good news of God, teaching, healing the sick with a word or a touch, and freeing people of their demons.
The second level is the epic confrontation between God’s realm and the demons. The demons know exactly who Jesus is –fully divine. They know their game is up and they’re defeated. We can tell they don’t want to give up without a fight.
As readers we are witnesses to that apocalyptic ministry: Mark shows it to us clearly. At his baptism, we, and Jesus, see the heavens torn apart and the Holy Spirit descend upon him. With Jesus we witness Satan hassling him and angels waiting on him in the wilderness. We see, with God’s eyes, his confrontations with the demons. But it’s not so for the ones Jesus is with – his disciples, Simon’s mother-in-law and the people in the crowds. They sense something big is going on, but don’t really get it. And that’s the point. Jesus tells the demons to be silent.
Much later, as the temple veil is torn apart, and Jesus dies, the centurion in charge of his crucifixion squad says “Truly this man was God’s son” (Mark 15:39) Only then, in the shadow of the cross, is the mystery of his divine work disclosed. His victory and his strength come from his weakness.
So we have two levels. Both the human and divine levels of his ministry break taboos. At the human level he went from teaching in the synagogue to breaking the purity code. He takes a sick woman, not his relative, by the hand, and helps her up: observant Hebrew men don’t do that. She responds by serving food to the strangers in her house: observant Hebrew women don’t do that. She breaks the taboo of family privacy and honor. Together they show that perfect love conquers fear.
It’s hard for us to grasp how conspicuous and radical this taboo-breaking must have been at the time. Here’s the nearest thing I can think of: Some of us remember seeing the 1987 photograph of Diana (the princess of Wales) shaking hands with an AIDS patient. They followed Jesus’s example in that photo. She and that man, whose name is known only to God, broke the purity code. Together they showed that perfect love conquers fear. That photo changed a lot of hearts. In the human level of Jesus’s ministry, there’s no conflict. Nobody loses when those taboos are broken.
The divine level of his ministry breaks taboos too. At the divine level, however, the world sees them as win/lose taboos. The demons called Jesus “the Holy One of God.” That was blasphemy to the Hebrews and treason to the Romans. The demons are right. They’ve already lost. The Roman emperor, and Herod, and the temple priests, face the end of their age and their stranglehold on power. At the divine level, Jesus’s authority makes the demons recognize him. And that, in Isaiah’s words, “brings the princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”
So why does Jesus compel the demons to be silent? Why doesn’t he force them into a great showdown after supper right there on Simon’s front stoop? With our eyes of faith we see no doubt that he will prevail. So why not?
Let us remember the message he preaches on the human level: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” His message is to you, and me, and to the people of Galiliee. He’s inviting us to look into our hearts, to turn away from the realm of this world and toward God’s realm, and to believe. Like the disciples and the people of Galilee, we know something’s up but we don’t quite get it.
If Jesus invites us to witness an apocalyptic battle, the good news will be drowned out. We’ll be swept up in a vast drama, and we’ll lose sight of our own hearts. With great relief we’ll embrace the role of spectators in a drama that’s bigger than us. And his call to “repent and believe in the good news” demands my full participation, and yours.
This kind of thing is unfolding here in Newburyport right now. Last December some local teenage boys created an online video. In it, they took turns saying rude and hurtful things about another teenage boy. Their subject happens to be a Jew, and some of their words were virulently anti-Jewish and personal. This was bad, 20th-century bad. It demanded action. It demanded education. It demanded repentance.
How does a community like ours, who really hope to live as if God’s realm is drawn near, cope with this kind of thing? We have a choice as a community and as individuals. On the one hand, we can turn it into a cosmic battle between good and evil. We can treat the boys who made the video as if they were evil. We can blame them, shame them, punish them, and so convince ourselves that evil stands defeated.
On the other hand, we can find a teaching moment in the incident. As bad as it was, it’s not only about those young people. It’s about us all. It’s a mirror we can hold up. We can see ourselves and our community reflected in it. If we’re honest, we know we all struggle sometimes with bigotry, fear, and hostility to people who are different. This kind of incident invites us all to repent and believe in the good news.
Rabbi Avi Poupko met with those boys. He offered some teaching about the faith and history of the Jewish people. Our local commission on diversity and tolerance is planning a forum – a public conversation – with the hope that knowledge will foster understanding, and understanding will let love in, the perfect love that casts out fear.
Where is the struggle between good and evil? Maybe it’s on a cosmic battlefield, or a courtroom, or even the opinion page of the newspaper. But it certainly is in my heart, and yours, and our neighbors’. Jesus’s choice to silence those demons is the heart of his ministry. The demons, and the principalities, and the powers, are accustomed to great, dramatic power struggles.
Jesus’s carries out his divine-level ministry by refusing those struggles. He knows it’s too easy for the rest of us if we can just choose up sides. Instead, he goes about among us healing, casting out demons, and calling us to repent and believe in the good news.
It’s my prayer that you and I can follow him without the distractions of cosmic battles, and invite him to turn our hearts toward the realm of God.