In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, events move along with breath-taking speed. By the time we reach verse 21 and the story we are to consider today, we have learned of the ministry of John the Baptist; of Jesus’ baptism, when the voice from heaven proclaimed him the Beloved Son; of his forty days in the wilderness, tempted by Satan; and then of his emergence in Galilee as a preacher of the Kingdom of God, and his calling of the first disciples. The stage is now set for the development of Mark’s project of revealing to his readers the nature, and the significance, of Jesus.The first of Jesus’ miracles described by Mark takes place on the Sabbath, in the local synagogue. It appears that news of Jesus’ preaching had already reached the leaders of the synagogue, and he was invited to speak.St Mark gives less detail on the content of Jesus’ teaching than the other Gospels, having earlier summarised his message, as we read from verses 14 and 15: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near: repent, and believe the good news!’ So we are not told what Jesus taught in the synagogue on this occasion – what impressed his hearers was the authority with which he spoke. The common teaching method of the rabbis, in expounding the Law, was to quote the opinions of numerous other rabbis. Jesus did not do this: he taught on his own authority. (A prominent Rabbi of our own day has said that, for him, the most remarkable saying of Jesus is: ‘but I say to you’. Clearly this assumption of authority remains astonishing to some at least of the Jewish faith, as it was in Jesus’ own day.)Then, Mark tells us, something untoward happened. Proceedings were interrupted by an outburst from a man possessed by an unclean spirit. Belief that humans were surrounded by hordes of malevolent spirits was widespread in the ancient world, and exists in some cultures to this day. Modern Christians have different ways of interpreting texts depicting demon possession – some take them literally, while others understand them as depicting illness, perhaps psychosis, or a form of epilepsy. But there is no doubt that to this unfortunate man, and the witnesses in the synagogue, demon possession was a frightening reality.
The demon, feeling threatened by the presence of Jesus, takes the initiative – naming Jesus and his human origin in Nazareth, and also acknowledging his divine nature as the Holy One of God. In the ancient world to be able to name someone was regarded as acquiring some power over them. But Jesus demonstrates his supreme authority by exorcising the unclean spirit with a command, a word of power. In this way he demonstrates in action that the reign of God is indeed at hand, and God’s power over evil is at work in the world. “Deliver us from evil”. We say these words every time we repeat the Lord’s Prayer. What do we understand by them? Sometimes philosophers describe two kinds of evil – natural evil, and moral evil. But there are difficulties in describing the workings of nature as ‘evil’. Early in the pandemic I heard a courageous preacher, who was both a theologian and an eminent scientist, point out that if God creates everything that is, then God creates viruses. Indeed, as he went on to say, most viruses are harmless to humans, while some have been beneficial in our development. Natural phenomena, lacking intent, are not in themselves evil; but by their interaction with other creatures they may cause suffering. Moral evil, on the other hand, is present when humans cause suffering, by careless or deliberate action, or by neglect. Whether or not one accepts that multiple, evil, supernatural beings exist, few would deny the existence in this world of evil power. St Augustine of Hippo wrote of evil as a negative force – the total absence of good, the total absence of love. In Dante’s great work, the lowest circle of hell is not burning hot, but deadly cold – like the cold, loveless hearts which devised the Holocaust with deadly efficiency. May God indeed deliver us from such evil, and from its contagious and corrupting power.
As the book of Job demonstrates, thinking humans have always wrestled with the problem of evil and of undeserved suffering. A wise teacher once said that Christianity does not explain evil, but does give us a way of dealing with it. God has given us the moral law to enable us to live well – the ‘ thou shalt not ‘ commands to prohibit us from causing suffering, and the ‘thou shalt’ commandments of love, to aid and support and comfort our fellow-humans under natural and personal disaster. And more, immeasurably more, he gives us himself, to company with us in good times and bad, to strengthen and inspire us to achieve miracles of love and endurance. In the book of Job, God is said to wage continual struggle against opposing forces. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, that struggle reached its climax, and final victory over the dark powers was assured. In a dark world, Christians are called to reflect the light of the Christ who became incarnate at Bethlehem, and who first revealed to the world his victory over evil in the synagogue of Capernaum. God grant us grace to persevere in the way of our Lord, and to play our part in dispelling the darkness.
Following me, Jesus says to Simon, also called Peter, and his brother Andrew. Then further along the shore, a similar invitation is issued to two other brothers, James and John. Can you imagine the scene? Here are two sets of brothers, working hard in the family business, casting their nets into the sea, hoping to catch enough fish to make a living, and now here comes this man with an invitation, that on first glance, didn’t fall into the category of ‘ something too good to miss, ‘ and yet, the brothers respond. There must have been something about this stranger on the shore that made the disciples to drop their nets. Both times Matthew uses the same word to describe the timing of their reaction – IMMEDIATELY – and both times Matthew tells us how they respond. They follow Jesus, clearly there was something different about Jesus. Follow me, is command that comes, over and over again in the Bible. God called Mary to give birth to God and God called the fishermen from their nets to follow Jesus and we are followers of Jesus in our Christian lives.