Blogging Towards Sunday, December 11th
The Third Sunday of Advent: Deliverance
Mark 4:35-41). Arriving in a foreign land, Jesus is surprisingly accosted by a foreign occupying power. The third Sunday of Advent is the “joy” Sunday, focusing on the joy of the reversal of the depressing and destructive power of evil in the world in the light of the birth of the Christ Child. Yet is liberation always good news? Does freedom always bring us joy?
Arriving in Gentile country Jesus is encountered violently by a demon-possessed man. Tragically this man is beyond submission. No one can control him. He is seemingly an all powerful strong man (which recalls the parable of Binding The Strong Man in Mark 3:27), who is thus sentenced to total isolation and to life among the dead. He lives among the tombs of his people (for the Jews, graveyards were ritually impure places because of the presence of the dead; cf. Matthew 23:22). We think of tombs as holes in the ground, yet in that day they were more often caves in hills, in which one could easily stand, enter, and if need by “live”. Yet as we learn about this man’s isolation, lack of a human name, family, community, profession and connections – we see how broken, imprisoned and dead he is.
In their encounter, the demoniac begs Jesus for mercy. The unclean spirits are able to recognize a “clean spirit” or righteous one, instantly. Unlike the living man who lives among the dead, Jesus is alive and brings life with him wherever he goes. In their exchange this seemingly strong man recognizes the stronger one who has come into this foreign land. This Son of the Most High God is the only one who can bind the malevolent power and destructiveness of this demon, or as we learn this mass of demons. For when Jesus names the unclean spirit, (a typical action in exorcism stories) we learn that the occupying spirits are not one, but rather “Legion” which is the Roman military term for an army force which at full staffing would include 5,000 men.
Legions were used by the Romans to occupy the Mediterranean world, in particular Palestine and Israel. So in a sense Jesus is taking on the occupying power, doing his own “occupy movement” in the region of the Decapolis (a league of 10 cities joined together for military protection and trading purposes, a bit like NAFTA and NATO today. Legion seems to recognize the power of Jesus and so they ask to be sent from the man, but not from the land. They beg to be sent into a nearby flock of 2,000 pigs. While we might see pigs as cute, they were anything but to the ancient Jews. The Torah teachings of the First Testament declared them unclean for keeping and eating (Leviticus 11:7-8, Deuteronomy 14:8). Jesus is victorious, overcoming the demons, destroying their power and not only freeing the man, but liberating him to return to the wholeness that God intended for him : seated, clothed, sane – in his right mind – recognizing himself, and being seen by others, as a child of God.
But the destruction of their herd of swine impresses and depresses the nearby townsfolk. They see in that action the eschatological power of Jesus, but do they also see another foreign occupying power who has come and destroyed their livelihood? While Jesus has succeeded, the townsfolk do not want him to stick around. The demons have seemingly counter-attacked in the midst of their defeat. We might expect the story to end in the good news victory of verse 15, but instead it continues to 20 and Jesus is exiled.
But fear doesn’t have the last word. Jesus doesn’t accept the liberated man into his group of 12 disciples destined to work in Israel, rather he calls and charges him to use his freedom to declare the good news (gospel) of what Jesus has done for him in his land, with his people and in his language. What’s harder to do magical, miraculous healings, or to call and charge disciples? In its conclusion, this story takes another twist. Where we thought we saw failure we see an unimaginable success.
In today’s lectionary texts in Isaiah 61 and John 1 we see how God continues reverses the ways of the world, and they ways in which we expect God to act, whether that be in ancient exiled Israel of Isaiah’s day (700 BC) or in John the Baptizers day. President Roosevelt said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Yet we often are still troubled, traumatized and immobilized by fear – of ourselves, of others, of the unknown and the evil.
How do you hear God inviting you to freedom from fear in these texts?
How do you need God to deliver you from the fears that occupy and possess you; us?
How is the Christmas Story of the birth of Christ good news for our world and city today?