When you encounter this painting, it is disorienting. It makes the familiar unfamiliar. It invites you into chapel but asks you to see the experience of worship in a different way. The painting positions you in the narthex, as you are about to enter the chapel. You see people seated in the pews. Columns and arches frame the worship space. But outside the columns, surrounding the congregation, are the horsemen of the apocalypse. War, famine, and death swirl in the wind, ready to destroy any who come in their way. Inside the chapel, however, above the baptismal font and victoriously riding a white horse, is Christ. He is the source of life and living water which courses through the painting.
This depiction of the chapel changes your worship experience. You see in stark terms the deliverance of God. This Jesus whom you worship rules over all things and his work saves you from certain death.
I thought of that painting when I read our gospel lesson, because Mark is quite daring in how he depicts what happens in worship.
This Jesus whom you worship rules over all things and his work saves you from certain death.
The scene is familiar. Jesus enters the city of Capernaum, a place where He lived for some time. On Sabbath, He goes to the synagogue and teaches with authority. Although people are amazed at His teaching, Mark does not record it for us. Instead, Mark directs our attention to an encounter Jesus has with an unclean spirit. That encounter makes the familiar unfamiliar. The Sabbath service which all were familiar with changes and we begin to see the extent of the power and the rule of Jesus Christ.
I would like you to listen more closely to the language of the unclean spirit. The spirit confronts Jesus and cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Notice how it speaks in the plural: “Us.” Mark clearly tells us the spirit is singular (it is “an unclean spirit”) and Jesus rebukes the spirit and speaks to it in second person singular imperatives. Yet, the spirit speaks in the plural.
This could be a case where the spirit is one of many, like the situation of the Gerasene demonic (Mark 5:9). Or it could be the spirit is speaking of a realm of uncleanness. Or it could be the spirit is intentionally seeking to deceive Jesus, presenting itself as many when it is only one. I wonder, however, if the spirit could be making a bolder claim. Is it possible the unclean spirit is claiming the people in the synagogue as its own? This unclean spirit already has laid claim to this man. The man is described as, “In the unclean spirit,” and the spirit is later able to convulse him. Is it possible the spirit sees things differently than we do?
We look at the synagogue and see God’s people gathering in worship. The spirit, however, sees uncleanness and lays claim to all which is unclean as its own. Much like Obermueller’s painting, God’s people have gathered in worship while there is a war going on, and this war has two opponents: The Kingdom of Satan and the Kingdom of God. There is no middle ground. You are either Satan’s or you are God’s.
When the spirit first appears in the story, Mark makes it sound like there is a middle ground. “And immediately, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” The synagogue belongs neither to God nor to Satan but to the people of Capernaum. The spirit then makes a claim. Its claim is that all the people gathered in worship are the spirit’s. They are unclean and cannot be in the presence of the “holy One of God.” What does God have to do with those who are unclean? Nothing. So, the spirit cries out and reveals that the people of Capernaum, gathered in worship, are under the threat of being claimed by Satan.
But then Jesus reveals who He truly is. He is more than a man from Nazareth. He is more than a teacher with authority. He is the cosmic Christ. This is His synagogue, and these are His people. His rule is over all things, visible and invisible. His power is without equal. He has come into this world to fight against Satan and to defeat him. He will set free all the people Satan claims as his own.
Jesus reveals who He truly is. He is more than a man from Nazareth. He is more than a teacher with authority. He is the cosmic Christ.
How are the unclean made clean? How are the captives set free? By the gracious work of Jesus, bearing the curse of our uncleanness on the cross that He might rise and bring the blessing of God’s holiness to us.
For almost a year now, we have been experiencing the disruptive effects of COVID. One of the things that has happened is it has changed how we view our ability to gather in worship. We have begun to see why this is truly a gift. Mark’s gospel this morning takes us one step further. He reveals the divine gift of worship. We are Christ’s Church. The One we worship is the One who has come to rescue us from the power of Satan. We live in the midst of a battle. Satan seeks to lay claim on our lives. But for us fights the valiant one: Jesus. The cosmic Christ who has come today claims us as His own.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 1:21-28.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 1:21-28.
Lectionary Podcast- The one and only Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 1:21-28.