What This Text is Really About
A few weeks ago, I ruined the popular Christmas carol' "Do You See What I See?" for several people. I told them the truth that it is was written in reference to the Cuban missile crisis and sung of yearning for earthly peace. I want to do the opposite for you and this text. By telling you what it's really about, I want you to treasure it more.
Until the 1984 NIV, everyone who read it knew what it was about. The KJV, RSV, and NASB all accurately translate "unclean spirit" the 3 times the Greek a-ka-thar-tos is used. Not the NIV. It interprets "unclean" as evil'. It's true Matthew uses demon or demoniac, and Dr. Luke uses unclean demon', but for Mark it's always unclean spirit.' This text is about unclean spirits, and you can relate. Our catharsis' transliterates the Greek work katharsis. Unclean is catharsis with an a' in front of it meaning un-released, un-relieved, un-purged, unclean.
So, in what sense is the spirit unclean? According to the Old Testament Law you could be made unclean ceremonially by a dead body, by bodily fluids, by forbidden foods. These things made you unclean because God said so. There was nothing objectively wrong with pork, with shellfish, with catfish. The Word of God declared them unclean for His people. In Mark 7 Jesus will say, "Nothing that enters a man from the outside can defile him." And Mark makes sure you understand what that means. He writes, "In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean."
So, our text isn't about being ceremonially unclean. How about morally unclean? You do wrong and your conscience pricks you. You feel bad. You might feel shame. You can carry that shame with you a long, long time. You know shame. You really know it when you get the tangible sensation of your face turning red.
Now we've moved closer to the unclean spirit of out text. Though it's a spirit, it's in the man befouling everything about him. It's objectively there. One of my sons is a police officer. He leaves for work early to get dressed at the station. I asked why doesn't he dress at home. He said, "Because then I would have to come back here to change, and I don't want to take into my house what I get into out there." There's uncleanness out there'. He feels it. He touches it. He doesn't want that in his house, around his family.
This text is really about unclean spirits, and it's about ways of dealing with them, and make no mistakes everyone deals. People deal with the unclean spirits of unbelief, misbelief, despair, or other great shame or vice by telling themselves, "I'm not really dirty." Ignore the unclean spirit it will eventually go away. You know that could've been the case with the man in our text. It seems that the unclean spirit could listen to the teachers of the Law blathering on without authority, but when Jesus shows up saying, "Thus says the Lord", the unclean spirit wouldn't be ignored any longer.
Well if you can't ignore the unclean spirit, at least mitigate it. You're not as dirty as those people. That use to be the most popular way of dealing with unclean spirits. The new way is not assert that you're not a little cleaner than someone else. No, we're all equally dirty. This is that car insurance commercial where the woman is incensed that her insurance raised her rate after one little accident. She says, "News flash: Nobody's perfect." The answer to my guilt, my shame, my unclean spirit is everyone is just as dirty as I am.
Everyone deals with unclean spirits. They try denying them or accepting them as no big deal because everyone is dirty. But that' probably isn't you. No, we churchgoers are more sophisticated than that. We try to deal with the unclean spirits by making ourselves clean again. "I do not," you immediately say. "I know I can't save myself. I know I don't have the power to muzzle them let alone drive them out." Do you? Then why do some of you try to deal with the spirits that dirty you by discipline? "I won't do that again. I won't say that again. I won't think that again." And you're drop-dead serious about it. You have enough self-control to discipline yourself in other areas. This is just one more.
I think this is how Peter dealt with the unclean spirit of denial Jesus warned him about. After his first denial Peter says, "I won't do that again." And after the second, he is drop-dead serious about driving that filthy spirit away, but he falls again. And is he determined now. He will not deny his Lord. He will die instead. But then what happens? He denies harder, dirtier, filthier than the first two times. Unclean spirit - 3; disciplined Peter 0.
If discipline won't banish an unclean spirit, how about repentance? Judas tried to get rid of the unclean spirit of betrayal that way, didn't he? He says, "I've sinned; I've betrayed innocent blood." If repentance drives out unclean spirits, poof' it should have been gone. But when it doesn't go in response to his repentance, the unclean spirit of despair rushes in. And things went from bad to worse.
I know. If discipline doesn't work and repentance doesn't work, then faith must. We're close but faith' per say doesn't drive out unclean spirits. If you mean faith in the sense Scrooge tried to drive out the spirit of Jacob Marley's ghost, you've just repackaged "The Little Engine that Could". As Marley stands before him rattling the unclean chains of his sins and howling, Scrooge says he doesn't believe he's real. He's just a trick of imagination or something he ate. Scrooge is chugging along, "I think I can; I think I can." Soon he believes he'll get to "I know I can; I know I can."
No, he won't, and neither will you. Nothing you have can get rid of your unclean spirit. O it might go on its own and be very afraid if it does. At least that's what Jesus says. He says, "When an unclean spirit goes out of a manseeking rest, and finds none. He returns and brings with him 7 other spirits more wicked than himselfand the last state of that man is worse than the first."
Out text is really about unclean spirits and dealing with them, and this Epiphany text gives us the epiphany that only Jesus can reveal and remove them. He not only shows us our dirt, but washes us. He is God in flesh and blood walking through the cesspool of this fallen earth. Science fiction will portray a superior being who is only a mind inhabiting a human body for the first time. The sights, sounds, and smells of human existence grossly offend him. Fallen existence is worse. We get a sense of this when we feel physically dirty. This physical sensation should teach us the spiritual truth of what sin does to us. This is what the Lord taught His Old Testament church by declaring certain food, drink, animals, and bodily fluids unclean ceremonially. Everywhere they turned they were befouled. There was no way to escape the uncleanness on their own. God must save them.
And that He does by taking on human flesh and blood in the New Testament. He comes into this world dirtied because of our sins with thistles and thorns, sweat and tears. And He comes with authority, power, in Himself because He is God. My authority any pastor, priest, or person for that matter only has authority in God's name, in Jesus' name. Jesus has it in His very person, in His actual flesh and blood.
This Man-God has the authority to order out of men unclean spirits, filthy denying spirits, dirty despairing spirits because He kept God's Law as a Man. Unclean spirits take up residence in fallen man by virtue of God's Law. The power of sin is the Law Paul says. The unclean spirit says, "God's Law says you must do this, this and that. You haven't. That means you belong to me. You must listen to me; you must give into me."
God's own law gives unclean spirits the authority to dirty your conscience with guilt, despair, lust, and every other unclean thing. And they insist, again according to God's law, you can't shower until your misdeed has been paid for. So, you get into this demonic loop. God's Law, God's authority exposes your dirtiness. You see it too. But try as you might you can't make yourself any cleaner. If fact, all your efforts only make you all the dirtier, and you have no right to shower because that costs what you can't pay. And you become dirtier and dirtier till you despair and give up of ever being clean again.
Jesus flesh and blood were holy and precious from the start and He kept them that way by keeping God's Law. In this innocent flesh and blood Jesus took on all sins, all guilt, all dirt and carried them away to the cross where they were taken out of the way by nailing Him and them to the cross. Christ guilty death having satisfied God's Law that says it must be kept and sins against it paid for, the cleansing shower of Jesus' blood was turned on to rain down over all the world in body and soul cleansing flood.
In our flesh and blood is where we feel our uncleanness. In our face we feel shame's blush. On our bodies, we feel the dirt of not just our individual sins but our sinfulness. And though there is no place on or in our body we can point to and say, "There is our conscience," when our conscience is dirtied we feel it all over and over till the night moves in and it gets worse.
That's why Jesus puts the power to cleanse unclean spirits in tangible things that work on our bodies. He attaches the Holy Spirit of cleanliness to things that work on our bodies. He calls Baptism a washing and the answer of a good conscience before God. He says Absolution is His Spirit of peace between God and Mankind spoken by the lips of one man into the ears of another. He says Communion is His Body and Blood once more on earth. Even when God the Son was veiled in humbled flesh and blood, unclean spirits recognized He was the Holy One and feared Him. They don't miss the Holy One's Body and Blood on this altar or in your body and they tremble.
What this text is really about is the authority the God-Man Jesus has over unclean spirits. These devils see in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion Jesus' Person, authority, and power on earth today. May we believe the reality they see and treasure it, count on it, use it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (20180128); Mark 1: 21-28