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Epiphany 4 B

Sermon at St Margaret’s, Budapest (2024.01.28)

Epiphany 4 B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; Revelation 12:1-5a; Mark 1:21-28

“Be silent, and come out of him!”

It is not every Sunday that we get readings with dragons and demons! And while the apocalyptic language of Revelation might make it difficult to understand what John was attempting to describe, there is nevertheless a very strong connecting thread running through the readings today: Authority. Specifically the authority of Jesus. 

First, we have a section of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites where he is quite literally, ‘laying down the law’. Contrary to the common practice in the ANE of turning to diviners, magicians, and sorcerers for wisdom and advice, Israel is called to heed the words of the prophets God will raise up from within their ranks. 

Since God will put his words on the mouths of these prophets, turning to them is a way of turning to God, where prophecy serves as a primary channel of communication. In this sense, the prophets of Israel go beyond their foreign counterparts, functioning as messengers and spokespeople for God, like the envoy of a powerful king. Because of this endowed authority, unlike with diviners and fortune-tellers, obedience to them is not optional.

Jewish commentators are quick to point out that Christians often treat the singular “prophet who is to come” as a prophecy itself anticipating Jesus, but grammatically it should be understood collectively as opposed to referring to a specific individual. While there is some truth in this, one does not preclude the other. 

More importantly, it misses a crucial distinction between Jesus and Moses, or any other prophet. Unlike the extrinsic authority of prophets who spoke in God’s name, Jesus’ authority was intrinsic to who he was, the Son of God, as we shall see in the other two readings.

Here we come to the reading from Revelation, with images of a pregnant woman crowned with stars, and a blood-red seven-headed dragon, who attempts to destroy the woman’s child as soon as he is born. There are books – loads of them – not to mention any number of wacky YouTube videos that are devoted to explicating these intriguing images. 

No, the woman is not a prophecy of the EU, with 12 stars on the flag, and the dragon is not George Soros. In this passage, John masterfully combines well-known prophetic images from the Old Testament with mythological imagery from the ancient world, to make a claim about Jesus, the Messiah.  

While it is tempting to see Mary, the mother of Jesus behind this picture of a woman in agonising labour, Jewish hearers would have instantly recognised her as a depiction of Mother Zion, pictured in the OT as a woman in travail who gives birth to Israel, the people of God. The agony is the agony of anticipation, longing for the coming of the promised messiah.

Identifying the seven-headed dragon is easier, since John later tells us in v.9 that it is the “ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12:9). The dragon’s sweeping down a third of the stars of heaven with his tail has led to all sorts of speculation about a rebellion in heaven, in which the angels who fell behind Satan were cast down to earth and became demons. But the exact ratio of angels who resisted God’s rule is not the point. 

Ancient mythology as well as OT prophetic literature is replete with images of giant beasts and serpents, and there is no doubt that this dragon represents the archenemy of God, and by extension, his people. However, while the beast is powerful, its seven heads are not decorated with victory crowns (Gk. στέφανος “stephanos”), but rather with diadems, in this case the self-deceived arrogation of royal authority, by someone wanting present himself and his minions as a legitimate rival to the King of Kings. 

It's no wonder that this murderous beast wanted to devour the Messiah, the one would smash the evil kings and rulers of the world with a rod of iron, an image taken directly from Psalm 2. From King Herod’s policy of infanticide to Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross, Satan, in desperation, did everything he could to derail God’s plan of salvation.

However, unlike the concept of Yin and Yang, God and Satan are not two equal and opposite forces. The authority of Satan and his minions is constrained and limited. The seeming victory of Evil while Jesus lay in the tomb was pyrrhic. Through his resurrection, Jesus defeated Death by death. Snatched away from the jaws of defeat, Christ ascended into heaven and his throne was indeed established forever. 

Which brings us at last to the Gospel reading, where Jesus drives out the evil spirit from a man in Capernaum. 

Initially he begins teaching – essentially giving a sermon in the synagogue on the Sabbath. I like to think he included some jokes as well, but that is another question. It becomes obvious to the listeners, however, that in contrast to the traditional power endowed to rabbis in the act of biblical exposition – so-called “binding and loosing”, Jesus teaches with an even greater authority.  Like the prophets who came before him, Jesus appears to speak the very words of God.

One of my favourite scenes in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, is when the unlikely group of companions – an interesting picture of the Church – is being attacked by a terrifying Balrog, a fiery beast from the pits of hell. Yet as they frantically scramble to get away, Gandalf the Wizard interposes himself between them and the Balrog. Stamping his staff into the crumbling bridge, he declares, “You shall not pass!” 

It is a fascinating theological observation by Tolkien, a confessing Roman Catholic. While the Wizard and Balrog are essentially equal in power – an angel and a demon if you will – Gandalf speaks with the authority of God. Consequently, while the demon can attack Gandalf – even breaking his staff – ultimately the Balrog is unable to lay a hand on the group.    

Similarly, in the middle of Jesus’ sermon, a man possessed with an unclean spirit cries out, “Jesus of Narazeth, the Holy One of God, have you come to destroy us?!” 

One commentator described this poor man’s condition as: “His personality had been damaged to the point that the demonic power had usurped the center of his self, and spoke through him.”

Like Tolkien’s books (or the movies they generated), this talk of demons and a person possessed by an evil spirit can seem fanciful to modern ears, perhaps even primitive in light of psychology. It is definitely weird. 

On the other hand, research suggests that most people today find it easier to believe in genuine evil than in the existence of God. We need only to open the newspaper or flip through our social media feeds in the morning to be reminded of the persistence of horrendous evil in the world.

One experience I will never forget, is as a rebellious teenager who had rejected the notion of God, one night lying awake in my bedroom down in the basement, and sensing in a tangible way an evil presence standing just outside my door. I was absolutely terrified, and turning on the lights did little to help. Interestingly, I found myself praying, begging the God I didn’t believe in to protect me. 

Intuitively I knew that I lacked the power and authority to do anything against this petrifying power.

I am also struck by the number of interviews with people incarcerated for committing horrific crimes, where the person describes having heard voices telling them to murder their own children or commit other bone-chilling acts of violence. 

Of course you could argue that these people were simply delusional, like me in my bedroom that night.  But why do these voices never tell people to do good things?! Like sell their possessions and give the money to the poor. I can’t remember hearing about any renowned philanthropist who was prodded to action by voices they heard in their head...

In any event, whatever you make of the actual existence of Satan and demons, the underlying point of this incident remains. Whereas according to ancient Jewish thought the demon sought to gain mastery of Jesus by precisely naming and identifying him – it was not a confession of faith! – it was ultimately an exercise in futility.

With the simple but powerful rebuke, “Be silent, and come out of him!” – Jesus establishes his supreme authority. Not only did his teaching appear to come from someone with authority, but he demonstrated this authority over the most powerful spiritual force his listeners knew. No wonder his fame spread so quickly. 

Consequently, when we turn to our Lord in prayer, as we will in a few moments, we are not mouthing words to the ceiling. We are expressing our praise and making requests to the God who not only spoke this cosmos into existence and has authority over every power and principality in both heaven and earth, but similarly has the power to transform our lives and the lives of those around us.


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