Sunrise in Glounthaune, Co Cork, October 2007Nikon D70s, 1/100 sec, f5, ISO 200, 105mm equivalent (click to enlarge)
So our Gospel reading picks up from last week. You may remember that Jesus had been walking by the Sea of Galilee and he had called four fishermen to be amongst His followers: Simon, Andrew, James and John. Our reading for today carries on with the five of them making their way around the lake to Capernaum, where Jesus had recently moved to from Nazareth, about 20 miles to the south (Matthew 4:12,13). When Saturday, the Sabbath day arrives, Jesus (and presumably the small group of his disciples) attends the Synagogue. Because the temple in Jerusalem was too far for many of the Jewish people to travel to regularly for worship, many towns had Synagogues to serve as both places of worship and as schools. Each Sabbath day the Jewish men would gather to listen to a Rabbi teach from the Scriptures. Because there was no permanent Rabbi or teacher, it was customary for the Synagogue leader to ask visiting teachers to speak. So on this particular Saturday Jesus indicates His desire to speak and gets permission to do so.
Once Jesus begins teaching, the people are amazed – you can imagine their jaws dropping open as this carpenter from Nazareth teaches from the Scriptures so clearly and with so much power and authority. They were used to dusty, dry and boring sermons, they had never heard anything like this before.
Satan clearly is not pleased. A man enters the Synagogue, who is possessed by an evil spirit. He cries out:
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are – you are God’s holy messenger!” (v.24)
Perhaps it all too easy with our 21st Century way of looking at things to dismiss this as a bit of primitive superstition – that demon possession is what the writers of the New Testament understood was happening whereas it was in fact some kind of physical or mental illness that was being manifest. But if you actually read the New Testament, you will see that the writers are quite clearly able to distinguish between someone who is demon possessed and someone who had a physical or mental illness. Even later on in this chapter in Mark we read:
Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons…(v.34)
I’m sure you remember that the Lord Jesus had already defeated Satan in the wilderness, but now it seems that the devil is trying a different tactic, he sends out his servants, the demons to take control of unwitting hearts.(1)
This horrible creature, this demon that has taken over a man’s heart knows that it has met its match in the Lord Jesus. The Lord is its Master, he knows that his time is up, he recognises the Holiness and Deity of the Lord Jesus.
Jesus’ complete authority is emphasised in what happens next, He issues a short, firm command:
“Be quiet and get out of him” (v.25)
The demon obeys at once, for it is all he could do, albeit unwillingly. He shakes the poor victim violently and with a shriek comes out of him.
Clearly, the people were dumbfounded, amazed and in awe of what they had just witnessed. Here is Someone who not only spoke with such great authority but who acted with great authority too, a rare combination indeed.
I think that the very clear message from our gospel reading is the fact that Jesus is very much in charge and that He has complete authority over evil, in its many guises. But there’s that nagging question knocking away at the back of our minds, the question that takes many forms and the question that longs for a satisfactory answer: Why then is there so much evil and suffering in this world, if Jesus has complete authority over it? Why do children die? Why is justice not forthcoming for innocent victims? Why is there so much suffering in this world? Why does the Devil seem to be on the rampage causing seemingly limitless destruction and pain?
Of course with just a couple of hundred words and a few minutes of time it is not possible to give a full answer to this most pertinent of questions. Some time ago I visited a person in hospital who was in a lot of pain. Although they could talk and even walk around, it was not possible for them to describe or articulate the level of suffering they were going through except perhaps in the lines of pain that were deeply etched in their face. I struggled with what words to say and conversation was difficult. The person then looked up to high on the wall opposite their bed and we both looked and stared for some time at this object. It was of course a crucifix. The pain of Christ suffering on the cross somehow seemed to mirror that of the person I was with and there was for an unspoken moment a sense of peace and release. Like a bit of light shining from the end of a very long dark and difficult tunnel came the realisation that everything here is only for a time. The pain people feel now is only for a time. The suffering and misery of so many is only for a time and there is the fact that God is not remote aloof and aloft from our suffering, He is right there in the very midst of that suffering and has indeed gone through the grave and gate of death Himself. Why? To make all things new. To make us new:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
For that is the One Thing above all that conquers evil – Love and the love of God in Christ is greater than anything that can come against us…
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38,39)
All our questions about God and suffering should, in fact be filtered through what we know about Jesus. Dorothy Sayers wrote:
For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death – He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself. He has Himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When He was a man, He played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.(2)
We want Jesus to banish evil now, we want an end to suffering today, but in so doing we are wanting an end to this world in all its fallenness and brokenness. We know that this world will end. We know that the Lord will return and that all things will be made new and I suppose it is a measure of comfort for us to remember that suffering, evil, death, pain and the whole repertoire of misery that are the Satan’s calling cards, will like him be destroyed and put firmly into past, into the history of a world and a people that went very wrong and yet were utterly rescued and saved by the God whose love and whose power was more than a match for that which would come against it.
(1) William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Mark, Banner of Truth 1999 p.62
(2) Philip Yancey, “Where is God when it hurts?” Zondervan 1977, p.225