Differentiated Jesus in Toxic System

*This is guest sermon from Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker who is preaching on the RCL while I am preaching from the Narrative Lectionary

Mark 1:21-28

21[Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, (Read the whole passage)


We are well into the season after Epiphany, seeing and hearing the stories of Jesus being revealed. And we are learning, like those first disciples and people encountering him, that Jesus is unlike anyone we have encountered before.

Today, we encounter Jesus’ first healing, his first miracle. And not just any healing, but an exorcism. Talk about a way to reveal yourself. There’s a lot of baggage caught up in the word exorcism. Maybe rightly so. Casting out a demon isn’t nothing. But it’s also not like a seen from a horror movie either. Being demon-possessed, being unclean isn’t the same as being disabled or different, it’s being toxic, or unhealthy to a system… a community. Likely, this man looked the same as anyone else in the synagogue that day. But something gave him away, that identified him as one who was possessed, unhealthy, toxic.

The gospel of Mark is carefully constructed. As we have learned through the seasons Advent, Christmas and these first few weeks after Epiphany, Mark is not one to embellish. He provides the necessary information to impart the good news of Jesus. So the way that Jesus finds out about this man is not insignificant. This is a small detail, but an important one. One that could easily be missed if not looking closely at what is happening and how the story it being told.

[Those gathered] were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then [as this was taking place] there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried 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.” 

Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. But in a new way, a different way than what they are used to – it’s not like that of the scribes. The people hearing his teaching are astounded – they are interested and intrigued by what he has to say. He has their attention. And seeing all this take place causes this man to feel uncomfortable… anxious… threatened. Jesus comes along, and this man recognizes him immediately.

What this man says to Jesus is important too because it tells us a lot about the man:

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” – who do you think you are?

His behaviour is classic toxic behaviour – when there is a threat, or a perceived threat to the toxic person their anxiety increases.

“Have you come to destroy us?”

But he’s not finished:

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

This man is the only one who sees who Jesus is, and even after he clearly identifies who Jesus is, the people are still confused. But what is just as interesting is that no one else in the community seems to recognize that this man is possessed by a demon. Because no one who was considered “unclean” would be allowed into the synagogue in the first place. It’s more likely, then, that the community has adapted to his behaviour.

The boundaries, the norms of a system, a community set in place what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in that particular system. These are frequently not healthy but what become considered normal.

That’s the thing about unhealthy people and unhealthy systems. We often don’t recognize how unhealthy and toxic they are until someone new, someone different comes along and points it out to us, someone who shows us a different way. We adapt to the dis-ease and unhealthy behaviour until it becomes normal, like allowing a demon-possessed man to go unnoticed in a community.

So when a new person enters the system, the community, and presents new, healthy, different behaviours, systems, boundaries and expectations the whole system is threatened. Because the established norms are questioned, and the possibility of change is introduced. And most people, given the choice, would prefer to stay in an unhealthy system that is known and comfortable, than risk discomfort in a new and healthy but uncomfortable one.

Today, Jesus’ power and authority is revealed by crossing boundaries – Jesus calls out toxic and unhealthy behaviour in the midst of the community – and in doing so reveals that Jesus… God… is willing to go to places no one else wants to go. God in Jesus is willing to dismantle unhealthy systems that keep people from knowing

Of all the things Jesus said in the synagogue that day, Mark chooses to record only what Jesus says in response to this man: “Be silent, and come out of him!”

Jesus’ statement is one of differentiation, it sets him apart from the man and the unhealthy and toxic system he represents and wants to maintain.

Jesus heals a man, a man whose unhealthy behaviour has become toxic in the midst of his community. And in doing so, Jesus frees not only the man, but the community as well. They are amazed – not just that he commands unclean spirits, but that they OBEY him. The demons, the unclean and unhealthy behaviours and systems that had a hold on the entire community had no power over Jesus.

This is the power Jesus holds – the power to identify that which is unhealthy and toxic and exorcize it from the people and communities it has taken hold of.

This is the power of the Gospel. The power to free us from the toxic systems of sin and death.

To free us for a life that draws us into new relationships… new realities where the burden of maintaining unhealthy and toxic systems are lifted, the burden of sin and death lifted. Our unclean, unhealthy, toxic selves gone. Attachments to unhealthy and toxic systems, gone.

And in their place, new and eternal life. This is the promise we receive in baptism: new life in Jesus.

When we enter into a baptismal service, we begin with a profession of faith – when we renounce, we give up our unhealthy, toxic ways:

Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?


I renounce them.

Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?


I renounce them.

Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?


I renounce them.

Washed in the waters of baptism, marked with the sign of the cross by God the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. This is how Jesus is revealed. This is who Jesus is revealed to be: the one who frees us for new and eternal life with God. God casts out our old selves, our old ways. God frees us so that we no longer belong to our unhealthy behaviour or systems. God frees us so that we no longer belong to the people or places that hold us back. We no longer belong to our shame, our anxiety, our disappointments, our unclean spirits that demonize us and our communities.

In their place we are named and claimed: You belong to Christ, in whom you have been baptized. Alleluia.

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