And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Compared with the other seasons of the church year, the season of Epiphany is concerned particularly with what is new about the New Covenant. It’s a time for meditating not only upon the Christ that has been revealed to the world, but also upon the world that receives that revelation. In the Epiphany of our Lord, we are granted a vision of the glory of Christ -- the “Light to lighten the Gentiles” -- but the illumination of this vision reveals something to us in hindsight about our lives and our world that we did not know beforehand.
How many times have you finally gotten around to purchasing some tool or gadget for your home and it’s only after you start using it that you realize how much inconvenience or inefficiency you had just been obliviously dealing with. The upgrade reveals to you just how much you needed it: you get both the direct benefit of its new functions in the present and a clearer understanding of your past before you got it. In a similar way, the Epiphany of Christ gives us both Christ himself -- he is the content of the Epiphany -- and the comparison of just how much we lacked without it. The Old Covenant in a way becomes the Old Covenant because of what is revealed, manifested, in Christ. He is the something new; he is the upgrade; and with Christ as “the mediator of a better covenant” (Hebrews 8:6), he shows us what was deficient in the prior state of things. After all, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, “if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion for a second” (Hebrews 8:7).
So with this in mind, let’s compare our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy this morning with our Gospel reading from the Gospel of Mark to see what we can discover. In Deuteronomy 18, Moses is preparing the people of Israel for his successor, one who will be “like me,” a prophet raised up “from among you, from your brethren.” Accordingly, the people are to heed his words just as they heeded the words of Moses, for his words will be none other than the words that God “will put… in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Like Moses, the prophet that God will raise up from among them will be his representative; his words will be God’s words.
But it’s important to note why it is that God appoints such a spokesperson in the first place. This whole arrangement is God’s response to the people’s request. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brethren… just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly….” Israel wanted a prophet to stand between them and God and to communicate God’s words to them in his stead. They wanted a mediator. “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God,” the people had said, “or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” They couldn’t bear the presence of God in the pillar of fire or the sound of his voice; such things were simply too overwhelming for mere mortals to experience directly. As God himself says even to Moses in the Book of Exodus, “you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Human beings are creatures, and creatures cannot survive the experience of the full dose of God’s holiness and the infinity of his power alone. They need a mediator. Which is why they ask God to raise up a prophet to serve as a go-between for them and God. They couldn’t handle his presence or his voice, but his words -- spoken from the mouth of the prophet -- his words they could receive.
In the Old Covenant, therefore, you had the people of Israel on one side -- mere human beings -- and an all-holy God whom they could neither approach nor see directly on the other. Moses and his successors, the prophets, acted as mediators between God and the people, bridging the gap by communicating the words that God had given them. That way, the people could receive just the words, conveyed to them through one who, like them, was also human -- again, the prophet would be raised up “from among you, from your brethren.” This was the only way that the people could bear to receive God’s instruction as God’s people.
But what happens to this arrangement when the Word of God himself becomes human? When the divine words of God are no longer separate from the human person appointed by God to proclaim them, but are rather perfectly united in, and indeed as, that person? For this is who Jesus is: he is the Word made flesh. Moses was a type of Christ, a preview, as he served as the channel through which the will of God was made known to the people. But Moses was still only human; he was no more able to see God and live as any other human being. Jesus, however, while fully human, is not only human, but is also fully God. He could see God because he himself “was with God, and… was God” (John 1:1). And he could see God and live because “in him was life” (John 1:4). In the Incarnation, the Word of God isn’t merely communicated through a human being, but becomes a human being. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Now, we too can “see God and live” because Christ is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), and by looking upon him, we behold his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1:14).
So when we turn to consider our Gospel reading for this morning, we find Jesus acting in the role of the prophet as described in Deuteronomy. He enters the synagogue and starts to teach, bringing the words of God to the people. And as we would expect from a true prophet of God, Jesus “taught them as one who had authority” -- for, as Moses commands the people with regard to his successor, “him you shall heed.”
Mark’s Gospel continues:
And immediately 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.”
See how the response of the unclean spirit parallels the request of the Israelites. “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, or see this great fire any more, lest I die,” they said at Horeb. And here, the unclean spirit is likewise unable to bear the presence of our Lord in the synagogue -- “have you come to destroy us?” But there’s a crucial difference. It’s not the man himself who is unable to stand in Jesus’ presence, but the unclean spirit within him. There is apparently nothing about Jesus that is intolerable to him as a human being, for Jesus is himself a human being like him and with him. But that which afflicts him, the unclean spirit that torments his soul, this is what cries out against our Lord.
This is an altogether better covenant that Christ is bringing into the world. This is a serious upgrade. Before this epiphany, neither human beings nor their “unclean spirits” -- whether literal possessions or just their many iniquities -- could experience the holiness of God directly. Human beings and their sins were stuck in the same boat, so to speak, and could not yet be totally separated from each other. The most the people could do was to wait patiently for the promises of God to be fulfilled by faith and obedience. But now, our humanity in itself is no longer any barrier to our contact with God, because again, God himself has now taken on our humanity in Christ.
And “Jesus rebuked [the unclean spirit], saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” We are no longer bound to the uncleanness which afflicts us; we are no longer tied to their fate, for Christ brings with him a sword, which he uses to cut away our corruptions and heal us through and through.
This “more excellent ministry” that Christ performs reveals to us that our sin and our uncleanness never wholly defined who we were at the level of our being. In truth, we were never tied to their fate, for evil does not even exist, properly speaking. Like the unclean spirit, evil is like a parasite of the good. It is an absence, a lack, a negation of the good thing that God has created. The problem was that before the revelation of Christ, it was hard for us to see this. It took the Incarnation to remind us that God hates nothing that he has made; that human beings, being creatures, could, by grace and by union with God, hear the voice of God and see the fire of holiness. All that prevented them was in fact our unclean spirits, which God could banish with surgical precision so as to heal us.
The mystery that is revealed in this episode from Mark’s Gospel is that the unclean spirit doesn’t take the man with it when it is cast out by the word of Christ. For Christ had already taken him and the rest of humanity with him when he became incarnate. Of course “they were all amazed!” They had just witnessed the arrival of the new covenant, and with it, the fulfillment of the promise of the Prophet Jeremiah. For now, “all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”
May Christ silence the unclean spirits within us and cast them out, that we too can stand in amazement at the mystery of our salvation and the power of his grace. Amen.