De afgelopen week schreef ik een Engelse preek voor mijn gemeente in Cambridge. Ik praatte op Twitter over hoe lastig het is om in een andere taal te schrijven dan je moedertaal en mensen vroegen of ze dan het resultaat mochten zien (om te kijken of het echt zo beroerd was als ik deed voorkomen). Dus, wie geïnteresseerd is in een Engelse preek over Marcus 1,21-28, kan hieronder zijn of haar hart ophalen.
Dan nog iets. In deze zelfde week drong nog iets anders aan me op. Namelijk de behoefte om een plek te creëren om verdrietig te zijn. Normaal gesproken probeer ik altijd vrij optimistisch het leven door te gaan, ik hou niet van negativiteit. Maar ik realiseerde me dat het soms ook goed is om onder ogen te zien dat er in deze tijd nu eenmaal een hoop treurigheid is en dat dat naast alle hoopvolle dingen mag blijven bestaan.
Want is het gewoon verdrietig om zo lang geen andere mensen te zien. Om dag aan dag in huis te werken, zonder uitjes, zonder ontmoetingen met anderen, zonder evensongs, zonder musea. Het is verdrietig dat we in ons laatste jaar Engeland zo weinig hebben kunnen doen. Het is verdrietig dat mijn werk bijna stil ligt en het contact met kinderen en ouders op een heel laag pitje staat. Om nog maar te zwijgen over alle andere dingen die mij niet persoonlijk raken, maar me wel bezighouden: de kwetsbaarheid van kinderen, mensen die in eenzaamheid sterven, oplopende onrust in de maatschappij, toename van depressies en suïcides. Etc. Etc.
Op Instagram uitte ik iets van die gevoelens en van mijn behoefte om dat af en toe gewoon te zeggen en het verdriet er te laten zijn. In een opwelling zei ik: ik zou eigenlijk wel een viering willen, een soort klaagdienst, waarin we dat bij God brengen – even geen oplossingen of wegwuiven of lange preek, maar verzuchten en weeklagen en bidden.
Ik kreeg zoveel bijval dat ik besloten heb om het gewoon te gaan doen. Dus iedereen die behoefte heeft aan een ruimte om verdrietig te zijn om wat er allemaal in deze tijd niet is, door corona of door iedere andere reden… is welkom:
En dan nu: de preek.
Sermon for Sunday 31st January – St. Mark’s Newnham
Mark 1:21-28 and Revelations 12:1-5a
May I speak in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fantasy stories. There is nothing like reading stories or watching films about magical worlds, fictional universes that although they don’t exist, are truly beautiful, with mysterious laws of nature and mythical creatures and a lot of magic and wizards and dragons.
I love fantasy stories. And an essential part of those stories is the conflict between good and evil: epic battles to overcome the dark forces or to defeat the terrifying monster, in order to live happily ever after. But, in a lot of fantasy fiction, there is always this moment when the power of evil tries to get a grip on all what is good, deceiving even the best characters, trying to overthrow beauty and goodness.
Take, for example, the Lord of the Rings, the books by J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings, the good king of Rohan is possessed by an evil wizard. The king is controlled by the whispers of the wizard, at the mercy of his cruel ideas.
And, another example for the younger generations among us: Harry Potter, also a wonderful tale about the conflict between good and evil. In one of the books, Ginny Weasley, a friend of Harry Potter, is possessed by the dark Lord Voldemort. He makes her do terrible things she can’t even remember doing.
And then – of course – in all books and films, there is always the inevitable hero that will defeat these malicious forces.
So, in stories, we are pretty familiar with the possibility of evil spirits possessing human beings. But our everyday reality is (unfortunately) not governed by magic or supernatural beings. Our world is quite straight forward and a bit boring at times. No mysterious explanations for strange behaviour. We try to explain things through science and common sense.
This is why the passage we have read in the Gospel of Mark, is quite a tricky one. Because this story is about a so called ‘unclean spirit’ which is possessing a man in the synagogue Jesus is visiting. It’s an exorcism story, that seems to belong in the realm of fantasy and not reality.
One of our first impulses might be to skip this story because we don’t really understand what is going on. This was certainly my first impulse.
But it is important to notice that this is not ‘just a story’ in the Gospel of Mark. No, this is Jesus’ first sign. Mark has told his readers about Jesus’ baptism, the temptation in the wilderness, and the calling of the first disciples, and now Jesus is beginning his public ministry.
Like the wedding in Cana is Jesus’ first sign in the gospel of John, setting the scene for the whole of the Gospel, this story about the man with the unclean spirit, is crucial for Mark. He wants to make something clear about Jesus.
Let’s take a closer look. In this short passage, Mark 1 verse 21-28, Jesus teaches in the synagogue of Capernaum. The people there were amazed by his authority. Apparently, Jesus is different than the spiritual leaders of Israel. There is something about him that strikes people.
But then a man with an unclean spirit disturbs the gathering.
I have thought a lot about unclean spirits in the last week. At first, like I said, this worldview seemed so strange, so distant to ours. What in the world are unclean spirits? Is it epilepsy or mental illness?
But then I watched the news with this story in the back of my mind. Last week, in my own country, the Netherlands, we had the most violent riots seen in decades: looting of shops, young men attacking police and destroying property. There were also conflicts about the distribution of vaccines, countries wanting to make sure they had enough, while other countries in the rest of the world have no vaccine at all. And this is also a time in which weird conspiracy are going around, with completely bizarre ideas.
It looks like a lot of different demons are flying around in our modern scientific time.
And no, they don’t appear only in the minds of others. Invisible forces are present in my life as well, voices from inside and outside, telling me what to do.
The urge to scroll down my Twitter timeline, leaving me empty and often sad – but I can’t stop. The voice telling me I am only worthy when I am successful. It reminds me of the words of the apostle Paul in the letter to the Romans: I do not what I want, I do the very thing I hate.
I wonder how many unclean spirits are present in my life and in your life.
The spirit of insecurity, wanting you to constantly prove yourself. The spirit of addiction, forcing you to take more and more. The spirit of anger preventing you from reconciling with your friend. The spirit of perfectionism, leaving you frustrated because it’s never good enough…
There are so many of them.
And so, when Jesus meets this man in the synagogue, it’s not an unremarkable meeting between a rabbi and a man with mental illness. It is an encounter between the powers of good and evil. Between the one who has come to deliver his people, and the forces of darkness trying to overcome him and all of humanity.
The unclean spirit realizes this immediately. It cries out: ‘Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!’
The spirit is the only one present giving Jesus a special title. That seems… strange. Why would this spirit recognize Jesus’ identity?
If we look back to the beginning of the Bible, we see that the first human, Adam, is given the power to name all the animals. Names are important. The one doing the naming has more authority than the one being named. The unclean spirit wants to have this power over Jesus.
But Jesus says: Be silent!
Jesus doesn’t allow the spirit to name him. Jesus doesn’t allow the spirit to possess the man in front of him. Jesus doesn’t want our demons defining us.
And so, Jesus heals the man. The spirit is trying to go out with a fight, but he has to surrender and leaves. The people are once more amazed by Jesus and don’t know what to make of it. That will remain the theme of the Gospel of Mark, the question around the identity of Jesus and the not-knowing, the confusion.
But for us, the readers, this is a story that reveals already a lot about his ministry. Everything, actually. Jesus has come to liberate, to heal, and to face the powers of destruction. This, Mark tells us, is the beginning of the final defeat of the enemies of God.
And so, this apparently simple story brings us to a much bigger and all-encompassing reality.
This is reflected in our second reading, Revelation chapter 12. There, we see a different, but similar encounter taking place. The woman carrying the child in her womb, and the dragon trying to kill it.
Good and evil. Light and dark. Liberation and oppression. The culmination of everything, the climax of our world. The whole big story of reality leads to this.
And you know what? The dragon doesn’t win. And the unclean spirit doesn’t win. Evil doesn’t win. Darkness doesn’t win.
The writer Tolkien has said that the reason why we like fantasy stories so much, is because there is truth in them. The sudden joyous turn of a story, just at that moment when all seemed hopeless, points us to God’s overwhelming grace and joy prevailing over darkness. It’s the very structure of our world. Even in the midst of darkness, even surrounded by unclean spirit, there is still hope.
Not because we are the heroes of the story. Not because we defeat our demons on our own. But because Jesus is the one doing it for us. Jesus is the hero of our story and the reason we can live happily ever after.
This good news, this gospel, disturbed the leaders of Israel, who felt their authority challenged, just like it disturbed the unclean spirits who wanted to control human beings. The battle between good and evil is long and sometimes seems endless. It has even led to the cross, the place where all powers of evil tried to destroy Jesus.
But the cross wasn’t the end. The resurrection was the sudden joyous turn of history. Jesus Christ is the ending of our story, of all our individual stories, because he is the One going before us. Jesus Christ is the first and the last Word.