The Harry Potter novels chronicle a fantastic parallel universe in which the crusade against evil is fought in the person of a young man who unknowingly carries an element of his adversary within. That war culminates in a final battle worthy of a James Bond movie. In that story, the kingdom of evil ends with a bang. The confrontations with evil that most of us recognize are much less dramatic. Our gospel for today points us to a sure strategy to experience victory in those battles whether they end with bangs or whimpers.
Mark’s gospel, the one that led the way for many others, is quite concise. The reading today is a brief but dense telling of a powerful story. Its subject might seem a bit quaint to modern readers who do not believe in demon-possession. It is included in the book for an important reason: We need to know how Satan feels about us, and we need to know what to do when we see him at work.
Describing the beginning of Christ’s ministry, a few short verses before today’s story, Mark introduces the message of the ministry. He says, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15) Before the story we read today, Jesus called some of his disciples, so we have reason to believe that Peter, Andrew, James and John, and possibly others, were with Jesus on the day he first preached in Capernaum. On that day they were introduced to the warfare that would be the central feature of the rest of their lives.
The story of this day is extremely important. Jesus’ message of the kingdom and repentance and good news was not good news to Satan. Satan had already tried to appeal to Jesus’ human nature in numerous temptations that would have put a stop to this message. Satan tried to turn Jesus into a traveling medicine show that would have been great entertainment without changing lives or freeing people from Satan’s grip. Even though Satan had lost the day, he never gave up, and today’s story is only one of many episodes in which he continued to attempt to take Jesus off message. He would have loved to see Jesus explode in rage or fly out of control like Moses at the waters of Meribah, and he never stopped trying. To this day, Satan never stops trying to squelch Christ’s message. He never wants to hear the words “the kingdom of God has come near.”
When Jesus strolled into Capernaum, Satan was ready and waiting. Jesus went to synagogue on the Sabbath, as anyone who knew him would expect. Because word had gotten around that he was a teacher, he was invited to teach that morning, just as any other wandering rabbi might have been invited to do. We already know the substance of his message. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” People were quite impressed and began to talk among themselves about this unique message and this unique teacher. Why, he taught as if he knew what he was talking about. He didn’t waste any time quoting old rabbis. He taught with authority.
But Satan was ready. Satan did not want people to hear the good news. He did not want them to repent of self-worship. He did not want them to enter into the kingdom of God. He had placed someone in the crowd to put a stop to this nonsense. Right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching, this man interrupted with scornful words. “What are you doing here?” he shouted.” Who do you think you are? I know who you are, you Holy One of God.” Spoken in this tone of voice, those words sounded like an accusation of fraud and deception. Spoken at this particular time, those words were intended to divert people from thinking about Jesus and distract them to think about this demented man. Satan wanted them to turn away from Christ’s message that had inspired them. He preferred them to look at this wild man whose behavior might be entertaining. Satan wanted the people turned away from the message of Christ. He also hoped that this interruption would take Christ off his message.
Satan failed. Jesus did not get angry about the intrusion, and he did not speak scornfully to the man whose state of mind might have earned him a rebuke from most scribes or rabbis. Jesus loved the man and hated the demon. Instead of rebuking the man, he rebuked the demon. The rebuke itself reinforced the message that the kingdom of God had drawn near. Jesus said to the demon, “Muzzle yourself!” It was the same command he would use later to calm the Sea of Galilee in a storm. It emphasized to the demon that the words of Christ were the words of God, the words that nourish the hearts of men and terrify demons. Christ ejected the demon from the man and from the situation. He took back control of the circumstances. He modeled for the assembled worshipers the message he brought to them.
When Christ healed a man possessed of a demon, he showed everyone what repentance could do. He said very clearly, if you turn away from evil, you, too, can be healed like this man. When he sent the demon packing, he showed the people that he actually had the authority he seemed to have when he was teaching. He was the real thing. They could rely on his words. Look what his words could do. When he acted with love toward the man while exerting his authority against the evil that had imprisoned him, Jesus showed them what it took to face down evil. The old saying about hating sin and loving sinners is so very true, and Jesus demonstrated in Capernaum exactly what that looks like. When we say that we want to be Christlike in our daily lives, this example is quite important. We meet evil every day of our lives in the words and deeds of people around us. Many people serve the cause of evil and work for Satan’s goals without even knowing it. It is not for us to malign the people and belittle them or even for us to shout at them in righteous rage. Our call is to love them, just as Jesus loved the demon-possessed man used by Satan that day in Capernaum as an emissary of the kingdom of hell. Yet even as we love people enslaved by evil, we must not allow the evil to succeed.
We are called to confront evil every day. Satan’s emissaries are everywhere. They may be intentional servants, who delight in saying they worship Satan, but those are few in number. A lot more of Satan’s emissaries claim humanist values and decry religion of any kind because of the failings of people of faith. A number larger than we might like to acknowledge are fellow believers whose weak faith and weaker resolve are overridden by Satan’s relentless onslaught. Regardless, we will encounter a lot of evil in our lives. When it happens, we need to remember this story. However, we are not likely to be asked or even expected to perform exorcisms. We must trust the One with the power and authority to do that work. We must follow Christ’s example and demonstrate that the kingdom of God is near.
When God in the person of the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we are emissaries of the kingdom of God wherever we go. When we face evil, our mission is to be like Christ. We must demonstrate the fruits of his work in our hearts — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and trust him to eject the demons. We stand firm in word and deed against evil and its whole agenda. We love the people and hate the evil.
We can never vanquish evil by resorting to its attitudes and behaviors. Evil shows itself in greed, lust, aggression, vengeance, hatred and destruction. Christ shows himself when we act like him. When Christ faced the victim of evil, he loved the victim and vanquished the evil.
Satan never rests. In the time/space universe where we live, he roams free. He still wants to put a stop to Christ’s message. He still does not want anyone to hear that the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
We see him at work in individuals and nations, in disease, in fractured families, in economic crises and personal despair. He uses any weapon that comes to hand in his attempts to make us doubt God and turn away from the kingdom. Christ shows us in today’s gospel that he has the authority and the power to defeat Satan if we trust ourselves and our warfare to him.