I am told that some years ago at a meeting of bishops from around the world an Irish bishop and a Mexican bishop got into conversation. “Tell me,” the Mexican bishop said to the Irish bishop. “Does the Irish language have any equivalent of our word mañana?” The Irish bishop looked down and stroked his chin for a moment. Then he looked up and said, “No, I can’t think of any Irish word that would confer quite the same sense of urgency.”
Translating from one language into another is often a complex and tricky business. Our Karen interpreters face it every week when they bravely take on the challenge of translating my sermons. Whether we are aware of it or not, many of the words we use have subtle shades of meaning for which there is no precise equivalent in another language. This was very much the case a couple of generations ago when missionaries first began to translate the Bible into Inuktitut, the language of the Eskimos living in the eastern Arctic regions of Canada. How do you translate, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” for a people who lived in igloos with no doors? Or, “I am the good shepherd,” in a land where there are no sheep and there is no tradition of herding, only hunting?
At a more critical level a huge debate rages today over translating the Bible into Arabic. Should the word “Allah”, for example, be used to translate “God”? A considerably more heated controversy has arisen over the question of how to render “Son of God” into Arabic with reference to Jesus, as there are many Muslims who assume that this must mean “procreated Son of God”.
A Sensation: The Authority of Jesus
Less controversially, there are two words in this morning’s Gospel reading that to my mind defy translation into English. In our pew Bibles they are the words “astounded” in verse 22 and “amazed” in verse 27. I have looked up this passage in several different translations and most of them are about the same. Eugene Peterson in The Message colorfully renders verse 27, “Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity.” But my own impression is that what we are witnessing here is something far more profound than curiosity. The New Living Bible comes closer with, “Amazement gripped the audience.” Yet even that, I believe, falls short of the mark.
So let’s just take a moment to recreate the scene in our minds. It’s Saturday morning and the good folk of Capernaum (population 1500) have assembled in the synagogue. A new young rabbi has come to town from neighboring Nazareth. I don’t believe that it was because he was a great orator (although he may have been) or because he was especially scholarly (although that may have been true as well) but there was something about his teaching that resonated with their hearts in a way that no other rabbi had ever done before. It spawned in them a yearning to hear more, to plumb deeper. We see that reflected in Peter’s words in John’s gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life;” or in the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our hearts burn within us … as he opened the Scriptures to us?”
I can only imagine that their attention was so utterly focused on Jesus and on what he was saying to them that the sudden shrieks from the man with the unclean spirit must have caused their hearts to leap. “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.” Yet without breaking step for a moment, and with a combination of total calm and intense concentration Jesus turned to him and said, “Be silenced (literally, ‘be muzzled’) and come out of him.” The man immediately went into convulsions and inarticulate screams, and then, as quickly as it had begun, all was silent. Then the room began to fill with amazed voices exclaiming, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
The words that contemporary Bible translations use to describe the congregation are “amazed”, “astonished”, “astounded”. But I don’t think that any of those words comes near to what was going on inside the hearts of the crowd on that day. I was tempted to think that “blown away” might bring us closer to what they were feeling. Yet even that seems woefully inadequate. “Overwhelmed” might be better. One of the verbs that Mark uses in this passage has at its root the idea of being struck, indeed being struck by lightning. The other is often coupled with trembling with fear. So do you see the direction in which we are heading? It is like Peter’s reaction after the miraculous catch of fish, falling at Jesus’ knees and protesting, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man;” or the people of Gerasa after the demons had caused their herd of swine to hurtle down the hillside and drown in the sea. Their utter bewilderment at what they had witnessed was such that they begged Jesus to leave the area.
Both in his teachings and in his actions Jesus demonstrated an authority not seen in anyone else. He simply did not fit into any category. And that, I believe, is something that ought to make anyone profoundly uncomfortable. “What kind of man is this?” the disciples asked themselves when Jesus calmed the storm. “Even the wind and sea obey him!”
A Confrontation: The Reality of Evil
At this point we need to stop for just a moment to wind back and ask ourselves, what was it exactly that was taking place in the synagogue that morning? It is not just Jesus who doesn’t fit readily into our twenty-first century categories. What about the unclean spirit? What are we to say, what are we to think, about that? Our three-and-a-half-century heritage of rationalism and reductionistic thought has succeeded in pretty well eradicating any sense of the supernatural from our worldview. We prefer to explain what an earlier generation saw as spirit possession in terms of disease or psychosis or something else that fits more neatly into an understanding of life composed entirely of the physical.
Charles Cranfield, one of the leading New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, commented on this passage,
Here we are up against something that presents many difficulties to the modern mind, which is apt to dismiss the whole subject as outgrown superstition. It is important to approach it with as open a mind as possible. To suggest that there may be more truth here in the New Testament picture than has sometimes been allowed is not to wish to turn the clock back on scientific progress or to open the floodgates of obscurantism. The question whether the confident spread of the demons’ non-existence has not been their greatest triumph gets tragic urgency from such twentieth-century features as Nazism, McCarthyism, and Apartheid. And lest we should be prejudiced by the memory of such horrors as the burning of witches, it must be said that they were due, not to taking the New Testament too seriously, but to failing to take it seriously enough.
So how do we take what the Bible says seriously? C.S. Lewis perhaps put it best in his brief preface to The Screwtape Letters, when he wrote,
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…
The New Testament clearly recognizes the reality of personal evil. In a few weeks’ time as we enter the season of Lent we will be reading about Jesus’ threefold confrontation with the devil. He taught us to pray, “Deliver us from the evil one.” (That is the literal translation of the Lord’s Prayer.) The apostle Paul teaches that we are engaged in a struggle “against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And numerous times in the New Testament we see both Jesus himself and later the apostles engaging in direct conflict with the occult forces of evil in the world.
Yet we need also to be aware that, while the Bible speaks about the reality of the devil and his legions, it is speaking about a conquered enemy. What we see in this morning’s passage is a power confrontation. The unclean spirit shrieked out, “I know who you are…” It somehow reasoned that by knowing who Jesus was, it could exert some kind of power over him. Yet its words were clearly the product of desperation because in fact the opposite was true. What we witness in the New Testament and in our own struggles with evil are the final skirmishes of a battle that has been won. In Revelation we read,
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…” (Revelation 12:10,11)
Notice how the victory has been won: by the blood of the Lamb. The ultimate confrontation with evil took place at Calvary, as the spotless Son of God bore the full brunt of evil’s power and rendered it powerless. The devil and his legions are a defeated foe. Yet like a wounded bear they rage and flail, and we do ourselves a disfavor when we ignore their ability to damage and to destroy. Like those brave saints in Revelation, however, our victory is assured through the blood of the Lamb.
An Invitation: A Relationship with Jesus
One final note on this morning’s passage: The unclean spirit thought that it could somehow fend off Jesus’ power because it knew who he was. Elsewhere James tells us that even the demons believe (2:19). And so implicit in what we have read this morning and indeed throughout the Bible is that knowing about Jesus, even believing about Jesus, is not enough, not what God is looking for. And that is where our other reading this morning, from 1 Corinthians, comes in. There Paul tells us, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
Early in my Christian life I remember my rector once saying (and I think very wisely), “Isn’t it great that we’re not going to be judged on the basis of the correctness of our doctrine!” Now I am not suggesting that we all go out and embrace heresy. Nor am I saying that doctrine is not important, or that we should not have a thirst to know more and more about Jesus. The problem with the unclean spirit in this morning’s Gospel, however, was that, while it knew about Jesus, it had no desire actually to know him, to yield to him, to enter into a relationship with him.
By contrast, Jesus’ prayer for his followers—and by extension for us—was that they might truly know him (John 17:3). Paul’s single desire was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). And so I guess my prayer is that we should go away from this morning’s Gospel passage, not simply amazed or bowled over or blown away by Jesus’ power, but that that should lead us to bow to him personally, to let his presence permeate our lives—and in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim for ourselves, “Jesus is Lord.”