Nothing Like a Good Exorcism to Get our Attention [OR Control is Overrated] Mark 1:21-28

**sermon art: Jesus performs an exorcism with a demon escaping a woman’s mouth. A scene from the abstinence cloth in the Cathedral of Gurk, Carinthia, Austria (1458)

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 28, 2024

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Mark 1:21-28 [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, 24and 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.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

[sermon begins]

Nothing like a good exorcism to get our attention. Things happen fast in Mark’s gospel. No time for baby Jesus, or baby anyone. No magi men or maternity manger or magnificent Mary. Mark’s gospel opens with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and BAM, off to the river. A few lines about John the Baptist, then Jesus’ divine dip in the river Jordan by John. Jesus’ baptism is a big deal in Mark, and it only gets three verses including the Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus while a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Two verses about his temptation in the wilderness, a few verses about calling disciples Simon, Andrew, James, and John, and here we are, today, Chapter 1, verse 21. Good thing that Jesus had that dose of the Spirit down in the river, because the first act of his ministry was to rebuke and expel a possessive unclean spirit. Spirit is as spirit does. Jesus’ Spirit bestows astounding authority. The possessive spirit takes over an anonymous man’s body and voice, crying out in fear of destruction.

We could argue about the validity of demonic possession in the 1st century and Hollywood’s imagination running wild on the big screens. But it’s more interesting to wonder about what Jesus is doing in his first act of ministry. Each of the four gospel books – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – begin Jesus’ ministry differently. How they choose to begin says something essential about Jesus’ ministry in that gospel book.[1] In Mark, Jesus’ first act is not healings or a sermon or water into wine. Jesus first act is an exorcism – the power of the Holy Spirit wielded with authority over an unclean spirit.

Biblical talk of unclean spirits and demonic evil can make our 21st century minds really uncomfortable. It’s partly why the renouncements in the baptism liturgy are so powerful. During the renouncements, you all are standing, and as the pastor, I ask three questions:

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

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

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

To each question, you all have the chance to say, “We renounce them.”

“We renounce them!” Renouncing the big three – evil forces, rebellious powers, and sin – we say we reject working against God. Caution is encouraged here. As is humility. We often take the things we hate and apply them to God. We get lazy with the Bible, picking out one verse that supports our particular hatred, rather than looking at the overarching story of God’s love for the world.[2] We think we know enough to be powerful but instead we know just enough to be painful.

Jesus’ exorcism of the unclean spirit takes place in the synagogue. A place of learning and surrender to God’s authority. People there to learn got more than they bargained for that morning. Jesus’ teaching alone astounded them. The unclean spirit disrupted class and also got more than they bargained for. Jesus rebuked them, silenced them, and sent them away. In this story, Jesus serves the community by serving the man with the unclean spirit. We don’t hear from the man himself. Only from his community who reacts to what Jesus is doing.

Do we still see God active on this level?[3] It’s not just about what happened way back then in a Capernaum synagogue. As church, we bear witness to the God who arrived in Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and who we say really does change reality. Or do we compartmentalize what’s okay for God to be involved in and what we’ll take care of ourselves, thank you very much. The unclean spirit’s opening words in the actual Greek draw a line in the sand. It’s a strange phrase that directly translates into, “What’s yours; what’s mine?”[4] The unclean spirit started a turf battle with Jesus and lost.

Last year was really quite something for our congregation. Pastor Ann’s retirement, leading through my lymphoma and remission, a new transition model that brought us Pastor Dominic as a consultant and Pastor Gail as a Bridge Pastor, administrative changes in Augustana’s Early Learning Center, and the list goes on. So many things on that list could have been at least a distraction and at worst destructive. Yet, here we are, singing, praying, and giving generously, while ministering within our congregation and outside in our community.  That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been concern, or questions, or disagreement about how best to proceed with our life together. It just means that we didn’t break under pressure. Instead, we thrived. The Holy Spirit was with us last year and is with us now.

When people ask me about our congregation, I often talk about how much you love the gospel, the good news of Jesus. But if I were to poll each of you, there would be many views about what’s best for what’s next. While it’s tough to trust the transition process because we just want to control the heck out of it, like we’re God or something, the process is what we have. A process in the church means we do our best to involve multiple people who think differently from each other. And then we trust the Holy Spirit – the one who descended at Jesus’ baptism and who shows up in our baptisms. The Holy Spirit who shows up not just once and done when the water touched our head but daily in our pilgrimage of faith.

We need to watch for the ways we figure out just how far we’ll trust God’s transformational ways in our church and in our lives, and help each other take next faithful steps no matter how imperfectly. As the resurrected body of Christ in the world, the church in every time and place has made a mess when we trust ourselves more than God. Like the unclean spirit, it’s easier to fear destruction than to be courageously faithful.

And yet, Jesus reminds us that, through the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit infuses us with wisdom and understanding and joy in God’s presence. Our songs and praise rise to the rafters Sunday after Sunday. Sometimes our singing is so powerful it feels like we’ll blow off the roof. We baptize, commune, and welcome new adults and children looking for good news and hope. We remind each other that God’s love is reckless, unconditional, and always available especially when we find it hard to love ourselves or each other. We surrender our lives to this Holy One, who casts out from each one of us our own efforts to control and who transforms our lives with love. Thanks be to God. And amen.


[1] Karoline Lewis, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast on Bible readings for January 28, 2024.

[2] John 3:16-17

[3] Joy J. Moore, Professor of Biblical Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast on Bible readings for January 28, 2024.

[4] Matt Skinner, Profess of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast on Bible readings for January 28, 2024.

Majestic Magi Priests Subvert a King’s Cruelty [OR An Epiphany Sermon: Celebrating the “Wise Men” Beyond Nativity Sets and Christmas Pageants]

**sermon art: Journey of the Magi c.1894, oil on canvas, Jacques Josepha “James” Tissot, 1836-1902, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 7, 2024

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Matthew 2:1-12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

[sermon begins]

The promise of Christmas, of good news of great joy for all people, of a light that shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome, is eclipsed ever so slightly by the celebration of Epiphany today.[1] Epiphany is a celebration of divine light that reveals Jesus and who God is through Jesus.[2] We move from a baby in a manger to a toddler on his mother’s lap. We move from shepherds, angels, and animals to magnificent Magi priests from the east.[3] Oh sure, our nativity scenes and Christmas pageants compress time and include the Magi in the birth story. That makes sense. The Magi following a star and worshiping the toddler Jesus embody the Christmas promise. Jesus is such good news of great joy for all people that even the Magi came to see the good news for themselves.

Magi is the Greek word for the people named wise men in our gospel reading. These Magi are likely from what is now western Iran but what used to be called Babylon in the Persian empire thousands of years ago. The Magi were from a tradition that read the stars and interpreted dreams. They were from the place where the Jews had been held in exile hundreds of years before Jesus, until King Cyrus of Persia freed them and sent them back to Jerusalem. The Magi came from a place with their own history and their own religious practices. When they saw Jesus’ star at its rising, the King of the Jews’ star, the time had come to bring him gifts and pay him homage.

Consistent with Jesus’ story even before birth, the good news of great joy for all people was now revealed to the unlikeliest people – stargazers and dreamers from the land that once held Jews captive. The Magi enter the story and continue to teach us what God may be up to in this special birth.

The twelve days of Christmas are over, and we pause on Epiphany to remember the Magi, even celebrate them. We’re so used to their story it’s fun to remember how crazy it is. The exotic Magi priests from the east followed a star and showed up in Jerusalem asking about the King of the Jews which “frightened [King Herod] and all of Jerusalem with him.” King Herod, not the last politician to play at being religious, called for the Magi to hear their story and then asked that they report back to him so he could also pay homage to the child king – a lie with a deadly goal. This is the same King Herod who, not too much later, unleashed a murderous rampage on Bethlehem that killed all the boys under the age of 2 years old.[4] He was a scared, cruel king who did scary, cruel things. Thankfully, the Magi escaped his clutches. This is no bedtime story.

The Magi’s story is a subversive one. They are a good reminder that God is interested in people outside of our in-group – sometimes calling them by the stars. The Magi give gifts and pay homage to a toddler Jesus whose mother sang about a God who topples tyrants and feeds the hungry, a God whose mercy is known across generations.[5] This God’s radical grace and expansive love revealed in Jesus was seen as a threat. The Magi’s gifts to Jesus drew their loyalty to him, so much so that they are willing to risk death by avoiding King Herod on their way out of Bethlehem.[6]

Unfortunately, the upcoming national election in 2024 cannot be similarly avoided. Although the election has nothing on the drama that played out between Jesus, Herod, and the Magi, it’s setting up to be a doozy. Yet the Magi’s story gives us a place to begin our thinking and engage our faith before we get drawn into the ugliness of what’s to come, before we get scared and become cruel without even realizing that we’re doing it. In just a few short chapters after the Magi’s story, an adult, likely bearded, Jesus teaches his disciples about being merciful peacemakers.[7] Not glossing over issues of justice but encouraging them to “hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

In the spirit of being claimed by the light of Christ this Epiphany while avoiding the trap of Christian Nationalism, 60+ ministry is hosting a four-week series for all adults called Coffee Talk: Examining Faith and Citizenship. The details are in your Announcement Page this morning. Like the Magi, we could wait for directions to come in a dream but it’s good to have a daytime, in-person option just in case.

Another opportunity to see what God may be up to in Jesus comes next Sunday during worship. Professor Harry Waters Jr., who parents Harry and Betty are members of our congregation, will preach part of a sermon from Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of his birthday. The full version is Baptist-preaching-long, so Professor Waters has taken great care to distill it into the main things. Reverend King spoke and preached often about racial equality, care for the poor, and non-violence. He prioritized nonviolence to subvert scary, cruel systems and create change for black folks and so that we may all be free from the bondage of racism’s sin. He preached from Augustana’s sanctuary pulpit during Holy Week in 1962. Professor Waters’ time with us includes a class between worship services to lead us in wrestling with Reverend King’s faith and theology and our own.

Our faith is a gift, perhaps a fragile one today for you. Is it any wonder that faith can be a struggle with so much suffering and violence in the world, not the least of which centers around modern-day Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Holy Land. Pausing to celebrate Epiphany allows our faith to keep time differently because of who God continues to be despite our doubts and questions in the face of horrific violence. The Magi help us do so as they embody more than the sweet scenes in our nativities and the glittery golden bottles carried by children in Christmas pageants. They subverted the power of a tyrant king, buying time for a small, holy child to grow up and shine light on more than anyone bargained for. A child who lived, died, and resurrected as good news of great joy for all the people. Alleluia and amen.


[1] Luke 2:10-11 and John 1:1-5, 14.

[2] Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for worship readings on January 7, 2024.

[3] Scholars think that they were Zoroastrian priests from Persia located in what is now modern-day Iran.

[4] Matthew 2:16-18 Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.

[5] Luke 2:46-55 Mary’s Magnificat

[6] Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. Sermon Brainwave podcast for worship readings on January 7, 2024.

[7] Matthew 5:1-12 Read the full list of Jesus’ beatitudes here.