Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sermon for Epiphany IV

Trinity, Lincoln--Mark 1:21-28

It’s still very early in the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. At approximately thirty years of age, he left the carpentry shop he had inherited from Joseph, went down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John, heard the approving voice of God the Father, and got anointed by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. He formed the nucleus of his band of followers, his disciples—the brothers James and John, and the brothers Andrew and Simon, and according to John’s account, Nathaniel. Now he’s ready to go public in a fresh way, and really get things rolling. He walks into the village of Capernaum, finds the synagogue, and starts to teach. St Mark tells us that the people who were gathered there that day “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes, of course, were their usual teachers, but I’m not going to get into what this little comment implies about the quality or content of their teaching because, for Mark, the emphasis is all on Jesus, and the extraordinary quality of his teaching. He taught as one who had authority. What he taught wasn’t secondary, derivative, a summary of somebody else’s wisdom or insight. Rather, it flowed from the center of his being, from his very essence. It was authentic; it had an unmistakable ring of truth. Jesus’ teaching had authority because he was speaking on behalf of the author. Then Jesus goes on, in effect, to demonstrate the authority of his words by the power of his deeds. There’s a man in the congregation who is evidently possessed by a demon—what Mark calls an “unclean spirit.” Jesus commands the spirit to come out of the man, and in a rather loud and dramatic fashion, it does. And everybody is amazed.

Now, one of the fascinating things about the Bible, particularly a passage from the gospels like this one, is that what we get out of it depends a great deal on with whom in the story we identify ourselves. If you were to put yourself into this scene in the Capernaum synagogue, who would you be? There are only four choices, really: You could be Jesus, you could be an unnamed member of the congregation—one of the amazed onlookers, you could be the man who has an unclean spirit, or you could be the unclean spirit. Right? Have I missed anything? So, I think most of us, out of what we would take to be appropriate humility, would probably not identify ourselves with Jesus. And most of us would probably be equally reluctant to see ourselves as the demon. Given the two remaining choices—the demon-possessed man and anonymous membership in the crowd of amazed onlookers, I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of us are going to opt for anonymous membership in the crowd of amazed onlookers. After all, the members of the congregation were good, respectable people. They were normal (and we surely do all want to be normal; we all have our “inner child” that just wants to blend in with the crowd and not be conspicuous). They were trying to do the right thing, showing up in the synagogue. They were paying attention, and really liked this young man who was speaking. And when he was able to kick that demon out of that poor fellow—well, it was nothing sort of amazing; we’ve never seen anything like it. And there’s an added convenience to viewing this story through the eyes of the amazed onlookers: It enables us to sincerely admire Jesus—which is a good thing to do; I mean, who wouldn’t want to sincerely admire Jesus?—but it also allows us to keep him at a safe distance. I’m not the one he’s talking to; I’m not the one he’s touching, because—hey—I’m not the one with the problem. I’m just normal. Keeping Jesus as a safe distance means we don’t have to step outside our comfort zone. We don’t have to change any of our habits or our attitudes or make any life-altering commitments. We can “feel spiritual” without actually being challenged.

But what if I were to tell you that there’s a whole treasure trove of spiritual and practical benefits that is waiting for us, ours for the taking, if we’re willing to stretch a little bit, willing to step out and do something a little…risky?  What if we were to look at this story, not through the eyes of Jesus, not through the eyes of the demon, and not through the eyes of the normal and respectable—if totally amazed—onlookers in the synagogue congregation? What if, instead, we were to set aside our pride, and put ourselves in the place of the man with an ‘unclean spirit’? What would we see?

First, we would be in touch with our own brokenness, our own helplessness in the face of the power of sin and death and evil. We would know our need for a savior, a deliverer, an advocate, someone on our side who is not only more powerful than we are, but more powerful than any challenge we might confront.

Then, we would see a compassionate Jesus whose own heart is broken by the fact that we are “possessed” by a force that prevents us from being the person we were created to be. We would see a righteous Jesus who is justifiably angered by the injustice of our being held captive by the power of sin and death. We would see a powerful Jesus who speaks and acts with an authority that instills terror in anyone or anything that stands on the side of tyranny and oppression, anyone or anything that would seek to “possess” the beloved children of God. We would know the Jesus who is the model for the lion Aslan in the Narnia stories—a lion who is always good, but not in any way tame, not predictable, not “safe.” Most of all, we would know ourselves to have been delivered from that which enslaved us. We would know ourselves to have been set free from that which possessed us. Instead of being chained to the past, we would be able to embrace the future. Instead of being dragged down by guilt or grief, we would be free to organize our lives around hope and purpose.

It all depends on whose eyes we use to read the story.

But the blessings don’t stop there. When we identify ourselves with the man who is demon-possessed and is liberated by Jesus, we not only receive the grace of that freedom ourselves, but our own lives become a blessing to others. When we know ourselves to have been redeemed and made free, we become signs to the world of the inbreaking Kingdom of God, and the world is amazed. The world can “read” our lives—our lives as individual Christians, and our lives communally as the church—people can read our lives and “hear” Jesus speaking with authority and “see” Jesus acting with authority. They can marvel at the power in which God has acted on our behalf, and their hearts can be melted to the same liberating love that has set us free.

It all depends on where you see yourself in the story.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

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