Share the good news ... in word and deed!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The gift of God in Jesus Christ is so truly amazing that it seems almost unbelievable that people would find it offensive.
The grace we receive in the Gospel is the gift of a relationship with God that sustains us in this life and through death to an eternal life. This relationship with God is a gift that gives our life purpose, meaning and direction. In accordance with God’s will and God’s purposes, it is a gift that sets us free, truly free, to live as God’s children, whole and well in God’s praise. And so it seems almost incomprehensible that this word, this grace, this promise would evoke such violent reactions and responses in the hearts of the very people it sets out to love, save and bless.
As we follow Jesus through the Gospel of Mark and as we reflect on our own lives this year we will observe with amazement — and even with grief and sorrow — that it seems that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed … all hell breaks loose. A word so kind, so gentle, so loving and compassionate seems to have the effect like kicking a hornets nest. The word of the Gospel is a proclamation of new creation, a new way of being. That means an end to the world as it is apart from God — that’s good news! Threatened, however, the powers of this world rage and swarm and fight against it.
That is what we find happening in the synagogue in Capernaum … right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
The coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ displaces the powers of this world. But to see that, to know that, is to discern the spiritual in what appears to be ordinary. To ordinary eyes, Jesus is a man, a teacher, now, and this encounter in the synagogue though ugly is just a conflict like any other. Yet there’s more going on here than we can see on the surface.
When Mark tells the story, we get to see as through a type of lens that Holy Spirit uses to open our eyes to see God at work in and among us. Like prescription glasses or even a type of X-Ray vision God reveals what is truly happening just below the service. That is the Spirit working through the evangelist to tell the truth of this story instead of just reporting what happened.
Yet, this special lens — when used apart from faith, apart from the Holy Spirit and applied to everyday life — becomes a dangerous distortion and presumption. We can take what appears to be spiritual truth and use it to encourage false confidence in our own righteousness and provoke us to demonize our opponents. This special lens keeps us from seeing real human beings, struggling and yearning to be set free by the grace of God.
That is the distortion of the truth that all too often blinds us to our own sinfulness. We Christians use this spiritual insight, learned in scripture, to erroneously justify our own sinful desires for power, security and abundance on our own terms. The truth that we are God’s beloved children is misunderstood and warped to make us appear good to ourselves, confident in our own righteousness, as if all we desire is our God-given right and, therefore, all who oppose us are of the devil. This distorted vision of the spiritual descends over some in the church of Christ like alien force, a power that drives us to the poles of extremism, tempts us to seek refuge the false gods of political ideology, and promises us that violence and hatred are a God-given means of self preservation.
The kingdom of God is opposed … that is true … but that opposition rises most fiercely from within the household of faith. It is here among us and in us that we experience some of the most violent reactions to God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done in Jesus Christ. That is why many of us can carry in our souls the scars and wounds we have received as we have volunteered and participated in the life of a congregation. And yet, it is here — in this assembly — that Jesus comes nonetheless to save us from the powers of the devil, the world and our own sinful self.
And what we can see Jesus is doing is not destroying a man, but setting a child of God free from the powers that have overwhelmed him. We can see that by simply wonder … what about the man himself … not as nameless speaker of evil, but as a human being?
What would lead an ordinary man to stand up in the synagogue and confront Jesus?
Mark says the man has an unclean spirit. That he is under some kind of power that seems to be threatened by Jesus and his teaching. So he stands up in the synagogue and his terror and fear speak a confession that is exactly the opposite of a confession of faith; it is the true confession of fear and trembling.
He is speaking. He recognizes the sound of his own voice, but the words he speaks are not his own. The man is speaking the words of an unclean spirit, but the man is not an unclean spirit.
The man is an ordinary man of the synagogue, but an unclean spirit has power over him, speaks through him and exercises control over his words and deeds. What did the people in the synagogue see that day. They saw a man, probably a man they knew, standing up and naming this new and impressive teacher as the Son of God who has come to destroy them. They see a man, probably a man they knew, standing up making an aggressive move to silence this new teacher and his word of the nearness of God’s kingdom.
This is not as spooky or strange as it sounds. This not The Exorcist, but a a confrontation with those everyday forces that defy God, resist God and draw us from God, and so I think we know more about this mystery than we care to admit.
And if we can sense that there seems to be this force that compels us to speak and act against our will, against our values, against what we know is true and right, we can also sense how Jesus’ word of repentance, change and freedom sounds at first like a threat that raises our defenses — we feel our pulse quicken and the feel the fear and anger move through our veins and leads us to stand up and even fight against Christ.
The truth is that Jesus has come not to destroy, but to give life … to give life by delivering us from the powers of sin and death that have us bound up in guilt and shame; anger and fear. The authority Jesus holds over all the forces of evil … over unclean spirits … is the authority that is used not to destroy but to set God’s beloved creatures free from the powers that keep them in bondage to sin and the fear of death.
So, at our baptism we begin with an exorcism … a ritual, symbolic but truthfilled turn away from the powers of this world to confess our trust and faith in God who created us, God who redeemed us and God who is making us what God truly created us to be in Jesus Christ. The old creature is joined to Christ’s death so that a new creation might be raised from the dead and drawn out of the waters of baptism.
The promise of a new life is a threat … only as far as we still cling to the old things, still clutch and grasp for the old gods — money, power, violence, technology. Yet, the gift of new life in Christ delivers us from our fear of death so that we can truly, truly live free in God’s love. That seems a promise that only the truly hardened could defy, resist or ignore, a promise that overwhelms us and makes is say, Yes! to all God gives, even if it means dying to live.
So, what do you think happened to the man that Jesus delivered from the power of an unclean spirit?
I like to think the tired and exhausted, but free from his fear, he sees Jesus again … as Jesus has seen him … as he actually is: love and mercy; grace and peace. I like to think that because that is what we have found in Jesus. He somehow sees in us what I cannot imagine, and his creative word makes us to be what God has created us to be. I think … I believe … that our lives — whole and well in Christ — are the postscript to this story.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The latest news, sermons and commentary on our life in mission together.