4th Sunday after Epiphany
February 1, 2015
“And his fame spread throughout the territory.” I guess you can imagine that the word went out like wildfire after this encounter. Imagine coming to church, having the guest preacher assaulted by a guy in the back row standing up and screaming at him, and the preacher screaming back at the man “Stop it! Get out of here!” The man goes into convulsions on the floor, and faints. You’d be telling everyone you know about what happened at church that morning, right?
The Gospel writers are artists as well as historians, and so they each give us details that invite us to notice the art of their storytelling as well the theological claims of their witness. Just as we ought to notice the first words of Jesus in the Gospels to get an idea of what this evangelist wants us to know about Jesus, so the first action of Jesus will give us clues about the Jesus we will meet in the Gospel before us.
So, for example, the first action of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew will show us Jesus as the new Moses, laying out God’s way as a path of hope and right relationship. John’s Jesus’ first action is to turn water into wine at a wedding. He will continue to reveal Jesus as the one who brings abundance and completes everything God has promised. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ first action is preaching in the synagogue, a sermon that pleases the home crowd until he begins to suggest that the Messiah is not just for them but for Gentiles, too, and indeed, the whole world. So here in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus first action is to pick a fight with the powers of darkness, and to dismiss evil with a few choice words.
This will give us some good clues as to the Jesus we will continue to meet in this writing. It isn’t a meek and mild Jesus, who just lets things roll. It is a powerful wild Jesus, not afraid of anything this world has to offer. His message is clear, God is here, and y’all better take notice. He will stand up to all the powers we have to face and overcome them all, even our final enemy death. He will show us without doubt, not only that God is here, but that God can redeem and overcome everything that haunts us, that scares us, that wants to rob us of life.
Imagining yourself in the story may make it seem even crazier than it already sounds. It’s hard to imagine the guy in the back row, possessed by an evil spirit that cries out, challenging Jesus. But don’t think for a minute that our age is not also filled with spirits that pull us away from the life God intended for us. They are much more subtle than the spirits in our story, but they are just as real. The spirits in our world are the spirits that want us to think that we are failures if our families aren’t perfect. They want us to think that security is the most important thing, and that we must never risk it to be generous and inclusive. They want us to worry that there will never be enough; they make us think we must always be right, so that we close our hearts and our ears to those who are different. They want us to be judgmental, cutting us off from our humanity and compassion. They encourage inflammatory language and disrespect for people who don’t agree with us. The powers in our world tempt us to all kinds of addictions and abuse, and then tell us that we are unworthy. The spirits of our world are as evil and destructive as they were in Jesus’ day, dividing community into us and them, and creating chaos among those who claim to be God’s people.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to remember that Jesus has overcome the powers that divide and frighten us. There are certainly times when it doesn’t feel as if God is at work at all, in our lives, or in our world. And the evil spirits of our age continue to work their way, leaving us to doubt the very promises that should be sustaining us. That’s when we need to remember this story, the story that Mark the Evangelist wants to share with us today. We need to remember that God IS here. God’s not going anywhere, and the disasters that beset us will never keep us away from the power of God to bring joy out of sorrow, peace out of turmoil, hope out of despair.
We have each other. When your faith fails you, let my faith hold you. When you are so lonely you could die, one of us who has been there can walk with you. When you fear, when you are confused, come here and find the hope you need. God’s word is here; Jesus’ body is here in us gathered. Coming to church matters. It is a way to stand up to the powers of the world that wreak havoc in our world. It defies the spirits of our age and their power to separate us from God’s love and blessing. We do not struggle alone to live the vocations to which we are called. God is here, in us and around us. We are now free to live with the peace that passes understanding. It was hard won, Jesus paid dearly for it in his own death. And it is the very power of God’s love that raised Jesus that blesses us and calls us Beloved.
So when you feel overwhelmed, afraid that you will not be able to manage all that is before you. When you feel abandoned and desperate and wonder how God could even see or hear what’s happening to you, listen for Jesus to tell those spirits of destruction and fear, “Stop it! Get out of here!” Amen.
Now may the peace which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.