4th Epiphany – January 29th, 2012 – Mark 1:21-28
This is a true story: my mother lives in Massachusetts – on Cape Cod. Some of you know this – she moved in with my oldest sister years ago when she retired, and Merry Sue had two active boys she needed help with. In the years since, Mom has had grown older, and severall years ago she had a stroke. She has also had time to become a fan of a certain football team who plays in Foxboro. Last Sunday my sister in Chicago called – about 2 o’clock their time – my mother: ‘you know better than to call during the game!’ That’s authority. My sister and I are going to take turns calling her during the Super Bowl – just to irritate her.
We all probably have stories about our parents and how they exercised their authority – some good, some not so good. Did your mother ever say any of the following to you?
- "If your friends jumped off a cliff does that mean you have to jump too?"
"Just wait till you have kids of your own!" My mother’s version of that “I hope you have a daughter just like you.” She did not mean it in a good way.
Everybody meets authority and everyone has a reaction to it. Some people have it over others, but can also recognize when they themselves are under it – some people misuse it, and refuse to recognize legitimate authority over themselves -- some people are always challenging whatever authority is in the room – some people are too malleable and always go with the strongest opinion.
Jesus taught with authority. That’s the first thing we learn about this new ministry – he teaches not like the droning scribes, but with authority. His message: “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” He speaks with authority. People sit up, take notice, and nod their heads in agreement (or whatever was the first century equivalent). Something else takes notice, too. Something else happens – immediately, as Mark would say – the other side notices.
In that room there is someone who has been claimed and taken by another authority – by the power that cannot stand the truth of God. The story calls it an unclean spirit – a spirit that cannot come from God. The other side notices that there is power in the room, and knows where that power comes from. Jesus of Nazareth - You are Holy One of God – cries the unclean spirit – leave us alone!
Jesus appears – and the demons tremble. This unclean spirit – which, please note, is in the room of worshipers - is among the faithful – cannot stand what it hears. The unclean know who Jesus is – know where he comes from – know that his message and his authority and his power cannot co-exist with them. “have you comes to destroy us?” Yes, he has.
In the gospel of Mark, the appearance of Jesus with his message – the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news – creates an incredible buzz and not just on the level of ordinary, everyday men and women, although it does that. It surprises and disturbs the other side – the demons know who he is and what he is here for. And he has come to destroy them – and all that works against God.
This message – The kingdom of God is near – repent – turn from sin, and accept the Good news that God is love – is a powerful medicine for sick, for the troubled, for the possessed. There is a subtle reality here that none of us can really deny - it was true then, and it is true now.
We don’t want to admit that – we are far away from demon possession and certainly don’t need an exorcism – we don’t think about spirits, about demons, about possession in the same way – but it was true then, and true now. Aren’t we just as possessed of unclean spirits – we call them different things. And I don’t mean mental illness, and I don’t mean physical illness, (those conditions need prayer and medicine) but I am thinking of the spiritual sicknesses that existed then, and exist now.
We might know someone who can’t get off the booze, can’t stay out of the casinos, can’t resist moving on to the next woman or man. We might pray for someone we love who struggles with depression, with self-defeating behaviors, the use of pornography, drugs, who can’t see beyond their own anxiety.
Remember, the unclean spirit was right there – among the worshipers. So we, too, are called to examine who are, and what holds us away from repentance and God’s love. To what are you enthralled, possessed, held by? What do you not want to give up? What is the thread that runs through your days and nights? Anger, fear, loneliness? Shame? Frustration at things you cannot control, cannot change? Disappointment that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be?
Are you the person that someone would say is ‘always angry?’ ‘surprisingly, unexpectingly wrathful?” ‘gotta walk on eggshells around that one?” Or, are you the one who makes promises and never keeps them – having a problem with being dependable? Or are you ‘still waters run deep?”, but in your heart of hearts, the waters run muddy? Have you held a grudge, withheld your forgiveness? Anger, fear, need to control, greed, addiction, all these are spiritual sicknesses, our own unclean spirits.
This isn’t about what you know or what you have in your physical being, but about who you are, inside, where God alone can see you. It’s about recognizing the spirits that dwell within – and here is the GOOD NEWS - knowing, believing that Jesus of Nazareth has come to defeat them.
I had trouble writing this sermon because I think I was afraid of what this story was telling me – that we, even now, even after Jesus’ great redemption, still need his word – we still need to hear that authoritative word that disturbs the spirits that enslave us.
I’ve been thinking for quite a while that if we really knew Jesus, we wouldn’t be too comfortable with him – because he would have looked right into our hearts, and known what keeps us from the Love of God. And that part of us would cry out – “are you trying to destroy us?” Yes, he is. Jesus comes into the world to claim the world for the God of love and power. He comes into our hearts to claim our hearts and minds and souls for the God of love and power.
We may not want to go there. We may not want to be there. But we can’t claim to walk with Jesus, to seek his will, to carry his name without facing up to the power of WHO HE IS - his spirit, of his identity as the Holy One of God. The unclean spirit could not – and neither can our unclean spirits of anger, fear, greed, control.
The things we cling to, and that cling to us, the attitudes and addictions and troubles that keep us from loving God and our neighbor - those are the proper subject of Jesus’ authority. There are things that we are to repent. There are things that need to hear the word – come out! When Jesus shows up, things change – we change.
That is authority, true authority. If the story was true then, it is true today – the coming of Jesus, the Holy One of God – into our presence is disturbing and astonishing and incredible. He teaches with authority and he acts with authority. If we ask to be in his presence, then we will change. We become those for whom loving our neighbor becomes a reality that takes us out of ourselves and into service. We become those who will not hide what we believe, and who can worship with full and open hearts before a God who forgives us and loves us.
So let us invite Jesus of Nazareth in our worship, and into our hearts – look for his authority in your life, recognize he may make you uncomfortable – but invite him in and accept his authority – and you will celebrate the Good News indeed.