Saturday, January 31, 2015

Power and Possession (February 1 2015)

Homily:  Yr B Proper 4, Feb 1 2015, St. Albans
Readings:  Deut 18:15-20; Ps 111; 1 Cor 8:1-13; Mk 1:21-28

This year our Sunday gospel readings will be drawn mostly from Mark’s Gospel.  I like that.  Because the Gospel of Mark pulses with a raw energy, it radiates urgency and immediacy and purposefulness, and that’s stuff that many of us could use in our own lives.  No words are wasted, there’s no time to lose in the Gospel of Mark.

We may miss this sense of urgency when we only hear snippets read from week to week.  But consider this.  We are only 28 verses into this gospel and already Mark has proclaimed his purpose in writing, set up his story as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and introduced us to John the Baptist.  That’s just the first 8 verses.  Jesus arrives in verse 9, and the pace picks up.  He’s baptized, and as he comes out of the water, the Voice sounds and the Spirit descends and immediately drives him out into the wilderness.  The cosmic battle with the forces of evil is engaged.  Jesus reappears, proclaims his first sermon, and calls the fishermen.  Immediately, they follow him.  Then, Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum and performs the first public act of his ministry and it’s a confrontation, the exorcism of an unclean spirit.

Those of us who work in the church or government or in big companies must be thinking by this point, “Hey, slow down.  Where’s the strategic planning process?  How about the task force or the committee responsible for evangelism?  What about public consultations?  Who’s taking minutes?”

Why the urgency?  Why does Mark love to use the word “immediately”?  What is so important that it makes Mark’s words tumble from his pen in such a rush?  Who is this Jesus?

At first glance, you might think from today’s reading that Jesus is a great teacher and healer.  Jesus goes into the synagogue and teaches.  Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit, and he heals him.  Or does he?  Mark tells us that Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, but he doesn’t actually say us whether the man is healed or not.  In fact, the last thing we hear about the man is that he is convulsed!  And the teaching?   Mark tells us that the people are astounded, but he doesn’t record one word of what Jesus actually taught in the synagogue.  Wouldn’t you like to know what he said that was so astounding?

You see, the details of the teaching and healing don’t matter, because this text isn’t about teaching and healing.  This is about power.  It’s about power and authority.  Jesus’ power and authority.  Listen to what is said:  “Jesus taught, and the people were astounded at his teaching, for taught them as one having authority”.  “Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and he came out of the man, and the people were amazed because he commanded the spirit with power and authority”.

Last week, we heard Jesus first sermon.  It was short and to the point.  Mark tells us that Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, saying “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

Now if I had been there in Galilee, and I had listened to that sermon, I would have had a few questions.

What exactly do you mean by the kingdom of God?

What is the good news?

What is it that I have to do to repent and believe this good news?

But in Mark’s gospel there is no time for a question and answer session with Jesus.  We have to figure it out on the fly, to come along for the ride.

You want to know what it looks like to repent and believe in the good news?  Just watch what happens when Jesus says to the fishermen “follow me”.  Immediately, the fishermen left their nets and followed Jesus.  That’s what repentance looks like.  That’s what it looks like to believe in the good news and change your life.

You want to know what it looks like for the time to be fulfilled and the kingdom of God to come near?  Watch what happens when Jesus goes into the synagogue in Capernaum.  He is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit.  He rebukes the unclean spirit that enslaves the man and it is overpowered and silenced.  Mark does let slip that this happens on the Sabbath day.  That’s no wasting of words.  Often our understanding of the Sabbath is based on the Genesis story, that the Sabbath is a day of rest.  But Mark’s understanding, Jesus understanding of the Sabbath, is based on the Exodus story, in which the Sabbath is the day of liberation, the day that God releases slaves from bondage in Egypt and sets them free.

In the Jewish understanding, the man with the unclean spirit was a slave, someone who had been captured by the power of evil and as a result had been separated from God.  When Jesus encounters evil he rebukes it.  The word chosen by Mark, rebuke, from the Hebrew ga’ar, is something that only God does in the Hebrew scriptures and it means to overpower and drive out.  Every Jew standing in that synagogue would have seen the exorcism as a sign that what they had been waiting for was finally happening.  God was acting, the end time they’d been hoping for had finally arrived.  God was going to overpower the forces that enslave us.  And the power and presence of God was breaking into our reality in the person of Jesus.

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.”

We tend to view things a bit differently some 2000 years later.  Most people, in our modern scientific world, don’t believe in demon possession.  We probably would have diagnosed the man in the synagogue as someone experiencing psychosis and prescribed medication.  

Because of this change in perspective, most preachers I know would just as soon avoid preaching on texts like today’s.  We don’t like talking about exorcisms. Couldn’t Mark have picked something else as his first illustration of God’s kingdom breaking into our world in the person of Jesus?  Maybe a more straightforward healing, or Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, or Jesus forgiving sins, all of which are coming up in the gospel as illustrations of the good news.

Nope, today we get an exorcism.

I don’t understand exorcism.  But I do understand liberation.

I don’t understand what it means to be possessed.  But I do understand what it means to be enslaved.

I don’t understand what it means to have an unclean spirit.  But I do understand what it means to be controlled and overpowered by forces that do us harm.

I’ve experienced what happens when someone is dominated by anger.  When the forces of anger and rage enter into their soul and cause them to say hurtful things, cause them to do violence to those they love.

I’ve experienced what happens when someone becomes a slave to resentment.  When the accumulation of past grievances and grudges becomes such a driving force in your life that it changes the way you see things and controls the way you react to people around you, where you’re reduced to interpreting the world in a way that feeds and strengthens the resentment that drives you.

I’ve seen the power of addictions to control and enslave people, to harm and destroy.

The twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the most successful methods of treating addictions in our world today.  Do you know what the steps are?  Here are the first three:

1.   We admit that we are powerless over alcohol - that our lives have become unmanageable.
2.   We come to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3.   We make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.
Forces that harm us, that possess and enslave us, are just as much a part of our world as they were a part of Mark’s world.  Each one of us here has battled these things, whether in our own lives or in the lives of those we love.  Our world isn’t that much different from the one that Mark wrote about.

Today’s gospel is telling us that Jesus has the power to free us from all these things that can hurt and enslave us. That Jesus will battle these forces and will win.  That Jesus comes into our world to set us free, to be the people that God created us to be.  Starting now.

 “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

That same power and presence of God which manifested itself in Jesus in Galilee is offered to us here in Ottawa.  That same divine power and authority that cast out demons in Capernaum 2000 years ago is alive and well today and longs to cast out the forces that dominate us.  Our God is a God of liberation, a God who liberates captives and sets us free from the powers of evil and death.

The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.


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