Sermon for Epiphany 4B

Mark 1:21-28

I’ve been watching the show “Resurrection,” airing on ABC. I was drawn into it last year, as it first aired around Easter and dealt with the idea of people’s long-departed loved ones suddenly returning from the dead. It’s a rather odd story, and I’ve kept watching it out of a desire to know what kind of explanation the story is going to give for people suddenly returning to the living. Last Sunday evening was the season finale for the second season. It told the story of one of the people who had returned, a man by the name of Preacher James, convinced that he had to prevent another one of the returned, Rachel, from giving birth. Preacher James was convinced that the baby was evil and was going to destroy the world. In the end, Rachel is saved and she does give birth, and Preacher James is put into prison. Marty, the hero of the story, goes to visit Preacher James in prison. Later that evening, joining his girlfriend, Maggie, and her family for dinner, he tells Maggie that it’s tempting to see the world as Preacher James sees it, as divided into black and white, good and evil. Maggie tells him that good and evil don’t exist, there are just people looking to him for leadership. The last scene of the episode then shows Rachel rocking her normal baby boy to sleep and then leaving the room. And the last shot that we get is of a horde of cicadas clumping up on the window of the room where the baby boy is sleeping, hinting that perhaps good and evil really do exist, and that there is something going on with this seemingly normal child.

I tell this story because Maggie’s remark about good and evil not really existing is a statement that tells us a lot about the society that we live in today. We live in a morally relativistic society, where we want to see the good in everyone and to find a reason behind why a person behaves badly. And so today’s Gospel, and any other Gospel where we find demons involved, is foreign to us. Can a person really be possessed, we ask? Isn’t this just how the 1st century described mental illness, we wonder? And if so, mental illness isn’t evil, it’s simply another type of bodily illness that we are trying to find a cure for. Mental illness is in fact different from demon possession and there is nothing intrinsically evil about mental illness. But what we are dealing with in Mark’s Gospel is not, in fact, mental illness. It is demon possession. And so, since this concept is foreign to us except for what we see in horror movies, we need to take ourselves out of our 21st century postmodern world and put ourselves in 1st century Palestine for a few moments.

In his gospel, Mark paints a picture of God’s creation, originally good with everything in order, as now being completely out of whack. God created humans to be stewards of God’s creation, but instead, humans are threatened by storms and other forces of nature. Instead of being healthy and whole, in good relationships with one another, humans are separated one from the other by illness and by uncleanness. And yes, they are possessed by demons, which, along with angels, were believed to inhabit the creation. Into this creation that has gone askew comes Jesus, the Son of God. At his baptism, the heavens are ripped apart, a boundary broken, and he is proclaimed to be God’s Son, the Beloved. Immediately after his baptism, he is driven out into the wilderness for forty days, where he withstands the temptations of the devil. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he returns, calls men to follow him, goes to Capernaum, and begins to teach in the synagogue.

And the first thing that happens, at his very first moment of teaching the people about the inbreaking kingdom of God, is that a demon-possessed man stands up to resist him. This is all-out war: the Holy Spirit in Jesus against the unclean spirit in the man. And when Jesus drives the demon out of the man, he gives a forcible demonstration of what he had earlier proclaimed: The kingdom of God has come near. Creation will, in fact, be restored. The boundary between clean and unclean has been broken. This is what the coming of the kingdom of God looks like: the evil and the unclean are on the run, and God’s kingdom is being ushered in.

So, let’s come back to 21st century America and ask this question: how does this story still have relevance for us today? Well, let’s look at it this way: Jesus has authority over the evil that can possess us, and Jesus has authority to drive it out. And I’m not talking about demons now. I’m talking about the other things that can possess us: fear, anger, addictions of various kinds, bitterness, hatred, and whatever other sinfulness you can think of. Do we truly believe that Jesus has this authority and can drive out our sinfulness? Or is this a place where our faith wavers?

The Salvation Army was recently running a commercial showing how the things and money we donate to them change lives, and I’d like to play it now.

And while the emphasis in this commercial is on how things we donate help out, what we may not always remember is that the Salvation Army is also a Christian denomination. And I think in this commercial, this is really what these people are saying: Amazing grace is what saved a person like each of them. I remember first seeing this commercial and thinking, “Man, I wish we Lutherans had thought of this.” Because, it seems to me that if we believe in Jesus, then we should have that powerful hope that lives can indeed be changed drastically and for the better by the Savior we believe in. But sometimes it seems like our rational and realistic outlooks win out over the wild and beautiful hope that the kingdom of God does break in and does change everything in the lives of the people that it comes into contact with.

So, what can we do to cultivate that radical hope? The last couple of weeks I have talked about being called by God, and also about prophets. We are called by God to be prophets. And remember, prophets are simply those people who speak the word of God to the people, none of this fortune-telling stuff. We are called to meet people where they are and to acknowledge whatever the pain is that is possessing them. One thing that we cannot do is to promise that once a person encounters Jesus, that all will be well in this life. We who have encountered Jesus already know that is not the case. But, what we can do is to bring hope: We know that Jesus has died on the cross for our sins and risen again, and we believe that he will come again one day and make all things right. And, until that happens, we can prophesy that God sees our pain, loves us and is with us through that pain, and wants to change our lives drastically for the better. We can testify that the kingdom of God has already broken into this world, and we can point to Jesus as the one who is always here, through the good and the bad, loving us, crying with us, and bringing us hope that evil will not have the last word: God will.

When the world has beaten us down, when it seems like there is no end to human sinfulness and to the evil that happens all around us, we come together as a community to encourage one another and to hear the good news once more that, with the coming of Jesus into our world, sin and evil are on the run. This is one of many reasons why we come to worship: to encourage one another and lift one another up with this wonderful message from God. So, take a look around and think of people who are not with us today. I know that many of us travel frequently, and I’m not talking about those of us who are on the road today for one reason or another. I’m speaking of our brothers and sisters who don’t come as frequently as we would like to see them. Give them a call this week and tell them we miss them on Sunday. Find out what’s going on in their lives, and prophesy to them God’s word of hope, peace, and encouragement. And pray for them. And do this not only for those in our community here, but also for those outside of our congregation who need to hear how much God loves them.

With the coming of Jesus into the world, sin and evil are on the run. Believe that an encounter with Jesus can and truly does change lives for the better. And may all of our words and deeds this week reflect this strong belief and hope that we have. Amen.

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