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Epiphany 4 – St. Paul’s – 1/31/21

In today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching in the Synagogue. His teaching was met by astonishment, They were astounded, is how Mark put it. They were amazed.  Can you relate?  When was the last time Jesus astounded and amazed you?  Can you recall a time in the recent past when the presence of God in your life caught your attention and held it?  When a sacred moment, encounter, word, image, or experience brought you to your knees? I ask because (let’s face it), these are rough, unlikely days for astonishment.  Almost one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are battling a deep and persistent malaise.  We are weary, anxious, dejected, bored.  We’re too worried about the future to live attentively in the present.  Time drags on in soggy shapelessness, or flies at breakneck speed as we struggle to multitask under face masks, death tolls, mutations, and quarantines.  For many of us, church is still online, so our access to spiritual community, space, ritual, and sacrament is limited.

The people who heard Jesus on that day….their surprise was not so much at what he taught, but at the authority with which he taught it. For He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. The scribes taught like translators, like interpreters. Instead of saying This is what God says, the scribes said, This is what God means and this is how you should respond!

Where, in the midst of all of what is happening today in our capitol, along the border, throughout our climate challenged world might we experience awe?  Wonder?  Astonishment?  Surprise?  Where is the voice of authority, power, grace, and healing that can snap us back into full and vibrant living, now?

Each of our lessons today deals with issues of a community of faith trying to live faithfully in a world that is full of evil influences and challenges. And to live faithfully, a community needs a leader, a voice of authority, to help them navigate through a dangerous world.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is presented to us as Moses’ farewell sermon to the Israelites before they cross over Jordan into the promised land. It deals with two issues. Firstly, since God is not allowing Moses to go into the promised land people are wondering, Who will tell us about God when Moses is with us no more? Moses shares with them the promise that God will provide a prophet. Your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among your own people.

Secondly, in words about not listening to false prophets, and about false prophets dying; the text calls the Israelites to separate themselves from the surrounding culture. These words seem very harsh to modern ears. It is important to note that the Israelites were going among the Canaanites who practiced child-sacrifice. The concern was about giving in to the spirit of the age.

I Corinthians warnings about food offered to idols is another cultural mystery for us in the 21st century. It seems to have nothing to do with us. But, we recognize that just as Christians in first century Corinth lived in a culture that had values very different from those of  Christianity, so do we. On a variety of issues we in the church stand at cross purposes with the world in which we live, And because, the only alternative to separating from the culture, like the Amish, is to live as participants in our culture, we look for a word from the Lord,  to help us steer a Christian course, as individuals and as a community.  Just as Paul attempts to steer a Christian course in an alien culture, we must look to scripture, tradition and the wisdom of the community to work together to find our way.

Our Gospel lesson from Mark draws these concerns about the world and about authoritative teaching together. We’ve already talked about how the people were astonished that Jesus taught with authority. The text goes on to show Jesus acting with authority to confront evil, even in the household of faith. (I am fascinated by the line, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. I’m just wondering; was he a first time visitor, or was he on the Church council?)

As Jesus teaches in the synagogue he is interrupted by a man with an “unclean spirit.” When we see those two words, unclean spirit in scripture it means a demonic spirit. A spirit that is not love. A spirit that opposes God. A spirit that harms the community and the host. Unclean spirits have infected the church and the nation. Just look at January 6th. How could Jesus of Nazareth endorse any individual or group that accepts and supports people wearing clothing that says, 6MWE Six million wasn’t enough in reference to the Holocaust? How could Jesus of the Bible accept and support people who chanted hang Mike Pence when Jesus himself was publicly lynched? The issue here is not politics, it’s Jesus! A mature Christian understands that you cannot put the flag, any flag, higher than the Cross! Who do you say that Jesus is? The bible says that unclean spirits are afraid of Jesus. The bible says Jesus rebukes and casts out unclean spirits, leaving the hosts, purged, restored, and in their right mind.

Too often in the church, we identify the evil as out there and the good as in here. The great Russian novelist and ardent Orthodox Christian Alexander Solzhenitzen said something to the effect that, the line between good and evil does not go between countries or empires or religions or political systems. The line between good and evil goes right down the middle of every human heart.

Jesus comes to remove the unclean spirits from all of us, to attack that line that goes down the middle of our hearts. Like the man with the unclean spirit, we often wish the holy would leave us alone to live lives of selfishness, materialism and devotion to the pleasures of the flesh. But, as the demons in our story recognized; Jesus, the Living Word of God, has come to us on a mission of destruction, with an agenda of anarchy. The Word comes to tear down the walls of separation that keep us apart. The Word comes to break the chains that keep us in bondage to badness. The Word comes to wipe out the diseases of the soul that keep us from knowing God’s love and from loving one another. Yes, the Living Word which is the Christ comes to destroy, but he destroys in order to rebuild, reconstruct, recreate, remake us in the image of Christ.

In this difficult season we’re all walking through, I pray that we can recover a capacity for holy amazement.  I pray that like the man with the unclean spirit, we will surrender to freedom when Jesus offers it to us — even if the exit of our demons causes us hardship. 

And I pray that like Jesus, we will speak words of loving, healing authority to a world that longs for an astonishing encounter with the divine. Let’s start today at our annual meeting.