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Monday, February 2, 2015

Who Do You Think You Are?

Mark 1:21-28
          Today, as we think about this story of demon-possession and exorcism which makes up the story in our gospel text, let us remember what Jesus has already told us, earlier in this gospel – that the reign of God has come: the kingdom of God has broken into the world and God, through Jesus, has defeated the power of evil and death.
          Most of us base our understanding of demon possession and exorcism on popular books and movies like the classic, “The Exorcist” and its sequels, or the more recent “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”. And I’ll bet that, while a lot of us have seen one or more of those movies, many of us have avoided them like the plague. They scare us, and some of us find everyday life scary enough, thank you very much.
          Whether you’ve watched those movies or read the books or not, however, you’ve probably heard some of the details, about things like spinning heads and other-worldly voices coming forth from little girls, and of course the whole green-pea-soup-spewing-forth incident.
          Perhaps you, like I, picture the driving out of evil spirits as events surrounded by unearthly winds swirling around inside closed-up rooms, and other unnatural events. But for most of us, I suspect the whole topic of demon-possession just seems fantastical, and fictional, and wholly unbelievable. And so, we find this gospel especially perplexing.
          Listen to this as a first person account about that day, courtesy of Paul S. Berge. Imagine it coming from a friend:
          “Were you at the synagogue in Capernaum today? I wasn't sure I saw you and so I will tell you as clearly as I can what happened. I can only explain that something occurred that has never, yes, never ever happened before in our hometown synagogue where our people "gather together." What took place is unlike anything our rabbis have instructed us in over the years. This was far beyond their teaching and authority.
          Shabbat worship started out like a routine, very normal gathering. We all came with the usual expectation. Now don't get me wrong, our rabbis are faithful interpreters of the Torah as they instruct us in the Word of the Lord, but their teaching does get to be routine.
          Everything was progressing as usual, the prayers, the Psalms, the reading of the Torah, when a newcomer "immediately" entered the synagogue and began teaching and instructing us, dare I say, with a new "authority" (Greek, exousia). His authority was not as our scribes. When I use the word "authority" about his teaching, you know that the word also includes the power to "exorcize" demonic spirits.
          I am still in shock as to what happened next. "Immediately" a deranged person screams out. No one in the synagogue had a clue as to what brought forth this outburst. It appears an unclean spirit had identified this rabbinic-like teacher as one who had authority to exorcize and called out to him by name:
          "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" The voice was a shrill demonic-like scream. How did this spirit know the name of the rabbi from Nazareth? Did the voice really assume that this teacher has the authority to exorcize demonic or unclean spirits?”
          But then, “the scream continued with words of blasphemy using the name of God: "I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
          With this a hushed silence came over the entire synagogue as these words were spoken. The rabbi named Jesus from the hill country of Nazareth sensed the offense of these words, the identity of the Holy One of God. He addressed the possessed man and rebuked him with exorcizing words which likewise silenced the entire synagogue, "Be silent, and come out of him."
          What occurred next was a demonstration I have never, ever, witnessed before. The man was writhing on the floor like he was in conflict with the spirits possessing him. Then the voice of a demonic spirit cried out with the same shrill demonic-like scream. The unclean spirit came out of him and he appeared to be calm. He stood up and in his right mind looked as normal as any of us.
          Needless to say we were all overcome and amazed and kept saying to one another,
          "What is this? A new teaching -- with authority he exorcizes a demon possessed person!" We saw with our own eyes that he commanded even a host of unclean spirits and they were obedient to him. On my oath this is what took place on this Sabbath day.
          I can't explain what came over us, but it was like we gave witness to the rabbi from Nazareth as our praise to the one, holy and righteous God in our midst. We have no other experience like this to compare. We have since heard that what took place in our synagogue "immediately" spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
          From the beginning of the gospel of Mark, we have been hearing that the reign of God has come, and not just come, but has been inaugurated, and broken forth into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
          We have heard witness of the boundary-breaking Son of God, the one for whom the heavens ripped open, the one who has broken the hold of those powers that would wish to separate us from God and claim us.
          This text today reminds us Jesus has entered the fray with purpose, and with power; in a word, with authority. And we are reminded that the kingdom of God has come. God’s reign has begun. Jesus has come to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, and in this Gospel lesson he demonstrates how that Kingdom opposes and conquers the forces of evil. In Jesus Christ, God has come to break the hold of possession by any force which robs the children of God of all that God intends for them – for us.
Each day, when we read the newspaper, watch the news, listen to the stories that surround us, we can easily believe that our world is inhabited by evil. In the midst of rocket launches aimed at innocent civilians in Syria and Libya, massacres and the kidnappings in Nigeria, missile attacks in Ukraine, massive drug-cartels terrorizing citizens in Mexico, not only might we come to understand anew that evil is at work in the world, but we might feel hopeless that it might ever be overcome. Yet the Word of God reminds us, the reign of God has come. And through Jesus and the cross, God overcomes the power of evil to destroy. 
Closer to home, riots and protests in the wake of racially motivated violence, crime in our communities and the scourge of poverty and homelessness in our cities and towns bring us the realization that evil is not just a far-away problem but is universal - and is reflects inherently sinful world, in which none of us is truly guilt-free.  
The truth is that possession is not as foreign an event as we would like to think. If I am honest, it is something of which I have intimate, first-hand experience. Because, you see, I’ve experienced possession when I have reacted in anger and lashed out, hurting someone, saying things I later regret; I’ve experienced possession whenever I’ve been driven by envy or greed or used resources in ways that deny others a future.
I’ve experienced possession when I’ve made promises I have no intention and little chance of keeping, because I wanted to look good, or desired praise, or glory, or wanted to gain an edge over someone else. I’ve experienced possession when I’ve looked the other way while someone has suffered discrimination and worse, because of their race, age, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. I’ve experienced possession when I have confessed my faith in God yet made choices that are ungodly. When I’ve gossiped, been impatient, or behaved in ways that have torn down rather than built up another person. Still, our gospel promises that the reign of God has come, and God will overcome even the sin of my own possession, through the love of Jesus Christ.
I wonder where you might feel possessed by something that is clearly not the spirit of God blessing you to be a blessing to others. When might you have behaved in an ungodly way? When have your words of faith not matched your walk? The words of our gospel are for you even when you despair that the evil that possesses you seems too strong to deny.
Here we are, not yet out of the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, and Jesus is challenging us to see ourselves in this story. We remember that recent gospel, in which Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God has come – and then commanded us to repent, and believe in the good news.
The good news is that despite all the powers that would distract us, despite the reality that evil does sometimes possess our hearts and minds, and despite all the world events that confuse and confound us, God speaks the Divine Word into the chaos of the world, changing hearts and building community; The good news is that God has not left us to our own devices, but is still acting in this world.
The good news is that despite ourselves, and the many ways we are inconsistent in word and action, it is God’s Word that has ultimate authority in our lives and in this world. The good news is that through the Spirit, God’s Word can and does still drive the unclean spirit away each time we remember our Baptism, each time we confess and receive the forgiveness of our sins; each time we come before the Lord’s table and receive the bread and the wine – the body, broken for us, the blood outpoured.
The good news for us today is that Jesus is at work, day by day, cleansing us, forgiving us, showing us God’s mercy and grace and filling us with a new spirit through the power of God’s love, which has authority to rule our lives this day and every day. Thanks be to God!

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