“A Funny Way To Start”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
January 28, 2017
Deuteronomy 18:15-20 & Mark 1:21-28
I’d like to start today with a little review of where we have been Biblically and thematically over the past month. In doing so I think we will gain a little more insight and clarity into the reading we’ve heard today from the gospel of Mark.
A little over a month ago we celebrated Christmas. God did not come into the world when we were ready, but when God knew the time was right. American author Madeline L’Engle calls Christmas ‘the irrational season,’ and in one of her poems she says, “This is the irrational season when love blooms bright and wild. Had Mary been filled with reason, there’d have been no room for the child.” If God had waited until we were ready, Christ might have never come. At Christmas we welcomed the irrationality of God, a baby born to set us free.
Shortly after Christmas, we took a trip with Mary and Joseph to the temple in Jerusalem where Jesus was dedicated to the Lord. While they were in the temple, the old prophet Simeon took the child from his mother’s arms and proclaimed, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace.” Simeon lived just long enough to see the Messiah and now, having seen the child, could face his death full of peace. Simeon had such peace because Jesus was a confirmation that God makes and keeps promises.
Then, at the beginning of the year, we found ourselves back in the manger in Bethlehem as Wise Men came from the east with gifts for Jesus. We call this event the Epiphany because in this event Jesus was revealed, unveiled, to a bunch of outsiders. The Wise Men’s visit to Jesus proclaimed to the world that Jesus had come for all people. All. People.
After that, the full-grown Jesus was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” If there was any question before about the identity and purpose of Jesus, those questions were scattered to the wind. Jesus is the beloved son of God, and he has been sent into the world for a very specific purpose. For now, though, that purpose is not quite clear.
Then in the gospel reading last Sunday, Jesus decided to go to Galilee, and there he found a man named Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Philip was so excited that he ran to his friend Nathaniel and said, “We have found the Lord…it is Jesus son of Jospeh of Nazareth” Nathaniel sneered back, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” This was, of course, a wrenching dig at Jesus’ ethnicity. But Jesus will not be deterred—Jesus embraces Nathaniel with a particular warmth and loving kindness and Nathaniel’s heart is changed and he follows Jesus.
Birth, presentation in the temple, a visit from some kings, a baptism, and calling the first disciples—Jesus has been busy! Now, after all of that, Marks tells us today that Jesus officially begins his ministry by stopping in a synagogue in Capernaum.
Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus was born or baptized or presented in the temple. Instead, the first event that Mark narrates in the life of Jesus is Jesus picking a fight with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. First events in the gospel narratives give us a lot of insight into what each gospel writer thought about the Lord. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus starts out with a lot of teaching and preaching, which connects Jesus to Moses in the Old Testament. In John’s gospel, the very first thing Jesus does is turn water into wine at Cana, creating unexpected and unimaginable abundance. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus starts by releasing those held captive by illness and disease, and he proclaims good news to the poor and the Lord’s favor for all. But Mark? No, Mark doesn’t have time for babies in mangers or preaching or teaching or miracles or water turned into wine.
Mark’s gospel starts with confrontation. It is dramatic like any good fight scene, but there is little doubt of who will win this showdown. The spirit protests Jesus’ very presence in the temple: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” It is interesting that even the unclean spirits knows who Jesus is. But Jesus has no reply for the unclean spirit other than, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Christ’s command is as authoritative as it is succinct. To say it another way, Jesus clamps a dog muzzle on the spirit and literally pulls it out of the man like we might take hold of a weed in the garden and rip it from the soil. This is bold, new authority unlike anyone in the temple has ever seen before, and immediately Jesus’ fame spreads throughout the region. It is a funny way to start Jesus’ public ministry.
We can read this incident in the temple as a signal that Jesus will be a healer, because he will in fact go on to heal many more in the three or so years before the cross. But a better way to read this story is that Jesus has come into the world as opposition, opposition to all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God desires. Remember that at his baptism he was declared the beloved son of God, but that his purpose was not yet quite clear? Well, now it is crystal clear. Jesus went into the temple that day, I’m sure, to fulfill the religious obligations of his faith. But while he was there, he saw a man who was imprisoned by an unclean spirit. Instead of telling the man to pray harder or read more of the Bible, and instead of debating whose sin had caused the man’s unclean spirit, and instead of engaging the disciples in a conversation about holiness or prayer or service, Jesus walked up to that spirit and thumped that thing right on the forehead. Then he fought that spirit until it left the man and the man was restored to life.
Our Lord is a trouble-maker, my friends. He is a trouble-maker for everything and everyone that thinks God’s people can be traded or dominated or oppressed or locked away in some sort of prison. Jesus has no time for decorum, Jesus has no time for the rules, Jesus isn’t really concerned with ritual or good order—when our lives and the lives of all people are threatened by sickness, disease, unclean spirits, inequality, injustice, prejudice, partisanship, or any of the ‘isms’ that run rampant in the world, we can expect the Lord to show up. The good news that Jesus brought into the synagogue that day is still active and alive today: God wants the most for us from this life and God stands, in Jesus Christ, in opposition to anything that robs us of joy. Jesus also stands in opposition to anything that robs us of community and the wonderful purposes for which we were created. At any moment, Jesus is ready to bust through the doors of our captivity, thump our unclean spirits on the forehead, then fight them until they leave and we are restored to life.
There is a lot of good news in this story for us today, particularly in how God, how Jesus, shows up in such an unexpected place. Sure, we expect God to be present when Jesus is teaching and preaching and doing miracles. But we also see God present in the plight of a man possessed by an unclean spirit. Sure, God was present when the heavens were torn open and Jesus was declared the beloved son of God. But God is also present in the piercing cry of despair from Jesus when he is nailed to the cross. We can expect God to show up in our worship and in our sacraments and when we read the Scriptures. But God is also present in that cantankerous sibling who you haven’t gotten along with for years, and in that room when you are diagnosed with a life-changing disease. Our God is a God of the broken, and that God has brought us into a place such as this where our brokenness and neediness can be met with safety and transformation.
So today I want you to contemplate the places of brokenness in your life. Think about the place that disappointment or fear has in your every day life. Think about the personal or profession set-backs you have experienced. Think about that important relationship that has recently hit a rough patch, or that partnership that isn’t as strong as it used to be. Think about the infirmities and ailments that make you groan when you get out bed every morning, and think about the prisons that keep you locked in: addiction, self-loathing, doubt, skepticism, complacency. Think about all the times you have said, “I wish today was like” yesterday or twenty years ago or fifty years ago, and think about how much you yearn for the past and forget about the present and future. I can all but guarantee that if you look hard enough, that if you search long enough, God is there. God is there breaking down walls and barriers, confronting evil spirits, and lifting you to new life. That is simply who our God is. We did nothing to deserve such favor and grace, and there isn’t anything we can do to stop God from acting this way. You must simply accept that God is for you, that God is with you, that Jesus is by your side every moment, loving you until all the pain and sorrow and brokenness melts away.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, picking a fight with an unclean spirit was a funny way to start. But I’m glad Jesus started his ministry that way. I’m glad because it has brought, and will continue to bring life. I’m glad he started that way because the tough times aren’t going away, the unclean spirits are still lurking around, brokenness and neediness will infiltrate our lives—but they do not have the final say. Ever. Jesus has the final say and he’s sticking picking those fights, and he is still winning them, too. Jesus’ final word is lfie…abundant, joyful, holy life. Are you ready for that life? May it be so for you and for me and for all of creation. Amen.