Sermon for Proper 4, Year B, 2009
Sunday, February 1st, 2009
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Mark 1:21-28
As many will know, Holy Trinity has been engaged in a process called Natural Church Development over the past couple of years. The tools of NCD allow us, through an annual survey, to capture a snapshot of where we are in several key areas of church life. Reflection on these results helps us to better understand who we are as the people of God in this place and the direction to which we are being called in the future. The survey provides us a snapshot of our weaknesses and our strengths. We know that like many Anglican Churches, we scored low in the area of Passionate Spirituality. One of the questions asked under this heading was “Do you believe that God will work even more powerfully in our church in the coming years.” Not only did we score low on this question but in our most recent survey our scored dropped. One must ask, therefore, what we believe about the ministry to which we are called in this community. A deeper question is must also be posed, “Do I believe that God works powerfully in my life?” If we do not believe that God works in our lives how will we believe that God works powerfully in the Church? Quite frankly, I don’t know what people believe about this question, but I do suspect that there are many, not only in this parish but in the Church at large, that find it hard to believe that God is active and working in their lives.
The story related in today’s Gospel is the first glimpse we get at the public teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. What is so crucial about this passage is not the content of his teaching (for indeed, we are not told what he preached) but the character of his preaching: “he taught them as one having great authority.” The word “authority” has many connotations, and in the Greek one such connotation is the sense of “dominion.” Thus I believe that Mark is suggesting that Jesus is here asserting the authority of the dominion or reign of God. I believe this reading is borne out by what he does next. His authority is demonstrated by the casting out of a demon from a man in the synagogue. His teaching was proved to be powerful because of the power he demonstrated before the eyes of all around him.
Let us now return to the question that I first posed. Each of us have heard the story of Jesus, we know the teaching of the gospel, and at some level we believe it, but do we live as if it were true? As many writers have reflected of late, we may be functional atheists. We believe the tenants of faith as abstract principles but we do not believe that God actually makes a difference in our lives.
Now, let us continue with the story of the exorcism in today’s gospel. Very clearly, the story as told is a clear demonstration of Jesus’ power and authority. It is a power and authority that creates awe amongst those who witness it and they, in turn, spread his fame throughout the countryside. It is an authority that inspires faith. Yet, I would suggest that we need to probe the meaning of this exorcism more deeply. For I do not believe that the story before us is primarily a story about exorcisms per se, but about what Jesus does to transform the lives of people and release them from bondage. It is a story that tells us not first and foremost about the casting out of demons, but rather about the power of God in Christ to work within us more powerfully than we can ask or imagine and cast out the demons that prevent us from seeing his mighty acts of power in our lives.
I would suggest to you that Anglicans are typically wary of such language because such seems to connote for many a kind of ostentatious spirituality that is more about show than substance. I wonder even when we ask the question about “God working more powerfully in our parish” if we are conjuring up images of fantastic exorcisms televangelistic healings? But what if the so-called demon is not so much an external force, but the impulse that keeps us from engaging in the reality of our lives, our troubles, and our angst in the context of a God who sees through it all and beckons us forth, casting away the things that enslave us? What if the demon is our blindness to seeing an active God?
The words of this particular demon speak directly, I believe, to what we believe and don’t believe about a God who has the power to change our lives. When the demon first encounters Jesus, his response to Jesus is ambivalent, “What have you to do with me?” It is easy for us to believe that this is a question spoken by those outside these walls. The world really doesn’t know or even care what Jesus can do for them. What has he to do with me? Yet, we must be honest with ourselves and ask, how often have we thought this about God? How often have we believed that God is distant and irrelevant in our lives as we are engaged in the business of muddling our way through this life? Thus, the words of this demon echo deeply within us as a reality many of us face on our journey of faith, namely, how our busy lives distract us from God’s persistent beckoning.
Next, the demon is hostile. He shouts, “Have you come to destroy us?” Again, honesty compels us to admit, that hostility to God is not simply felt by those who choose not to believe in God, but felt by those of us who proclaim our trust in him. Who amongst us has not cursed God for a tragic loss, a turn of fate that has disabled us, or an unfair judgment upon us. Thus, words of this demon once again unmask a certain frightening reality in our journey of faith, namely how our human disappointment eclipses God’s good gifts.
Finally, the demon attempts to gain control over Jesus. In the ancient world, a spell was affected by the naming of the subject over which the spell was being cast. Thus, “Jesus of Nazareth, I know who you are!” is not so much a recognition or submission of the demon to Jesus but an attempt to gain control over him. And again, we must ask ourselves about the times that God has set the way open for us and we choose not to follow his chosen path but seized our way and followed our own path. Once more, I speak not only about those outside these wall but about you and me, and the stubbornness we exhibit when we insist on our own way, when God has graciously opened a way for us.
Honesty compels us to admit, I think, that we might share more with the demon in this story than we would ever wish to confess. This is our human condition, though. We are each prone to ambivalence about God, hostility to God, and the desire to control God. Whatever it is that makes us this way, be it fear or be it sin, I think it behooves us to recognize it and name it. It is the thing that prevents us from believing that God will work powerfully amongst us in the days to come.
If we learn anything from the Gospel of Mark, though, we are to learn that the Kingdom of God has come very near indeed. Sometimes it is so near that we miss it. As the kingdom approaches we are confronted with a new reality, that things do not have to remain the same, and more importantly, that we do not have to remain the same. Ambivalence and apathy can be replaced by engagement and passion; hostility can be replaced by love and reconciliation; the need to control can be replaced by gentle trust. This is what Jesus offered the man possessed by that evil spirit, and this is what he offers us. With the words, “Be silent and come out of him,” Jesus muzzles the voices that confuse and confound us. Jesus silences the impulses that say it cannot be done. Jesus dampens the voice that says God is dead. God is not dead nor does he sleep. The Good News ever before us is that he banishes the forces within us and outside of us that seek to draw us from his love and care.
The kingdom of God has come near. In Jesus’ teaching and in this show of power, the people around him are amazed and recognize God’s dominion being reasserted once and for all. The question thus remains for each of us to ponder. We have heard his teaching time and time again, but have we witnessed his power? Most of us have not witnessed, and may never witness the sort of act of power described in today’s Gospel, but has your faith been strengthened in another way? Each of you are here because at some level you believe the truth that God in Christ transforms our lives and indeed transforms the world. Has there been a moment when hope seemed lost and a hand was extended? Has there been a moment when the night seemed darker than it could ever be and through that night a light broke through? Has there been a moment when you vowed that you would never believe again and some little sign was given that you were not alone or forsaken? Has there been a moment when and endless flow of tears have been wiped away? Has there been a moment when under your own power it was impossible, despite every attempt you made to do things on your own, and then God took control and opened a door?
I believe honesty compels us to admit that each of us have known such moments and to realize that they are no less powerful than that day on which he cast out an unclean spirit in a synagogue. I believe honesty and self-searching compels us to realize and understand that such moments are indeed a powerful demonstration of the truth of the Gospel to which we ascribe and profess belief. I believe honesty compels us to admit that we are indeed followers of the Christ who brings us a new teaching, and one with great power and authority.
It seems to me, that each of us carries with us demons that enslave us. And yet, each of us have had powerful moments, private though they might be, in which God in Christ has lifted those demons and those burdens from us and set us free. To know this reality is not simply to hear the story but to know its power. And if God has acted so powerfully amongst us individually, I refuse to believe that he will not act powerfully in this place in the days to come.
Text copyright 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves - This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.