Sermon: Epiphany IV — Confronting the Very Stuff of This World
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
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The Lord be with you.
I think it’s possible that one of the reasons many of us like coming here on Sunday morning is to escape the constant drumbeat of bad news and sad news and disturbing news that we hear and read about and watch on our TVs every day. Coming to church gives us a bit of respite; it provides a refuge from the ugliness that is constantly being reported. This, in contrast, is a place of good news, where we remember that God did not design us or our world for such chaos and corruption, where we recall that God did something about that by becoming incarnate and taking all the uglinesss of sin and death upon himself so that we might be set free from it.
But of course, we can’t escape the world. We are of this world, made from the very stuff of this world.
In February 1945, as the war in Europe drew to a close, a young Russian soldier named Alexander Solzhenitsyn was arrested by agents of the state’s spy agency. He was charged with referring to Joseph Stalin disrespectfully, though all he had called Stalin was “the man with the mustache.” And even though he was a loyal Communist, for this small “crime” he was sentenced to eight years in a labor camp.
Solzhenitsyn became a writer and in his works he exposed the evil and harsh conditions of the prison camps. However, he learned an important lesson as he reflected upon his experiences. It was so easy to think of evil and corruption as something “out there” — something done by bad people who were different than everyone else. In his book The Gulag Archipelago he wrote:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
Like it or not, there is nowhere we can escape the world. We are of this world, made from the very stuff of this world. But that is exactly why Jesus became incarnate and lived and died and rose again. He came to confront and take on himself and transform the very stuff of this world.
In our Gospel text today, Mark chooses to highlight an incident that speaks to all of this. The very first public ministry action of Jesus that he records involves Jesus confronting evil and overcoming it. Surprisingly, this encounter does not take place “out there” in some place where evil seems obvious, but in a synagogue, a place of worship, on the sabbath, a holy day, as Jesus was teaching from the holy scriptures.
We might say that evil came to church that day. This poor man had been oppressed, suffering under the influence of powers that controlled him and kept him bound in a life that may have looked to us like mental illness along with some kind of physical seizure disorder. But underneath it all, as Jesus exposed here, were forces of sin, evil, and death that were keeping this man from enjoying the freedom and abundant life that God wants for everyone.
And because Jesus came to announce the dawning of God’s rule, God’s authority, God’s victory over powers like these, he demonstrated the power and newness of God’s kingdom by calling out this evil and dispensing of it.
Now I want to tell you this morning, this place, this church, this community is a place where things like this are meant to happen. This is not just a place of escape. This is not just a refuge from the hard and evil world around us. This is not where we came to get away from the bad news so that we can share only good news with one another.
No, this is meant to be a place where we bring ourselves before God and before one another. This is the place where we confess that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through my heart” and we need again to hear the word of forgiveness and absolution. And this is where, as one preacher said, “we gather in Christ’s name to support each other in escaping the hold these things have on us that we might grow as individuals and as a community.” (David Lose)
This is the place where ask God to confront in us, as Jesus did with that man in the synagogue, the powers that take hold of us and keep us from living full lives of faith, hope, and love.
You know, some people stay away from church because they think they’re not welcome here. Their lives are in some sort of disarray, they feel ashamed and embarrassed about choices they’ve made, about habits they’ve succumbed to, about patterns of living that they can’t seem to break.
I’ve had people tell me over the years that this is why they don’t come to worship. Everyone seems too perfect, too put-together. It makes them feel out of place, as if church were a showroom where we come to show off ourselves off as shiny and new.
Mark’s first story about Jesus’ ministry puts the lie to all of that. The community of faith is no different than anywhere else in the world. This is no showroom. This is a workshop, where God goes to work on each and every one of us, confronting the old within us and bringing forth the new in Christ.
May each one of us find the strength today, to pray as the psalmist prayed:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.