Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [Year B] - February 1, 2015 (Mark 1:21-28)

Fighting words.

We’ve had to listen to them for about two weeks now, and I don’t know about you, but I’m hoping they’ll come to an end at about 6:30 this evening. I’ve heard enough about deflated footballs to last me a lifetime. I realize it’s all part of the annual build-up to the Super Bowl, and that it’s all intended to get us worked up about this supposedly epic showdown, but all these press conferences and the silly back-and-forth just seem like fighting words to me. I’m ready for some action.

Fighting words.

There were some on Capitol Hill this week at a congressional hearing on global security. One Senator went up against some protestors—called them low-life scum!—and had them and their protest signs cast out of the room like a demon. The protesters, in turn, responded with more fighting words in the newspapers. Come to think of it, there are fighting words on Capitol Hill every week, which is a large part of the problem up there. The spiteful rhetoric between our two political parties these days makes every issue sound like it’s part of an endless confrontation between good and evil, no matter whose side you stand on. Again, enough of the fighting words. If it’s truly necessary, let’s see some action.

Fighting words are the first thing Jesus hears as he tries to teach in the Capernaum synagogue. In fact, fighting words are the first thing any human speaks to Jesus in the entire gospel of Mark. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” asks the man who stumbles into the middle of Jesus’ lesson, interrupting it. In the original Greek, the man’s question sounds more like, “What’s it to you and us?” which is exactly how many of us might pick a fight with someone. “What’s it to you, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”

We don’t have to wait long for some action this time, however. Jesus immediately puts down what he’s doing, addresses the confrontation, and throws the protesting scum out of the man and out of the synagogue.

It is Jesus’ first day. He has just called his first disciples. He is teaching his first lesson in his first synagogue visit, and he is interrupted by these dark forces that were possessing this man. It’s almost like they knew he was coming.

Truth be known, that is who is doing all the talking here. This man is not in his right mind, and it is not this man who is challenging Jesus. Something dark and disruptive has a hold on him, and it is that dark and disruptive entity that Jesus casts out. If one of the first things that Jesus hears is direct confrontation and challenge to his power, one of the first things Jesus does is to free a soul from torment, to separate the human from that which binds him.

Let’s be honest.  Modern folk often don’t know what to do with the demoniac. Cases like this seem like a relic from another time when science and medicine were cruder. We’d certainly get out the clinical encyclopedia and diagnose him with something else now. When director Franco Zeffirelli depicts this scene in his 1977 epic Jesus of Nazareth, the young man barges into the synagogue screaming, writhing around, and foaming at the mouth as if he is having a grand mal seizure. That was his interpretation. Who knows what kind of special effects we might add in nowadays, but it’s true that we think demons and possessions are really something only for Hollywood to deal with. In real life we often don’t know what to do with this “antiquated” exorcism stuff, and we’re rightfully sheepish about labeling anyone or anything anymore.

the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp, which was liberated
on January 27, 1945
However, if we are in doubt that evil forces can grip the human psyche and cause terrible damage, if we have a hard time believing that humankind is ever under siege by influences that can only be described as demonic, we only need to be reminded of the macabre, awful anniversary the world marked on Tuesday of this week and speak with an Auschwitz survivor. Evil doesn’t always have to be spectacular in its manifestation, writhing about on the temple floor, foaming at the mouth. Sometimes it is remarkably mundane, made up of little dastardly acts that slowly build up to something horrific.

No matter what it is or what form it comes in, one thing is clear: these things do not get along with Jesus. Ultimately they cannot exist in this world at the same time as him, and so just as soon as he shows up they show up to protest.

It’s why we begin each baptism with three clear renunciations. Before anyone is washed in the waters and joined to Christ, we ask them questions like, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”         It would make for an interesting Sunday if someone suddenly answered “NO!” at that point, but at least the truth would present itself. Joining to the side of Jesus Christ, who rescues us from sin, who brings life and light to all the world, whose Spirit empowers us to work for justice and peace would never be appealing to a force that works to advance darkness and destruction.

Fighting words. It’s what we’ll hear throughout the life of Jesus, but he will stay true to his mission, which is to separate these forces from the people they enslave, to proclaim release to those who can’t release themselves. He will never label anyone, but he will be honest about that which corrupts us, addressing the demons head-on, and in the most humble, self-giving way possible. This morning he rebukes gently, commanding the unclean spirit to leave the young man. That will work for now, but eventually he will let his own life be handed over to those forces of evil. On the cross, fighting words turn to brutal action against Jesus. He will demonstrate his authority over all that lays siege to humankind by letting all our demons have their way with him. But he will rise. At length we begin to see that no force will ever stand a chance against God’s unconditional love. No words fight quite like words of mercy do.

Because the church speaks with the authority of Jesus, it too can expect fighting words from time to time. As people of faith attempt to embody his kind of love and forgiveness, they will draw opposition. The life of faith is not a cake walk, and those who have been claimed by these waters can expect hecklers. But like Jesus, we are driven by the Spirit to respond with courageous action, to make the distinction between the demon from the human, to cast out the former and love the latter. It will be to remember the words of another in this country who confronted many demons: As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

All this talk of camp reminds me of my first ever experience as a camp counselor at one of our other Lutheran camps. It was 1993, and I was only 19. We had gone through 10 days of orientation to learn the ropes before we were thrown into the Capernaum synagogue to do some teaching to the kids. The only issue was that Sam barged in to our area, a 4th grade boy who would do anything but listen and follow rules. Day after day, he brought terror to our idyllic woodland scenario. As the week wore on, it seemed to get worse: foul language, hitting, biting…constant fighting words directed at us and at other young campers. He was inconsolable.

Lutheridge, summer of 1993
It was hellish, and all of us first-timers wondered if the whole summer would be like this. We wanted to send him home, but when we looked at his paperwork, we made the discovery there was no home to send him to. A child in foster care because of early childhood abuse and neglect, he happened to be between homes that week. He made us counselors so angry,  but our director told us we had to respond sternly, but gently. To be firm, but always loving, even when we wanted to retaliate out of frustration. He was in the grip of dark forces we could not understand.

It was an emotional week, but by the time the case worker showed up on Saturday to pick him up—the last camper to leave—he was hugging us and literally wouldn’t let go. Everyone was weeping, because something had finally released the real Sam to us, who eventually ended up being just as fun and silly as the other 4th graders. A scholarship was found that enabled Sam come back for another week later in the summer, and again the next year. Sam had experienced what we on staff had taken for granted one too many time: that in our summer community Jesus was at the center, and when that is the case, and forces of darkness and evil and selfishness cannot abide there for long. They may come out of the woodwork, spitting and foaming at the mouth, ready for a fight. But they find a God who stands ready to love.

The same scenario plays itself out, week after week, at our Lutheran outdoor ministries. Indeed, it is a scene that is repeated each and every week in our congregations and in our worship where Jesus word is proclaimed and the sacraments are celebrated. Love driving out hate. Words that fight with mercy. One morsel of bread and splash of water at a time, the Spirit helps us renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God. And with an authority that reveals itself in weakness and humility, God rebukes the demons in each of us to set us free.

When those forces approach, asking in doubt and anger, drawing us in to combat with fighting words, “What’s it to you?” We can respond, with the authority of God’s word: Life. Life is what this is to us.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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