Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 31, 2021
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Deuteronomy 18:15–20 | 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 | Mark 1:21–28
As I was letting the readings soak in this week, praying, looking things up trying to make sense of the readings—particularly with this unclean spirit business—I got back to the idea that the simplest explanation is usually the right one. (Ockam’s razor—1300s Franciscan friar- philosopher, theologian) That is—amidst things like Jewish food laws in Corinthians (and that is only the beginning of laws if you’ve ever read Leviticus—613 and more) and the cultural and religious idea of things being “clean and unclean”—including, apparently, spirits—I kept coming back to the basic premise: That God—and what God’s about—MATTERS. Maybe this—again—sounds too simple or is something we take this for granted. Maybe we’ve given up on the idea of how important God is to our lives—and either do or don’t know that it’s happened. Maybe we heard someone say they speak for God while really leading people away: Like in Deuteronomy where there’s harsh words for false prophets: They will die. Or maybe we just slip into functional atheism: That is, going about life as if God doesn’t exist. (No guilt here, it just happens.)…
Four paragraphs into Mark comes this searing recognition (epiphany): “I know who you are. The Holy one of God.” It’s a little creepy, really—a voice coming from a man that calls out to Jesus in fear with the pronoun “us.” Strange that the man is in the synagogue at all, given all the things that could make a person “unclean” and were to be addressed before entering a gathering place that is “set apart” or “holy.”
I think of the Norwegian Stave churches—a thousand years old—with carved dragon heads at the corners of the stacked roofs, flicking their tongues to keep bad spirits at bay. The reasoning was “better safe than sorry” when incorporating this pagan symbolism into Christian architecture (think gargoyles) but were also a recognition of what’s inside: This is holy space. A place set apart for hearing God’s word, worshipping, receiving the sacraments. (Although- feeling strangely familiar these days—if you were sick with the plague, you had to receive communion through a hole in the wall.) These holy spaces and times are important. We’ve been missing them, I know! And maybe we’ve been able to carve out new space, too.
Something interesting is going on here with this incursion into the synagogue, however. What is hoped to be kept out is now right in front of everyone: Calling Jesus out. It’s sounds like challenge, fear, but also recognition. In some ways, it also feels really honest. I think about the other people sitting there- at least outwardly doing what they can to be present in this place as people who are ritually “clean”—but who don’t have lives or spiritual states that are somehow “perfect.” And here is this man who acts and speaks like he shouldn’t- but which opens a door for God to be revealed as one who by his very power inherent as Creator can send away the sickness of soul; heal; and restore a man to himself. Which means he can do this for the others, too! And isn’t this recognition what happens in holy space and time where we encounter Jesus? It does a lot in our hearts just by itself!
And soon, Jesus will leave the doors and holiness will go wherever he is.
This idea of Spirit is important from another angle as well. We just heard about a different kind of Spirit in Mark. The one where Jesus gets baptized by John and it comes down from heaven. We might even say Jesus is “possessed” by this Spirit as it drives him into the wilderness to be tested as the beginning of his ministry. This Spirit reminds us of the Spirit at creation and how it hovers over the deep and makes good things happen. We see its evidence as Jesus so clearly personifies God, speaking with “authority” or we might say, “power.” (exousia) In making God visible in Jesus: Which now this looks like the ongoing work of creation as a man is restored so he can experience—not being perfect —but holy in GOD'S way of holiness- which is the salvation from and also for- wholeness and healing that is the other meaning of the word in the Bible for being “saved.”
In the letter to the church people in Corinth, Paul is working on reminding everyone of the basics as well: Like what to do regarding their own strong practices and beliefs around others’ practices and beliefs. In this case, to eat or not to eat food sacrificed to idols. It doesn’t matter, he says, because there’s only one real God and no one needs to prove that, but—essentially—be considerate of others out of love: Know THEIR context and experience so you can be a part of helping others experience the holiness of God that saves and transforms. “Knowledge (of your own) puffs up, but love builds up.” Love, in fact, is finally the most holy thing we can know and pass on. I think of Jesus casting out the unclean spirit as an act of love. Love is not just a mushy feeling, but it just keeps bringing the good news of God that casts out fear- without having a hundred rules and regulations or putting up dragons- and creates us ever anew. Wherever we are and whatever is going on inside. In other words, the point as we come together is not to be right, it’s to get it right: Which means to lead with the authority of love… Which is what God’s up to. We might even say, working on a kind of “possession” that happens in the cycle of death and resurrection- infused by the Holy Spirit- that is the birthright of baptism.
Let the spirits that are not Holy be cast out as we follow Jesus in these coming days- witnessing him as he heals, teaches and turns toward Calvary in Lent—savoring his strong and gentle power: Bringing us to himself; and Godself to us; and us to the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.