Sermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 6, 2021
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared in worship and on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie. Genesis 3:8–15 | 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1 | Mark 3:20–35
Serpents, Satan, Demons and Beelzebub, oh my! It’s hard not to find all this a little frightening to hear—if not also a bit confounding.
In order to get at what Jesus is saying today, we need to understand a little bit of what’s going on with these terms: Remembering that most of these words or names didn’t necessarily create the same pictures as the ones you probably have in your mind right now. To give you a glimpse: Satan is the word for an adversary and the first time it is mentioned in scripture, Satan refers to the angel of God who appears to block Balaam’s way—back in the book of Numbers. Demon is a word in Greek that refers to a spirit of inspiration- related to the word for “happiness”—but which of course could go in a negative way; as we hear about in stories of possession. Beel-Zebub is a reference to the God of the Philistines, from the familiar “Ba-al” for a gods, and may have been one who “flew” or was associated with “flies” or was a negative caricature of an enemy’s God. All in all, an idea of evil spirits randomly roving around (as opposed to having a specific social and personal context) or a devil-like figure was largely influenced by the Persians (Zoroastrianism) right before Jesus was born. Horns, forked tongues, etc., for any of these figures was invented by later story-tellers such as Dante and Milton…
Putting this into perspective, however, does not diminish that powers that detract from God’s purposes are a big problem. It’s just important to recognize when Satan or demons or Beel-zebub comes up and we then dismiss it—or start looking for our pet aversion—we miss what’s really getting in our way.
Let’s go at last to that serpent in Genesis: Same word as “seraphim”—which you might remember from last week, are in the heavenly court surrounding God. As in “cherubim and seraphim bowing down before thee.” The serpent in the garden is a player in a story that describes our human coming of age; an inevitable growing up in which we leave our childlike state of naiveté to become adults who must now take responsibility for our actions and the state of things. The serpent is there just to lay out what is in the minds of humans anyway, but the humans participate in the age-old activity of blame—Adam, Eve; Eve the Serpent—as one author says, serves to help us feel good while feeling bad. And so the problem in the story is not that Adam and Even now see and are aware—per the fruit of the tree of knowledge—but because they and everyone since has eyes and ears and a mind—there’s no excuse for not knowing and for not taking responsibility.
In 10 minutes, you can read Mark 1–3 and take a crash course in Jesus: He does these things all in these verses: He calls specific people to learn and witness up close; he casts out those spirits (who always recognize him) in order to restore people to their right mind; he calls for sensibility around the Sabbath so people don’t suffer even more; he goes off and talks/listens to God; he heals a leper, a paralytic, and a man’s hand; he forgives a man’s sin as a process of healing; and he learn-ed are “astounded as his teaching.” Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. Talks about new wine and old wineskins. He ays, “I have come to call not the righteous, but sinners.” and then drops the mic. So hungry and thirsty are people for this embodiment of grace that they are mobbed so that he and his followers can hardly eat; people are pulling off the roof of a house to get to him. And we remember his mission statement: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
The trick to repenting, however, can be in identifying what’s wrong. Where is the wrong? Again, while we may point at the demons and serpents and Satan right away, Jesus takes it all the way home today: He goes where none else dares to go—to the two institutions that hold an enormous amount of influence and power in that day: (Remember, Jesus’s words are meant to stretch us—using hyperbole often—not to create more absolutes.) It’s the strongest cultural and religious influences in the form of scribes, and the strongest— perhaps—cultural and emotional influences in the form of his family. The interpretation here is a little misleading, but it’s his family that is saying he is “out of his mind.” They are probably trying to protect Jesus too—I know I would! But the cost for Jesus to get back in his box is too high. He’s already challenged power at its highest and so they accuse him of having extraordinary power of unearthly beings.
Which, of course, gives Jesus a chance to say that he will challenge everything at every level:
And so Jesus tells this weird parable of tying up the strong man in the middle of his struggles with family and religious authorities. The parable is gospel not because Jesus is being nice (like you’re supposed to be in a family) nor because Jesus is respecting the authorities (like you’re supposed to do when you’re from Galilee and the officials waltz in from the Jerusalem home office). It is gospel because it portrays Jesus himself in the struggle for God’s coming reign. The word for gospel “good news” is not just a New Testament word, but goes back to Second Isaiah as well as Hellenistic culture. Mark commentator Eugene Boring even describes gospel as “good news from the battlefield.” The good news here is that God is not far off and disengaged, but already mixing it up, “in the struggle.” There is a beautiful grace in the notion that God, or, Jesus, is not pleased that people are in bondage, subject to illness, mired in something less than life. I take comfort from that. Even when good institutions like family and religious order are arrayed against the thriving of human beings.
Let’s look real quickly at this last thing: What are blasphemes against the Holy Spirit? Put in context, this statement is about about attributing the work of God to the devil when you’ve been given a clear view of what’s going on here. You have knowledge of good and evil. The so-called “sin” is not unforgivable in that God can’t forgive you—but in that it shows that you’ve judged the actual good—for whatever reason. All that good that we hear Jesus doing in Mark 1–3.
What’s good is what we hear Jesus say here—re-ordering things according to God’s good will: I have called not the righteous, but the sinners. And today we hear: Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother. There is great freedom and great responsibility in that. Thanks be to God. Amen.