4th Sunday after Epiphany

4th Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:21-28

The holy gospel according to Mark. Glory to you, O Lord. 

[Jesus and his disciples] 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, convulsing him 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.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer (Psalm 19:14)

I find it amazing that we’re already drawing to the close of the first month of 2021! And, I have to say, thus far it hasn’t been quite the year many of us anticipated: violent insurrection, a second impeachment, not to mention virus variants and a slower-than-anticipated vaccination rollout. All of this and more has contributed to a bit of a sense of disappointment thus far in the new year. Yes, I know, “the new year” is just an arbitrary designation, but most of us still place some stock in it, if even just emotionally, a phenomenon that was particularly true after the year we all just had. And, I also know that it’s just January and the large problems that erupted, deepened, or were magnified in 2020 are too complex to change so quickly. But, nevertheless, if 2021 were a product I’d recently purchased, I’d be inclined to send it back after my “30-day free trial.”

But 2021 is not all doom and gloom for me personally. The was a light in the midst of the darkness. On January 20th, 2021, Joseph R. Biden Jr. became the 46th President of the United States and Kamala D. Harris became the first ever woman, black woman, and woman of South Asian descent to be Vice President of the United States. Inauguration Day is central to the peaceful transition of power in the US and showcases the authority to lead the nation. In the midst of this historic day, a powerful voice rose above the rest, as Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet laureate to share her work at a presidential inauguration.

In her poem Ms. Gorman reflected powerfully on the stark contrast of this inauguration day and the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol just two weeks prior. Ms. Gorman reminded us that we have witnessed the chaos of January 6th transformed into the authority of January 20th. It was a powerful transformation, and if we hope to avoid again descending into chaos, authority must be rooted in mercy, goodness, and love. We are moving past the pain of January 6th, but there is still work to do if we truly wish love to be our legacy. This hopeful future hangs in the balance between chaos and authority.

Which made our leactionary readings good for us to hear and our Gospel passage today even more suited to preach about on the end of this first month of a new year. Most of us know it pretty well and I’ve preached on it before, as this is the launch of Jesus’ ministry in Mark, when he casts out an evil spirit and is received as one who teaches with authority. It probably bears repeating that “first things” tend to set the tone for much of what is to come. Little wonder, then, that interpreters have noted how the first scenes of each of the Gospels offer a preview of the Evangelist’s insight into Jesus. 

  • In Matthew, Jesus climbs a mountain to teach and interpret the law, like Moses. 
  • In Luke, Jesus announces that the Lord has sent him to proclaim good news, release, and healing, a message that exemplifies his ministry even as it is met with rejection. 
  • And in John the first thing Jesus does is multiply the wine and blessing at Cana, living into the “grace upon grace” promised in the Prologue.

So what does this “first thing” tell us about Jesus according to Mark’s story? That he has come to oppose the forces of evil, defined not generically but rather as anything and everything that robs God’s children of life.

I know it’s easy to get hung up on the issue of the “unclean spirit” –is this demon possession?, or is it a first-century description of mental illness? That’s understandable, as the language of “unclean spirit” is foreign to us. Until you start thinking about the unclean spirits of our age—a socially-media driven obsession with our own ideas, thoughts, and appearance; the devaluing of truth amid a mountain of conspiracy theories as dangerous as they are ridiculous; the increased devotion to the “unholy trinity” of me, myself, and I that measures all things in terms of how it affects me and only me rather than the broader community. Yes, we may not be comfortable with the notion of an “unclean spirit,” and yet it manifests itself all around us in our lives.

And it’s all of this that Jesus’ authoritative proclamation of God’s coming kingdom opposes. With that in mind, is it any wonder that January of 2021 doesn’t seem that different from December of 2020, or January of 1921 or 1821 or…. Yes, this has been a particularly difficult time, but the forces of selfishness and fear and violence have always been among us.

So what happened? If Jesus came to cast out unclean spirits, and if people received his authoritative teaching and life-giving actions with amazement, then why is the world still the way it is?

This is a question that the earliest Christians asked as well. It’s part of the reason why, in fact, that we have the Gospels. As the earliest Christians realized that their expectations about Christ’s return were off, they retold the stories of Jesus with an eye to equipping his disciples for the long haul. For this reason, Mark’s story, likely the earliest, ends not with an appearance of Jesus but rather by reiterating Jesus’ promise that he has gone ahead of the disciples and they are to follow him. 

Sometimes called a “realized eschatology,” such a theology invites the church not to place their hopes in a distance revelation but to recognize that in his death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom, opened up a future of possibility and hope, and equips his disciples to live into that kingdom now, even while they wait for its full revelation at the end of time.

Which brings me to ask what I am doing to continue Jesus’ work a month into a new year? Systemic racism, polarized worldviews that tend to demonize each other, environmental disregard and degradation; the list goes on. I feel, and maybe you do to, that I can’t make any monumental contribution to solving these challenges. But this first act of Jesus doesn’t change the world either, except for the world of the man previously dominated by the unclean spirit. Just one man helped, one life changed. Yet it is this single act of resistance and healing that Mark chooses to highlight at the outset of our Lord’s ministry. 

A single act, a single life changed for the better. Perhaps that’s where we start and where we invite our friends, family, strangers, enemies, fellow believers and non-believers to make a difference in this world. One act rooted in mercy, goodness, and love.

As we contemplate that invitation, I think it’s worth remembering that even amid the well-documented decline in Sunday church attendance, there is still no other single activity that people in the US do with greater frequency and in greater numbers than attend worship. Not even NFL viewership can compete. (And I say that as one who has been known to spend some time on Sunday’s watching football!) Which means if even a fraction of the people who hear Mark’s invitation to be a disciple of Jesus by following his first and lasting example, the world will not only reflect God’s love and will more fully, but those watching may still be amazed… and inspired.

So as we continue our time together with songs, prayers, and repsonses and then continue of this next week into FEBRUARY! Let’s remember this dramatic scene, and the people once again rejoice at this “new teaching—with authority!” Like Ms Gorman reminded me on Jan 20th. 

Let us be reminded that the heart of this story is in the foundation of Christ’s authority. His authority is not found in being the biggest, baddest, most powerful force of all. His authority is found in humility and mercy. Christ sides with meek and humble humans, overwhelmed and cut-off from their community. Jesus’ power lies in humility and his work is in restoration. His merciful reign is not about asserting dominance, but about creating hope and restoration.

He is the redeemer of the people, subservient even to death on a cross, and it is this humility which topples even the greatest evil forces.

There are plenty of demons in our world. Seemingly insurmountable forces of demonic division like racism, white-supremacy, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and transphobia, seek to gain power over us each day and divide us from one another. But through the waters of Baptism, like here in this font, our baptisms we are reminded that we are one body with Christ. God makes us the priesthood of all believers. Christ’s authority is rooted in hope, mercy, truth, and equity; in response to the grace we have received through Christ, God sends us out as disciples to work for these things. Through our baptisms, we renounce the demons of our time and build up the Kingdom of God. Christ shows us that we won’t defeat these forces through coercive power, but through his authority, rooted in his humility and love. Through God’s grace, we’ve received the promise that this struggle is already won. And for that we say Thanks Be To God!