Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel - Mark 1:21-28 - "Jesus: The Exorcist"

Read the Gospel text here: Mark 1:21-28
Jesus: The Exorcist
From the very beginning of the Gospel things move quickly.  Just look at the first page of the Gospel of Mark and see how close all the headings are to one another (pew bible NT p. 27).  Beginning with the introduction we move quickly through John the Baptist, the Baptism of Jesus, the Temptations in the Wilderness, the Beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the calling of the Disciples, and finally now we have come to Jesus’ first recorded healing – the Healing of the Man with the Unclean Spirit.  The pace has been almost breathless – but as we read through this first chapter we do need to pause briefly at verses 14 & 15: … Jesus came to the Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.”  This is what drives the subsequent episodes: the Good News, the Gospel of the Kingdom of God that has come into our midst.  Everything that follows emerges from this verse.  And so we come to Jesus’ first healing in verses 21-28 and it is the healing of the man with the unclean spirit.  Why is an exorcism the first healing miracle in Mark? And why is this such an important sign of the proclamation of the Good News of God?
For us 21st century, post-enlightenment folks we as a society are both fascinated and skeptical about exorcisms.  Think of the various movies and stories that center around this subject.  Perhaps the best known are the old movies entitled “The Exorcist” with Linda Blair, and the Michael Keaton movie, (also relatively old), called “Beetlejuice.”  What we find in these films and the many others like them is a focus on the supernatural and a depiction of overwhelming evil run amok.  These films are full of effects – everything from spinning heads to floating furniture.  I suppose this makes for good movies, but if we are going to look at these accounts of Jesus casting out unclean spirits in Mark then we need to set these images aside and see them as fantasies that bear no relation whatsoever to the Gospel texts.
Remember in Mark 1:10 the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove.  In this passage the man, who is in the synagogue has an unclean spirit. I believe the comparison to be intentional.  The Spirit of God is manifested perfectly in Jesus’ life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.  The Spirit of God is manifested in unconditional love and grace, forgiveness and healing.  The unclean spirits that have inhabited this man would be spirits that manifest in ways that are directly opposite to this.  So instead of grace and love and forgiveness unclean spirits might include the spirits of anger, envy, jealousy or perhaps spirits of various addictions, prejudice, racism, or arrogance; or even perhaps the spirits of more socially acceptable spirits like workaholism or greed.  Does this bring this passage a bit closer to home?  It does for me.  These unclean spirits are the spirits that divide us from God and from each other; they are the spirits that encourage judgmentalism and revenge and self-justification and even violence.  We all struggle mightily with these unclean spirits.  What are some of the unclean spirits that you struggle with, and which you might ask Jesus’ to exorcise from your life?
Jesus begins with this exorcism in the synagogue because Mark wants to make it clear that the Spirit of God is more powerful than the unclean spirits of this world and that the proclamation of the Good News of God is more than just words.  It is the taking on and overpowering of the unclean spirits of this world: Love will over come hate, light will overcome darkness, life with overcome death, grace and forgiveness will overcome the powers which deny and work against these. 
           One last point – notice that Jesus commands silence from the unclean spirits.  This is a pattern that will occur again and again throughout the first part of the Gospel of Mark.  Scholars call this the “Messianic Secret.”  What is that about?  Why does Jesus constantly command silence about himself and his work in Mark?  There is a simple answer: until the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus’ work and identity as Messiah is incomplete.  In other words, Jesus is revealed to be the Messiah and Son of God not through his miracles and teachings, but on the cross!  The cross looms large and until we can see the shadow of the cross then we cannot understand who Jesus truly is and what his ministry is all about.  Of course it is also important to note that Jesus is not successful keeping people quiet about him; they ignore his orders to keep silent and we as the readers of the Gospel are in on the secret anyway.  We know that Jesus is the Messiah and Son of God and that it is ultimately only the power of the cross that can cast out the unclean spirits with which we struggle.

  To listen to this sermon - go to - and click on the media tab.  The sermon, as preached by Pr. Duncan, is there available for you to listen to or download.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reflections on the Lessons for Epiphany III - Call

Read the Gospel text here: Mark 1:14-20
Read the Jonah text here: Jonah 3:1-10 (Though you might want to read the entire book!)
Both of the lessons today deal with the issue of call.  In the Gospel, Jesus calls the fishermen Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John.  “Follow me,” he says, and they leave everything and follow him.  This lesson is contrasted by the lesson from the reluctant prophet Jonah, who also received a call from the Lord God: “Go!”  “And then away in the opposite way he went.”(1) It is also interesting to note that Mark makes it clear throughout the Gospel that these disciples really didn’t know what they were getting into.  They have preconceived ideas of who Jesus is and what he wants from them that turn out to be completely wrong.  One wonders if the disciples actually understood more from the beginning if they would have been so willing to leave their nets and follow.  Jonah on the other hand seems to have a pretty good idea of not only what is expected of him, but what the result will be.  This is why he tries to run away.  He is not in agreement with God.  In both cases the bottom line ministry that these men are being called to is one of unconditional love and grace; it is one of radical inclusion.  In the Gospel this is made manifest on the cross.  In Jonah, God does not want to see the city of Israel’s hated enemies destroyed and Jonah just knows that God will end up having mercy and extending forgiveness.  And Jonah wants no part of it.
I think there are points of contact between us and the disciples, and us and Jonah.  Like the disciples, we too often create an image of Jesus/God that looks more like our ideas of who God is and what we think God’s priorities should be.  Popular Christianity includes a strong element of judgment and tends to downplay God’s love and grace.  Oh yes, “God loves everyone” (we say)… “but” – and then we come up with conditions: “you have to “accept Jesus as your savior or you have to be good or you have to believe in a certain way or you have to be a part of a certain expression or denomination or you have to accept these political positions or you have to… etc. etc. etc.”  WRONG!  God’s love and grace are unconditional!  God loves us, and because of that then we are able to respond to our call.  This is why the focus is on the cross of Jesus.  It reminds us of God’s amazing love and grace for us.  If it starts to become a symbol of “you better do this, or that, or else” then we are missing the point.
Like Jonah, we too often like to pretend we know the mind of God.  God can’t love those people, God can’t possibly be willing to forgive and accept those people! We like to think of ourselves as having a special IN, and the annoying thing about grace is that it tends to be so radically inclusive.  And this is exactly the point that God makes at the end of the book of Jonah.  God informs Jonah in no uncertain terms, that God is a God of love and forgiveness and God loves the creation so wildly and passionately that God will go to whatever lengths God needs to in order to bring people into relationship and wholeness.  Too bad you don’t like it, Jonah!  But you cannot presume the mind of God.  And this is our problem as well.  Way too often, we like to presume the mind of God.  We are constantly baptizing our prejudices, our priorities, our opinions, our politics and claiming: “God is on my side – and – God opposes you.”  Or we arrogantly assert – “If you want to be right with God you have to think like me!”  WRONG!  We do not know the mind of God and to presume the mind of God is to try to put ourselves in God’s place, which you might remember did not work out so well for Adam and Eve. (And which theologians down through the years have used as a definition of Sin).
A very wise Pastor has summed up the message of these lessons in this way: “If God does not love everybody, then there can be no love for anybody.  If God is not gracious to all, there can be grace for none.” (2)  This is the central theme of the story of Jonah and the Gospel of Jesus.  And like Jonah and the disciples we are all being called to follow, to live lives that reflect this grace and love and to reach out in God’s love and grace to care for others and pass on this love.  It is to this that we are being called.  God’s call to us is that we would open our hearts to God’s love and grace and be open vessels of this love and grace to all – that is – TO ALL.  It is a risky call, because God is so generous and like the disciples we have a hard time understanding and accepting God’s radical inclusivity.  And like Jonah when we do begin to understand we might want to go in the opposite direction.  But just as God pursued and followed Jonah even into the belly of the whale, God will follow us and never let us go; constantly showering his love and grace upon us and calling us to follow and to love – In the name of Father, Son+ and Holy Spirit!
(1) - I am wondering if any of my readers will recognize this line.  "And away------ in the opposite way I walked. What a clever plan, what a capital plan. I've listened with attention...."  Perhaps readers from England in particular might recognize it.  If you can identify it, send me an email or post a comment.  I realize it is unrelated to the theology and biblical exposition of the post - but I could not resist!
(2) Pastor John Jewell - a United Methodist pastor whose sermons sometimes appear on Textweek.  I read this line in his sermon on these very text several years ago and have always found them very meaningful.  They sum up for me one of the core foundational planks of the Gospel!  Thank you Pastor Jewell.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reflections on the Gospel: Mark 2:1-12

Read the Gospel text here: Matthew 2:1-12
Digging Through the Dirt
By our 21st century standards, homes in the 1st century were much smaller, much more sparse, and the space was used very differently.  Rocks and mud were plentiful in that place so houses were built primarily with mud brick and rocks.  Most but not all 1st century homes had a courtyard of some sort, and often animals were kept in the house as well.  But perhaps the part of the house that was most different was the roof.  Because of our relatively wet weather we have tended to build houses with gabled roofs.  The rain and, especially, the snow can more easily slide off of a gabled roof, and it helps keep the inside much dryer.  Consequently it is difficult, if not downright dangerous, to climb up on a gabled roof, so this space is not utilized for living, for the most part.  Not so in 1st century Palestine.  First of all, in the very dry climate, with no snow to speak of, there is no need for a gabled roof.  The roofs were flat.  So they could be used for a variety of things, and they were.  Supported by crude wooden beams and covered with palm leaves and mud, these roofs would be strong enough to support various activities, such as cooking and sleeping.  And in some places (notably places like in Bethlehem) grain was even grown on the roof.
Now in our Gospel text for today we find Jesus at home in Capernaum.  Now earlier in chapter one, we learn that Peter and Andrew have a home in Capernaum (vs. 29) and it appears that Jesus has made this home his base of operation at least here in the first couple chapters.  Now Peter and Andrew were fishermen, which could be a rather lucrative trade at times, so this house was undoubtedly a moderately large house, though probably still pretty small by our 21st century standards.  Jesus was inside this house when people who were in need of healing began to converge upon it.  It seems as though this was one of those houses that either did not have a courtyard, or may have had a small courtyard, but it seems that Jesus was inside the living space itself.  For when 4 young men arrive with their paralyzed friend they cannot get close to Jesus, in fact, they can’t even get inside the house.  What to do?  There is healing available for their friend, but the people and the physical presence of the house itself create a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.
We encounter obstacles in life all the time.  Sometimes these obstacles are bumps in the road; sometimes they can be detours; sometimes they can completely stop us in our tracks.  There are even times that we do not recognize the obstacles for what they are – that which keep us apart from others; that interfere with our relationships with loved ones, with others and with God; that which separates us from God.  This appears to be the case in Corinth.  The church in Corinth is out of control.  They have set inappropriate rules for being a part of the community, they have found ways to maintain the social divisions of their society, they are clamoring for position and prestige within the community, they are looking for human adulation.  In short, they have lost sight of the cross, of the call to be a servant and to be open to all in Christ’s name.  This, St. Paul points out, is an obstacle that is separating them from God.  Paul suggests to them that as they seek for praise and adulation, for prestige and position, as they turn their back on those in need or pull apart from others who are different and of a different background, position or race than they are – this then has become an almost insurmountable obstacle that is separating them from God.  What to do?
The 4 friends in the Gospel first recognize the obstacle.  They see what they are up against and then they work together to figure out a way to overcome it.  The goal is to get to Jesus.  So, they climb up to the roof and begin to dig through the dirt and the hardened mud and the palm leaves.  They do the hard work of digging through the roof in order to get to Jesus.  It is the only way.  They clear out a passage that they then can use to lower their paralyzed friend down into the house where Jesus will see him and reach out to him and heal him. And they do this hard work and they get from Jesus more than they expected. For Jesus does something unexpected when he addresses this paralyzed man.  He doesn’t just heal his body.  Rather, he starts by healing him on the inside: “Your sins are forgiven!”  Forgiveness is where it starts.
There is another group in this story.  A group of scribes and Pharisees who sit and watch and object.  "Just who does this guy think he is, forgiving sins?!" This group is struggling with a serious obstacle as well.  The obstacle which is separating this group from others and from God is their own arrogance, their own certainty of their rightness, their holiness, their purity.  This has become an obstacle which is keeping them away from God.  This is an obstacle many in our society struggle with as well: the arrogant certainty of their rightness, their own personal holiness and purity.  It is in fact an obstacle which separates them from others and puts a large moat between them and God.
What kinds of hard work do we need to do in order to get to Jesus? In what ways are we paralyzed in our lives, in what ways are we confronted by seemingly insurmountable obstacles that divide us from our loved ones, from others and from God?  This is the question posed by this text.  Before we can fully respond to God’s call and freely follow Jesus, before we can be free in our relationships with others we need forgiveness and healing.  Gifts that God, through Jesus is prepared and waiting to provide for us.  But first, perhaps, we have some dirt to dig through!