Epiphany 4 / Year B
When Jesus is in town on the Sabbath you want to make sure you get to synagogue because chances are something will happen you won’t want to miss. Case in point: today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark. The text tells us Jesus teaches with authority and all who hear him are amazed. Notice the text does not share any of the content of what Jesus teaches, only the reaction to it. If this had been the only thing to happen the conversation the next day around the water cooler might have been, “I could listen to that guy preach all day!”
But of course something else does happen and it eclipses everything Jesus said. A man with an unclean spirit confronts him and says, “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” The original text in New Testament Greek is somewhat idiomatic and therefore difficult to translate. It carries the sense of “Why are you picking this fight with us” or “Couldn’t you have just left things between us as they were?” He may be the first person to ask Jesus why he just can’t let things be, but he will not be the last.
In each of the four Gospels, the first event in Jesus’ ministry has the effect of setting the tone for what is to follow. Matthew depicts Jesus as the giver of a new law in the tradition of Moses. Luke portrays him as one who has come to release captives, heal the sick, announce good news to the poor, and proclaim God’s favor to all. John begins with Jesus turning water into wine; a foreshadowing of the abundant life available to all. And here in Mark, we see Jesus at the outset contending with an unclean spirit. Mark is telling us Jesus will engage anyone or anything impeding human flourishing. Jesus simply will not let such things be.
Mark highlights how Jesus opposes everything diminishing God’s creation and God’s creatures. He challenges anything that robs us of who are created to be. A good question to ask is what has the power to possess you; to make you unclean or unwell or ill at ease? Does a substance have control over you? Are you a workaholic? Are you wracked with self-loathing? Maybe it is worry or fear. It might be a painful memory or a loss. Perhaps you are consumed by anger. What has the power to possess you?
Chris Stirewalt, the former political editor for the Fox News Channel, wrote on insightful op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, describing the affects a modern day media on our country. He states as news consumers we are “both overfed and malnourished”, gorging ourselves “on empty informational calories” and indulging in “sugar fixes of self-affirming half-truths and even outright lies.” Stirewalt does not point a finger at one side or the other, he is describing the industry as a whole. Does the information you consume and the manner in which you receive it possess you?
Well, if there is one thing we know about Jesus we know he is not willing just to let destructive things go on as they are. He comes to cross boundaries, break down barriers, and open closed doors. When it comes to being possessed, he comes to us not as a gentle shepherd, but rather as a disrupter and as a liberator. Everything about our lives, our community, our church, and our society is to be freed in order to participate fully in the reign of God. This is the work Mark depicts Jesus as doing and it begins on a Sabbath day in a synagogue in Capernaum with one deeply troubled person. This work Jesus does continues on even into our own day and time. It continues with each one of us.
It is hard to believe we are just 17 days away from Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. If you feel like Lent 2020 never ended you are not alone. This will be a Lent like no other we have experienced. No pancakes. No community services and lunches. No pot-luck dinners. No Agape Meal. Yikes, I am already starting to feel hunger pangs!
Maybe because of what Lent can’t be this year and maybe because so much of the programmatic load has been lifted, I find myself more ready to engage the spiritual and private nature of the season. In the Ash Wednesday liturgy we are invited to the observance of a holy Lent. And this observance is marked by five things:
s Self-examination and repentance.
s Reading and meditating on God’s holy Word
We have been focused on prayer and Scripture since the beginning of the pandemic and we have experienced firsthand how each has supported us in this difficult time. It seems to me the other three – self-examination and repentance, fasting, and self-denial – have something to do with being released from possession and experiencing the joyful abundance of God’s love and the wholeness it brings.
I encourage you to use the next 17 days for prayerful and honest discernment. Where do you need to make a 180 degree turn in your life? This literally is what repentance means. Metanoia, the Biblical word for repentance, happens when a person is walking down a path, stops, turns around, and goes back to where he or she came from. Can you discern in your life a path you are walking making you more and more unclean, more and more possessed? How might fasting and self-denial free you? What might stopping in your tracks, turning around, and returning to health look like and feel like?
Loren Stuckenbruck, a New Testament scholar, notes Jesus frees the man of the spirit possessing him, but, unlike the spirit’s deep fear, does not destroy it. The exorcism does not eliminate evil from the world, it only eliminates the power of evil to possess the individual. Jesus does not change the world, but he does change how this person lives and moves and has his being in it. And I beg you believe Jesus wants to and will do the same for you.