Worship 1/31/21

Call to Worship/Psalm 111 (NRSV)

Praise the Lord!

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.

Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.

He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.

He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.

He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.

The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.

They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.

He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.

Holy and awesome is his name.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.

His praise endures forever.

Opening Prayer

God of power and might, you sent prophets to your people, calling us back to your covenant, and teaching us your ways.  In the fullness of time, you sent us your Son Jesus, teaching with such authority, that our eyes were opened to see your ways anew.  Open our hearts and minds, that we may understand and proclaim your teachings for all to hear.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Matthew 1:21-28 (NRSV)

21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.  22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.  23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and 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.”  25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  27They 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.”  28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Message/Amazed & Astounded!

In his book, Because Each Life is Precious, Mohammed al-Rehaief shares about his decision—whether to risk his life and everything he held dear to save Private First-Class Jessica Lynch, a wounded American soldier and prisoner-of-war whom he did not know, in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.  His actions were more than the everyday reckoning with death that permeates wartime.  It was the culmination of a life spent at odds with the repressive regime that held his country.  Mohammed’s story is the tale of what it was like to come of age in a society where violence and betrayal were everyday events, where one in five adult males worked for the state’s security apparatus, where a dictator-for-life demanded absolute loyalty and adulation.  Despite his affluent upbringing and a well-connected uncle, Mohammed was hardly sheltered from the surreal cruelties of Iraq.  He was arrested and beaten for owning a satellite dish.  His young daughter lost a lung to misdiagnosis and unnecessary surgery.  An idolized cousin was put to death for joining what was perceived as a radical political group.  A favorite teacher was carted away for making subversive statements and was never seen again.  For Mohammed and for each of us, what we do reveals who we are.  Our actions are revelations of our true identity—who we are at our very core.

The Gospel writers seemed to understand this.  Jesus’ first actions in public ministry define the direction and the identity that each gospel writer was attempting to convey.  Want to find out who Jesus was to the author of Matthew, simply look at Jesus’ first actions there—the Sermon on the Mount.  Throughout the rest of that Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a teacher par excellence, as one who not only understands Scripture, but who fulfills it, lives it out.  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus offers a well-received sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, at least, until people realize to whom he was actually referring when he talked about the poor and the oppressed, then they’re ready to push him off a cliff.  What about in John?  Ah, yes, the wedding at Cana.  A sign of abundance.  Water into wine…six jars, 20-30 gallons each, filled to the brim with the of the best wine and served when you least expected it.

But what about Mark?  We are confronted with a mysterious exorcism.  So, what in the world does this action portend?  What kind of “Jesus” is Mark attempting to portray by sharing this particular story up front and center?  That he was the first Father Karras?  That Jesus is best remembered as Jesus the exorcist, and not Jesus the teacher, or shepherd, or savior, or king? 

We would do well to remember how Mark’s Gospel begins—at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River in the wilderness by a wild prophet who had an unusual dietary palate, and who dressed like the Old Testament prophet Elijah—the heavens ripping apart and then being cast even further into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan and hangs around with wild beasts.  Next, as he called the first disciples, Simon, Andrew, James, and John away from their boats along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, we learn in a brief mention—a footnote that is easily missed but that is crucial to the greater story—that this calling of disciples happened “after John was arrested.”  We’re only in the first chapter and already, we find Jesus already in conflict with the powers and principalities of our world.

Our story for this morning begins by noting that Jesus quickly formed a habit of going to the synagogue on Sabbaths to teach.  The newly chosen disciples accompanied him there, and were listening intently, it seems.  The text says that the people were astonished at his teaching.  His authority stood out in comparison to the apparently bland offering to which the people were accustomed.  Author and teacher Tom Long reminds us that Mark’s gospel is particularly attuned to the less fortunate in Jesus’ time.  He says that this is what the gospel sounds like when you have nothing.  Says Long: “Mark might give us the impression that so deep was the crowd’s longing for something new, something better in which they could place their hope, that God simply ripped the heavens apart and showed us Jesus.  This one who walked among people who were disadvantaged and discouraged was God’s response.  Jesus just came walking along and chose as his disciples those who might not have been chosen in a more conventional system that most often favors the rich and politically connected.”

So, it seems that Jesus teaching carried an urgency that especially caught the ear of a troubled man in the synagogue one day.  The Bible describes him as having an unclean spirit, who 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.”  The question here in the Greek seems to be something like “Why are you here?”

While the exorcism is truly remarkable in and of itself, there is a delicious irony couched within its words.  It is ironic that one of the very first in any of the gospels to name exactly who and what Jesus was, was an unclean spirit.  In calling Jesus first by his local place name and then by branding him “the Holy One of God,” the unclean spirit got it right!  And throughout the Gospel of Mark, we will encounter others, outsiders, the unexpected—and not the disciples or those closest to him—who seemed to figure out who Jesus was.

What happened in the synagogue that day couples directly with what Mark has been showing us so far in his brief chapter.  Jesus is God the Son.  God has noticed the plight of human existence and has sent the Christ to live and breathe among us.  The distance between the Almighty and a yearning people has been done away with.  Immediately, the people began to question just what kind of teacher they had here!  It’s important, then, to catch the reaction of those who witnessed this.  They were said to be astonished, and on balance they proclaimed this to be a new teaching, coming as it were from one who had such power.

So, Mark points us here, not to some sort of cosmic parlor trick and not to the presence of the unclean spirit itself, mysterious and transfixing though it might seem, but instead toward Jesus as a revolutionary—a teacher of unprecedented power and message.  Try as he would for a time to keep his divine identity relatively secret, Mark notes that Jesus’ fame began to spread “at once,” everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

Quickly, we discover that there were opposing responses to Jesus’ message and fame.  For example, the scribes and Pharisees who felt that Jesus went too far, offered too radical a platform, one that moved beyond the comfortable, accepted norms, that insisted that pious attitudes and platitudes must find expression in real, concrete acts of mercy and justice.  Jesus offered a way of living out faith that required one to give of oneself sacrificially: to love enemies—even pray for them, to offer forgiveness to others just as God has forgiven us—no easy tasks, these.  They were indeed, radical.  The life Jesus was calling others into was completely upending the status quo.  In fact, I think we might could give a name to that unclean spirit—”Status Quo.”  Somehow, I think that works.  Because wallowing in the creature comforts, placing self above others, idly standing by while watching those who are fighting for their very lives through the cycles of poverty, addiction, and oppression in whatever forms they arise, is not what Jesus intended for us. 

Scholar and author N.T. Wright believes this story connects with us at the point of our greatest need.  He, too, picks up on the statement Mark makes about the “time being fulfilled” and believes it is significant.  It would be easy to mistake Jesus’ custom of going to the synagogue, which set up today’s episode, as simply being habitually pious, but the real story is not one of mere habit or of rote custom.  Instead, Wright believes that the very idea of the Sabbath was to be a signpost pointing to God’s promised future.  And, if that is the case, then today’s story was Jesus announcing that the future to which the signpost had been pointing had now arrived in the present.

Ultimately, Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God desires for all of us.  And this message matters because it’s still the case: God wants the most for us from this life and stands in opposition to anything that robs us of the joy and community and purpose for which we were created.  Perhaps, in light of this story of exorcism, we need to ask ourselves the question: “What are the demons that ‘possess’ us?”  Anger, fear, xenophobia, affluenza, resentment, substance abuse…. This isn’t to downplay the serious cultural and biological dimensions of these struggles or suggest that, with just the right prayer or healing touch, they will all vanish into thin air.  This story is rather a promise that God does not want these things for us and that the church, at its best, is a place where we gather in Christ’s name to support each other in escaping the hold these things have on us so that we might grow as individuals and a community as people blessed to be a blessing to the world—witnesses to the power and grace of God.

This story also reminds us that God often shows up where we least expect God to be.  In Jesus’ authoritative teaching?  Certainly, but also in the plight of a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  In the tearing open of the heavens we read about at Jesus’ baptism.  Amongst common, working folk—fishermen tending their nets.  Even in the piercing cry of despair from Jesus on the cross when the only one who recognized God’s presence was the one who crucified him, a representative of the oppressive Roman power, the centurion.

Our God is a God of the broken, and our church is a fellowship of the needy.  To be a disciple of Jesus means to recognize our deepest needs and trust that Jesus has come to meet it.  I offer a challenge as we go forth from worship today: ponder those places of brokenness or disappointment or fear in your life and know that God does not stay away from us because of these challenges or shortcomings, but rather draws nearest to us precisely in these moments.  Might we also look beyond ourselves at the brokenness we see in someone in our family or among our friends or at work or in the neighborhood and wonder if God might be choosing to work through us to draw that person to new life.  God is still at work casting out the unclean spirits of the world, and God is using us to continue Jesus’ work.  Mark shares this story of confrontation and freedom at the very beginning, because it’s at the heart of the Gospel story he tells and the Gospel story we are invited to live into and through.

Pastoral Prayer

For all the blessings of this life, we give thanks to you, Creator God. For families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even strangers, who nurture us, that the love of God may grow within us. That your love will transform us into the persons you desire us to be and that our actions will blossom and bear fruit, revealing the power and depth of your grace.

For the leaders of nations and states, cities and counties: that they may lead with strong hearts, gentle hands, and generous spirits, with compassion and mercy, with wisdom and grace. May they reflect your will guiding all their actions and decisions.

For those who serve in harm’s way, those who live in dangerous places, those who live in areas of war and strife, those who live in fear, those who struggle with unemployment and underemployment, those who wonder how they will be able to feed their families and themselves. those who struggle to find any dignity in life. May your grace bring peace and safety to all people, one to another.

For those who suffer from illness or disease—of mind, body, or spirit. Restore these, and all whom we carry in our hearts, to fullness of health—health as only you, O God, can bring. We pray not only for the healing of individuals but also for the healing of society. Exorcise the demons of racism and classism, addiction and despair, indifference and injustice from our community that we may live into the fullness of your grace and reflect the shalom of your promised kin-dom.

For those who are dying, and for those mourn the loss of love and relationship. Send forth your comforting love. Console those who grieve.

Be with all who are working so hard to help us through this time of pandemic—those whom we classify as essential—health professionals and first responders, the truck drivers who deliver our food and the snowplow operators who clear our roads, grocery clerks and stockers, plumbers and powerline workers, and so many others who work behind the scenes, bringing us hope through their selfless service. 

In all things, O God, we ask that you shower your healing blessings upon us and offer us new life in your presence and peace.

As we pray now the words of our Liberating Lord:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Blessing/Benediction

Go now, and heed God’s message.
Never forget God’s wonderful mercy and kindness.
Welcome the freedom that is won in truth,
but never use your freedom to undermine others.
See that your words and actions are worthy of praise.

And may God uphold you in a lasting covenant.
May Christ Jesus free you from all that would harm you.
And may the Holy Spirit nourish you in wisdom and faithfulness.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.