Sunday, January 29, 2012

When Jesus Comes to Town, Everything Changes!

Parts of this sermon were influenced by the writing of the Rev. Dr. Delmer Clinton, and I don't mind confessing that the following song was playing in my head the whole time I was writing. If I am humming this tune in the pulpit, you'll know why...

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak — that prophet shall die.”

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Mark 1:21-28
They 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.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It started out as a Saturday just like any other. The residents of Capernaum gathered in the synagogue like always, the rabbi in charge started the worship service and they settled in to hear the readings and sing the psalms. Most people were looking forward to hearing from the traveling teacher that had come in to town; as much as they loved and respected the synagogue’s leader, it was nice to have a new voice comment on the Scriptures.

But this was to be an experience unlike any the citizens of this village had ever known. Because when Jesus came to town, everything changed.

He didn’t appear to be anyone special – no particular credentials from the Temple authorities, no one pointed him out as having been instructed by this or that famous rabbi – but when Jesus read from the scrolls and began to speak about them, he spoke in a way they’d never heard before.

Our Gospel reading this morning says that he “taught as one having authority.” Now, there are a lot of different kinds of authority; there is the authority someone holds by virtue of their office – Presidents and Prime Ministers have that kind of authority; there is the kind of authority one holds by virtue of the role they fill in society – police officers, doctors, lawyers and teachers have that kind of authority.

And to be sure, the leader of the synagogue and the scribes had authority, presiding as they did over the worship and the day-to-day observance of the Law, helping the townspeople follow the religious regulations found in the Torah, record-keeping and resolving disputes and the like.

But when Jesus came to town he brought a different kind of authority – not an authority that comes from citing a precedent or holding an office or filling a position or having a badge or degree, but the kind of authority that comes from within, a – dare I say it – true authority.

Now, let me explain what I mean by that. I’m not suggesting that police officers and doctors and Presidents and all the rest have a false authority. But the root of authority is the same word from which we get “author.” The idea is that true authority, the kind of authority that Jesus demonstrated in the synagogue at Capernaum, and has even today, is creative, a source of life and sustenance.

The authority that Jesus demonstrated that day was the kind of authority that meant he never had to add “or else” to the words “follow me.” Fishermen dropped their nets and tax collectors left their booths when Jesus spoke.

Jesus’ authority came from the Holy Spirit which descended on him at baptism. That’s what the people heard in the synagogue that day. Jesus had a life-giving authority to his words, words that built up and restored everyone who heard him speak.

But when Jesus came to town, he brought even more.

Now, it’s tempting to broach this particular subject with an artistic device, suggesting that Capernaum had a guilty secret – a demon-possessed man! It’s even more tempting to gloss over the whole thing and kind of ignore it, honestly. After all, most of us know about demons only what Hollywood has taught us. Theologians spend a lot of time arguing back and forth about whether Jesus cast out demons or simply cured either epilepsy or schizophrenia (depending on who you talk to). There are books and videos and documentaries about the subject, TV preachers do sermon series on the subject, and everything swings between terrifying and confusing, with occasional forays into the ridiculous.

Rather than wade though all of that, let’s just agree that, for the people of first-century Capernaum, as well as for the people of Judea in general, demons existed and unclean spirits would occasionally take up residence – possess – a human being.

These kinds of possessions were common enough in their history and experience that the Jewish people had very specific rituals for the exorcising of an unclean spirit. Chances are that this demon-possessed man was well-known to the community, and plans were already under way to bring in the ten required rabbis, perhaps they were already gathering the herbs required for burning, the ritual baths were being prepared, and the proper psalm readings were being discussed. The Jewish people understood demons to be nowhere near as powerful as the God they served, but more powerful than they themselves, and experience had taught that these exorcisms could take many hours – even days – before they were successful.

Since the demon possessed were supposed to be barred from the synagogue, it would have been a source of embarrassment for the leader that the man was able to burst in to the room and begin yelling at Jesus. Perhaps a couple of the burlier men had already stood up, making their way toward the screaming, disheveled man to drag him out.

But when Jesus came to town, everything changed.

Because as powerful a presence as the Holy Spirit is in the life of Jesus, there is even more to the story. He is the earthly image of the eternal God, the only begotten son of the Almighty. You want authority? Try the authority of the Word of God incarnate, present at and active in the very creation of the universe itself!

And the only two people in the room who knew that fact were Jesus… and that demon… and one of them had to go.

Only Jesus didn’t need ritual. No burning herbs, no quorum of religious leaders, no psalms, no dunking the possessed man over and over in the waters of the cleansing ritual…

All he said was, “shut up and get out.”

And to the astonishment of everyone in that synagogue that day… the demon shut up and got out.

Because when Jesus came to town, everything changed.

Maybe in twenty-first century America, we aren’t so quick to find demons possessing people here and there. But that doesn’t mean that evil isn’t present, isn’t active in our day and age.

In a world where, every five seconds, a child dies from hunger, and every fifteen seconds, another dies from drinking contaminated water, where every night in the United States alone, more than a million children go to bed hungry, evil is most certainly present and active. In a world where AIDS still kills five thousand people per day, cholera kills nearly three hundred people a day, and dysentery about sixteen people every day in sub-Saharan Africa alone, evil is definitely present and active. In a world where preteens and teenagers – hundreds, according to some studies – are bullied to the point of taking their own lives, evil is without a doubt both present and active.

The clear message to those of us who are the Body of Christ – the hands and feet of the risen Lord, and to a world in need, the very face of Christ – is that it’s high time Jesus came to town.

Because, like I said, when Jesus comes to town, everything changes.

When Jesus comes to town, it is possible to feed the hungry. All of them. When Jesus comes to town, clean water can be a reality. Disease can be cured and controlled. When Jesus really does come to town, we can bring the marginalized into fellowship, and we can offer hope to the hopeless.

You see, that same Jesus who came to Capernaum that day and changed everything has died and risen and has said to you and I, his disciples, that as His body we can do as much – and even more!

Let us not be the hands and feet of Christ alone, but also the voice – the voice which speaks with authority, not only instructing that which is evil to shut up and get out, but calling out the Good News to a world full of people who need to know that God loves them. All of them.

Let us call them into the love of God, call them to leave fear behind and to step out in freedom to do God’s work in God’s way in the world. Let us call them into the love of God, to love the unlovely, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, and let us cry “shut up and get out” against the unclean spirits of war and oppression, injustice and indignity wherever they have a stranglehold on human lives.

It’s high time that Jesus came to town, because when he does… everything changes.

1 comment:

  1. As soon as I saw the title of this post, I started humming that song. I laughed when I clicked on it and saw your opening sentence. Praise God that love came, love comes, and love continues to come. Let's all jump that train! :)