Sermons

Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany 2018

I would like you to look at these paintings. You will notice that there are many little pictures and then voila there is a portrait made from the little pictures. I remember one time when Diane and I visited the Salvador Dali art museum in St. Pete. At one painting the docent told us to go up the painting called Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which was of the back of a woman looking through a window at the sea. The docent had us look at the details in it and he pointed out some of its features to us. Then he told us to turn around and walk to a line 20 meters away and then turn and look at the painting. All of the sudden the painting turned into a picture of the face Abraham Lincoln.  It was surprising!

In our Gospel reading today we are given a small snapshot, just seven verses long of the life of Jesus. It is one of the many little scenes about which Mark wrote. He starts the gospel with the sentence; this is the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God. And then he goes on to show us little picture by little picture.  In today’s gospel Peter, through the gospel writer Mark is describing how he remembers Jesus coming into Capernaum those first weeks of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.  One of the things that Peter remembers vividly is the presence and authority with which Jesus spoke. In this example from his ministry he was showing the readers that Jesus did not just have authority but that his authority was palpable; but not only that, it was startling, shocking.

When Jesus spoke, he spoke with authority. The speaking with authority in the Greek references the difference between how he spoke and how the other teachers spoke. When Jesus spoke he spoke as one who had the authority of God behind him. He spoke like a prophet of God. In fact we see throughout his ministry that is what he was frequently mistaken as, as a prophet, as one sent from and by God and therefore speaking with God’s authority. And of course in one sense that was true, but in another sense, it doesn’t give the whole picture because he in fact was God. So when he spoke, he spoke in the same way that God spoke from Sinai; he spoke with that same attitude. There was no ‘I think we all ought to do this’ sort of thing. No, it was ‘Live this way’ and ‘Do this and don’t do that’ sort of thing. It would have been startling. It would have been shocking.

And as Jesus is speaking this man with the unclean spirit interrupts him. The phrase we heard was the man cried out. In the Greek it was more like roaring than just speaking out. The words he starts with are ambiguous. “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Literally, what do we have in common with you, Jesus of Nazareth? I would imagine that those who were standing next to this fellow were a bit surprised that he interrupted like that.  But perhaps really this was something that people in Capernaum were feeling at that moment. Jesus was speaking to them like a prophet from God. They were feeling convicted and challenged and they were uncomfortable and they didn’t like this feeling. We cannot live like this. We cannot reach this standard. We are fine the way we are—leave us alone! Furthermore, as this fellow pointed out, Jesus was from Nazareth. Nazareth was a poor village; it wasn’t upscale like Capernaum. So again, what do you and we have in common?  The unspoken answer was, “nothing!” So take your convicting words; they don’t apply to us anyway and leave us alone was the unspoken feeling of perhaps many in the crowd.  There are times when we also feel uncomfortable with Jesus and his words to us. We think, like what this guy said, “What have we in common with you, Jesus?”

But then this guy keeps talking and we realize that if we are relating to his words, this is not a good thing. The man with unclean spirit says, “Have you come to destroy us?” This brings to mind the other times Jesus confronts those who are possessed by unclean or demonic spirits. They ask him this same sort of question as well. Why would they think such a thing?  Well, because one of the very first prophesies about the Messiah was that he would destroy the works of the evil one. And here the Messiah is and these unclean spirits are feeling very nervous. Here they are in the very presence of the God-man and they, because they are spirits, can see into the spirit world and they see Jesus as he really is, just like the disciples saw him briefly on the Mountain of Transfiguration. These unclean spirits saw Jesus in his glorious splendor and glorious bright light and they were terrified.

Then the man with the unclean spirit says, “I know who YOU are—you are the Holy One of God!” What does that title mean? Who is the Holy One of God? Technically this can simply be the title of a prophet, of one who has been set apart to serve God. Being Holy is a term that means set apart for God, for God to use. But there is also a secondary meaning isn’t there? There is the meaning of purity, of Godliness that is also a meaning of Holy and this was probably the meaning this man with the unclean spirit was thinking because he could see who Jesus really was. He could see the divinity of Jesus.

So what happens? All this is taking place in the space of just a couple of minutes. We are told that Jesus rebukes him. “Be quiet!” The Greek can also be translated as “Be muzzled.” Clearly Jesus is the alpha, the one in charge here! And then Jesus says, “Come out of him.”  In order to feel and know the shock of what the people in the synagogue felt one needs to know a bit a historical context. Exorcisms in that day just did not take place like that. Exorcisms were elaborate affairs. The exorcist typically had a set of charms and devices with which to lure or drive the unclean spirit out of the person. Then there were the series of incantations and gestures and specific movements; it was like a choreographed dance. Typically these exorcisms were done by invoking the name of Solomon and using procedures that had been handed down since the time of Solomon. Incense, charms, spices, and incantations were all required elements to properly do an exorcism. Remember also that in the first century the Jews weren’t the only ones who dealt with unclean or demonic spirits either. Everywhere in the Roman Empire there were exorcists and virtually all of them used variations of the same theme found in Jewish Palestine exorcisms. But look how different Jesus is; Jesus simply commands the unclean spirit to be quiet, be muzzled and come out of him! Wham! The Spirit obeys Jesus. For Jesus to have this sort of authority was nothing short of astonishing. For Jesus simply to SAY, “Come out of him” and to be obeyed instantly was mind-boggling.

That is why everyone was so amazed. They were literally awestruck. This is what Peter, then Mark the gospel writer, wants us to see. They want us to see THIS Jesus. They want us be amazed and awed at his power and authority.

So we see this little picture from the life of Jesus Christ just seven short verses, but WE know the whole mosaic. We know the rest of the story. This IS the God-man who came among us. This is the God-man who lived with us and then sacrificed himself for us! This is the Jesus Christ who we want to follow and love just like Peter did. May our hearts be warmed again as we see anew our Lord Jesus.