This is a strange story. In fact, on the surface it does not work at all; it hardly makes sense as a story. Repeated at the beginning and the end are three words which give us the central focus: amazed, teaching, and authority. The people at the synagogue that Sabbath day were amazed by Jesus’ teaching because he taught with authority.
So, in between this sandwich of words we expect to find the meat: Jesus’ “teaching.” But there is no teaching here. No parable, no lesson on prayer, no “you have heard it said by people of old… but I say unto you” – not even a beatitude.
The way Mark tells us this story, it does not work on the surface level at all – so we are driven to look deeper. And it is important that we do, because this story has an important message for us. Let us walk through this odd story and see where it takes us.
The Setting and the Invasion
First Mark bothers to tell us that Jesus was in Galilee’s big city Capernaum, and that he strode into the synagogue on the Sabbath and taught (1:21). All of the details are significant. The synagogues were like branch offices of the central temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifices could only be offered at the temple, but out in the provinces of Galilee, every town had a synagogue where the faithful gathered each Sabbath. For what? To hear the teaching by the local Rabbi. In other words, the people in power at the center exercised their control of the periphery by means of the synagogue system whose primary role was teaching.
Jesus barged in to that sacred space, on that holy day, and he took over. In fact he waited precisely until the Sabbath day to go to the synagogue and teach: he was not being subtle; he was being intentionally confrontational.
I had a picture of Jesus on my wall at home when I was growing up. He looked kind honest, polite, and thoughtful. I’m sure Jesus could be those things when that was called for, but if that is the only picture we have of him, it needs to be demolished. Why? Because that Jesus looks passive and harmless. Comforting, but irrelevant.
Jesus was not just a nice guy with gifts of healing that people found helpful. He had an agenda and a plan to accomplish it.
Have you ever seen a picture of Jesus poking his finger into someone’s chest in outright confrontation? Neither have I, but that is what is happening in this story. Jesus provokes a confrontation on purpose. He provokes it as publicly as possible, and he is not polite in the process.
Not leaving “things as they are”
This is the first take-away from this strange story in Mark. Jesus is not content with leaving things as they are, if “things as they are” are wrong. Jesus is confrontational; he is not handing out God-party invitations, he is asserting the authority of the kingdom of God in a world of opposition.
This is why what we do here, and what we are here is so serious. We are not a supper club nor a social club – we are not even a service club; we are the church, called into being by God, created to be a vanguard of his kingdom in this world.
Jesus is not the lonely kid looking for friends; he is the Lord, and he calls his people disciples. He is willing to confront evil on every level – on the world wide level, on the political level, and on the personal level. When he says “follow me” there is a wrong answer, and it is any answer but “yes.”
The 1st creed
The essential Christian creed, in fact the very first Christian creed is “Jesus is Lord.” This is first in priority as well as history. He is Lord first; friend second; shepherd second.
As Lord, he is not going to wink at evil. He is unwilling to turn away when there is hatred and violence, discrimination and intolerance, arrogance, selfishness and greed. Evil is destructive in all its forms, and none can be tolerated.
The Comfortable Demonic
Back to the story: what is the evil that Jesus confronts so assertively? Here Mark is depending on the fact that we are adults who understand irony and double-entendre. In that holy sacred space on that sacred Sabbath day, Jesus met a man. The man did not come there to find Jesus; Jesus just showed up and the man was already there. He was part of what was happening in that place on that day. No one was trying to remove him – the man was at home there. Mark describes him this way: he was a man who had an “unclean spirit.”
Another way to say “unclean spirit” is to say he was “demon possessed” – and he was, and Jesus performed and exorcism, but the way Mark chose to describe it was “unclean spirit.”
The essential requirement of being in a holy place like a synagogue at a holy time like Sabbath, is purity; sin makes a person impure, so do ritual prohibitions, like touching blood. Right in the heart of the synagogue, at home there, is a man who had an “unclean spirit.”
The meaning is unmistakable: Mark is signaling that the whole project of that outpost of teaching is rotten to the core. The teaching going on there is, in fact demonic; people are in bondage to a power over which they have no authority to escape.
The demon tried to overpower Jesus by the act of naming him, but Jesus rebuked it and commanded it literally to “shut up.” Again, Jesus was not trying to win the Mr. Congeniality prize; he was confronting evil – and he was confronting it with authority.
The demon shrieks and convulse the man as it departs. Jesus has cast it out.
So what was the teaching going on at that synagogue that was so demonic that it demanded a frontal assault?
Here is where this odd text is so powerful for us today, because the same demonic ideas need to be exercised today as well.
God and people
The first one that was being taught from that synagogue is about God himself: the idea that God cares about something besides people first. That is a demonic idea. The idea that he cares about ritual more than people, or that he cares about bloodlines more than people, or that he cares about rules more than people – that is demonic. God made every single person to bear his image. What could he care about more? So, it’s no good to keep yourself pure from blood contact if it means avoiding the man who was robbed on the Jericho road (as in the parable of the Good Samaritan). God demands that we stop, pick him up, get our hands dirty and bloody, and take responsibility for his care. To teach otherwise is to teach a demonic lesson.
People and then people
The second is closely connected: that God cares about some people more than others. That he cares about our ethnic group more than theirs; Jews more than Romans, Germans more than English, Serbs more than Croats, Suni more than Shiite; men more than women, caucasians more than African Americans – these are demonic ideas that Jesus will not tolerate. In the same story, remember it was the despised Samaritan who helped the victim – and he became the heroic “neighbor” of that teaching.
God and stinginess
Third, that God is stingy with his love and forgiveness, that he is withholding himself and his goodness until we reach some level of perfection; that is also a demonic idea. The idea that God has a check list, a rule book in which he keeps score – and we are of course way behind the game – a long way from being acceptably good, and therefore out of range of his goodness to us.
Now perhaps you detect an irony here – and you are well to. We began by speaking of God’s complete opposition to evil, his determined, authoritative confrontation of all that is destructive. Now are we sneaking in an escape hatch from this confrontation?
The goal of grace
No; rather the same God who made us in his image, who loves us, who wants our best is the one who hates it when we, or any of his people suffer injustice, oppression, discrimination, exclusion. He hates the way pride and arrogance tear apart relationships and communities. He is opposed to things that addict us, seduce us into covenant-breaking, or lull us into apathy. But his goal is not our destruction for being willing participants in evil, but our redemption from evil.
God calls us to be Jesus’ disciples; that is, learners, followers, not because we are good enough for him, but in order to change us, to make us into something we did not start out to be. We do not say yes to him because we are good, but because we know we are not good – but we hear his call, and we know he has the authority over the demonic forces at work in every human heart – ours included.
“… with authority”
We do not come to God to have our lifestyles validated, but rather to submit ourselves to his authority. If that means that he needs to confront the demonic in my life, so be it. Jesus is Lord. If this means he will challenge my values, so be it. If this means he will demolish some of my culture’s attitudes, expose my hypocrisy and blindness, my complicity and acceptance of “the way things are” – he has the right to do so.
And here is the final irony – that though the exorcism is painful, though the man convulses and it looks like the procedure has harmed him, the opposite is true. He has been liberated; released. That poor man was at the mercy of powers that held him in bondage to their malevolent desires – he was being used. Jesus set him free. Jesus rescued him from the kingdom of darkness to live a new life in the kingdom of God.
That is what he wants for everyone of us. Our freedom, our joy, our un-coerced response of love and obedience. This is amazing. Let the demons shriek: we are disciples!
So, on this sacred day, in this sacred space, we gather to learn; to deepen our understanding, to sit at his feet as his disciples and to be amazed at his teaching. We gather to re-affirm his authority in our lives. Then, we scatter from this sacred space to go out in to the world he has made as the vanguard of his kingdom in the world. We go out to take the power of his transforming love to the people in bondage to evil, to proclaim release and freedom.
Glory to God!
I wonder what you thought of that reading from Malachi – pretty strong stuff. That kind of language is not very often heard in our circles – in fact most of that reading never appears in the common lectionary of Sunday texts that so many churches use; ever. We will get back to Malachi in a minute, but first to the angels.
This stewardship season we have been looking at biblical songs: Hannah’s, Mary’s, Zechariah’s, and now the angel’s song. Though Christmas is past for the year, these songs are incredibly relevant and have a message for us, today, and so does Malachi the prophet – in fact their messages overlap.
Now, the angels. Either the angels sang a very short song, or it only had one verse which they kept repeating. But it is a great song; it gets right to the point: Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors.
Have you ever considered how those two are connected – giving glory to God and experiencing peace? They are not connected because God put them together like lettuce and tomato, rather they are inherently connected, like blossoms and bees. Glorifying God is an essential condition of peace.
Now, do not let your eyes glaze over and your mind wander away; this is not pious religio-speak disconnected from real life: I am talking about real life.
Everyone in this room, I would guess, including me, is feeling somewhat anxious today. Most of us here are past the point of worrying about loosing our jobs; probably the majority here have their homes paid for – though I know that is not the case with others, like me, and so we have additional reasons to feel anxious. But all of us are watching the value of investments plummet. All of us are wondering if a trillion dollar bail out will actually work – the stakes are enormous – either way. We wonder about the future of Social Security and Medicare, the price of prescriptions and everything medical. We have children – many of us have grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and we feel anxious about the world they are going to live in for these reasons and many more besides.
Where, we may ask, is all that peace the angels sang about?
We need look no further than the shepherds, watching their flocks by night. It is common to notice that the earth-changing message of the birth of Jesus was announced first to the poor; to people at the bottom of the economic food chain and social hierarchy, not to kings or even to temple priests.
Poor, low-class shepherds heard the angels song, and, since they did what the angels told them to do – they went to find the newborn Messiah – we can assume that they believed the message of the song. Glorify God, and experience his peace.
Shalom: for shepherds
Peace of course, is “shalom”; not just the absence of conflict; not only a feeling of calm, but total well-being. It is the deep experience that the Shepherd of Psalm 23 brings, “I shall not want.”
Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth shalom among those whom he favors.
Nobody wants to be a shepherd. It’s not a good job. The hours are long, the conditions are rough, and the pay is horrible. There is no future in it. “Our daily bread” is as much as you can ever hope for. But shepherds who glorify God, who put their trust and their hope in him, can have shalom.
Shalom is possible for shepherds – at least for shepherds who give glory to God. Shepherds believe that Messiah has come, not to make them rich, but to bring God’s kingdom to earth.
The covenant community of mutuality and generosity
In God’s kingdom, the people are bound to one another in a covenant community of mutuality and generosity. They care for each other, tend to each other, never on the basis of status or wealth. They do not live according to the values of the day; they know that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. (Luke 12:15) And so they freely give, and humbly receive each other’s gifts. This covenant community Glorifies God who made them, who came to be with them, who forgave them, and who empowers them. This is the Shalom of the Shepherds – which both comes from and leads to giving glory to God.
This shepherd’s shalom is what God gives us, right here today. We too, give glory to God, recognizing that he is the source of every good gift; barbecue, brass band music, warm days in January in Gulf Shores Alabama, and the people we are surrounded by at this minute. The shalom of the shepherds that we have is because we know that we too are members of this covenant community of mutuality and generosity. The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want. Even in anxious times like these. Especially in anxious times like these.
But what happens when the covenant community does not glorify God? What if the covenant that should have bound them together is forgotten? What if they start to believe that they are on their own; no one is looking after them; the good gifts of life are self-made and scarce?
Then the fist clenches around the coins; and there is neither glory to God, nor shalom.
This is why we read Malachi. That is what had happened to his community. What were the signs?
The first was obvious: they started robbing God – he says without regard to hurting feelings and offending. They kept back their tithes – their 10% – because why in the world would you glorify God in your giving if he is not the source of your gifts? Malachi called it robbery precisely because he knew that 100% of everything they had came from God – who only asked a scant 10% in return.
What else, Mr. Malachi, is characteristic of such a perspective? Listen again to his description:
5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
- Sorcerers: those who break the covenant to worship God alone.
- Adulterers: those who break the covenant of marriage.
- Those who swear falsely: those who break the community covenant to live justly.
- Those who oppress the hired workers in their wages: who break their economic commitments to other members of the covenant community.
And who would end up as a hired wage worker? The widow and the orphan. The weak. These types end up taking jobs nobody wants – like being shepherds.
This community has broken down. No glory is given to God – and so God is robbed, and the whole community unravels into selfishness, unfaithfulness, and injustice; there is no shalom.
Malachi connects robbing God in the tithe with the effects on widows and orphans for good reason. Every third year in Israel, the tithe was collected specifically to support the widows and orphans. When God was robbed, so were they. (Deut. 14:28-29)
We are living in similar times.
There is a solution. Malachi names it with one word; “return”. The Lord says:
7Return to me…
and he immediately adds a promise of response:
and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
But that begs the practical question: “How?”
But you say, “How shall we return?”
This is where Malachi brings in the money: How do we return to God – really?
8 Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! …10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. – which sounds like “shalom” to me.
Is this not what the Lord Jesus was thinking when he said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21)
The angels do not sing: “Glory to Wall Street and shalom, peace on earth”.
Nor do they sing, “Glory to the personal nest egg and peace on earth”.
Nor, “Glory to the un-covenanted consumer, and peace on earth”
There is no glory in mis-attributing the source of all good gifts, and there is surely no shalom when the essential covenant is broken.
Today is our day to act on Malachi’s word. Today is our day to “return.”
Today we return to the Lord with our pledges of tithes, our offerings of our hours and minutes of life, our abilities and gifts of service.
Today we affirm that we are a covenant community of mutuality and generosity.
Today we boldly acknowledge the source of everything good in our lives, and we join the angels in giving glory to God!
Today we assert our hope for shalom, for peace, for well-being; we have found our shalom in God whom we glorify, and in the covenanted community he has created for us.
Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth shalom among those whom he favors.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
because he delights in showing clemency.
He will again have compassion upon us;
he will tread our iniquities under foot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and unswerving loyalty to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our ancestors
from the days of old.
From the Hands of our Enemies
We have just read the words of Zechariah, father of John the baptizer, singing praises to God. We call this text the Benedictus, Latin meaning to bless. Zechariah blesses the Lord for giving him a son in his old age, and for what that son, John represents.
Zechariah blesses the Lord because this child is a sign, as he says that God has:
72…remembered his holy covenant, 73the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74that we, [would be] rescued from the hands of our enemies…
This text is perfect for our times; for today. It’s message is powerful and important for all of us. In this text we are promised that God would rescue his people from the hand of their enemies, and we are given insight about who those enemies are.
We are living at a time in which our world is full of enemies, facing each other across racial, ethnic and religious lines – in Gaza, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, as well as Darfur, Uganda, Somalia, Congo – so many places in Africa – not to mention Indonesia, and Pakistan.
But something remarkable is happening in these times as well. Monday is Martin Luther King day; Tuesday we will inaugurate an African-American as president. The evil of racism has not been completely eliminated, but we have made enormous progress for which we give thanks to God. People who once identified each other as enemies are enemies no longer.
What did we learn? That our enemy was not ever people of another race, but racism itself. The real enemy was inside us: our own pride and bigotry, our selfishness and fear.
Once we have identified the real enemy, then we find release from those we formerly considered enemies.
Romans and Jews were enemies in the days in which Zechariah sang his Benedictus. That fact is powerfully present in his song.
Zechariah named his son, not after himself, but after the last King and at the same time High Priest of independent Israel, before the Romans conquered them.
This song sounds exactly like the announcement of the coming of the next revolutionary leader who would drive off the enemy, Rome, and it is about a boy named after the last free King of Israel.
But Zechariah sang of a release from the hand of enemies far more significant than the Romans.
By the time Luke put pen to paper (or quill to parchment) Roman armies had crushed the Jewish temple and asserted the Empire’s absolute authority. And yet, for Luke, the message of rescue from the hand of our enemies was still valid.
Why? Because the real enemy was not Rome. The real enemy was/is the evil in the heart that wants us to create enemies.
The evil in the heart that creates racism and exclusion, and the evil which identifies the solutions we need as entirely material.
The salvation we need has nothing to do with Rome; rather Zechariah sings that his son, John will be used by God to open people’s eye to 79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, – to open their eyes to a new truth:
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
It is sin, evil that we need salvation from. And the beauty is that once we are free from that dark evil condition, we understand why John does not have to start a revolution; rather he knows that it is Gods will:
77...to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Peace, or shalom, is what we are looking for; to be in a state of inner tranquility and contentment; to have peace in our homes and in our relationships, to have peace with God; to be free from anxiety and fear of the future. Peace between our nation and people who are different from us; to have alternatives to violence.
That kind of peace does not come from this world; it is transcendent.
Jesus says “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting … But…, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)
When our hearts are set free from seeking our salvation from our material world, then we are truly “not fighting” but, “walking in the way of peace.”
We are so blessed to understand this!
Here is the great irony of Christian faith: it is the lack of ultimacy of the material, physical world that gives us the freedom to embrace the world with open-hearted, generous love.
What I mean is, because we know that our ultimate identity is that we are children of God, citizens of his kingdom, and that he has the power to rescue us and guide us, we find that we loosen our grip on the material world.
We are not so anxious about material possessions because they are not ultimate. We do not obsess about our net worth because that is not the source of meaning for us.
When our grip on the world is thus loosened, then we have the freedom to embrace the world in a new way. If we are not clutching our resources so tightly, we are more freely able to put them to use in the kingdom. When we are relaxed about our security, we are able to be generous when we see needs.
The enemy we need release from is that remnant of darkness in our hearts that tells us to cling and to clench, to hold on and hold back, to harden and ignore.
That is the evil that we have renounced in our baptismal vows – as we will hear again today.
That is the sin that we call on God to forgive; that is the forgiveness that John came to announce, and that is why, when the Temple has been ground under the Roman boot, Luke can say, we have been
74“…rescued from the hands of our enemies, [that we] might serve him without fear...”
“Without fear” without anxiety, without backing into our shells like frightened crabs. We know where our salvation is from; we do not fear.
One week from today we will come to dedicate to God our commitments to “serve him without fear.” We will bring our pledge cards, or our “faith promise to give” cards, and we will demonstrate that the light has come.
By our commitments we will demonstrate that we have been released from the evil enemy of mis-placed security. We trust in God; he will guide us into the peace we long for. He will open our hearts to the pain in the world.
68“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.