Sunday, February 01, 2015

Mark 1:21-28: What is This, God?

This morning, I had the joy of guest preaching at my home church because I was on study leave for a conference. I really enjoyed being home for the day and what a great passage! Our passage this morning is from Mark 1:21-28.

The sermon is here:
The music is below in the spotify playlist. The song I played during the healing prayer is the first on the list this week.

The full manuscript is below.

Sunday, February 1, 2015 | Epiphany
Fourth  Sunday After the Epiphany
Year B

What is this, God?
Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Guest Preaching: Mosaic Community Church

I’d like to start off this morning by making a confession. When I first scheduled my study leave and decided to offer to preach here since we’d be here anyway today, I fully intended to follow in a time-honored tradition of guest preachers all around the world: I was planning on just pulling an old sermon out of the archives and re-preaching it. It would have been new to you all! And I would have made sure I picked a really, really good one!
But as the time got closer, and I was reading through the upcoming verses I was planning on preaching at Liberty, I started to feel guilty about that decision to re-cycle a sermon. So I finally caved in to the Holy Spirit’s guilt trip and decided to preach the passage I’ll be reading in just a moment here. And you know, God works in funny ways because even if none of you gets anything out of this scripture passage this morning. . . I know that I needed it after this week.
We’ll be reading from the first chapter of Mark today. This is the second of the gospels –the books of the Bible that tell us about Jesus’ earthly life. We’re coming into the book today at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry as word about this great teacher and healer is just starting to get out.
Let us pray (prayer for illumination):

Mark 1:21-28
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!”  26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. [1]

            At the beginning of his ministry, Mark tells us that Jesus just sort of waltzes into the Synagogue – some unknown teacher nobody had really heard of before and Mark says that he amazed the people with his teaching. Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus is teaching at this particular point, but clearly he wasn’t saying the same old same old the people were used to hearing in the temple. Whatever he was saying, it was something else.
            In fact, what Jesus teaches here is not just powerful in the hearts of the people hearing it, but it is so powerful that a demon possessed man cries out in the middle of Jesus’ sermon. I’m pretty sure I’d have a stroke if I heard demons yelling out at me in the middle of my sermon. Babies I can handle, the occasional sneeze or cough. . . fine. But demons? That’s a bit intense for this girl. The demons call out through the man, “We know who you are!!!”
            Jesus - way more chill than I am – just says, “Quiet! Get out of here!” And they do. That’s it. Jesus tells them to shut up and leave and the demons immediately cower and take off.
            The people – who were already pretty awestruck by Jesus teaching – are completely baffled at this point. Jaws on the ground. . . “WHAT IS THIS?!” This new guy who just showed up is not only teaching incredible things, he speaks with such authority that demons even recognize it! He’s not just speaking good words, he’s showing the power of the Word of God in action in the world!  
            For those of you who have known us for more than 7 years, you know at least a little bit of the story of my son and the miracle of healing that happened in order for him to come into this world in one piece, safe and sound. If you don’t know the story, I don’t have time to recount it all now, but let’s go out for coffee sometime. Suffice it to say that I have seen God work amazing, miraculous healing. Doctors told us our son would probably die before he was born. They told us that even if he lived, he would have serious physical disabilities and that he had a good chance of having learning disabilities, blindness, or other health issues related to being a preemie.
Today, he’s 6 years old. He’s in first grade and is thriving. He’s big and strong and perfectly healthy. He is doing great at school. The doctors can’t explain it. One doctor even admitted, “Your prayers worked.”
I’ve seen firsthand what it looks like when Jesus speaks a word of authority over sickness. But that’s not always how it shakes down.
            Last Saturday, a member of my congregation was very sick and in the hospital. He was an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a friendly, wonderful, godly man. Everyone in the congregation loved him and were praying fervently for him throughout his illness. His family called me that morning and said, “You’d better get down here.” So I rushed down to AGH to pray with him and with his family. I prayed for healing. I prayed that God would make him whole again. 2 hours later, he died.
            For most of us, that’s a far more regular occurrence than the miraculous, doctors-can’t-explain-this type of healing that we saw in our passage from Mark today – that we saw when Levi was born strong and healthy. The world seems to reveal to us far more suffering than it does miracles.
            These stories of Jesus performing miraculous healings can be difficult for us to understand and process in a day and age of scientific thinking – in a day and age where we rely on medical science and our big, smart, human brains. As I was reading this week to prepare for this sermon, I discovered that even my commentaries tend to have a pretty skeptical view of Jesus’ healings. It is often a sort of “that was then – things are different now” attitude.
            The problem with this is that it takes away much of the power of this passage if we write off this miracle. Jesus speaks with authority when he is teaching, and what really seals it – the thing that drops jaws to the ground and spreads the word about Jesus all around Galilee is the healing. If we ignore this piece or try to attribute it to exaggeration or anything like that, this becomes little more than a pretty story about Jesus being a good speaker.
            The word Jesus speaks in this passage is not just a great sermon. The word that Jesus speaks is the Word of God that holds with it authority so great that demons run shrieking from the room. The Word of our powerful, unchanging God has not lost that power in the past 2000 years.
            So how do we balance this tension? How do we keep the power of this passage instead of writing off miracles? How do we continue to attribute to God the ability to heal the sick when we see around us so many times in which healing never seems to happen? Times when people we love suffer chronic pain, death, illness, poverty, oppression?
            I think there’s something in the response of the people after seeing this all go down. “What IS this?” The point isn’t solely that Jesus healed the guy physically. If we’re going to take this Jesus-guy, this God and man all rolled into one, seriously. . . we have to take seriously the fact that he did and can heal people physically. But the point is that he is able to do so not because of some sort of magic touch, some weird voo-doo incantation or spell or something. He’s able to do it because HE. . . IS. . . IN. . . CONTROL. Jesus spoke with authority and that is why the demons shrieked and high-tailed it. And if Jesus holds authority over even the demons, that means that he’s in control of more than just our physical health. That means that he’s in charge of much more than what we can see.
If we remove the possibility of this miracle that Jesus did, we take away some of his control and hand it over to what we can explain. But the bottom line is that God is inexplicable. And healing doesn’t always look like what we expect. If we truly believe that Jesus is our savior – that in him we are freed from the power of sin and death and pain and sorrow and are bound to him for the rest of forever – then we have to admit that sometimes healing comes when and where and how we don’t understand it. Sometimes it comes in the form of a miraculous healing, and sometimes it comes in the form of someone’s battle with illness coming to and end so that they can finally rest forever in the arms of God free. Sometimes it comes in the inexplicable in-betweens that we might never understand in this lifetime.
Even in the midst of the weird and confusing world around us, there are glimpses of wholeness, of forever. Some of these glimpses are in the form of church celebrations that we observe together. In our tradition, we call these “sacraments.” They are times where because of our being joined to Jesus Christ through faith, we are lifted up to God and given a glimpse of the real healing that lies on the other side of this life. Communion is one of those sacraments. (Baptism is the other, if you were wondering.) When we celebrate Communion, we celebrate more than just a remembrance of Jesus saying some nice things and teaching well. We celebrate that Jesus holds authority over everything. That in our being joined to him, we are released by his authority. We are lifted up in this moment – swept up in the arms of Jesus so that we can have a glimpse of eternity.
This weekend, I was at a worship conference in Michigan and I seem to always come home from this conference with a new favorite band. This year, the band is Urban Doxology. Before we celebrate communion this morning, I want to play one of their songs for you. Listen closely. This starts off as a song of lament – of sorrow and longing – but ultimately it rests in trusting God. As you listen to it, I’m going to stay up here and if you are seeking healing in any way this morning – and I encourage you that we are all in need of some sort of healing whether we know it or not – but if you would like to come up front, I have some anointing oil and I’m here to pray a prayer for healing of body, mind, and spirit. Let’s not leave out any part. We aren’t just brains carried around in a broken body. We are body, mind, and spirit and all of us is broken and in need of healing.
Let us enter together into a time of prayer as we listen to this song.  

Spirit of the Living God, present with us now,
Enter you, body, mind, and spirit,
And heal you of all that harms you.
In Jesus’ name, amen.

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Mk 1:21–28). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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