I was torn this week between focusing on the Psalm and focusing upon the Gospel lesson from Mark. For those attending for the first time, I have remarked on the challenge of trying to learn the habits, interests, sins, and the like of a new congregation in a very short time. I was leaning toward the Psalm, simply because the Adult Bible Study, led by Larry and Tom, seems to be leaning to doing that book in the Bible next. I thought I might help do some foundational work for them and remind you that God has something to say to you through that wonderful book. Then I had the chance to seek advice from Gregg, our Treasurer. I asked him how quickly he thought we would be starting the Psalms in the class. Gregg gave that thoughtful look, considered all the variables he knew existed, and then answered. “2018. 2017 if we really push hard through Colossians and don’t have any distractions.” So, I used Gregg’s advice to discern that I should be preaching on Mark.
The passage from Mark comes immediately after Jesus has called His Twelve. As I mentioned earlier last month, Mark loves to use the word “immediately.” In our passage alone, Mark uses the word three times. By the time one gets done reading Mark, one feels as if he or she has been sprinting a marathon. Jesus has called His Twelve, which in itself was unusual because disciples usually sought out rabbis, and now He takes them to synagogue to worship. Mark gives no account of what scrolls were read or what Jesus taught. People are amazed, however, as He taught as one having authority.
Such a description might be difficult for us to understand. But the difference is the difference of knowledge about and knowing God. The rabbis and scribes and priests taught using citations or footnotes, though their teaching was more oral than written. Whenever the rabbis or scribes taught something, they would cite all those impressive gentlemen (sorry, ladies, no women served in those positions) who agreed with them. Picture the character played by Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham. She was always pulling quotes out of the air and then citing the author. William Blake. Robert Frost. Who cares? It is a horrible way to teach and to learn simply citing someone else’s opinion, whether that opinion is in the mainstream of accepted thought or not. In many ways, though this would be a lecture for another day, such a way of teaching is evidence of dead knowledge, of inaccessible knowledge, of simply knowing about a subject.
Jesus, of course, strolled into the synagogue that Sabbath and began to teach with a distinct advantage. He knew the heart and mind of God in ways the scribes and rabbis and priest never could. As one person of the Trinity, Jesus was uniquely equipped to teach those who listened to Him. Jesus knew the mind and heart of the Father. He did not have to examine what this rabbi or that scribe or that priest had to say about God. Mark knows this. So do we as readers. What happened during Mark’s account of our Lord’s baptism? We were made privy to that private conversation between the Father and the Son where the Father said to Jesus, “You are My Son, whom I love. With You I am well-pleased.” We know where Jesus gets His authority. He is God. He is God’s Anointed.
It is, however, not yet time for the world to know Jesus’ true identity, nor is the world ready to accept Him. Not too surprisingly, an unclean spirit declares that it knows about Jesus, too. And the unclean spirit wants to know what Jesus is going to do with all of them. “Have you come to destroy us?” In a different way, the unclean spirit has knowledge about God, but it does not know God. It correctly identifies Jesus, but it is unwilling to bend the knee. Jesus, of course, is not in Capernaum to tussle with demons. He is not in Capernaum to identify His true purpose yet. So He commands the demon to be silent and come out of the man. And the demon obeys. Those of us who know that Jesus derives His authority and power from God are not at all surprised by the result. But the people who witness the event sure are surprised. Jesus makes no big gestures; He does not invoke some flowery prayer. Jesus simply commands the demon and it obeys. Period.
The people who witness the teaching in the synagogue and then the exorcism are simply amazed by what they have seen. He teaches as one who possesses authority and even the demons bow to His command. There is something unique about this son of a carpenter from Nazareth. Something unique and powerful has come from Nazareth, even if Nathanael is unsure as to whether He is good. It is also an interesting tension set up by the author Mark. What two groups will be fighting Jesus the hardest during this Gospel account? The Jewish authorities and the powers and principalities who seek to mislead people from God! Towards the end of the book, it will appear that Satan and his minions and that the Jewish and Roman authorities have won. This Man with authority will be nailed to a cross and put to death. For three days, it will seem as if true power resides with them. Then, in that unconquerable demonstration of power and authority, God will raise this Man from the dead, demonstrating to all who heard His teaching that He truly knew God.
A number of you have commented to me after church, in Bible Study, in my office, and even via e-mail that I seem to be a bit fixated on our baptisms. Part of the reason I may seem fixated on your and my baptism is because of the season. Epiphany kicks off with the baptism of Jesus. The rest of the season is spent reminding us of His manifestation in the world that rejects Him. Baptism is important to us because we are baptized not only into His death, but into His Resurrection as well. If we accept the significance of the sacrament, we have died to selves and struggle, with God’s grace, to live to His honor and His glory that others might be drawn into His kingdom. Part of the reason we focus on baptism, you might say, is that we begin to want less knowledge about God and more to know God. Baptism inaugurates that process by which we come to know our Lord better and more fuller. To be sure, we will not know Him perfectly as did Jesus until He recreates us with His eyes, His ears, and His heart, but part of our struggle in our faith is the effort to get to know Him better and better each day. How is this accomplished?
For starters, we know we meet God each and every day in the Scriptures, right? Why do you think we as good little Episcopalians/Anglicans read the Scriptures? Do you think we like to snicker at the idea of people struggling to pronounce some of those names in there? Do you think it is some method of indoctrination from which there is no escape? No. We encourage one another to read the Scriptures because it is in His holy Word that we learn who God is. We learn from Jonah and a million other places that God is merciful and ready to turn aside from His wrath, eventually learning that His mercy is best demonstrated in the life and person of Jesus Christ. We learn our Lord’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt and tons of other places in Scripture that our God is a deliverer, no matter the odds, eventually learning that His ability to deliver His people is best demonstrated in the work and person of Jesus Christ. We learn from Scripture that what God values is not easily seen or heard, as evidenced by the movement of the Star in the eyes of the magi or the inward digesting of the angels’ message to the shepherds, but that nothing and no one escapes His penetrating gaze. In short, we come to know God through our study of Scripture. The details may change in our life from those recorded in Scripture, but because we know Him, we expect Him to act in our lives!
How else do we move from a knowledge about God to know God? Does the word prayer mean anything to you? We are taught, repeatedly, that prayer is really divine communication, are we not? We are real good at talking to God about our perceived needs and our perceived lacks. Some of us have come to know Him a bit more and learn to be thankful and joyous in the face of answered prayer. A few of us even learn to be silent and to listen for His voice. But prayer is an activity which opens us up to the heart and mind of God. I shared with you last week of how I prayed for evil people to be destroyed, only to be reminded that I, too, like the folks in Nineveh, once rejected God and rightly could be called evil. Given some conversations with you this week, some of you understand all too well the nature of God’s grace. Many of you remarked how prayer played a pivotal role in allowing you to come to that fuller understanding. We should not be too surprised. Did not our Lord often stop ministering and seek a place and time to pray?
Lastly, how else do we come to know the heart and mind of God? Who comes to dwell in our hearts when we are baptized? Who bestows upon us those gifts He deems necessary that we have and utilize for His glory in our lives? Who circumsizes our hearts and writes God’s torah on them? Yes. The Holy Spirit. We focus so much on the baptized into His death and the idea of going to heaven that many of us forget that when we are baptized into His Resurrection, we are empowered by His Holy Spirit. I see the squirming. Yes, I understand that, for many of us, the Holy Spirit is the challenging Person of the Trinity. But we are promised by our Lord Himself that when we are baptized into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we will be empowered to accomplish things greater even than did He while on earth. The Holy Spirit bestows upon us gifts, charisms, which are unique to us and necessary for us to manifest God in the world around us. One might claim, by virtue of our baptism and by the empowering of the Holy Spirit, we become authorities with respect to our gifts. Some of us may get one charism; others may get more. The focus, though, is never on the charisms but on their use to His honor and His glory. But think for a second of the significance of that event. You and I, by virtue of our baptism, have been entrusted with a gift necessary to glorify our Lord and to proclaim His kingdom. Is it not a wonder that the world does not turn and embrace such a gift? Such opportunity? Yet we who know about God, how often do we quit trying to know God?
I was put in mind of the practical difference between a knowledge of God and knowing God this week as I ministered with members of our congregation. Jerry dragged me over to St. Luke’s and even arranged a tour for me. I asked my guide how we at Advent could better support them in their efforts to serve people in our community of Nashville. In our discussion about the emergency food pantry, he pointed out the cases of macaroni and cheese. Now, before I say what I am going to say, I used to love those boxes. They were an awesome after school snack when I was a kid. I have no doubt, too, that for many families, those boxes mean the difference between eating and not. Anyway, they had cases of mac & cheese. They had little milk. And they had precious little other diversity to assist those in need. I have no doubt that those who receive the boxes will be thankful. And those who have fed the homeless with mac & cheese boxes have demonstrated a knowledge of God by giving a gift of food. But I wonder. How many of those who gave mac & cheese boxes would serve Jesus mac & cheese from a box were He to show up for dinner at their house tonight? Some would, because that would be all they could afford. But how many of us grab a box or ten and then pat ourselves on the back for being “good” Christians because we have fed the hungry in our midst?
Knowing God means we understand what He means when He tells us to feed Him in them and them in Him. You and I are called to feed the hungry as if it were our Lord who was hungry. We see Him in them and serve accordingly, and we see them in Him and serve them thankfully and gratefully, knowing He served and loved us first.
Or consider the clothes. It is a similar problem. People give things to St. Luke’s that they would never wear. The volunteer staff spends all days Mondays sorting and combing through the donations. Those that can be sold are priced and put out on the floor. Those that cannot are offered to Goodwill and other charities. To be sure, those with no money for clothes in this cold weather are thankful for our rags. But, here again is the hard question: would those rags be what we would give our Lord were He to show up on our doorstep naked, in need of clothes? If doing to the least of these means we have done unto Him, is that not precisely what many of us have done? Knowledge of God versus knowing God. Are you beginning to see the difference?
Although we do not think of it often in these terms, when we skimp, when we act as if we have finite resources, we are testifying to the world around us that God has a lack, that God is a God of scarcity. In Bible Study today were angry and upset about a commercial that will air today showing God without a charged cell phone battery. But how many of us live our lives hoarding that which He has bestowed upon us? How many of us, through our life and witness, testify that God does not have enough? When we skimp what we feed the hungry in His name, when we skimp on the clothes we offer in His name, whenever we choose to deal with those suffering from mental illness or addiction like they are the cause of their problem, we are testifying as to whether we know God or just have knowledge about Him, whether He is the source of all things given us, or just a pretty good guy after whom we would do well to model our life. When we skimp, we deny His power, His authority, and His love.
Of course, I have left unaddressed, for the most part, the discussion of spiritual warfare in this pericope of Mark. Mark is not a physician. He is not misdiagnosing Tourette’s, addiction, schizophrenia, or any other mental illness. He is making a theological claim. There is an unclean spirit that has taken control of an unfortunate man, a man whom I might point out does not need to repent of the possession to Jesus. Because of the possession, the man is unable to ask for aid. The demon claims to know who Jesus is and asks if He has come to destroy them. Whether the demon thinks it can fight against Jesus or is conceding that Jesus is its opposite is, in all reality, unimportant. What is important is that Jesus has authority to silence the demon with a word and cast it out of the man’s body with just a word. There is no green pea soup vomit as with the Exorcist. There is no struggle in Jesus’ efforts or strain in His voice. He commands; even the demon obeys. The demon certainly has a knowledge of Jesus, but it does not want to know Him.
Talking about spiritual warfare and demons is always dangerous in the Church. It is a fine line to walk when speaking of them knowledgably. CS Lewis once wrote that the Devil excels in either convincing well-meaning Christians that he and his minions do not exist or in convincing those well-meaning Christians that he and his minions are behind every evil. They are in many ways a modern Scylla and Charybdis through which we must pass. We ignore Satan or seek him far too often, either to our detriment. Yet, in this passage and in others, Jesus treats the demons as real. Paul treats them and the warfare in which they are engaged as very real. We would do well to remember that powers and principalities and demons are struggling with us and those around us to steer us away from the Lord who loves us, who dies for us, and who has authority even over them.
Do I believe that demons and powers and principalities exist and are in warfare against our Lord? Absolutely. Today is a perfect example. Larry presented us with a commercial that will air during the Super Bowl that will suggest to the masses that God is bound by the laws of His own creation. Given that 110 million souls or so will see the commercial, how many might be misled into believing God is not the Creator, not omnipotent, not able to overcome any technology we devise? Worse, as one member of the group pointed out, can you imagine such a commercials getting through all the powers that be that treated Mohammed as weak? As ineffective? Speaking of those 110 million souls and the big game, how many will have skipped church today because they had to get ready for the party or watch every single minute of the pre-pre-pre-game specials rather than learn about the love of God? Which will matter more in their lives? Which will matter more for eternity? Yes, there are powers and principalities and demons which wage war constantly against God and try and seduce us from following Him. Sadly, they are far more effective than any of us would wish.
But, and hear this but well, if God has given you eyes and ears and a heart to see and hear and understand the spiritual warfare going on around you or in the world at large, He has likely given you the means to combat that warfare in His name, to His glory. Perhaps your combat will be done through prayer. Maybe your combat will be done through conversation. Can you imagine yourself at a party later today when someone remarks how the cell phone commercial captured how they see God? All you need to do is speak the Word of truth, the Word of His creation into such nonsense, and the veil of darkness might life in their eyes. Maybe, maybe your role is to be a bit more of an exorcist. Maybe you know somebody suffering from an unclean spirit. Maybe physicians and psychiatrists and psychologists are unable to diagnose the problem of someone you know and love. Maybe your role is to cast out a demon into the eternal darkness in Christ’s name and to do so expectantly, with authority. After all, those of us baptized into His Resurrection have been given power and authority to do great things in His name. If spiritual warfare is real, it makes sense, does it not, that a couple of us have been given that power and that authority by the Maker of all things, seen and unseen, to free those oppressed and manifest His power and truth to a world starving and groping for such things!
Brothers and sisters, how do you view your baptism? Was it merely a ritual of water and words? Or was it something far more mystical and infinitely more meaningful? Was it merely a rite of passage that made people in your family happy, or was it your commitment to begin to learn to know your Lord who saved you? If you take seriously the idea that you have been raised to new life in His Resurrection, then you, too, share in His authority. By virtue of your undertaking to fulfill the oaths you made at your baptism, you have committed yourself to knowing God as a friend. As you walk and study and pray with Him, He will disclose more and more of His heart and mind to you. Better still, as you come to know Him better and better, and empowered through the Holy Spirit, you will be given power and authority to speak and to act in His Name. People will say of you, “He/She speaks. And with authority! From where does he or she get this authority?” Before long, if you are not too careful, you may be the light in the darkness that He calls each one of us to be, not just in this season we call Epiphany, but in all times and in all places of our lives.