Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany - February 1, 2009

Mark 1:21-28

Jesus and his disciples 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.


We hear it from every side these days. On the television, the internet, in books, newspapers and magazines and sometimes even, God help us, in our own churches. Jesus is not the only way to God. Everyone will get there eventually, won’t they? There are many great truths in all religions, so all religions are the same in the end.

And because all religions are the same in the end, does it really matter which one you follow? After all, it’s just enough to be a “good person”, isn’t it? As long as you are a following the “golden rule” and treating people right, that is all that matters. So why do we even need religion? “Hey, Jesus, go away and mind your own business! What have you got to do with us?”

Amazingly enough that is what the demon in our gospel reading today also says to Jesus. Jesus went into the synagogue and was teaching with authority. This was an amazing thing to his listeners, because Jesus was not referring to the scriptures and prefacing his statements with “There is a teaching that reads…” as the scribes who taught in the synagogues would do. He did not bring a host of references to different scriptures or the great teachers on the scriptures to back up his statements. He simply taught with authority. He spoke as one who got his information right from the source, which is what the base word of authority, “author”, means. Jesus, you might say, wrote the book on what he taught. This was a new and entirely different thing for the listeners in the synagogue to hear and they were amazed.

And this lead to Jesus’ first miracle related in the gospel of Mark: the casting out of a demon. The demon recognizes Jesus for who he is and he says something that is literally translated as “What to me and to you?” Which you might say is an ancient way of saying, “Mind your own business!” “You have nothing to do with us!”

The demon was denying the authority of Jesus, even though he knew very well who Jesus was and said so. “The Holy One of God” is what he called him. Not denying that Jesus was the Holy One of God, only denying that Jesus had any authority over demons.

Today, our demons do it differently, don’t they? They work in much subtler ways. If they can deny that Jesus was who he claimed to be, they can work to undermine his authority here on earth. Jesus is to be presented as just another teacher, just a historical figure who said some nice things about how we could all “just get along.” In The Screwtape Letters, a work of fiction by C.S. Lewis, the story of the temptation of a soul is told through a series of letters from one demon, named Screwtape to another, called Wormwood. Screwtape counsels Wormwood that the idea of the “historical Jesus” is always to be encouraged. He writes that the aim is to lead humans to “‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That‘s the game.” By confusing humans as to who Jesus really was, to lead us to deny his authority over us, the demons would win more souls away from God.

And the sad thing is that this ploy works so very well. I was reading a blog by a newly minted Episcopalian the other day. She has trouble with the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation, just as many people do. But the thing that disturbed me was that she went to church and listened to her priest say, “that when Jesus said, “I am the way” he was saying,’LOOK AT ME. Watch me. You see how I am treating people? THIS is the way. This is how God wants you to be. I am here to show you this.’”

It’s what we want to hear, isn’t it? You don’t have to believe that Jesus was THE way as long as you act the way he did. Be a good person. That’s all that is necessary. It’s a fundamental denial of the cross. Jesus didn’t die for our sins, after all. He was here to show us how to behave. That cross part…that was a mistake, or at best, the only way God could show us how serious he was about getting our attention.

This blogger ended by saying, “I was so happy when he (the priest) said that. I believe that.” And that is the problem…we deny Jesus’ authority when we take away the power of the cross to save and substitute it with our own effort to save ourselves. We can’t do it. It is not in us. We reduce Jesus to a mere teacher, sent to show us one way, not THE way. And so we can ignore the things that Jesus said that we don’t particularly like, the things that make us uncomfortable. We can deny that he was the Holy One of God, the Son of God. He becomes a mere prophet, one of many.

The truth is, though, that if we really want to follow Jesus, we will hear things in church that will make us uncomfortable. If you come to church and everything you hear makes you feel happy and safe, you are in the wrong church. Jesus did not go into the synagogue and make people feel happy and safe. He did not speak comfortable words that left his listeners convinced that what they had deeply felt all along was the real truth, did he? That was why the demon told Jesus to “buzz off”. And, in the end, the uncomfortable truth, spoken with authority, is what led to the cross.

Yes, we are to be good people. We are to feed the hungry, comfort those who mourn, visit the sick, clothe the naked. Not because it will save us, but because He wants us to do it. He wants us to become His hands and His feet here, to show His love to a world starving for it, to show THE way to those who are lost. The chances are very good that we will make some people very uncomfortable in the process. And, the great thing is, that if we really want to be like Jesus, we will be treating people exactly as He did.

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