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What do you believe?

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Preaching through Mark. 29 January 2012, Mark 4:21-5:20, Epiphany 4
St John the Evangelist Edmonton

We’re here at our fourth instalment of our sermon series through Mark’s gospel, and we’re continuing to learn about Jesus’ authority over all of creation, and that theme continues today capped by a particularly interesting exorcism.

In broad strokes of the brush, today’s reading opens with short parables to explain the parable of the sower which we’ve just read…and to continue on with the theme of explaining the kingdom of God. Then comes the crossing of the lake and the quelling of the storm, and finally the encounter with the Gerasene demoniac. The first striking phrase comes to us in verse 24-25, Jesus said to them, Pay attention: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has more will be given, and from the one who has less, even that will be taken away.

We pray each time we gather with the words of the Lord’s prayer, with this couplet: forgive us our sins; as we forgive those who sin against us. This affirmation reflects a spiritual truth – our ability to receive God’s forgiveness is, to some extent, related directly to our ability to forgive others. A hardened heart that refuses to forgive (not forget, but forgive) is likewise hardened and unable to receive God’s grace. In these short parables Jesus utters a similar couplet of words: with the measure you use; it will be measured to you (and more will be added). This presents a frightening concept for us – Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God, and the statement tells us that we will receive using the same measuring cup that we use to measure out what we give. This is not talking about something as simple as the giving of money, and it is not establishing a simple transactional relationship – if you give a, you will get back a plus more…sounding a bit like a divine Ponzi scheme…is not what is being spoken of. What Jesus is talking about is something much more fundamental for people of faith – the state of our hearts.

How do you measure out love, compassion, empathy, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, self-control, gentleness, time with loved ones? (Gal 5:22) Do you begrudge time taken to serve others? How are the fruits of the Spirit measured out in your life? Like forgiveness, what is being told to us is that what we hold in our hearts when it comes to being Christ-like in the world, is the same measure that God will use to measure back to us…and, while this could be a message of condemnation, Jesus goes on to say, and still more will be added to you…even when we are stingy with our measuring out of ourselves, God blesses us with more than we would give ourselves.

The closing portion of this reading begins with a mysterious trip across the lake. A great storm arises…and even with a reefed mainsail and jib, the boat begins to fill with water, while Jesus sleeps in the stern. This parable is often used as an example of the disciples lack of faith…but it seems they have faith, the problem that concerns them is Jesus’ lack of care – he sleeps while they get ready to drown. Their call to the sleeping Jesus is telling, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Their problem is not a lack of faith, but that it seems to them that Jesus does not care what is happening to them at that moment.

This seems quite profound, for it reminds me of the times in my life when I have not doubted God’s power and authority to act, but wondered precisely why he was not acting in my present distress…or at least not acting in my present distress in a manner and mode that I thought was needed. So I find that I, along with most of us, have gone through times when I have cried to the Lord of heaven and earth…”Teacher, do you not care that I am perishing?” only to have the storm stilled, and God’s presence and concern reinforced again. This setting demonstrates conclusively that Jesus is the Lord of nature. There is also a play on the OT story of Jonah here – while Jonah slept in the boat to avoid his calling, Jesus wakes and demonstrates his calling, including His dominion over the seas and winds. Jonah was the victim of the storm, Jesus is the master of the storm.

You should also be seeing a pattern of the naming of Jesus. Jesus is named by God at his baptism as My Son, My beloved. After that Jesus is only named by one type of person – the demons. Here’s the summary so far: Mark 1:24, a demon, “Holy One of God”; Mark 3:11 unclean spirits, “You are the Son of God”; and just coming in Mark 5:7 a legion of demons, “Son of the Most High God.” There is more than a little irony here, as Jesus had come to defeat the forces of evil, to free the prisoners including those possessed by Satan, and it was those very demons that are the only ones to recognize Jesus. Contrast this with the disciples who, even after seeing Jesus command the storm to be still ask the question, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Indeed, who then is this? Perhaps the disciples should ask the demons?

Now we come into the final encounter of our readings today, between Jesus and the man usually called the Gerasene demoniac. Before we talk about that, I need to ask a question about how we receive Scriptures – particularly given the number of times in the past few weeks we’ve been discussing demons and unclean spirits. What do you hear when you hear the account of a demon being cast out? Do you hear a clear accounting of God’s rule over even the powers and principalities of this world, His ability to force even Satan to submit through these Gospel accountings of real encounters? Or do you hear the Gospel through the filter of the culture?

We are immersed in the culture and, although we are to be apart from the world as Christ’s own, we are still shaped by that culture. Paul tells us to take every thought captive, and it is important that we do so when hearing the Scriptures read – so how do you hear this account of a man possessed by a legion of demons? Do you rationally answer the story by saying, I’ve never seen empirical proof of possession, so it is likely that this is metaphor, or a story of some psychiatric illness that was healed through Jesus’ love for the man. Do you hear the story and say, I’ve never personally experienced possession, so while it may be true for them, it is not true for me? Do you hear the story and say, Mark was writing this to claim God’s power over the Gentiles through a display of great power…and whether it is true or not does not matter? Each one of those reactions is very influenced by culture – or do you respond through a Christian world-view, that thanks God for his authority over all of creation, including Satan and his apostate angels? I will leave that question hanging, as taking every thought captive also means understanding how we react to God’s holy word when read to us…is our first response disbelief? Revulsion? Love? Fear and awe? Faith? It is an important aspect of self-awareness as a person of faith. As Paul tells us, “For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ…” 2 Cor 10:3-5 Our warfare is not of the flesh, but divine power to destroy strongholds, which is exactly what Jesus does upon landing on this shore.

What I just reviewed were three cultural perspectives on Scripture that were roughly Enlightenment (pre-modern); modern; and post-modern in interpretation. It is important to understand how we receive Scripture…and to think about your first response when you hear about a demon being cast out.

The first think to realize it that this is another commentary on the barrier-breaking of Jesus when it comes to the Jewish purity laws: this is a Gentile area, in the area of the tombs, and he encounters a man possessed with an unclean spirit who lives with the dead people next to a herd of pigs, an unclean animal. Gentile, tomb, dead people, unclean spirits and swine…this chap is wholly unclean and impure. Incredibly, the man no-one and no-thing could control because of his wildness and supernatural strength, runs to Jesus and falls down before him. He recognizes Jesus, screaming out his name as the “Son of the Most High God” and begs that he not torment the unclean spirits who name themselves as ‘legion for we are many’ (a Roman legion was between 5 and 6 thousand people). The legion beg Jesus to not send them out of that geographic locale, so instead he gives them permission to enter a herd of 2,000 pigs, which rush into the sea and drown.

On commentator on this passage notes that the modern mind jumps first to the economic question about the cost of 2,000 pigs, and quickly to the question of cruelty to animals. The passage is about neither, and I’ll note Jesus does not command the pigs to die, this is the result of the entry of the demons, reflecting the self-destructive tendencies that the man earlier displayed. That same commentator notes that perhaps focusing on the reduction in the size of carbon footprint is a safer focus (aside from the 2,000 pig corpses now floating in the lake, releasing their sequestered carbon, that is).

Unclean spirits into unclean animals – it seems quite neat…except of course to the swineherds, who run away and tell people what happened, and everyone comes to see. The suggestion here is that what has transpired is not just the deliverance of one man, but the deliverance of the geographic area as well – and the destruction of the unclean spirits in the unclean animals, a symbol of Gentile impurity, underlines Jesus’ authority in this Gentile land. It is also interesting to consider the impact of this healing on the residents of the land, who, we can imagine, had great difficulty burying their dead…can you imagine the procession to the tombs when that place was occupied by a wild, possessed man who ran around day and night crying out and cutting himself with stones? With his healing, the locals could now return to proper burial of the dead, which further underlines the redemption of the land, and not just the one man.

What do they see when they arrive? Jesus sitting down with the previously crazed, possessed man that no one could control, not even with chains and shackles. No one could control him, but Jesus is not no-one, but rather the Son of the Most High God, and so he has again brought healing, purity, a restoration of right relationship to those who were prisoners. What happens next is telling.

Once the people find out what had happened, they are afraid – this is the same type of fear the disciples experienced after the calming of the storm, and the word would be more precisely translated as ‘reverential awe’. The mighty works of God, done in the midst of the people, leads to awe. But they react differently: the people of this land immediately begin to beg Jesus to depart from their region, while the healed man begs to be with Jesus. In both cases, the response is fearful awe, but it leads to different outcomes…some move from fear into faith; while others move from fear to offence and rejection of God. This encounter has always perplexed me, that so many people could see such greatness, and yet turn away, and yet this is consistent with human response.

We hear this same sort of situation in the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). As the rich man suffers in Hell, he looks up to see Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham. After some discussion he asks God to please allow Lazarus to go back and to warn his five brothers. Abraham’s answer: ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ How true – and the reason the world isn’t 100% Christian…in spite of someone returning from the dead.

We saw this last week as Don talked about the parable of the sower, and our God who extravagantly scatters seed everywhere, while knowing it will not bring forth fruit. Don made the point that 75% of the seed of God’s word that is spread does not bear fruit. We see the same thing happening here. God’s kingdom is made manifest in the healing of a man that no one had the strength to subdue, now sitting drinking tea with Jesus. Yet most of the witnesses beg God to leave, the Word of God has not found fertile soil. This encounter highlights for us the dilemma of every person who has not come to a saving dependence upon Jesus Christ. Our culture presents the choice thus: total freedom to live into your own will; or to be a slave to Christ, unhappy and dour. What we see through this encounter between Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac is the true choice that God presents us: to be bound to Satan and the world, or to be truly free through submission to Christ. Are you free in Christ, or bound by the chains and shackles of this world?

The question before us today, is what do you believe? Listen to what Paul proclaims as that belief, in Ephesians 2: “1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Like the Gerasene demoniac, we too have been saved by the grace of God, not because of our doing, but because God seeks to give us that gift. Amen.

…and next week Jesus’ authority is shown to include even the bounds of death.

And a bit I didn’t end up using:
Second set of interest today are some teachings about the kingdom of God – we’re told first that the kingdom of God is like scattering seed on the ground. We go about our lives unaware of the action of the seeds scattered, which grow all on their own until the harvest. This is reinforcing the image Don discussed last week, God as the extravagant sower, scattering seed everywhere, even while 75% of it does not provide a fruitful harvest. The seed is sown everywhere – that is into every human condition and into every place and time. Jesus speaks here of the Kingdom being catholic – that is, universal, and present every-where and in every-time. He next describes the kingdom as like a mustard seed, tiny when sown, but becomes a large tree that the birds will use to make a home. The Kingdom is at once mysterious and elusive, and at the same time ever-present, and all-powerful. There are answers to our questions in these parables – Jesus offers us the assurance that the Kingdom of God is immanent, in spite of our joy or sorrow, the Kingdom continues to grow all around us and within us. While it may have begun hidden (under a basket) or small (like a mustard seed) it proceeds with an irresistible force to its culmination, the coming harvest.

This seed theme is one that is central to the Gospel – for like a seed, it is only through dying does Jesus rise and defeat death. The power of the least of all to save everything is a common one in our literature, as would be expected for such a central theme in our faith. Think about the Hobbits in Tolkien – the least of all the people of Middle Earth, and yet the ones who save it all, including the great kings. Think about Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – certainly the king returns in the end to awaken the sleeping princess, but it was only through the bravery of the dwarves that there was anyone there to kiss. The Kingdom, Jesus tells us, is unexpected, but scattered all around us and growing in ways we cannot even begin to imagine, pushing forward to the inevitable harvest time.


Written by sameo416

January 29, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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