4th Sunday after Epiphany – Jan 28, 2018
Mark 1:21-28 – Sermon by Rev. Dr. Rolf Svanoe
This Epiphany season we’ve talked about Jesus’ calling His disciples and Jesus calling us today. We’ve talked about sharing God’s love with others by inviting them to come to church. I want to tell you about a time that a neighbor invited me to her church. When I lived in Los Angeles, my neighbor went to a large church called Angelus Temple. Angelus Temple is famous for being the birthplace of the Foursquare Gospel church in the early 1900s. My neighbor and I had talked about religion a few times and one day she invited me to church. They were having a “Holy Ghost Revival.” My mother and I went, more out of curiosity. I don’t remember much about the service, except that the preacher really tried to fire up the congregation. The emotion began to build, and as the preacher began to pray, pandemonium broke loose. People started shouting and talking in tongues. They stood up and raised their hands in the air. Some were rolling on the floor in the aisles. (I guess that’s why they call them Holy Rollers!) My neighbor sitting right next to me joined in. She stood up with her arms in the air, rigid as a board, she began to scream as loudly as she could. I didn’t know what to think. After all, I was a young Norwegian Lutheran kid from the Midwest. We didn’t do things like that. Needless to say, I never went back to the Angelus Temple again.
I’m guessing that there may be a few worship services you’ve experienced over the years that stand out in your memory for various reasons. Something unusual happened or perhaps the Holy Spirit used that worship in a special way to give you exactly what you needed at the time. But I would bet that most of the worship services you have attended are not very memorable. Like a good meal, you were fed at the time, but years later, you don’t remember what you ate.
The worship service in our Gospel reading was one that everyone remembered. There was this new preacher in town who was creating quite a stir. Something was different about this preacher and everyone wanted to check him out. Jesus was halfway through his sermon when someone stood up in the back pew and started making strange noises. The man began to scream, and it freaked everyone out. This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen in church. It made everyone uncomfortable. Where were the ushers? People started planning their exit away from this crazy man. And then he shrieked in an other-worldly voice, “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?” I think that if I were sitting in the pew next to this guy I’d be pretty spooked. Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t seem surprised at all. He looked the man straight in the eye and pointed his finger at him. “Be silent, and come out of him.” The guy began to scream and shake violently until he fell to the floor. And then suddenly he was quiet. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone was looking at him. And then everyone was looking at Jesus. Who was this preacher man who could do things like that? They were all amazed. That was one service none of them would ever forget.
Here’s the question I have about this story- what was this guy doing in church? I mean, why was he there? That’s not the kind of place people with unclean spirits often hang out, is it? Didn’t his neighbors know what kind of person he was with his unclean spirit? Wouldn’t they have shunned him and made him feel unwelcome. Didn’t the ushers look at him as he walked in the door and say, “What are you doing here?” Somehow, he just slipped in, carrying his unclean spirit with him like a concealed weapon, looking like everyone else.
And maybe that’s the point. The guy was just like everyone else. He was part of the community. Maybe he was a farmer, a carpenter, a husband, a father. We don’t know. But on the Sabbath, he came to the synagogue just like everyone else, wearing his Sunday best. He listened attentively as the Scriptures were read and then settled in for the sermon. But this sermon was different from any other he had ever heard a Rabbi preach. Jesus’ words went straight to his heart. All the masks he wore to make himself acceptable in the community, all the lies he told himself and others, somehow in Jesus’ presence they were all exposed. He felt naked, dirty and unclean, as if he were in the presence of a holy God. As Jesus preached, the frustrations of his life kept building like a teapot about to explode- the double life he lived, the shame and guilt, the hypocrisy. He felt this fierce urgency that things couldn’t go on the way they were. Something had to change or he was going to explode. And then it happened. All hell broke loose and he lost control. He started shouting at Jesus. ‘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.’ And then he passed out. Minutes later, when he woke up, he felt a strange calm. Something had changed. For the first time in a long time he felt hope.
Do you know this man? Do you know how he must have felt that day in church? Aren’t we all a bit like him? We are if we are honest with ourselves. We know that we all have a capacity for sin. Just like this man, we can’t hide our secrets from Jesus. He knows all the skeletons in our closet and he calls them all by name. He sees past all the masks we wear and all the lies we tell ourselves and others. We come into his presence feeling naked and exposed, unclean. A famous poet once said, “In my heart, the demons and the angels wage an eternal battle.” Some of you know that war all too well. You struggle with addictions or compulsive behavior. You battle with destructive habits deeply entrenched in your personality. You have tried so hard to overcome these temptations in your life, but you fall down again and again, and the guilt you feel is overwhelming. Sometimes in our soul it can seem like Halloween with hordes of devils filling our minds and hearts, tempting us away from what is good and right.
A few years ago, I was visiting with a neighbor in my previous town. We had bumped into each other in a bar, and as things often happen to pastors, the conversation turned to religion. I invited him to come to my church, and he said something to me that I’ve never forgotten. “You don’t want me in your church, pastor. If you knew me, you wouldn’t like me.” I assured him that Jesus did know all about him and loved him, and so did I.
There are three things I learn from this story, three things that everyone of us needs to know today. The first is that Jesus knows us. He knows who we really are. He knows everything about us, all the bad decisions, all the wrong desires, all the things we pretend to be and really aren’t. He knows our successes and the failures. Jesus knows who we really are and still loves us. The second thing I learn from this story is that Jesus loves us. He loved that man with the unclean spirit, and Jesus loves us, too. That’s good news. The third thing I learn from this story is that Jesus can free us. Jesus has the authority and the power to free us from the grip of sin and death. Just like that man sitting in the pew 2,000 years ago, Jesus can free us from those things that are harmful for us, and free us to follow him. He comes to us again and again today, in Word and Sacrament to bring us grace and forgiveness. He comes to us in the support of others from church or community, both friends and professionals. In countless ways today, Jesus comes to bring us life and to invite us to follow him.
Jesus knows you. Jesus loves you. Jesus frees you to follow Him. Thanks be to God.