The Anxiety of Lent

Mark 8:31-38
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Last week Jesus went into the wilderness as is always the case on the first Sunday in Lent, and there he met us where we have been lingering for what feels like a year. The liturgical season came around again to meet us where we have been this whole time. And with that, we entered lent as the church, remembering that we are ash, and our alleluias put away. 

Our Lenten journey continues this week with some contradictory statements from Jesus. Statements that speak to the way Lent challenges us to examine ourselves: If try to save your life, you lose it. If you want to follow Jesus, deny yourself. If you want to live, you must die first. 

These kinds of contradictions define the the way that Jesus encounters creation, encounters us.  And in the season of Lent we take the time to consider what these contradictions from Jesus mean. 

Jesus begins by teaching his disciples that the son of man must be suffer, be rejected and die before rising again after three days. And Peter doesn’t like it, and he lets Jesus know. But like an old fashioned school teacher Jesus sends Peter to the corner of the room with the dunce cap. Jesus does not take kindly to Peter’s rebuke. Jesus has no interest in Peter’s fears. Jesus is not worried about dying, Jesus is talking about life. 

Peter is busy worrying, while Jesus is telling him, and the disciples and crowds, about God. And yet usually we are still with Peter, and these days more than ever we know about worrying about drying. Our lives are full of worry and fear and other myriads of concerns, so much so it is hard to live. Our fears and our anxiety seemingly control us and the world around us. And rightly so… we continue to live in an extraordinary time. Peter gets it, what is Jesus missing?

It is hard to not to have our fear and anxieties fed by the world daily. Turn on the news for a couple minutes and there is no escaping worry. Pickup a newspaper and try to find story without the word pandemic or COVID-19. Check social media or the internet and find people angered by government actions, whether they think pandemic measures are too much or too little. 

Fear makes us feel powerless and week, unable to see any hope. Anxiety has a hold over our economy, over our politics, over our communities, over our churches… over our very bodies. Like Peter, our fears cause us to do things that don’t make sense, like scolding our teachers or speaking before we think. Our fears hold us back, keep us from acting, keep us from risking, keep us from experiencing the world around us because we cannot imagine things turning out well for us. Like Peter, our fear and our anxiety prevents us from seeing God in our midst. 

This confrontation of our fears and anxiety is one of the inevitable meetings of Lent. Our fear makes it hard, impossible even, to see what God is up to in the world, what is God is doing in our very lives, despite our fear and anxiety. 

Peter’s fear is keeping him from hearing what Jesus is doing. And if Peter could get past his fear of Jesus’ death, he might take a moment to think a little longer about the rest of Jesus’ statement. Peter is planted too deep in his anxiety… he cannot hear the part that he should be asking about. “After three days rising again?”

But even when Peter misses the point, Jesus continues to make it. Jesus is not above contradiction. In fact, Jesus knows that it is in seeming contradiction that God’s work is done. Die and after three days rise again Jesus says. Lose your life to save it Jesus says. Take up your cross, follow and you will live, Jesus says. 

Peter is so busy being afraid and anxious, that he cannot hear that with God, death will lead to something new. 

So often, Peter’s fear is our fear. So often, we just can’t shake our fear to see God’s work around us. But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t doing the work. It just means, like Peter, we are going to be really surprised when we peer into that empty tomb on Easter morning. 

It is easy for us to look at Peter and wonder why he didn’t get it, but God’s work among us is just as shocking and just as hard to imagine. Jesus tells Peter that crucifixion is coming, and Jesus tells us that there is drying is happening all around us. Of course there is the tragedy of human death, but there is also all kinds of other deaths. Death and change. Changing communities and neighbourhoods, dying relationships, dying habits and ways of being, dying and changing institutions and structures. Our past is and so much of what was an old world is just slipping through our fingers, and there is a new world knocking on our doors. 

And all this makes us anxious. 

 Yet, Jesus isn’t giving us a warning, Jesus isn’t trying to get our hearts racing or making want to just pull the covers over our head and stay in bed each morning. 

Jesus is pointing us to the places where God is at work. 

Jesus is telling us what God’s work looks like. God’s activities in the world simply do not ease our fears or quell our anxieties. God’s work does not ease us into the future, or protect us from the unknown. Instead, God is doing something much more amazing than fitting into a box that our anxiety can handle. God is turning death into life. God is transforming us into disciples and evangelists. God is reconciling a broken world. God is showing us what it means to gain life. 

God is showing that us letting go of all the things that we hold on to, all the things that we fear losing – a world that we spent so much time and energy holding on to, that seems so foreign now –  God is showing us that fearing these things is not living. But rather, God’s version of life means being open to future, open to the other, open to God doing something completely unexpected in our midst. 

Jesus will have none of Peter’s fears today, nor will Jesus have any of ours. Instead, Jesus calls us to let go. Let go and God’s activities in the world will completely surprise and shock us. And still, even if we don’t let go, like Peter cannot, there is going to be an empty tomb waiting for us when we least expect it. 

Still the Season of Lent

*This is a guest sermon by the Rev. Courtenay Reedman Parker (Sorry for getting it up so late in the week!)

GOSPEL: Mark 1:9-15

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

“And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down”

Early in January I took part in a preaching seminar and text study for Lent, led by Rev. Dr. Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. My sermons and our mid-week Lenten devotions will be informed and inspired by her study which was entitled “Sir, We Wish to See Jesus.”

Here we are, again (still?) in the the season of Lent. 

And for the third time since the start of Advent, we are hearing the story of Jesus’ baptism. For the third time in as many months we hear “and just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him”

This gospel of Mark, for as short and succinct as it is – and with its less than satisfactory ending – has so much packed into it. Which is, perhaps, why we keep coming back to the beginning. Back to Jesus’ baptism. Back to pick up on a detail we missed the last two times: the heavens are TORN apart. 

Just as Jesus is named and claimed God’s beloved the heavens are torn apart. There is a split. A schism. The Greek word that is used here is “schizo” and the only other time that it is used in Mark’s gospel is the tearing of the temple curtain in Mark 15: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38).

And usually, talk of splits in churches often cause us to feel uncomfortable and maybe even bring up uncomfortable memories or experiences of splits or other trauma we’ve experienced. 

But that is what Mark records at Jesus’ baptism: Just as Jesus comes up out of the water – breathing his first breath as a baptized child of God, the heavens are torn apart.

Torn apart. 

Split. 

Broke open.

This part of the story informs so much of what happens next: where God is, where Jesus goes – where we go next – into the wilderness. Not by choice. God’s Spirit drives… compels Jesus… and us there. Or as one seminary professor put it, the Spirit grabs Jesus by the scruff of the neck and tosses him into the wilderness. This wasn’t a weekend camping trip. This is a wilderness experience that will take Jesus from one place to another. 

It is Lent after all. 

And Lent takes us places. Specifically from one place, from the place of sin and death, to another… to forgiveness through the cross, resurrection, new and abundant life. 

PAUSE

Last year, we began Lent in some typical ways: we gathered here, in this place for Ash Wednesday. We confessed our sin before God, and we remembered that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We began our midweek worship practice of Soup Suppers and gathering for Holden Evening Prayer. 

And mid-way through our Lenten discipline, our wilderness journey, the world changed.  We were thrust into wilderness. It is the Lentiest Lent that ever Lented we said.

It is now a year later. We have moved through every liturgical season together in and through pandemic. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. New life and new ways of doing and being church together even as we are apart. We have moved from Ashes and dust to new life of Easter. From growing in our faith in the season of Ordinary Time, marking festivals and feasts, and moving into the season of watching and waiting for our Lord to appear. We have celebrated the birth of Emmanuel – God with us – and have been led by the Epiphany star to see and hear and understand God in new ways. And just like that, we’re back to Lent once again… once again thrust by the Spirit back to the wilderness that is Lent… the wilderness that moves us from the mount of Transfiguration to Golgatha; from one way of being to turn us and re-turn us back to God. The wilderness that challenges our assumptions about who God is, and who we are as followers of Jesus (like, why am I STILL  in the wilderness?!).

We might be wondering how and where we encounter God in this time and place when the physical place we have long known and trusted to be the place where we encounter God and God’s people, our people, is not available or accessible to us – it might feel like we’ve been wandering the Lenten wilderness for longer than the 4 days between Ash Wednesday and today!

Because We have been in the wilderness… we are IN wilderness. 

And like God’s faithful before us, wandering the wilderness is not easy. It does feel at times like we are being torn apart. That our way of life is being torn apart. That we are separated from God… from one another… from the places and people we love… we might even feel torn from ourselves. Because we are being changed in this time too. 

On Ash Wednesday we are invited into the discipline of Lent – we confess our sin and remember our own mortality before God, our need for God’s saving grace in our lives and or world because we cannot save ourselves. We acknowledge and ask God to come to us… to be returned to God. 

So we really shouldn’t be that surprised when the Spirit drives us out the places where that will happen. 

Recently, I heard Bishop Jason reflecting on wilderness journeys asking, “are we wandering in the wilderness or living in the woods?”

Is this a transformative wilderness experience of listening to and for God, and being changed by God or are we simply hanging out in in this particular location? 

What does it mean for us, to us, that the heavens are torn apart?

What does it mean that we are torn apart – separated? From God and from one another?  That God comes into our messy and messed-up world, into the separations of life and death, rich and poor, religious and ethnic separations, socio-economic and racial barriers. All which separate us from one another and from God. 

What does it mean that God tears heaven apart to descend on us – into our world and into our being?

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the beginning of Jesus’ life as a baptized child of God includes the reality of God tearing the world open so that God can come down to be with Jesus as he is driven into the wilderness… so that God can be and WILL be and IS with us as we are driven to the wilderness places. 

This might not sound so much like good news. 

It’s messy and hard to look at – things being torn apart. 

It’s jarring and maybe counterintuitive. 

God comes to us, not on our terms, but on God’s terms. God’s Spirit descends into us in baptism and drives us to places we would not go and do not choose for ourselves. God’s terms turn the world upside down and tear the world apart in order to make the world new again. 

We can’t go back to the way things were before – we can’t un-see the tear… we can’t un-see the brokenness or simply go back to normal. We simply cannot just patch it back up and have it be the same as before. There will always be a tear. That is the point.

God comes into the world to change the world… to change us. 

And that happens in and through Jesus. 

Named and claimed in the waters of baptism. “You are my beloved son” – Jesus needs to hear this so that he can do what he is called to do. We need to hear it too! If God is going to tear everything down, we need to hear that we are God’s beloved AND that God’s Spirit descends on us as the Spirit drives us into the wilderness. 

We need to hear that we are God’s beloved AND that God’s Spirit is with us here and now in our wilderness wandering. We are not simply living in the woods but being led through wilderness with the Spirit leading and the angels attending even in the midst of wild beasts and temptation that want us to believe we can go back to normal even when we know that’s simply not the case. 

So, now what?

What will our ministry look like?

What shape will our faith and the way we live that faith out in the world and in our community and communities of faith look like – not just this Lent, but moving forward? What does it mean to DO ministry, to follow Jesus, to embody Jesus as the Body of Christ in this time and into the future God is leading us towards and in – to? 

The promise of Lent – the promise of God in Jesus – is that God comes to us. And that means… that requires breaking barriers… it means and requires the heavens being torn apart. God transcends all those things – places and people – even our selves – to bring the kingdom of God near, to proclaim the good news for all to hear. 

That God stops at nothing, not the barriers we place upon ourselves and others to, will tear open the very heavens God created to name us and claim us beloved – God’s own, to descend upon us so that even as we are thrust into places we do not choose for ourselves, we go trusting that we belong to God and that God does not leave us alone in our wilderness wanderings but walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death to new life so that we too can proclaim “the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” believing, even with it’s cracks and tears, that it is good news. 

May it be so. AMEN. 

Transfiguration from the Valley

GOSPEL: Mark 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

The mountain stands high before us. 

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a touchstone moment in the church year. In so many ways Transfiguration looms in the background right from Advent. But certainly from the day of Epiphany, the revealing of the Christ child to the Magi. From then on, this next revealing of the Christ is on the way. The words spoken at the the Baptism of Jesus are foreshadows of the words spoken again today: this is my Son, the beloved. 

And this mountain stands before the valley to come, the valley of Lent that will push Jesus towards that next hill, the hill of Good Friday and another revealing of the Christ. 

This Transfiguration comes to us when we are little more tense and stressed than usual. Normally this time after Epiphany and these green Sundays before Lent are some weeks to catch our breath after the excitement of Advent and Christmas while preparing for Lent, and the wilderness Journey that we are about to embark on. 

But for right now, everything seems to be about Jesus’ journey up the mountain. Like so many faithful patriarchs of the Old Testament, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Elijah (who show up today!) Jesus goes to a mountain to be seemingly be closer to God. And Jesus brings with him 3 of his disciples… maybe the 3 leaders. Peter, James and John. 

It should be noted at this moment that we have skipped through half the book of Mark (don’t worry we will come back his summer). For three weeks we lingered in chapter 1, only to jump right to chapter 9 of 16, the half way point. 

And Jesus is transfigured, meaning his outward appearance is changed. 

He shines like the sun. Moses and Elijah appear beside him. Jesus not only goes up the mountain to be closer to God, in Jesus God comes closer to creation, to Peter, James and John. 

Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to mind… or maybe the extremely well thought out idea he has been holding onto the whole hike up the mountain. Peter suggests that like good and faithful jews who know a holy place when they see it, that they should build a dwelling place. An alter to worship God. Just like his forebears, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who built altars on mountains. 

But maybe it isn’t Peter’s thoughts are relevant, but his feelings. Here on the mountain, he is away from the struggle and chaos. The mountain top is removed and calm, quiet and enlightening. The mountain top is a place to escape the reality of the world. The mountain top is a place to leave troubles behind. And Peter knows a world of trouble. Living under foreign occupation by the Romans, conflict with the religious authorities, experiencing unclean spirits, dealing with demanding crowds, and managing a moody and enigmatic Jesus. 

We get it, escaping the struggle and chaos is worth staying a while, worth lingering and holding on. 

Most times we hear this story, we imagine ourselves standing right beside Peter, there on the mountaintop, there witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus and having to contend with our strong desire to remain in this safe place. 

But this year feels different. Transfiguration feels far away. Escape and relief feel far away. 

This year we are not on the mountain top. We are down in the valley. We are witnessing Transfiguration from afar. 

Our perspective has been shifted, and Transfiguration isn’t an insiders journey that we get to witness up close. Instead we only hear about it from Mark, we only get to catch the wisps of light emanating from the mountain top, we only hear the whispers that Peter, James and John cannot keep to themselves once they get down from the mountain. 

We are living in the valley and stuck there this year. The valley of struggle and suffering, the valley of the shadow death. The valley that Peter is so happily escaping as he tries to build a dwelling and an altar on the mountain top. We would much rather have that moment of escape that, break from the chaos, that chance to just catch our breath, to feel free, to relax and be safe, to forego our daily vigilance just for a moment. 

And yet there is no escaping our predicament, no mountaintops where we can hike above the fray… we are in a moment, a shared moment, a global moment of struggle and hardship, chaos and suffering. We are all stuck together down in the valley. 

A valley where struggle and suffering multiply struggle and suffering. Where one threat to our heath and safety requires sacrifice and struggle, where trying to fix one problem creates two more. Where one person refusing to buy-in and share the sacrifice can jeopardize us all. 

This is a valley we were unprepared for, one that is wearing us down, one is harder to bear than we ever imagined. 

And  this valley changes the way we see and hear the story of Transfiguration. This valley pulls us down from the mountain and keeps us far from that mountain top escape. 

So we long to be Peter, we wish we could foolishly think that living on the mountaintop was a good idea because we long to feel, even if just for moment, Peter’s sense of relief. 

And then almost a quickly as it started, Jesus is headed back down the mountain. 

Jesus tells these privileged three not to tell anyone about what they have seen, at least not until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. 

At least not until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. 

Jesus took these three up the mountain, Jesus was transfigured and met with Moses and Elijah, the voice of God speaks from the heavens, yet Jesus seems most concerned about something beyond this mountaintop experience. Peter wants to stay and linger, but Jesus is back on mission. 

Jesus is focused on the being raised from the dead. Which means Jesus also knows that he is headed towards Crucifixion. Headed towards, arrest and trial, towards conflict with the plotting religious authorities, towards more demands for healing and miracles from the crowds, more encounters with the surpernatural. 

Jesus is focused on going back down into the valley, back down into the depths of suffering and chaos, back down into the place of human need, back down to where creation is thick with finiteness and mortality… 

And Jesus is doing what he has said he has been doing since the beginning. Bringing the Kingdom of God Near. Bringing the God of all Life close again to creation that feels so far. Bringing God into the struggle and suffering that seems so far from the mountain top, so far the high minded dwelling and altars where the space between heaven and earth feels thin.

Jesus is on the way to the places that feel far from the divine, far from God’s love and mercy and grace. 

And that makes all the difference. When you are on top of the mountain like Peter, it makes sense to stay. But when you are stuck in the valley, when you feel far from the shining light of God, far from the dwellings and altars where God seems close enough to touch…

Seeing the God made flesh, the Christ come to save, the Messiah on the way…. To see Jesus coming down the mountain, coming down into the valley of the shadow of death changes everything. 

Today, we get that feeling too. We might be used to feeling like we are on the mountaintop, but, this year we need to be reminded that God is coming down the mountain to. 

Jesus is coming down into our lives, into our communities, into our chaos. Jesus meets us in the shadows of pandemic, the shadows of lockdown, of loneliness and isolation. The valleys of suffering and sin, of racism in our institutions, division in our politics, stress in our neighbour hoods

And Jesus is doing the work of the God. Confronting our mess, confronting our chaos, confronting our sin, confronting death. And in that confrontation Jesus is on the way to the new thing that God is doing among us. Bringing comfort where there is suffering, forgiveness where there is sin, and life where there is death. 

Here today, down in the valley, far from the mountain top, far from the escape of transfiguration, Jesus is coming down to us. Coming down to us in word of promise, joining us to one another through the spirit, making us alive again in the Body of Christ. 

Why Heal Anyone if You Don’t Heal Everyone, Jesus?

Mark 1:29-39
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Today is our last Sunday in the mini green season before we head up a mountain. This church year began way back in Advent, as we built towards the coming of Christ in the flesh of the babe in a manger. And soon we, with Ash Wednesday and Lent on the horizon, we will be building again towards the coming of Christ, this time Christ coming to a cross on Friday and out of the grave on Sunday. 

But for now we have been lingering with the revealing of Jesus. Revealing of his mission and ministry, revealing his identity in the waters of baptism, his call to the disciples in various ways, his message for God’s people bringing the Kingdom near. 

Last week Jesus cast out an unclean spirit in the Capernaum synagogue, a spirit that revealed our own fears and anxieties of change, of the unknown, of the future. 

And all these weeks between Epiphany and the beginning of Lent, are supposed to moment to steel ourselves for the slog of Lent. Yet, this has been hard work, being forced to face reality and deal honestly with our situation. 

In this final week of lingering, there are more miracles. Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then the whole town comes with their problems. They want to be healed too. 

It is no wonder that Jesus is tired by the end of the night. It is no wonder that he wants to get away and be by himself. And it is no wonder that even the disciples want more out of him. 

The miracles, the people clamouring for Jesus. This is the story of today. But as Mark tells us these stories of healing, we are begged to ask a deeper question, one that is percolating under the surface. 

Mark shows us that there are many, many people searching for healing, searching for miracles. And Jesus doesn’t accommodate them all. In fact it almost seems random and doesn’t make sense. Why heal anyone if you don’t heal everyone? 

And if you have the the time to stay and heal some people, would one more day, to finish the job, be so bad? Jesus decides to pick up and move on, and for us it doesn’t really jive. 

This Gospel lesson brings another story to mind, one that may open wide the question that is floating beneath the surface, the one that we might be afraid to ask.

In the face of suffering, in the face of pain and grief. In the face of death, we bring our greatest questions to God. And we ask why some and not others? Why heal some people and why let others suffer? Why is there no obvious reason for it all?

This moment in time has certainly opened the flood gates of questions about suffering, with a sometimes near harmless, sometimes deadly virus seemingly arbitrarily choosing who gets really sick and who doesn’t, who ends up in the hospital and who just gets the sniffles. Not to mention all the other things we have going on that are out of control from job loss to climate change, from racial justice to extreme political division based conspiracy theories. 

We know both the exhaustion that Jesus seems to have with it all (and it is only still the first chapter of Mark) and the clamouring for healing and miracles of the crowds who are coming to him. 

There is a temptation when preaching about this story tell you that we are being selfish when we ask why God isn’t solving our problems. There is the temptation to say that we only want a magic Genie God who comes at our beck and call to make our lives easier. There is the temptation to say that all human life ends in death, so a little healing here and there doesn’t really make a difference. 

But that is not fair to the reality of suffering. That does not acknowledge how much suffering and our need to be healed can come to define our very existence. And nor does it explain why sometimes it doesn’t make sense why some people are healed and some are not. 

When Simon comes and tells Jesus that people are looking for him Jesus says, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 

For that is what I came out to do. 

We know the message. We know what Jesus has done for us. 

But at this point in the story, Jesus hasn’t done it yet. The message that Jesus is preaching is that the Kingdom of God has come near. Those are the very first words that he says in the Gospel of Mark. 

The Kingdom has come near because the King has come near. God is near because Jesus is near. And Jesus is not only on his way to proclaim the message, Jesus is the message. The message is what we proclaim as a community of faith:

Christ has died

Christ has risen

Christ will come again. 

But the message is not just knowing the story, but discovering how exactly the story has changed our lives. 

Jesus has not come to take away our suffering. In fact, even the people who Jesus healed, they still suffered afterwards. And even still, Jesus himself suffered. 

Suffering as terrible as we know it, is normal. That doesn’t make it easy, that doesn’t make it suffering good. 

But especially these days, as our suffering and discomfort, our crisis and struggle is so acute, there is a strange comfort in know that it is not outside the normal. It isn’t *our* normal, but pandemics and economic struggles and existential threats are not unusual for creation, not new in history, and not outside of God’s purview. There is nothing that we are experiencing now that is too big for God to contend with.

God’s mission in Christ, God’s purpose in the incarnation, God’s activity in the world has not changed. God stills comes to be reconciled with God’s people. God still brings mercy and forgiveness and grace into a world that needs it. God in Christ has come near to us to do something about ultimate and permanent defeat — death. 

While life and freedom will always mean that suffering and discomfort are a part of our existence, God’s mission to creation is to redefine our existence. Not take away our pain, our suffering, our grief. Not remove death from our existence. But rather to transform it.  

On the cross, Christ takes all of our death. 

Christ does not take it away, rather Christ changes it, all of it. 

Transforms it. 

Into something new.

On the cross and then in the empty tomb, Jesus takes death and makes it something completely different. It is no longer the end of our lives. Death is now our entrance into the Kingdom of God. Suffering, pain, grief and death are near. But so is the Kingdom of God. This is the message that Jesus has come to proclaim. This why Jesus only stays for so long and why some are healed and others not. Because this healing is only temporary. But death having been transformed into resurrection. That is permanent. 

Yes, we know that suffering and death can be terrible and it can in fact come to define our very lives… but God has refined suffering, God has redefined death and God has redefined life. Yes, we come clamouring to Jesus to take away our aches and pains, to take away our grief and sorrow. But Jesus does something completely different, something that isn’t for just a few or some of us. Rather, Jesus has come into our world, joined God to all creation in order to bring us, all of us, all of creation, to New Life. 

Capernaum, Possesing Spirits and Living Out our Worst Fears

Mark 1:21-28
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!”

On this 4th Sunday of the Season after Epiphany, in this season of unknowns, Jesus continues to be revealed to us. From the waters of Baptism, to the calling of his disciples, Jesus and his mission towards us and all creation is revealed in news ways. 

Today, we pick up in Mark’s gospel where we left off last week. Jesus has preached his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near” and called Simon and Andrew, James and John to be disciples. 

Now the group of them head to Capernaum, which becomes the home-base for Jesus’ ministry. It is the Sabbath, the day of worship, and they go to the synagogue. Jesus begins teaching, as was the right of any circumcised and Bar Mitzvahed Jewish man. Usually, it was local scribes or a Rabbi who preached but sometimes travelling preachers like Jesus would come by to teach. 

As Jesus begins, the congregation notices something different. Jesus is not teaching like the scribes. The scribes who were like walking encyclopedias of religious knowledge. The scribes were experts in the law, in the teachings and interpretations of the Jewish faith. The scribes didn’t innovate or interpret, they simply memorized what had been interpreted and written down by rabbis and other authorities long ago. New teaching was dangerous and probably heretical. It was important to stick to what they knew to be tried and true. 

Yet, Jesus was preaching something new. Something different. Jesus was preaching from his own authority. Preaching like he had some special access to Moses, Elijah and the other prophets. Like he had special access to God. 

While most people weren’t sure what to make of this Jesus guy, who he was or where his authority came from. One person did. Or rather a man possessed by an unclean spirit. While regular humans don’t see who Jesus really is, the supernatural unclean spirit knows. And the spirit knows that Jesus is a threat to the established order. The spirit knows that Jesus has come to turn things upside down. The spirit knows the world as he and the people around him are stuck the past, in the comfortable systems, traditions and ways of being that they are used to. And Jesus is going wreck things. 

The spirit is the one who speaks. 

What have you to do with us? I know who you are!

The man with a spirit might just be a man with an unclean spirit. But for Mark the man might also represent the ways in which that community, that world, was possessed by tradition. Stuck in past. Unable to introduce any change that threatened the status quo. 

Sound familiar?

Or maybe, did that used to sound familiar? 

In years past, we may have heard this story from the Gospels and thought about how the quaint little synagogue in Capernaum was probably a little stiff and stodgy. But we also probably identified with them, we know these folks and their comfortable community. 

Or at least we did. 

These days we almost certainly wish we were the Capernaum Synagogue. The community faith able to keep their traditions, able to be unchanged by the outside world, able to just keep on keepin’ on without anything or anyone bringing disorder or disruption. 

But for nearly a year a now, we have been living the worst nightmare of the Capernaum Synagogue. We have been disrupted and forced to make nearly everything new. Even as we strive to retain as much of what we can of the familiar way of being church, they way we must form our community today has been completely transformed in the past year.

The man with the unclean spirit asked if Jesus had come to destroy. 

I wonder if on some level destruction for the folks in Capernaum looked liked us. Empty churches, lonely people, the feeling of disconnection and drifting apart. The knowledge that who we were when this all started is not who are now. And who are now is not who we will be by the end. We has been changed as individuals and as a community. 

That the whole world is being forced to change as result of this time we are living in, but just how everything has been changed isn’t settled yet. Much as been lost, but we aren’t sure what has been lost for good. 

The man with the unclean spirit expressed the collective anxiety of a system that feared change, that worked hard to maintain the status quo and the order of things. 

The spirit of our time is of anxiety and uncertainty, of having to live through change that we do not control, of having to endure things that are uncomfortable and difficult. This moment require sacrifices that we don’t know if we have it in us to keep making. 

There just might be a part of us that wants to stand up and say to God too, 

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

When the unclean spirit interrupts Jesus in the synagogue and names the threat that Jesus is – the threat to not only to the spirit’s possession of the man, but also the threat that Jesus represents the whole community and the status quo –  Jesus will have none of it. 

Be silent and come out of him!

Jesus will not be deterred by the anxiety and fears, or the unwillingness of the spirit or people to let go. Jesus is preaching a new world, Jesus is calling the people around him into the future, into a new way of living. Jesus’ new teaching is astonishing, radical, unheard of. And it comes from a place that people don’t understand, but that the unclean spirit does. The unclean spirit knows that the old ways, that the established approved way of doing things is safe, is comfortable, it is known. The spirit knows that people would so often rather be possessed by trying to maintain the past than face the unknown future. 

Be Jesus knows that God is calling them into something new and unknown. 

And today, Jesus knows that we have been thrust into that new and unknown thing, and that even still our anxieties and worries, our fears and hesitations are keeping us from seeing God’s future. Because we would love to go back to our past, to recreate what we once were. We used to long for the glory days, but now we would settle for just the pre-pandemic world. We feel the traditions, systems, and ways to doing things that were good for generations before us just slipping away faster than ever. 

Now don’t hear Jesus wrongly. Jesus is not saying that what we once were was wrong or bad. Jesus it not saying that God wasn’t active in the past, or that God wasn’t working through the ways we used to do things. Often when churches and individuals face change, letting go of what we once were is so hard because it feels like losing so much and failing all those who came before us. 

That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that God has been present among God’s people the whole time. Jesus isn’t exorcizing us of our past. Jesus is exorcizing us of our holding on to what we were, of our fears and worries of what we will become. 

It is not the past keeps us from seeing God’s future, it is our efforts to keep things the same, to recreate what once was, what we once were.  And Jesus’s new teaching is really about showing us a new world. Showing us God’s future. Showing that God is coming us from the future, meetings us in the places that we are going to, not where we have already been. God knows we cannot go backwards. 

In 2021, we know that this has never been more true. There is no going back. 

And that is what is so radical to the people in the synagogue in Capernaum, so radical for us today. God is not a God of the past, God is not about keeping things, keeping us the same. God is about resurrection, about turning death and the forces that hold us back, into new and abundant life. 

It might seem like folly to imagine a community of friends and family, gathered together in that community space and community home, like the Capernaum synagogue, or the familiar church buildings… 

But today, Jesus is calling us into something new. And Jesus has been calling us, calling the church, the Body of Christ into the new thing for quite a while now. 

And just as Jesus called out to the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus is calling out to us. Calling out our fears and worries, our anxieties and hesitations. Jesus calling them out of us, showing us that no matter what the future brings, no matter what our present brings, that the God to whom we belong is a God of new things, new realities, new teachings and most of all –

New Life. 

An iPhone Pastor for a Typewriter Church

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