January 28: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for January 28, 2024 was preached in response to Mark 1:21-28 based on the manuscript below.

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be acceptable in your sight
O God our strength
and our redeemer. Amen.
Mark as we read it,
is written down.
There are themes that emerge
and there is foreshadowing.
Throughout the narrative, though,
Mark tends to get to the point.
The stories are straight forward.

Today Jesus and his few disciples
come into Capernaum.
It’s the Sabbath, so they do what they’re supposed to do:
they go to the synagogue.
Jesus offers a teaching,
one with authority —
not just erudition,
but the right to be speaking
on whatever he’s speaking.
A man with an unclean spirit
knows who Jesus is
in a way that no one else recognizes yet
and in a way that those hearers
don’t even hear the proclamation.
Jesus is the holy one of God.

Martin L. Smith, in Reconciliation —
which we’ll be studying during Lent —
says, “Today Christians differ
as to how literally
they are to take the imagery of Satan and devils.
We suffer a grave loss, though,
if we try to dispense altogether
with the language of demonic evil
and the powers of hell…
in the daily run of human infidelity,
we experience what St. Paul call rightly
‘the mystery of iniquity.’
We sense the seductive pull,
the insidious deception,
the undermining force pervading the whole world
hostile to the will of God.”

What we know about this man’s unclean spirit
is that it was ritually impure
in some way.
That’s why Mark calls it unclean.
It’s a supernatural force
alienated from and hostile to God.
We don’t have to look into the past, though
to see demonic forces in action.
This week Drew Jackson
wrote a very short poem called
“Death’s Laboratory”
for Kenneth Smith.
“We are always inventing
new ways to kill.
Experimenting in death.
Giddy, like children,
with hands deep
in the sandbox
of murder.”

CNN reported,
“Alabama on Thursday night
executed Kenneth Smith,
the first death row inmate known to die by nitrogen gas,
marking the emergence
of a wholly new method of execution
in the United States
that experts have said could lead
to excessive pain or even torture.”

I haven’t heard it here,
but think if we’re not careful
we can fall into a complacency
rooted in our own self-satisfaction
and self-sufficiency.
We’re not likely to encounter
unclean spirits screaming at me during a sermon
and would want to check out psychiatric reasons
so we can be lulled into feeling like
demonic forces are just a thing of the past.
In the same vein it’s easy to say
“I live in Washington so everything is fine”
while forgetting the racial impacts of the death penalty
and the racial motivations
of voter disenfranchisement.
Again, these aren’t things I’ve heard any of you say!
But they’re ideas
that have floated across my brain
particularly when I’m frustrated
or feel like I need a win
so it may as well be
at someone else’s expense.

After being named as the Holy One of God,
Jesus gives this man a relief:
he expels the unclean spirit from him.
Everyone who saw it started to observe,
“He commands even the unclean spirits,
and they obey him.”
“He commands even the unclean spirits,
and they obey him.”
What Jesus gives to this man
is what Jesus offers to the whole of creation:
salvation and reconciliation.
This unclean spirit
is alienated from and hostile to God.
Undoubtedly this man has been alienated from
his family and community.
While the point of this passage from Mark
is that Jesus is God’s anointed one
and the demons listen to him
Jesus’ exorcism stories
always make room
for relationships to be healed
and the fullness of life and health
to be a possibility again.
That’s why he’s been wandering around Galilee
preaching, “Now is the time!
Here comes God’s kingdom!
Change your hearts and lives,
and trust this good news!”

Jesus’ gift of salvation for this man
is evidence of the nearness of God’s reign,
a manifestation of the Good News
that we have come to know in Jesus
the Incarnate and Resurrected Christ.
At our baptisms —
and we heard this three weeks ago! —
we renounce Satan
and all the spiritual forces of wickedness
that rebel against God.
We renounce the evil powers of this world
which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.
We renounce all sinful desires that draw us
from the love of God.
Our baptisms are the beginning of our reconciliation,
a first sign of the salvation that Jesus brings
as we turn to him and accept him as our savior;
put our whole trust in his grace and love;
and promise to follow and obey him
as our Lord.

Martin Smith, writing about baptism says,
“Forgiveness is a gift of God
that flows out of the one decisive act
of sending the Son, handing him over to death for us,
and raising him up.
This acceptance of us in Christ,
this overwhelming yes to us
that cancels all our nos to God,
is not something tentative or provisional.
Baptism is irreversible and permanent
because our reconciliation in the death and resurrection of Jesus
is irreversible…
Reconciliation with God cannot leave me in my solitude,
with my individually and autonomy unaffected,
as if my relationship with him were a purely private affair.
God’s act of reconciliation in Christ
established a reconciling community of the reconciled —
the church.
Baptism grafts me into this community,
repentance draws me into solidarity and love for others,
and the gift of the Holy Spirit endows me
for a particular function in the church.”

When we look around
we can see demonic forces
that draw us from God’s love
and push us to reject God’s good gifts.
Yet in our baptisms
we’re gifted by the Spirit
to reject those allures
and not get our wins
at anyone else’s expense.
Having hung on a cross
as his government killed him
Jesus was with Kenneth Smith
as his government experimented
with a new way to kill him.
It is right to mourn and to feel nauseous
but not to feel despair.
The spiritual forces of darkness are persistent
so our work is ongoing.
Those on whose shoulders we stand
knew most of their work wouldn’t be completed
in their lifetimes.
As we fight demonic forces
we have to remember that God
is bigger than we are.
As we follow Jesus as our Lord
we have to remember:
he commands even the unclean spirits,
and they obey him.

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