Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | January 29, 2012

2012.01.29 “The Day the Devil Came to Church” – Mark 1: 21 – 28

Central United Methodist Church

“The Day the Devil Came to Church”

Pastor David L. Haley

Mark 1: 21 – 28

January 29th, 2012


          “Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching — so forthright, so confident — not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars.

          Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!”

          Jesus shut him up: “Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly — and got out.

          Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!” News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.” – Mark 1: 21 – 28, The Message


     When I was a child, on Sunday morning, we went to church. After church, we came home to eat Sunday dinner, the biggest meal of the week. We usually did that at my grandparent’s house, where everybody sat around one table. I know for the younger generation this might be hard to believe, but as we ate, we talked.

     The topic of conversation was often, as someone else once characterized such Sunday dinner conversation: “roast preacher and warmed-over gossip.”

     Other than that, rarely did we talk about what happened at church, because, frankly, not much ever happened. After all, we were Methodists, not Pentecostals. Nobody danced in the aisles, shouted, or experienced radical transformation, except for those who did so on a predictable basis. As Garrison Keillor once said of his Lake Wobegon Lutherans, our favorite verse was “Be still, and know that I am God.” Some of us were so still it looked a lot like sleeping. 

      After 38 years as a pastor in the United Methodist Church, I am thankful to say that – at least for me – nothing frighteningly dramatic has ever happened.  Yes, of course, week-by-week, good things have happened.  And yes, of course, there have been those times when things fell apart, children made funny remarks, and a few medical emergencies – which, since I was a paramedic, I had to stop and take care of. And, yes, there was that time in worship when I proposed to Michele. Thankfully she said yes, and got a standing ovation, and not just by me. That provided conversation fodder for awhile. But thankfully, nothing scary every happened

     Some pastors have different stories, especially those who serve in rough urban neighborhoods. They have stories about when crazy or intoxicated people interrupted worship, took off their clothes, or had to be escorted out by ushers. One of the worst stories ever occurred not in church, but when an intoxicated man stumbled into a parsonage one night and beat one of our pastors mercilessly, such that that pastor literally had to fight for his life.

     Nowadays, it’s the fear of gun-related violence that scares us most. It’s sad that churches must now worry about security and evacuation plans, and worst-case scenarios of what could happen. Unfortunately, due to a society awash in guns, what has happened in a few places, could happen anywhere. A few years ago I heard United Methodist Pastor Rudy Rasmus, pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, say he has armed security in church, because, in the part of the city where they are, “You can be sure they’re not the only people in church who are ‘packing.’”

     It was a comparable interruption that happened – if not in church, in synagogue – the first time Jesus’ disciples accompanied him there. They learned an important lesson that day; that an important part of the work of God in the world is still to confront and to free us from everything which hinders or diminishes what God desires, not just for us, but for all God’s children.  Let’s see if – through what happened that day – we can learn this too.

        When you read Mark’s Gospel, you discover that Mark is always in a hurry. Time and again he uses the word “immediately” or “at once.” Within the space of 12 verses Jesus is baptized by John, tempted by Satan, begins preaching, and calls disciples. At least, in our verses today, between the calling of the disciples and what happened in the synagogue, there is a break in the action. 

        I can’t help but wonder if that wasn’t a honeymoon time for Jesus’ disciples, short as it was. After all, according to Mark, they’d left everything in response to his call and followed him, without even asking questions. Were they that tired of fishing, or just excited about the possibilities of their new adventure with Jesus? 

        I wonder if in those first days they discussed how glad they were to be done with fishing, how easy this new job was going to be, what wonderful sights they were going to see, and perhaps what the benefits would be, as well as when lunch would be served? I suspect they could hardly wait until synagogue on the Sabbath, when they would debut with Jesus. They only hoped it wouldn’t be too boring. Even at its worst, it couldn’t be as boring as fishing, could it?  Did they have a bumper sticker which said, “A bad day with Jesus is better than a good day fishing?”

        And do you think synagogue in Jesus’ day was that different from church today? Granted, it was a synagogue rather than a church, and the people would look different and speak differently, , but my guess is that if you and I were there, there would be much we would recognize. 

        In 1981, excavations in Capernaum unearthed the ruins of a first century synagogue, perhaps this very one. It’s insightful to remember, they weren’t megachurches, they were small congregations. A friend once told me the largest room unearthed in ancient Corinth could hold no more than about 25 people: think about that. Everybody likely knew everybody else, and especially knew what they didn’t like about them.  I’m sure there were crying babies and sleeping elders (or is that crying elders and sleeping babies?).  Welcome to the real world in which we practice faith: as it was from the beginning, so it is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.

        But what they were to remember that day was not who wore what, but what happened when Jesus spoke. First, he taught with authority, not like those rabbis they were accustomed to hearing: “Hillel says this, and Gamaliel adds that, while others say…” Jesus made no reference to any authority other than himself, yet his words were so insightful, so true to the experience and inner convictions of those gathered that they shook their heads and said, “Of course!” It was self-authenticating truth, corresponding to an inner conviction in each person who heard, that Jesus was speaking the truth: about God, about the world, about the life we live. We still feel that way today, don’t we?

        But secondly, it was what happened next that set everyone talking. As the 16th century church reformer, Martin Luther, once said, “When the Gospel is preached, devils begin to roam.” And that’s what happened:

                “Suddenly, Jesus was interrupted by a deeply disturbed man,     who yelled: ‘What business do you have here with us, Jesus?      Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy   One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!’”

      The text does not say whether this man was a stranger, or regular worshipper. It does not say whether he was an usher, a member of the Choir, the Trustees, or Staff-Parish, but I have my suspicions.

      Long before Rev. Jeremiah Wright was figuratively tarred and feathered for his remarks during President Obama’s presidential campaign, he once told his more affluent African-American congregation, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, (where Barack Obama was a former member):

             “The devil comes to church, too. I tell the folks at my church all the time, “The devil ain’t got no other way of getting to church except we bring him” . . . Don’t you know the devil will ride in your BMW, ride in   your Mercedes Benz, get on public transportation right along with you, and when you get inside of the church, he’ll break out all over the   congregation. And you’ll be wondering, “How did the devil get in the church? He came with y’all. That’s how.” (As we would eventually learn, sometimes the devil also comes with the preacher.)

But on this day in that synagogue in Galilee, no matter how the devil got there, no sooner did trouble begin than it was over:

        “Be silent!” said Jesus, “and come out.” And the unclean spirit,   convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out. All there were      all amazed, and kept asking one another, “What is this?  A new       teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and      they obey.” At once his fame began to spread . . .”  

      His fame spread, because he spoke with authority and integrity.  He not only talked the talk, he walked the walk. It was not only in what he said, but in what he did: there was no discontinuity.

      I’m sure it quickly sobered up the euphoria of Jesus’ new disciples. Did they now understand that following Jesus was not going to be a diversion from fishing, not going to be a fun excursion, not going to be three easy steps to a happy and prosperous life. What it was going to be was an ongoing confrontation with evil, with brokenness, with sin and alienation, which only began, but did not end, that day. In short, a confrontation with everything that diminishes the life God desires for God’s children. Sometimes that evil and brokenness is outside us, and sometimes it is inside us.

      Do we understand that yet?  Do we understand what Jesus’ disciples learned that day, that following Christ is not the fast way nor the easy way to happiness and prosperity and success, but one that leads us to all and every place where God’s children still suffer: to hospitals and institutions and shelters and prisons and hospices, into streets and homes, sometimes even into our own hearts. Sometimes that suffering comes to church, but more often, we have to go outside the church to find it, to go to where that suffering is.  We never have to go far, because the world is full of it.

      In truth, this is not likely our favorite story about Jesus. After all, if there’s a biblical story we have a hard time relating to, it’s an exorcism. Miracle stories are hard enough in our scientific age, but at least we have experience with those who long for healing or those who are hungry. But demon possession? That’s not a category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association. In all of my calls as a paramedic, I saw about everything, but I never had a single call for someone possessed by a demon.

        On the other hand, most of us would likely admit that through harsh human experience, we understand what possession is. In fact, we likely have first hand experience. When we have, for example, been so possessed by anger at a co-worker or family member, that we have said and done things we regret. When we have been so possessed by jealousy and greed, that we wasted our resources in ways we regret. When we have been possessed, in ways more damaging than we could ever have imagined, by addictions to alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or pornography

        So it’s good to know that Jesus is still at work – today as surely as that day in the synagogue – to cleanse us from unclean spirits. Is it as dramatic as this story here?  Sometimes, it is; ask around and you’ll find stories of people who have had dramatic and sudden encounters with grace and mercy.

        Sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes the road to cleansing and healing and restoration takes both time and company. Sometimes it’s not a single visit to a counselor, but the steady support of a grief support network, an AA group, a prayer chain, a parenting group, or an anger-management class. God is at work in all these ways — and more — to free us from the unclean spirits that still possess us. God is still at work to confront and to free us from everything which hinders or diminishes what God desires, and not just for us, but for all God’s children.

      That’s what happened in church, and set them all to talking around dinner tables afterward. In one form or another, may it continue to happen here, every time we meet.   What’s for dinner?



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