Monday, 2 February 2015
This morning we continue our short series of sermons on the Good News of Jesus by looking at passage from Mark’s Gospel where Jesus encounters a man with an “impure or demonic spirit”.
Its an ordinary Sabbath day and Jesus had gone to his local Synagogue to one of the services.
It was a five part service which included prayers, singing psalms, blessings and readings from the Old Testament and teaching. But as there was no official clergy any Jew who wanted to offer some comment or teaching on the passage could stand up and say something. That’s what Jesus does here.
As soon as he does so one of the members of the congregation, possessed—says Mark - by an evil spirit—manifests that spirit and starts shouting in fear that Jesus the “Holy One of God” has come to destroy him.
With a word of command: “be quiet or be muzzled” and “come out of him” the spirit is cast out and leaves. The crowd are amazed. They had heard teaching before but this has a power and authority they had never seen. Word spreads about Jesus.
What’s the message here then for us? What’s the Good News in this passage? There are lots of things we could say but I want to focus on one. Problem of evil.
Evil comes in many forms. I think one of the worst forms of evil is an evil that masquerades itself as good or in the name of religion. We don’t have to look far to see what being done in the name of Allah today, something that horrifies the vast majority of peaceful and devout Muslims.
Christianity is not exempt either. Take for example the Bosnian war in the early nineties. Some Serbian Orthodox priests were seen blessing soldiers before they tortured and killed their victims. And paedophile priests and ministers use their positions of trust and privilege to prey on vulnerable
children. Today Israel occupies a country they say was given them by God and yet how does that measure up to what it is doing to their neighbours the Palestinians? So it’s not altogether shocking to find evil lurking in a member of the Synagogue—the place of worship—on the day Jesus went to preach. And Jesus expresses no surprise either when he encounters it.
W.Graham Scroggie a great Scottish preacher who died in the 1950’s was not surprised either. He says this in his commentary on the passage:
"Jesus went to church on Sunday. Do you go? Demons do sometimes. See to it that you are never their conveyance. We speak of the “man in the street”, but what about the devil in the pew! Where there is Divine instruction there will be devilish obstruction: truth never goes unchallenged.”
Scroggie on Mark
But the Good News is that Jesus came to deliver us from evil. And what he did for this one man, he came to do for the world. Through his death and resurrection evil will ultimately be defeated.
There are three places where evil needs to be addressed:
First, there is evil in us.
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian dissident writer in the 20th century who wrote about the evils of communism. He was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 but not before he spent 8 years
imprisonment because of his writings. In one of his famous books “The Gulag of Archipelago he says this about evil:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
We can’t point the finger at everyone else without pointing three fingers at ourselves, he is saying. In the words God spoke to Cain (Genesis 3), sins crouches at our door and the potential for evil—as well as good—lies in each one of us.
Paul knew that better than anyone. He speaks about it in Romans 7 when peering into his own heart he cries out about the battle within himself. That sometimes the good he wants to do he doesn't do and the evil he doesn't want to do he ends up doing! “What a wretched man I am! He shouts.
“Who will rescue me?” Who will rescue us?
Have you ever made that prayer? I have. Frank Sinatra is a fortunate man to be able to sing “regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention.” I have loads. Especially since coming here to St. James. Things I have done and said without thinking that just pop up and betray that deep fault line within my own heart. "Who will rescue me?" cries Paul in anguish. “Thanks be to God—through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The same Jesus who rescued that poor man in the synagogue. Who knows how many years he had suffered? But as soon as Jesus comes along he has the power to rescue him and set him free. And he has the power to rescue me—and you. Call out to him and he will forgive and rescue you. He won't make you perfect overnight but he will begin the process of making you more and more like him. That is what his name means: Jesus—God is salvation or God saves. He gives us the means and the power to change.
Second, evil in society.
Its there all around us, you don’t have to look far. Poverty, homelessness, injustice, prejudice, greed, dishonesty, selfishness, its all there. And Jesus calls us to fight it. That is why through the centuries the Church has built hospitals, fought to abolish slavery, set up schools and universities, charities and rescue missions. That is why there are street pastors on the streets of Swansea—two from St. James Sylvia and Sian. That is why there are Food Banks and Credit Unions.
Jesus says to the disciples (and us): “You are the light of the world.” The Message puts it like this:
“You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colours in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven.“
We are not only light we are, says Paul, the body of Christ! Teresa of Avila put it like this:
“Christ has no hands, no feet on earth but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good…”
What are we at St. James doing to address the evils in society? How are we being the light that pushes back the evil? Of all people on earth we are meant to be associated with the compassion, kindness and love of Christ. We are meant to shine out that goodness so that people may see Jesus among us.
Jesus died on the cross to save us, so that we, in turn may work with him to save others
Finally, there is evil in the heavenly places.
“Our struggle” writes Paul to the Ephesians, “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Eph 6:12
We see an aspect of this spiritual force of evil in the impure spirit that possessed the man in the synagogue. Jesus himself had no doubt about its reality. You don’t speak to a mental illness and command it to be quiet and leave. So we take our lead from Christ. As a result from the earliest days the church when it baptised people, included some form of exorcism or deliverance from evil in its order of service. Its still there, in some form, in our baptism services.
“Do you renounce evil? I renounce evil. Almighty Father, you sent your Son into the world to destroy the powers of darkness. Hear our prayer for these children: deliver them from evil, give them light & joy and fill them with your Holy Spirit….”
Each person is signed with the cross and called upon to “Fight valiantly against sin, the world AND the devil…”
But here’s is the point. The power of Christ is greater than the power of the devil and all evil. On the cross he defeated it all. So Paul writes to the Colossians:
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
The war is already won but there are still battles to be fought. In the Second World War when the Allies landed in Europe they knew they had won the war but there will still battles to be fought as the Germans fought a determined rearguard action against the advancing armies. With Christ then we have nothing to fear. But there is still work to do and we must constantly be on the watch out for spiritual attack that can come at any time.
I don’t have time to look at the many forms this form of spiritual battle can take but let me highlight one. Division. One of the devils tactics is to divide and conquer. If we read the New Testament letters we see this come up again and again. Jesus describes the devil as a wolf who scatters the sheep picking them off one by one. Or like a lion stalking his prey. We need to be constantly on our guard resisting him firm in the faith that Christ has already defeated him on the cross and working to stay united as a church over any issue that threatens to divide us as a congregation.
So here is the good news. Jesus is greater than all evil.
If we trust in him he will deliver us from it and save us.
If we work with him we will push back the darkness of evil in our world bringing light.
If we stand guard with him we will be able to resist every attack aimed at undermining the work he wants to do.
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