Casting Out Evil
January 28, 2018 / Epiphany 4 / Pastor Richard Holmer
First Reading: Deuteronomy 18:15-20 / Second Reading: I Corinthians 8:1-13 / Gospel: Mark 1:21-28
Casting Out Evil
In his gospel Mark makes it very clear that Jesus has come to confront and to overcome the forces of evil in this world. The battle is engaged right from the start, in the early verses of chapter one – which relate the story of how Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, tempted by the father of lies, Satan. A few verses, later still in chapter one, we come to today’s gospel reading. While teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus is confronted by a man who is possessed by an unclean spirit. That unclean spirit cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The short answer is: “Yes, that is precisely why I have come.”
Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, saying: “Be silent, and come out of him!” And to the amazement of all, that is what happens – and the man is set free. The crowd expresses their astonishment at what Jesus has done: “What is this?” they say. “A new teaching – with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Thus begins the conflict that continues over the course of Christ’s ministry. In many and various ways Jesus combats the powers of sin, death and the devil that distort and oppress human lives. The climax of this epic struggle comes with Christ’s death and resurrection. What seems like a crushing defeat is transformed into a transcendent victory. The final outcome of the war between good and evil is assured – ultimately, the God of love prevails. Yet for now, and for us, the battle continues.
It’s not news that there is still lots of evil in this world.
- Terrorists slaughter people indiscriminately
- Children are molested – even by their doctors and priests
- Hatred and prejudice lead to violence and oppression
- Women suffer harassment and abuse
- Every day persons are victimized by crime
- Lies and deceptions and broken promises are ubiquitous
We are well aware that evil is out there – all around us. And evil is also in here – in each of our hearts. In Mark, Chapter 7, Jesus pointedly tells his followers that we are threatened not only by the evil that is around and outside us. Jesus warns them, saying: “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, avarice, adultery, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from WITHIN, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:21-23
So we should never presume to resist evil as though it existed entirely and only outside us. In order to address and challenge and overcome the evil in the world around us, we need first to deal with the evil in our own lives. Jesus addresses the evils in your life and mine. We call it sin. Jesus confronts this evil head on – and he overcomes it with forgiveness. Christ sets us free to be responsible and useful.
Week by week, the struggle between good and evil that plays out in each of our lives is articulated and resolved in the order that we use for confession and forgiveness. This is a brief segment of the entire worship service – yet it expresses the essential truth about who we are – and who God is, and how God is with us and for us. Over the year we employ different words to describe the nature of our sin – and the blessing of God’s grace and mercy. Yet the message is unchanging. We come before God, admitting the many ways we fall short and go astray. And God renews our lives by removing the burden of sin and empowering us to walk in his ways.
Just last Sunday a member mentioned that they appreciate the wording we are currently using in our prayer of confession. Let’s take some time to consider what we say in this prayer – and how God responds:
We begin by saying this: “we confess that we have turned from your way to follow our own ways.” We own up to something fundamental about the way we sin: we choose to go our own way instead of going God’s way. Sometimes this happens absent-mindedly – we wander away, bit by bit, not consciously rejecting God, but distracted and enticed by any number of things. Other times we are deliberate and willful: “I want what I want – and I’m going to have it.” In effect we declare: my will be done. And then at some point, we stop and realize how far we have wandered away from God, from the life that really is life. Then in a series of three couplets, we acknowledge the various ways our thoughts and action do harm to us and to others.
The first couplet goes like this: “Forgive us for the times we have spoken or acted too quickly – and for the times we have not spoken or acted at all.” Our impulses can get us into trouble. We can speak or act without thinking, without considering the likely consequences of our behavior. We are tempted by immediate gratification and so we may speak a spiteful word that we later regret, we may indulge our appetites in a way that diminishes us. On other occasions we neglect to speak or act at all. These are our many sins of omission. How many coaches, officials, parents could have said a word that would have ended the ongoing abuse of all those young, female gymnasts – but did not? There was a terrible conspiracy of silence. In the same way, you and I can fail to speak a needed word – whether a word to hold another accountable or a word that gives comfort and encouragement. We can fail to do the needed “right thing.”
The next couplet asks: “Forgive us for the times we have hurt those closest to us – and for the times we have hurt those we have yet to know.” There’s an old song that says, “You always hurt the one you love.” It’s sad, but true. Because we live in close relationship and proximity to the ones we love, we have ample opportunities to hurt them. It is sobering to realize that our love for another person does not keep us from wounding that person. Sometimes our love can be controlling, conditional and self-serving.
The first time I read the next phrase, it made me stop and wonder: how can we hurt “those we have yet to know”? And then it dawned on me: that’s exactly what any kind of prejudice does. Prejudice is deciding in advance, before we have even met a person, how we will regard them, how we will treat them, whether based on: race, status, gender, religion, nationality, or political affiliation. We hurt people by pre-judging them – instead of seeing them through Christ’s eyes. Another example of hurting those we have yet to know is expressed in one of the confessions we made on Ash Wednesday: Forgive us “for our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us.” Our waste and neglect have a harmful impact on future generations.
And the final couplet goes like this: “Forgive us for the times we have thought more about ourselves than others, and the times we have thought less of ourselves than we should.” Thinking more about ourselves than others points to the root problem: it is sIn, spelled s, capital I, n. Our habitual, default self-centeredness is what so often leads us astray. We miss the boat when our first question is always: “What’s in this for me?” At the same time, we can make the mistake of thinking less of ourselves than we ought. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. You and I are children of God, created in the image of God. The sin of despair includes the notion that our lives are worthless. Humility is not having poor self esteem. To despise you own life is to deny the love God has for you.
So what are we to do, given the variety of ways we can go wrong? We can admit the truth! We can turn to God and confess who we are and what we do. And we ask God to forgive us to turn our lives around to give us a fresh start. Jesus says, “Ask, and you will receive” and so we do. Every time we turn to God, God welcomes us as we are – and forgives us and makes us whole. Listen again to these gracious words of absolution: “Even when we have done wrong, God makes us right. Even when we have messed up, God puts us together. God’s love never runs out. God never tires of calling us beloved children. Hear God say to you now: Your sins are forgiven, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Savior.” When the magnitude of this gracious gift dawns upon us, we are blessed with peace, filled with gratitude, and renewed in spirit. All we can say in response is: