5th Sunday after Epiphany
Good versus evil: the ultimate formula for Hollywood success! Yes, Hollywood has made an awful lot of hay in its long history in the darkness versus the forces of light kind of story because it is so engrained in how we see the world; how the world is. There are films without religious overtones but fit the genre, like Star Wars, the Magnificent 7, nearly every John Wayne movie ever, etc. Then the old story of God vs. Satan or generic demons like The Exorcist or The Omen. Then the modern takes on this good versus evil genre in films like Constantine, Legion, the Seventh Seal, and many others. But the power of God’s light opposed by Satan (i.e. evil) doesn’t really work the way it is portrayed in the movies. Other than Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, after his baptism, Jesus encountered evil in the form that it generally takes today, for us: spiritual and physical challenge and, oftentimes, our own human weakness.
What I am really leading to is how much we, in our earthly life and struggles, actually need to acknowledge how much we desire God in our everyday lives and how much we benefit and thrive as we grow in that realization. On some level, of course, all of us pray to God, petition to God when we need something, and we have some kind of relationship with God. Yet, have we even begun to live into the reality that without God we are lost? We face difficult choices and challenges in our lives frequently, that is all of us, in different measure, of course, one to another. We generally don’t look at those challenges vis-à-vis good versus evil but maybe, sometimes, that’s exactly how we could or should look at them. The fundamental question we might ask ourselves is how would it feel for me if I translated the need and desire for God that I feel when I worship in community into my everyday life and universe. How might that move me toward the light of God in Christ shining more brightly for me every day?
Today’s snippet from Mark is really a microcosm of his Gospel as a whole. Mark - far more than any other evangelist of the New Testament - really wants to highlight the healing power of Jesus. Jesus heals people in the Gospels and the healing of people possessed by a demon is just one way that Jesus exercises the authority given to him by God. Let’s take how some view demonic possession in the Gospels off the table for just a moment and look at what is happening in the Gospel today at face value. The demons, particularly in Mark’s gospel, recognize Jesus. They recognize His authority. And they seem to acknowledge from the very beginning that Jesus’s power is going to overwhelm them; the power of God is much more powerful than they so defeat seems to be a foregone conclusion for these unseen forces of evil. But lest we forget, evil never goes down without a fight and wants to inflict as much damage as possible before it is ultimately vanquished by the loving and healing power of God in Christ.
And if we look at the Psalms or in Isaiah today, we understand how the great prophets and probably the people, off and on throughout Israel’s history, experience God as this tremendously powerful force in the universe that creates, gives life, and moves with power in the world. Just as important, even as God is all-powerful, He is totally and completely present to his people whom he cherishes, desires, and loves. But just as the prophets of old channeled God‘s desire for the people to repent and turn back to God and to embrace God‘s presence, reality, and power in their lives, Jesus comes as God in the word made flesh, “God with us,” and heals people from whatever holds them back from more fully seeing God’s presence in their lives.
What are the things in our lives that hold us back from seeing Jesus? We can think culturally and societally, of course, and name racism, poverty, homelessness, and apathy toward other people’s suffering as societal or national sin that needs to be acknowledged, confronted, and dealt with. I believe that our truest pathway to dealing with communal, societal, national, and human sin writ large, is in acknowledging our dependency on God. When we rely on God for our wisdom, understanding and blessing we begin to see the mostly empty promises of racial supremacy, political posturing, and the idea of us vs. them as the evil that they are. But we need God’s guidance in communal worship, I believe, to positively embrace God’s call on our lives.
Worship is not simply a way for us, for an hour or so each week, to honor God. Worship actually creates a model for the rest of our week and in fact the rest of our lives. When we come together and confess our sins communally – just for instance - we are owning the fact that we have wounded the heart of God and strayed from the promises of God. And, more importantly, we seek, then, to turn ourselves fully and completely to inward to God‘s healing power and mercy.
And then when we recite the Creed we affirm, in microcosm, our baptismal promises. Remember in baptism we - along with our sponsors, godparents, our parents – utter three times that when we encounter evil or we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord. And in the three affirmations that follow, we promise that, with God’s help alone, we will turn to God because we don’t have the strength or ability in ourselves to help ourselves entirely; we need God’s intervening love if we are to lay hold of the promises He makes to us and we to Him.
Our worship this day, my friends in Christ, is always a new beginning, not an aside from our “normal” life. The work that we do in our individual spiritual lives and in each other, through God‘s presence, in our prayers, in our song, in the sacraments, in Eucharist, and in the promises we remember at Baptism, acknowledges our love for, desire, and need for God‘s continuing and growing presence in our lives. How can we not need more of that? We are here to be fed and nurtured AND to learn how much more we grow when we take time during the week to reflect on God in our lives and to pray not only for God‘s forgiveness, mercy, and healing but also for God‘s presence in every minute of every day in that life. We find ourselves, like the man in the Gospels, saying, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
There are real forces of darkness that come up against us and they take all kinds of forms. I believe it is only in our deeper engagement in the reality of God in our everyday existence, as disciples of Jesus, that we can a reap the full benefits of who God really is to us. God’s mysterious, powerful, and yet very real presence in us will help us deal with the sometimes dark disconnect that exists in our communal, regional, societal, national, and global challenges. When it comes to issues of poverty, race, justice, and the ability to love each other, in a way that Paul is describing in Corinthians - to be all things to all people – the loving and healing presence of God is the only lasting answer. We are sustained and saved through God in Christ, modeled and mirrored in the life we live in worship and carry into the world with us.