January 31, 2021 – 4th Sunday after Epiphany – Sermon by The Rt. Rev. Donald Phillips

   by Yanna Courtney

Let us bow our heads in prayer.  Holy God, we thank you for the gift of your presence in this time and place and within each one of the locations we find ourselves in this day.  Help us now to open our minds, our hearts, our whole lives, to receive the gift of your living Word for us this day; and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

Today’s Gospel Reading from Mark, that you have just heard, occurs very early in Jesus’ ministry.  He has begun to call his disciples (we heard a couple of those instances last Sunday) in and around Capernaum.  And just to put the geography in place – if we think of Winnipeg like Jerusalem, Capernaum would be like Gimli – north on a lake, smaller, important fishing community.  Jesus is starting to establish himself in that area of Galilee around Capernaum as a young rabbi. 

But Mark impresses on us that Jesus is very different from the other teachers – the scribes.  The scribes are educated in the Hebrew Scriptures – something like our average parish clergy with their Bible School or theological education training – able to instruct people on how to interpret the law and the prophets and to lead good, moral, Jewish lives.  But this Jesus of Nazareth is different.  He speaks with authority – the authority of a prophet – one who speaks with God’s authority.  And hence the Old Testament reading today, from Deuteronomy, highlights God’s promise to raise up within Israel prophets like Moses.  And, of course, several of those prophets, over the centuries, were risen up and spoke with God’s authority.  But this young Jesus appears to the be greatest one of them.

Then, suddenly, in this synagogue there is a confrontation with a man that Mark says has an unclean spirit.  And clearly, in 1st century Palestine, this kind of event was not uncommon.  It was not too unusual.  So what are we to make of it?  On one hand, it seems to be what we would term ‘demonic possession.’  On the other hand, there was a common 20th century teaching of these kinds of incidents in Jesus’ life that viewed this more as a mental illness – or even epilepsy.  We really have no way of knowing exactly the nature of this person’s dis-ease.

Most importantly though, what we do know is that the meaning this Gospel-writer Mark was trying to get across to us was who this Jesus is as the Son of God.  So whatever state or condition of this man in today’s Gospel story, it seemed to enable him with a kind of clairvoyance to recognize Jesus for who he really was – the holy One of God.  And no one else present in the synagogue had that knowledge.  So it was some kind of spiritual power speaking through him.  It was clearly evil – it challenged Jesus – tried to limit Jesus’ power by claiming to ‘know’ him.  The thinking in those days was that if you knew a person’s name you could somehow exercise power over them.  Clearly Jesus demonstrated complete power over this evil force.  He was able to silence it, and to free the man from its influence.  And this event further revealed just who this Jesus was.  For even the unclean evil powers had to obey him.

Now we need to remember that the primary purpose of the Gospels in the New Testament is, in fact, to describe the person and the work of Jesus, and to describe it in such a way that reveals him as the Messiah – the Son of God.  This incident shows us God in the flesh exercising power over evil in a way that frees and liberates persons from the influence of this evil power.  Ultimately, of course, Jesus would eternally destroy the authority of evil spiritual power over humanity and over all of creation through his death, resurrection and ascension.  This shows us that God’s everlasting will – God’s never-ending desire – is deliverance from evil, life-destroying, power – whether that be physical, mental or spiritual.

So where does that leave us?  Clearly, sadly, evil is still at work in the world.  We see people entangled in webs of systemic evil – the exclusion of, or discounting of, persons on the basis of their race or gender or sexual orientation, or differing ability, and so on.  And sadly, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we can see evil at work in our own lives, when out of fear, or selfishness, or indifference, we hurt other people and even ourselves.

When we were baptized into Christ we were required to renounce evil on three levels. The first – a spiritual evil – the question: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” – like the unclean spirit in today’s Gospel reading.  And the baptismal candidate says, “I renounce them.”  Secondly – systemic evil.  “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”  And the answer is, “I renounce them.”  And then personal evil – “Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” – that inflict damage on yourself and others.  And the response – “I renounce them.”  It is precisely the victorious work and person of Jesus Christ that makes this possible for us to renounce – to choose a better path.  And when we do succumb again to evil powers – to repent – turn back to Christ – and be released.

That was, in a sense, our prayer in today’s Collect Prayer.  We prayed, “Transform the poverty of our nature”, our inability on our own to overcome evil, “by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your glory.”  The victory over evil that Christ enables in our lives is a testimony to the love and the power of God.  This transformation and renewal that happens for us in Christ is a spiritual liberation – becoming free from whatever limits, oppresses, or seeks to tear us down – from outside us or from within; and embracing our sense of God-given authority as one made in God’s image – a child of God. 

Think of all the situations around us crying out for this liberation – this authority – people trapped in abusive relationships, addictions, self-destructive behaviours, self-defeating attitudes, self-condemnation – all of which deny their freedom to be the persons God made and redeemed them to be in Jesus Christ -to claim their God-given authority.  In today’s Gospel story in Mark, Jesus claimed that authority – that God-given authority – of God’s living purpose – for the man with the unclean spirit.  And through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus claimed it for all of us.  What we have to do is to offer ourselves to God – to receive that love and acknowledge its presence and power in our lives.  In that, we can then claim God’s authority.

As we’ll pray in a few minutes at the Offertory, this needs to be our daily prayer: “God of steadfast love, may our offering this day, by the power of your Holy Spirit, renew us for your service.  We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, the Lord.  Amen.