Sermon for Epiphany 4 High Mass Sunday 28 January 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Revelation 12.1-5a; Mark 1.21-28
Mark has launched us into his narrative: Jesus has proclaimed the kingdom of God; he has called the first of his disciples. Now we find him in Capernaum – the small fishing town on the Sea of Galilee, not far from Nazareth – which Jesus will make the base for his ministry in Galilee.
Mark’s wastes neither time nor words. Jesus’ appearance in the local synagogue provides a kind of snapshot of his future ministry.
We are told of the impact of his teaching: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” His teaching has a power quite distinct from that of the scribes, the experts in the interpretation and application of the Jewish law. They would speak of precedents and the opinions of other scholars. Although Mark does not give any content yet, and will give less than Matthew and Luke, there is a newness about Jesus’ teaching, in the sense of something unprecedented and distinctive; and so the Church came to recognize him as the prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy.
Then Mark does something which happens from time to time in the Gospel: he breaks off from the story he is telling to introduce another, before returning to the original one. Here a man “with an unclean spirit” is present in the synagogue and confronts Jesus: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
Just as teaching will be a central feature of the story of Jesus which Mark tells, so will be the confrontation with the power of evil; a power represented and personified by demons seen as possessing and controlling people.
If we are honest, this is a part of the gospel which we feel uncomfortable with. We have been taught to assume that there must be a rational, scientific explanation for the phenomena or symptoms which in the time of Jesus would be attributed to demonic powers. To us it seems strange stuff; a weird hangover from a bygone and pre-scientific age.
Of course, for all our rational and scientific ways, the demonic continues to exercise a fascination for many. Exorcism, the casting out of demons, the “Ministry of Deliverance,” as it is also called, seems the stuff of Hollywood movies. In fact, the demand for this ministry persists, and not just in those cultures where belief in the power of the demonic and black magic still has a hold on the popular imagination. It is reported that the Church in Italy is training more exorcists to cope with the demand. In the historic churches it is a ministry which cannot be exercised by anyone, but only by those trained and authorized by the bishops. It is also one which is carried out with calm deliberation rather than movie melodrama. Its practitioners do consult experts in psychiatry because in most cases this can provide an explanation and understanding of the cause.
But all that said, we do still have a sense that the power of evil is more than the sum of its parts. It seems to have the capacity to control not just individuals, but families, communities, even nations. This power has been evidenced time and again in our history. We need only think of the genocidal hatred, fed by lethal combination of centuries of religious prejudice and modern racist pseudo-science, which issued in the Holocaust commemorated on Friday.
The gospel will show Jesus confronting this power; not with its own weapons but with an authority, a power, which comes from love.
In today’s gospel, people in the synagogue sense the power, the distinctive authority of Jesus’ teaching, but it is the demon who recognizes who and what he is. He is not just the human Jesus from Nazareth a few miles up the road; he is ‘the Holy One of God.”
There is a something here which we see repeated on a large scale in the history of those political movements which have been most hostile to Christianity: Marxism on the left and Fascism on the right. You would think that Marxists, with their belief that scientific progress and the revolutionary emancipation of the people from their chains, would see religion as something which would simply wither away. Liberated people would no longer need to seek solace in the “opium of the masses.” And yet, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin (that former seminarian) seemed not quite as sure of this as they pretended to be. So churches had to be closed and demolished or turned into museums of atheism, bishops and priests arrested, jailed and executed, frightened or corrupted into acting as agents of the state; congregations intimidated. The Chinese Communist Party, which in all other respects seems to have sold its soul to a corrupt form of capitalism, clings to its totalitarian will to control peoples’ souls; lest they give their allegiance to a higher authority.
Nazism, with its cult of the master race, of the superman, of power and violence, would surely have little to worry about when it came to the followers of one who preached peace and non-violence, forgiveness and mercy, turning the other cheek. Yet such people, with their stubborn allegiance to a greater power than that of the Fuhrer, seemed to point to another kingdom which questioned and condemned the Reich which was meant to last a thousand years. And so, not only must they go, but they must be speeded along the way.
The dramatic, Lord of the Rings, imagery of the Book of Revelation, born out of a conflict between the idolatrous demands of empire and the true worship of the Kingdom of the Lamb slain for the salvation of all, speaks to us of that too. Its “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” is identified with the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is to give birth to the “Holy One of God.” But this figure also represents the Church attacked by the “great red dragon,” the beast who represents the power of evil.
However feeble the Church has been in its witness to the Kingdom of God and its values, however compromised it has been with the powers of this world, and it certainly had been, there has always been preserved a faithful remnant.
We should not miss the significance of the fact that this first encounter of Jesus with the power of evil takes place in a synagogue, the place where the people of God assemble to hear his word read and taught, to worship and to pray. Surely there is no room for evil in such a place. The man with the demon should not have been there; he was ritually unclean. And yet, he had managed to get in and evil has been slipping into the house of God ever since.
Often, it has not been recognized for what it is, the teaching of Jesus has been so compromised, its sharp edges smoothed off, is challenge so muted, so as no longer to disturb those who hear it Sunday after Sunday, that they have lost the capacity to see evil for the darkness it is. And what we cannot see, we cannot cast out. The history the last century teaches us the catastrophic consequences of such a blindness and deafness to evil and deafness to false prophets.
Evil comes veiled in piety or wrapped in a successful charismatic personality; too influential, too powerful, too well-connected to be challenged.
The present experience of the Church, with the continuing agony of abuse scandals, which popes and archbishops struggle to come to terms with – in too many cases in the past taking no action or, worse still, compounding the evil by covering it up, and all to protect the reputation of the institution at the expense of those it should have been protecting; or in the case of Bishop George Bell in the Church of England, over-reacting and rushing to judgement; again many suspect to protect the institution.
The fact that many other institutions have harboured abusers, too, should provide “naught for our comfort.” The Church has the truth of the gospel, so it should have known and done better than others. We should expect the Gospel to be challenging and difficult, not comfortable and easy. That is where its authority, its power to reveal and cast our evil, is to be found. While the faith must be taught in ways which speak to the people of our time, it should not be so compromised that it has nothing distinctive or saving to say to them or to us; nothing which can say to evil: “Be silent! Come out of him!”
So, when we think of the kind of clergy we need, at a time when we are seeking to encourage more vocations; or when this congregation asks what kind of priest and preacher you might ask God to send you when this Moses is gone hence and no more seen: pray not for those who would tickle your ears with amusing anecdotes or lull you to sleep with pious platitudes; but for those who will preach the gospel which challenges and disturbs our complacency; for those who will teach the faith with the authority of the truth that alone is able to set people free from the power of evil.