Power to Change

(Epiphany 4, Mark 1:21-28)

 

1-29-06

All in the Synagogue were amazed, and they to one another, “This is a new teaching with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1.26-27)

 

Before we start our study of today’s lesson, I want to say a few words about yesterday.  I am sure that you all know that we said goodbye to a beautiful lady yesterday.  And we said it in beautiful style.

I have done many things in my time as a priest that I never imagined that I would or could do.  And yesterday was certainly one of those times.

But by the grace of God and with the help of the people of Grace, we were able to welcome and serve more than 500 people at our service yesterday.  And I know that we did Alfreda proud.

So I want to thank you.  Thank you for all that you did to help get the church ready.  All that you did to participate in the service, to sing in the choir, to set the altar, to help with the crowd control.  To give up your seat in here and watch from one of our other locations.  Every contribution helped make that incredible service yesterday possible.

Because you did not just demonstrate that we are a nice bunch of folks at Grace.  What happened yesterday demonstrated beyond a doubt to anyone who was paying any attention, that God is alive and well – in this city – in this church – and in you.  Thank you.

And as Alfreda would say.  Amen and Alleluia.

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Now to today’s gospel lesson.

All in the Synagogue were amazed because even the unclean spirits obeyed him.

Those of you who were here last Sunday will remember that in the verses immediately before the ones we just read, Jesus called four of his disciples from the shore of Galilee .  Andrew, Peter, James, and John no sooner leave their nets to follow Jesus, than they are thrust into a strange new situation.  A situation in which they and we are given the next clue about the identity of the man that they have committed to follow.

The first thing that they do after traveling a few miles to Capernaum , is to go to the synagogue.  And the disciples learn firsthand that the man that they are following is a rabbi, a teacher.

But he just didn’t teach as the scribes usually taught.  I imagine that Jesus probably sat there in the synagogue and taught without really needing a text to follow.  Rather, he taught from a knowledge that came before any of those tablets were written.

However, Jesus never just leaves things as a simple teaching.  There is always a story or a demonstration to help his audience get the point.

An today we get a demonstration, as a man with an unclean spirit comes into the synagogue where Jesus is teaching.  We are not told the nature of the spirit, but it is obviously out of the man’s control.

He was being held captive by some sort of demon or madness. 

But Jesus immediately confronts the demon and heals the man.  Jesus immediately sets the man free from the demons that grip him.

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I guess that I think of evil as any force that prevents us from being who we are supposed to be as God’s children: healthy, whole, and free.  Evil lurks in many forms.  Fear, grief, loneliness, or anger

Or addiction.  Particularly addiction.  In fact, the first thing that I think of when I try to imagine what it is like to have an unclean spirit - is addiction   Because it is something that is out of your control, and that occupies your body and takes charge of your life. 

A Story.

About three years ago, a young woman that we will call April, was at the end of her rope.  She was in her mid 30’s; she was married to her third husband; but he was threatening to leave her and take their 4 year old son with him. 

Most of April’s time was just a blur.  She started taking prescription pain medicine a few years earlier, because of injuries in a car wreck.  Her injuries healed, but she never quit taking the narcotics.  In fact, she was now up to 20 pills a day when she could get them – 7 to 10 times the recommended dosage. 

When she was high on the medicine, she felt beautiful and full of life.  The evil thing about narcotics is that they fool you into thinking that they are necessary for success.  People not only rely on them for the buzz they give, they believe that they make them smarter and more energetic.

And when they are off their meds, their moods can be horribly low. 

One day April found herself in particularly dark valley of depression.  She knew that her drug habit would make it impossible for her to keep her son.  She knew that this was her third failed marriage in as many tries, She had also had child in each of the other two; but was excluded from them unless in a supervised visit. 

It was just a matter of time before she would be kept from her youngest also.  She despised herself and she despised her filthy habit, but she was helplessly caught in its grasp. 

So she did the only thing that she could think of to do.  She found all the pills that she could – her bottle of pain narcotics, her sleeping pills, whatever she could find.  And she took them all.  And then she lay down on the floor to die.

Only she didn’t die, just became deathly ill.  She was found passed out in the bathroom by her son’s babysitter, who called 911. 

Her husband came to see her while she was recovering in the emergency room.  Dropped off some clothes.  Told her that he had changed the locks on the house and taken her car.  Said that he never wanted to see her again, and that his lawyer was getting a court order to keep her away from their son.

Talk about the bottom of life’s pile.  April was as depressed as anybody could possibly be.  She literally had nothing except a change of clothes.  And she had nobody.  She had long since ruined most of her friendships – too often not showing up when she was supposed to.  Too often embarrassing people by loud profane fights with her husband.  Even her family avoided her.

So she called the sister of her second husband.  Someone who had always been nice to her, even after the divorce.  And she told her that she was desperate and begged for help.  The ex-sister-in-law really didn’t want to get involved.  Because she knew that her brother would be mad if she did.  But she was afraid that if she did not try to help, nobody would. 

So she agreed, and she called around and found a place in Houston that would take April for 28 days.  The next day, she picked her up at the hospital in Beaumont and drove her over to Houston .  She checked her in and left her there – not really believing that April would change.  She had heard so many un-kept promises when April was married to her brother, that she doubted this would be any different.

But she still cared.  So the next day she called her priest and laid out the whole story.  And then she asked me if I could find time to visit April in Houston .  Because she was sure that it would take an act of God for April to stick it out.

So I went.  April was allowed a visitor at meal time.  I introduced myself and told her why I was there.  She talked and I listened.  Her voice was flat and lifeless.  Her eyes were red and hopeless.

I gave her a Bible to read and we prayed.  And I promised her that she was still loved and forgiven by God, and I left.

After the first 28 days, April stayed in for a second month.  When she came out, she was clean for the first time in years, but she still was a shell of a person.  She had no place to go.  No way to see her kids.  But she took it one step at a time.  She slept on a couch at her father’s trailer house.  She got a part-time job at Wal-Mart.  She of course, got a lawyer.

And she started coming to our Wednesday night service and staying afterwards for prayer.  It was rough going, but she hung in there.  After six months, she had gotten her car back and was allowed supervised visits with her youngest.  A month or two after that, she had a reconciliation meetings with both of daughters.  She had hope for the future.  Not for a future as rosy and bright as she would have imagined on her first wedding day.  But a good future, with loving people at her side.

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You know, the thing about the evil that lurks in us - is that it is insidious.  It sneaks around disguised as other things, and when we discover it, it always comes with a built-in rationalization. 

Evil always seems to supply us with an excuse that works to keep us from really getting it out where God and we can work on it.

Because evil understands that we will continue to be in its grasp as long as we only try to work it out ourselves.  As long as we try to apply our own resources to the problem, then evil has us right where it wants us. 

There is not enough medicine in the world to win the fight, when the real enemy is evil. 

What Jesus does in the synagogue is not to prove that evil exists in people.  That was already understood and accepted.  The new teaching that Jesus provides is about authority.  His authority.  His unique authority to conquer evil on our behalf.  So it is his authority that we must invoke if we are going to have any chance of driving that demon from us.

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April came to say goodbye, my last Sunday in Beaumont – I noticed that her eyes actually sparkled and that there was hope in her voice.

I have not heard from her now for a little over two years.  I think about her often; and when I do, I say a prayer that she is still turning her demons over to the Lord, and not trying to conquer them on her own. 

That’s what we all need to do

What if we came to church, ready to experience God with all of who we really are.  Instead of walking in here as the person that we hope other people think we are? 

What would happen if we came to church, actually expecting that Jesus would meet us, set us free, and make us whole, just like he did for the nameless man.  Just like he did for April.

That is what I invite you to do today.

To bring all of who you are - up here to the altar.  That corner of darkness in your heart.  That fear, that loneliness, that anger.  That addiction.  That thing that you don’t want to think about.  And by not thinking about it, you give it life.

Bring it all up here and lay it out for the only one who has the authority to take it from you.  Lay on the altar for our Lord and Savior and pray that you will be released from its grip.  And pray for those around you.  Pray from the heart.

And it will be done for you as you ask.

Amen and alleluia.