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January 30, 2000
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

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  LECTIONARY READINGS
from the Revised Common Lectionary

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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A Clash of Powerful Forces

EXTERNAL FORCES

You see it whenever two powerhouses meet in a sports contest.  Two unbeaten university football teams meet in a championship.   Or two dominating NBA teams meet in the championship series.

There is a clash of powerful forces.  The atmosphere is charged and emotions run high. Spectators love a clash of powerful forces.

Then there is the more bizarre clash of powerful forces promoted by the World Wrestling Federation.  Now that the State of Minnesota has elected a former wrestler, more people are familiar with the world of professional wrestling. (Many of whom would just as soon they hadn't become familiar with it!)

In the strange world of professional wrestling there are a multitude of "good guys" and a multitude of "bad guys" and a charged-up stadium when there is a clash between a really notorious bad guy and a Mr. Clean type good guy.  And as the times would have it -- you can now also see the "good girls" and "bad girls" throwing each other around the canvas.   (Perhaps there's an argument to be made here that sometimes equality is regressive.)

All of us could come up with examples of what we're talking about here... a clash of powerful forces.

In our war torn world, there are frequent clashes of powerful forces.  During the Second World War, there was an incredible clash between the forces of good and the forces of evil.  Things were clear.   The Allies gathered to stop evil Hitler and his forces.  And talk about powerful forces.  Almost everyone on the planet has a picture of a giant mushroom cloud in their minds ever since the day an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

Talk about a powerful force!  The century we just exited spent half it's times in anxiety over the powerful forces that had the potential to bring our world to the brink of extinction.

INTERNAL FORCES

Sometimes we experience a clash of forces internally.  We encounter this every time we hear ourselves saying,
"I shouldn't do this...
       think this...
           want this...
               say this..."

And it really strikes home when we are saying,
"I shouldn't have done that...
      said that..."

The Apostle Paul certainly understood the internal clash of forces.  Remember his words in Romans 7:15, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate."  In other words, Paul experiences a clash of forces -- a battle between the "good guys" and the "bad guys" within -- and he acknowledges that frequently the "good guy" looses.

Most of us have gone through the experience of losing an inner conflict of forces.  There are things we would rather not share with any other human being that are a result of our inner struggles. With Paul we might say, "I do not understand my own actions... I did the very thing I hate."

The inner struggle is portrayed in countless scenes and various plots film and television movies when someone (usually a law enforcement office) says to someone who has been caught in a terrible crime, "Why did you do it?"

The struggle between what is good and what is not good -- both in the outer world and in our inner world points to a deep and basic struggle between good and evil that has been a part of human living in all of recorded history.

SPIRITUAL FORCES

Today's story in the Gospel of Mark is a story about a clash of powerful forces.  In fact, it is the story of the clash of good and evil.  The good news is that the kingdom -- or the reign of God -- is near and this means the right will triumph over wrong.  Jesus' very presence makes the reign of God possible.

The story is bizarre to our time and place, but if we try to enter the scene, perhaps we will understand a little more.  Jesus was teaching in the synagogue one Sabbath when all hell broke lose -- everyone seemed to be caught off guard.  Except Jesus.

Everyone was listening as Jesus was speaking.   They were amazed and riveted to his words.  When he spoke, it was as though the Lord God was standing there in front of them.  Somehow the truth came from this carpenter-preacher and what he spoke was more than words.  It was as though assurance of the love and care of God came from heaven itself.

People are on the edge of their seats -- you could hear a pin drop when out of nowhere a tortured scream shatters the silence.

"WHAT HAVE YOU TO DO WITH US, JESUS OF NAZARETH?  HAVE YOU COME TO DESTROY US?"

Startled, the people look around and this man is ranting and raving like a crazy person waving his arms as he shouts.  You might imagine what it would be like if this happened here, today in our worship service.   Out of a twisted mouth the man coarsely utters what sounds like a curse. "I know who you are, the Holy One of God."

A chilling fear, almost panic grips the crowd.   Jesus seems undisturbed, unmoved. He looks the man in the eye as though he had been expecting this moment. The people who had come for what they thought would be a quiet Sabbath service feel themselves to be unwilling participants in a showdown.  It is as though heaven and hell, light and darkness, right and wrong had come gathered for war.

Jesus issues a direct order.  No fear.   No trepidation or hesitation and no doubt about the outcome.  Just the order.   "Be silent and come out of him!"

Notice what happened. Jesus didn't speak to the man per se, but to something within the man. There is a struggle that convulses the man.   A loud shriek.

And then.

The man stands there quietly.  At peace.

And the gathered worshipers are all the more stunned.  Jesus not only talks about God and the love and care of God -- he actually brings it about in someone's tortured life.  Evil flees in the presence of purity!   The authority Jesus has is not the outward, "official" authority of the religious leaders of his time, but the inner authority which comes from a pure and powerful connection with God.

MODERN TIMES

The story of Jesus confronting the evil spirit within a man at the synagogue seems so out of place in our modern world.  Demon possession is the stuff of grade C horror movies. The devil is a funny little creature in red tights with pitchfork in hand.

Yet if we look a little deeper, there are some powerful issues that speak to our lives today.

There have been times in my life -- and I suspect in your life too -- when it would have been a wonderful thing to have Jesus say to something within me...  "Come out of him!"   It might be as simple as wanting a desire for food loaded with saturated fat to be taken out of us.   Or it might be as hard as wishing a craving for something destructive would be sent packing.

The truth that emerges here is that Christ has power to overcome destructive forces in our lives.

Another part of the good news of this passage is that just as evil flees in the presence of purity, so also peace follows the presence of Christ.

Although we may not experience the story Mark's gospel tells in quite the same way, the clash of powerful forces is as real in our world and in our lives as it was the day Jesus brought freedom to a tortured man.

Outward things have changed -- a lot.  But inward things are similar.  Like Paul we sometimes do not understand our own actions.   Like Abraham, we get impatient and want to help God out with the divine plan for our lives.  With David we struggle with temptation.  And even the Lord Jesus understands what it is like to wonder if God has forsaken us.

But the good news is...  in this clash of powerful forces in our lives... the struggle of the right and the wrong... the presence of Christ assures us of the outcome.  As we build our relationship with the One who loves us best, we build his strength into our inner lives.

***

An old American Indian tale recounts the story of a chief who was telling a gathering of young braves about the struggle within.   "It is like two dogs fighting inside of us," the chief told them.   "There is one good dog who wants to do the right and the other dog always wants to do the wrong.  Sometimes the good dog seems stronger and is winning the fight. But sometimes the bad dog is stronger and wrong is winning the fight."

"Who is going to win in the end?" a young brave asks.

"The one you feed," the chief answered.

***

May God grant you the nearness of Christ and the power of the Spirit as you deal with the clash of powerful forces in your life.


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

The Word of God is as good as the actions of God.  When God speaks, the deed is done.  Worlds are created and eternal covenants are formed.  The Word of God in the hearts and mouths of the people of God is also effective and powerful.

Moses brought the effective, powerful, people building word of God to the people of Israel and by that word held them close to the Lord.  When the time comes for Moses to depart, the Lord promises through Moses that there will once again be a prophet like Moses who will bring the word of God.   “I will put my words in his mouth.”   (Deut. 18:18) 

There is an obvious link to the ministry of Christ in Mark 1:21-28 as Jesus’ words bring about the action of God in the life of the man who was possessed.   The Psalmist says, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” (Ps.111:2)

 The word and works of God are intimately bound together.  When we speak about someone being “as good as their word,” we have in mind the words and deeds of the person are consistent and congruent.   So it is with the  word of the Lord.  The Deuteronomy passage makes a strong point of how a prophet’s word must line up with what God has decreed.  In fact, speaking other than what the Lord commands will bring about the death of the prophet.

 When God speaks worlds are created, when Jesus speaks, the kingdom of God comes to a disordered life.  All of this goes to the importance and even gravity of the preacher’s task.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

It is the word of Moses – the word of the prophet that holds the people of God in relationship with God.  Without that word there is no life for the people.  As God breathed life into Adam and he became a living soul, so it is the word of God that continues to breathe life into the People of God.

Two things are enjoined in the text.  [1] The word of God is to be “heeded.”  Twice the issue of obedience to the word of the Lord is mentioned.  “You shall heed such a prophet…” [v.15]  and, “Anyone who does not hold the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I will hold accountable.”   [2]  The one who speaks on behalf of God is enjoined to speak only the words that God has given.

Mark 1:21-28

 Jesus goes to the synagogue in Capernaum and teaches.  His words are likely commentary on the lessons of the day.  But – there is a huge difference between Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of others.  The gathered crowd is astounded at Jesus’ words because, “… he taught them as one having authority , and not as the scribes.”

Of course, we don’t know exactly what the difference was, but perhaps too much human opinion or a sense of indifference and dullness had settled on the hearing of the people.   Whatever had brought the teaching of the scribes into this state of low or no expectation – things were different when Jesus spoke.  His intimacy with the word of God brought about a sense of the presence of God in so powerful a fashion that an evil presence / spirit could not tolerate the holiness.

Now Jesus’ words accomplish the work of God as he speaks “with authority” and even the unclean spirits “obey him.”   The people call this, “A new teaching – with authority!”   Certainly the content of the lessons for the day were not “new” – but the way Jesus brought about the connection between the word of God and the work of God represented the “good news” that the kingdom was indeed here!

First Corinthians 8:1-13

The lesson from First Corinthians relates only peripherally to the central themes of the Old Testament and gospel readings.  The "new teaching" of Jesus in the gospel translates to the "liberty" Christians have in the gospel and the attendant freedom they have from rules and regulations about food which has been sacrificed to idols or rules and regulations about food -- period

The issue raises the issue of the commitments we have with each other in community.   Corinthians society was notoriously pagan and meat which was sacrificed to some pagan idol in the morning would be on the dinner table of many Corinthians that evening.   In this letter, Paul is responding to questions that had been brought to him by a group of Corinthians.  Among those questions is this issue of eating this meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Some were troubled by this and others had no qualms about it.

Paul affirms the fact that meat sacrificed to idols is of no consequence one way or the other.   Christians have this "knowledge" -- the gospel has freed us from such concerns.  However...  when one Christian flaunts this "knowledge" and eats meat sacrificed to idols almost with an "in your face" attitude, Paul says they do not have the "necessary knowledge."   That is, they may have the facts of their freedom in Christ, they do not "get it!"    When you use your freedom to bring trouble to the conscience of a brother or sister, you sin against both your spiritual family and against Christ.

The key in this text is, "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up."   The "new teaching " of Jesus in the lesson from Mark brings about a new spirit in which love for one another is the authentic evidence of having gotten it!


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship  (Based on Psalm 111)

Leader:   Let us give thanks to the Lord,
People:  Let us praise God with all our heart.
Leader:   For the Lord is gracious and merciful,
People:  And the deeds of God are awesome.
Leader:   We are the redeemed of the Lord,
People:  And our praise will endure forever.

 

A Prayer of Confession
Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in our thoughts and in our deeds.  We have not loved you with our whole heart and we have not loved our neighbor as ourselves.  We pray for strength to turn away from all that offends your Holy Name.  Forgive us that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, with joy in our hearts. Amen.

 Assurance of Pardon

Brothers and sisters, the scriptures call us to come boldly to the throne of grace, for our Lord Jesus Christ has gone before us and intercedes on our behalf.    Believe the word of the Lord,  in Christ we are forgiven.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving
We give thanks for the sure word you have given to us, O God.  In a world filled with so much confusion and uncertainty, we rejoice that you have not left us without guidance and direction.

You have gathered us together to know your love, rejoice in your word and be strengthened in your joy.  We rejoice in the church, the Body of Christ where we receive hope, strength and joy for the living of our days.  You have given us sisters and brothers in faith who surround us with models of faith and words of encouragement.

 May our praise and thanksgiving rise to you from this temple of your people all the days of our living.  May the worship that flows from this place endure beyond our earthly days.  O Lord our God, our hearts are filled today with the joy of those who know shall praise you and rejoice in your deeds forever and ever.  Amen.

 A Prayer of Dedication
All good things come from you O God.  Even the gifts we bring to you today have first come from your gracious hand.  As we offer these gifts, may we submit our hearts, minds, souls and bodies for your service. Amen.