The Authority of Jesus

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (NIV)

When I was in college, I drove a big car – an Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a 455 Rocket engine. Because I had the largest car around, I could fit a lot of people into my vehicle to drive to church on Sundays. Since I often gave rides to people I did not know very well, one Sunday I picked up two sisters who had never been to my church before.

Everything went like a typical Sunday morning, until toward the end of the pastor’s sermon one of the sisters began yelling and crying out in the service, maybe much like the account we have in our Gospel account for today. The pastor quickly brought an end to the worship service and the congregation hurriedly filed out of the building. I stayed behind because, well, I was her ride.

What happened next is an entire story for another day. I will just say that I saw some crazy stuff that did not seem readily explainable with our five human senses. And, I might add, there was a deliverance on that Sunday from whatever or whomever was influencing the young lady.

Ever since my experience on that Sunday, I continually wonder: What are our expectations when we come to a worship service?  Do we anticipate Jesus will be present via the Holy Spirit?  If so, do we believe he is there to confront demons and bring deliverance to people? Do folks even believe there is such beings as angels and demons anymore? How do we make sense of stories like this?

Perhaps there is so little deliverance from evil in our own experiences and in many faith communities because we simply have no expectation that such a thing will happen. Maybe the demons just sleep through gatherings knowing that their influence is not being threatened.

This brings me to the bread and butter of today’s message. I will give you three pre-suppositions (that is, things that we assume or take for granted) from which I work from when approaching Scripture and ministry. I will also make three observations of this story about Jesus, because ultimately the story is really all about him and not about demons. Finally, I offer three applications based on today’s Gospel lesson.

First Pre-supposition: Demons are real.  We know almost nothing about the man in the Gospel story other than he was “possessed by an evil spirit” which meant he was being influenced by a demon. I believe there is an unseen reality we cannot perceive with our physical eyes.

Second Pre-supposition:  Jesus has authority over demons.  Jesus took charge of the situation because he had the authority to do so. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as one who came to decisively deal with the powers of sin and death, especially as expressed through the demonic realm.

Third Pre-supposition:  Demons could be here.  I do not mean to scare anyone. I simply intend to point out that demons, or any type of evil manifestations, are not just out there somewhere in the world. Today’s story takes place in the sacred space of worship to God: the synagogue. Although it is a rather dramatic story, most demonic activity goes unaware because demons do not like to be recognized; they like the anonymity of the shadows and to operate in the dark where no one can detect them.  If we knew they were around, we would do something about it!  Just because we have dedicated spaces to the worship of God does not mean that it magically keeps evil out. God’s people must be savvy to evil demonic ways and take charge to use our authority in Christ with truth, justice, peace, faith, and the message of the gospel so that we might live wisely and shoo the devil away.

Based upon those three assumptions, the following are three observations about God and Jesus concerning the Christian life. These realities ought to evoke confidence in our lives without fear of the demonic realm…

First Observation: Jesus is directly interested in people.  Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Christ came to directly confront evil and deliver humanity from sin, death, and hell.  Jesus showed interest, care, and love to people.  In the story, Jesus went to Capernaum to begin his ministry. Capernaum was a non-descript small village that was of no interest to anybody outside of it. Yet, Jesus sought to reach common ordinary people as well as the rich and famous because all are in need.  Furthermore, Jesus is concerned about every part of our lives, and not just the spiritual matters.

Second Observation: Jesus deals with pain and suffering.  One of the truest theological statements I could ever say to you is this: God loves you in the person of Jesus through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus suffered on our behalf. Christ is against everything that destroys. In fact, Jesus did not even destroy the demon, who was probably expecting that to happen. Instead, the Lord Jesus took the demon’s power away.  Jesus has taken the sting out of death.  Anything that robs life of its intended flourishing, Jesus is ready to do away with.  This can be a tricky point because God will use pain and suffering to teach us and form us into faithful people. Yet, that does not mean God is the author of pain or enjoys suffering. It just means that God’s grace will bend any circumstance, whether good or evil, to divine purposes for our benefit.

Third Observation: Jesus gives grace.  Every instance of healing, each miracle, and every event of deliverance from evil are all because Jesus loves us and cares about us, despite whether we deserve it or not.

Now let’s pull this together into some points of application…

First Application: We need the deliverance of Jesus, and not only psychological therapy.  I am a big believer in counseling and therapy for all kinds of emotional issues. It seems to me that far too many persons do not take advantage of the resources we have today in the psychological realm. What is more, I daily provide a range of counseling for individuals as both a church pastor and hospital chaplain. However, this in no way diminishes the need for spiritual deliverance or that therapy can somehow replace Jesus. If demons are real, and evil truly present, then no amount of counseling will deal decisively with Satan because only Jesus can do that.  I believe Jesus is not merely one option among a smorgasbord of people who could help us. Rather, Jesus is the Messiah who delivers us from evil, like no other can.

Second Application: Amazement is not faith.  The people in the Gospel story were amazed at Christ’s teaching and deliverance ministry. They had never seen or heard anything like it. Yet being impressed is not the same as naked trust. Spreading news of what Jesus did is not the same as putting Christ’s teaching into practice and personally experiencing divine power to deliver from sin.

Third Application: The Lord’s Table brings healing.  Christian communion is neither only a remembrance of what Jesus did on the cross, nor a magical act of bringing deliverance. Rather, the Table is a means of grace in which we partake of the elements in faith knowing Jesus is victorious over the demonic realm. What is more, the Spirit will join us to Christ and give us the confidence and hope to confront all that ails us. Liturgical rhythms of grace consistently and surely work their way into us and bring about the healing we need and want.

Conclusion

Jesus Christ has authority over everything, including the demonic realm. This makes him perfectly suited and situated to provide spiritual deliverance from evil – which is precisely how Christ encouraged us to pray. So, let us pray the prayer our Lord taught us:

Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Acts 2:36-42 – From Sorrow to Salvation

Baptism by American artist Ivey Hayes (1948-2012)

“Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (NIV)

Imagine we are all standing around in a huge modern-day lobby, ready to listen to Peter. We understand big events like this must be well-organized, so everyone is getting a name tag.  But the name tags are given to us with not only our first names; they also include our hidden guilt and shame.  People walk up to the registration table. “Name?” “Bob.”  “What are you ashamed of, Bob?”  “I stole some money from my boss once, and he never found out.” The person takes a marker and writes, Bill: Embezzler. 

Next person: “Name?” “Jill.” “Jill, what are you guilty of?” “I deliberately slandered a group of people. I said things that were not true about them because I did not like them.” So, the person writes on Jill’s nametag, Jill: Slanderer. “Name?” “George.” “What kind of guilt and shame are you carrying?” “I’ve been coveting my neighbor’s Corvette… and his wife.” George: Coveter. Person after person comes. 

Then, up to the table comes Jesus. “What is your shame, Jesus?” Well, in truth, none. So, Jesus starts walking down the line. He comes to Bob and says, “Bob, give me your name tag,” and puts it on himself. “Jill, give me your name tag.” He puts it on himself. “George, give me your name tag.” It goes on himself.

Soon Jesus is covered with name tags and a bunch of icky shame and awful guilt. Apart from Jesus, we cannot take the name tags off because we cannot shed the labels of who we really are. Christ bore the cross covered with all our guilt and shame attached to him. It was all crucified with him.

When the people of the Apostle Peter’s day understood who Jesus was and what he had done for them, they were deeply troubled in their spirits and their souls were horribly upset. They were cut to the heart with the things they had done which sent Christ to the cross. The crowd’s remorse was so deep and profound that they were beside themselves with spiritual pain and asked Peter,

“What shall we do!?”

Peter called them to “repent and be baptized.” To repent is to have a complete change of mind and heart; it is to express a courageous naming of shame, guilt, and sin. Repentance, then, leads to a 180 degree turn of direction to our lives. Repentance is realizing what we have become, and seeing it is not a good place to be.

Sometimes we lack awareness of how serious our situation really is and how at risk we really are. It may be hard to imagine our offense is bad enough to crucify Jesus. Perhaps we have self-justified our morsels of gossip or our lack of attention to the poor, only choosing to see our hard work and sincere efforts to do good.

For others, the problem with repentance runs deeper, having been raised in a legalistic environment. These folks lug around a guilt-laden backpack that would bend the knees of a mule. And most of the guilt, they realize, is neurotic—not based on any real transgression.  Every bad thought and each failure of faith is obsessed over to the point that they cannot shake the pangs of constant shame.

The good news is that the kingdom of God is near. In the name of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness, healing, and new life. If today there is a realization of being in a bad place in your life, whatever that place is, the cross of Christ addresses the deepest needs of your life. What shall we do?  Repent and be baptized.

Repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Spirit are all linked together in today’s New Testament lesson. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise of forgiveness in Jesus; it visually shows us that God washes away our guilt and shame in the name of Jesus.

Baptism is a different kind of nametag, identifying that we belong to God. One who repents and embraces new life in Jesus Christ de-thrones all other competing lords and identifies as a beloved child of God.

The result of that ancient mass repentance and baptism was that three-thousand people were added to a small church of one-hundred-twenty persons! Since repentance leads to action, the new believers went to work devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and orienting their lives completely around Jesus through their constant fellowship together.

Allow me to be a bit more specific about what repentance looks like and does not look like. The prayers of the mildly repentant sound something like this:

“Easy-going God: We have occasionally had some minor errors of judgment, but they’re not really our fault. Due to forces beyond our control, we have sometimes failed to act in accordance with our own best interests. Under the circumstances, we did the best we could. We are glad to say that we’re doing okay, perhaps even slightly above average. Be your own sweet Self with those who know they are not perfect. Grant us that we may continue to live a harmless and happy life and keep our self-respect. And we ask all these things according to the unlimited tolerances which we have a right to expect from you. Amen.”

I like eggs.  I eat them nearly every day.  Fresh eggs are the best.  Sometimes I make an omelet, with, of course, bacon, green pepper, and cheese.  When I am making my omelet, if I crack open a rotten egg, I do not go ahead and mix it in with the others in the hope that the other good eggs will overwhelm the rotten one.

Grace can only be grace when we have a true realization of our guilt and shame. Grace is radical. It throws out the rotten omelet altogether and makes a new one so incredibly delicious that we never want to go back to the old way of making them. And it is for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.

Godly sorrow, like the kind in today’s story, leads to repentance. In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he called them out and insisted they turn from their old way of life.  In his second letter, he followed up with this: 

I know I distressed you greatly with my letter. Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad—not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around. You let the distress bring you to God, not drive you from him. The result was all gain, no loss.

Distress that drives us to God does that. It turns us around. It gets us back in the way of salvation. We never regret that kind of pain. But those who let distress drive them away from God are full of regrets, end up on a deathbed of regrets.

And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart. And that is what I was hoping for in the first place when I wrote the letter. (2 Corinthians 7:8-11, MSG)

There are (many) times we need to feel awful before we feel wonderful – awful concerning how much we have hidden our shame and never let it see the purifying light of the gospel – but wonderful of how over-the-top good grace really is, once we have exposed the guilt and let Jesus replace it with God’s mercy.

O merciful God, we bring long-held grudges and recent grievances, and we chew them over, even at the foot of your cross. We tiptoe around chasms of misunderstanding, we pick our way anxiously among stumbling-blocks of language and culture, and blame each other for every misstep, even while singing of your Spirit. We tremble to name the troubles we see in the Church and the world, for fear of our own sins finding us out, for fear that we will become easy targets for everyone’s hostility. Have pity on us, for our hands are not strong enough and our hearts are not big enough to hold all together in love. We beg you to come to us, foolish as we are, downcast and despairing. We beg you to send us a breath of your Spirit with the perfume of resurrection and hope, through Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. Amen.

Psalm 79 – Facing Trauma

Raise Up by Hank Willis Johnson in the Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Our God, foreign nations
    have taken your land,
    disgraced your temple,
    and left Jerusalem in ruins.
They have fed the bodies
of your servants
    to flesh-eating birds;
    your loyal people are food
    for savage animals.
All Jerusalem is covered
    with their blood,
    and there is no one left
    to bury them.
Every nation around us
    sneers and makes fun.

Our Lord, will you keep on
    being angry?
    Will your angry feelings
    keep flaming up like fire?
Get angry with those nations
that don’t know you
    and won’t worship you!
They have gobbled down
Jacob’s descendants
    and left the land in ruins.

Don’t make us pay for the sins
    of our ancestors.
    Have pity and come quickly!
    We are completely helpless.
Our God, you keep us safe.
    Now help us! Rescue us.
    Forgive our sins
    and bring honor to yourself.

Why should nations ask us,
    “Where is your God?”
Let us and the other nations
    see you take revenge
    for your servants who died
    a violent death.

Listen to the prisoners groan!
Let your mighty power save all
    who are sentenced to die.
    Each of those nations sneered
    at you, our Lord.
Now let others sneer at them,
    seven times as much.
    Then we, your people,
    will always thank you.
We are like sheep
    with you as our shepherd,
    and all generations
    will hear us praise you. (CEV)

Yes, you are in the right place. No, this is not yesterday’s post. The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Scripture readings include a psalm reading every day. What is more, the same psalm is read three days in a row. This is because psalms are designed to be repeatedly used. So, today, I continue reflecting on this psalm….

The psalmist was full of emotion as he crafted his words. Reflecting on the tragic and horrific takeover of Jerusalem and its destruction, he cried out in spiritual and emotional pain concerning the trashing of God’s temple and Name, and the physical and verbal violence executed on the people. The psalmist wanted the victimization to stop and the victimizers to feel God’s wrath.

This psalm is raw and real, an expression of the true self. Here there is no pie-in-the-sky positive thinking with singing about always looking on the bright side of life. It is agonizing grief in all its misery and disgrace. Thus, therein lies the path to healing: To connect with the true self, refusing the pretensions of the false self, expressing the real lived feelings and thoughts of honest wounds.

Illumination by American sculptor Paige Bradley

The alternative only presses further pain into the soul. The false self, seeking to takeover and make one feel better, engages in a devil’s pact by ignoring the aching spiritual doubt and emotional injury within to have temporary reprieve from the troubled spirit. The road to renewed and lasting happiness comes not through the false self but the true self’s recognition of the event(s) in all their foulness and degradation. It is a hard road to walk, yet we must travel it if we are to live in the light of truth, joy, and peace.

You and I will not find God in the false self. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that, when having experienced trauma, we hustle to obtain something we already possess. We might believe God is not there, or simply does not care. As one becomes alienated from the Lord, there increasingly becomes self-distancing. Disconnected from life-giving divinity, self-loathing gradually replaces self-awareness, and thus, self-compassion.

If at any point, we begin to associate and then fuse self with our traumatic experience(s) then the inner person weakens and becomes detached from the spiritual resources needed to heal. We are not our events. We are people created in God’s image and inherently worthy of love, compassion, kindness, goodness, and healing. We were not made for death and destruction but for life and connection.

The demonic termites of contempt might eat away at our humanity, yet there is always a way to exterminate them – through telling our story, as the psalmist did, with emotional flavor and full honesty. The true self is there; we just might need to dig a little deeper to find her.

So, if you notice that you tend to avoid planning for self-care; engage regularly in self-pity; or, swear at yourself under your breath with self-hatred; then it is high time for the false self to quit calling the shots and to bring up the true self. Internal conflict is not resolved through avoidance; it comes through external voicing of one’s story to another who listens with care.

The psalmist spoke to both God and God’s people. His story came from the gut, the place where both deep loathing and deep compassion come from. If one has already been tortured by a traumatic experience, the torture will continue from the false self unless the true self asserts herself and seeks awareness, mercy, and healing.

Stories are meant to be told. And they need to be uttered when the storyteller is ready and not when the listener is. Through the voicing of their ordeal, victims of human-inflicted suffering need to hear that God is just and will right the wrong things in this world. They need some hope of healing and some assurance that their injury will not go unanswered.

This can be tricky business because the act of proclaiming one’s story and the reception of that message by another might easily become a vengeful justification for intolerance and malicious retribution. Therefore, the psalmist appealed to God, not fellow humans, for justice. We are to leave room for God’s wrath without taking matters into our own hands. (Romans 12:17-21)

So, avoid isolation from God, others, even yourself. Seek help, both divine and human. Tell your story when you are ready. Face the terrible pain. These are the things the psalmist did to deal with his own trauma. The true self acknowledges this and, with full awareness, steps into the future with faith.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace I pray. Amen.

Psalm 79 – Unbearable Pain

The nations have come into your inheritance, God!
    They’ve defiled your holy temple.
    They’ve made Jerusalem a bunch of ruins.
They’ve left your servants’ bodies
    as food for the birds;
    they’ve left the flesh of your faithful
    to the wild animals of the earth.
They’ve poured out the blood of the faithful
    like water all around Jerusalem,
    and there’s no one left to bury them.
We’ve become a joke to our neighbors,
    nothing but objects of ridicule
    and disapproval to those around us.

How long will you rage, Lord? Forever?
    How long will your anger burn like fire?
Pour out your wrath on the nations
        who don’t know you,
    on the kingdoms
        that haven’t called on your name.
They’ve devoured Jacob
    and demolished his pasture.
Don’t remember the iniquities of past generations;
    let your compassion hurry to meet us
    because we’ve been brought so low.
God of our salvation, help us
    for the glory of your name!
Deliver us and cover our sins
    for the sake of your name!
Why should the nations say,
    “Where’s their God now?”
Let vengeance for the spilled blood of your servants
    be known among the nations before our very eyes!
    Let the prisoners’ groaning reach you.
With your powerful arm
    spare those who are destined to die.
Pay back our neighbors seven times over,
    right where it hurts,
    for the insults they used on you, Lord.
We are, after all, your people
    and the sheep of your very own pasture.
We will give you thanks forever;
    we will proclaim your praises
    from one generation to the next. (CEB)

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple and a conquering army who proudly gloats over their victory. This is a prayer, an angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people. The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable. To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling. Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. The realization of this enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with the existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness the horrible spiritual pain of the person. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us. For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through Jesus Christ my Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.