Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Mark 1:25

Happy Pentecost! I know. It doesn’t quite carry the same ring as Merry Christmas or He is Risen does it? It’s too bad, really. Pentecost, the official birthday of the church, was celebrated as a Christian holy day long before Christmas ever made the rotation. Perhaps the tepid treatment Pentecost receives has something to do with Pentecost itself, what with its mighty wind, floating tongues of fire and subsequent miraculous speaking and hearing. Even though virgin births and resurrections are just as miraculous, for some reason they don’t seem quite as weird. Or maybe the Trinity’s third-person-second-class-treatment has something to do with the fact that the Holy Spirit is too, I don’t know, spiritual? It’s easy to conceptualize God as Father and Jesus as Savior, but how to conceptualize the Spirit? Up in the air? A bird? A flame? There’s also the historic, and ironic, dissention among Christians regarding the Holy Spirit—from the first major church spilt in 1054 between Catholics and Orthodox, all the way down to current squabbles over charismatic gifts and spiritual fruit. I’m sometimes asked what I would do if the Holy Spirit ever showed up during one of my sermons—assuming that what is meant by this question is what would I do if the Holy Spirit ever interrupted one of my sermons. OK, so I’d probably, I’d say something like: “Be quiet, I’m preaching!”

I do count on the Holy Spirit making an appearance earlier in the week. I tend to believe that stepping up to speak without being duly prepared is more a sign of foolishness than faith, but then again I may be trying to justify myself. After all, the apostle Peter was hardly prepared to preach when the Spirit blew open his mind and lit his tongue on fire. Peter ended up giving one of the more effective sermons in history. Not only did it get printed in the Bible, but some three thousand people joined the church that first Pentecost.

Of course joining the church back then was a much more hazardous proposition. Today, the scariest thing our new members had to do was stand up in front of the congregation. But back then, to claim Christ as Lord meant you claimed Caesar was not Lord—an act of treason punishable by death. Rome viciously squelched what it viewed as political resistance with crucifixion. It’s what Jesus meant when he said to follow him would require taking up a cross. But of course Jesus also changed the meaning of the cross. Whereas Rome used the cross to violently put down rebellion, Jesus used the cross to expose the futility of violence. And then, rising from the dead, he declared victory over oppression and injustice, while at the same time securing grace for the oppressor and the unjust. In his kingdom come, peace was made not by shedding his enemies’ blood, but by shedding his own.

Still, even the new meaning of the cross didn’t make death any less deadly. Victory still looked like defeat. It’s partly what makes obeying the words of Jesus so hard. And mostly why we need the Holy Spirit so much. Even after Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they still hid out for fear of the Romans and their religious conspirators. It’s wasn’t until God finally burned it into the disciples’ skulls that they found the courage to stand up and speak truth against evil, sin and injustice. No longer afraid to lose, they were no longer afraid of the Romans, the Pharisees or even the devil.

Which brings us to our passage for tonight. While there’s a lot left to say about the Holy Spirit, I’d like to say something about unholy spirits. Since Easter, I’ve been preaching from the red-letters of Mark’s gospel. For those of you with so-called red-letter Bibles, you know that the red ink represents the actual words of Jesus. I got the idea from a book entitled Red-Letter Christians by Tony Campolo. His book is mostly about faith and politics, while tonight’s passage about faith and demons, though maybe that’s not so different. I started this sermon series with Jesus’ own short sermon, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Amen. Next came Jesus’ invitation to four fishermen to become fishers of men by sharing the good news with others.

In tonight’s third set of red-letters, Jesus heads over to the local synagogue to teach. We’re not told what Jesus taught, but I presume his sermon was the same: “The kingdom is near.” The people who heard were amazed, Mark writes, because this out-of-town Jesus taught them as one who had authority, not like their teachers, some of whom I presume were in the synagogue that day. I imagine folks running up to them and saying, “Wow, what a sermon! Have you ever heard anything so great in your life?” And I imagine the teachers’ response. I know how it feels when folks gush following a guest preacher’s sermon. The sting of envy. The resentment. The exasperation. “If I hear one more time how that guest preacher’s sermon was so spirit-filled. I mean, what, is the Spirit absent as I’m slaving over every sentence week after week? And for what? So that some fly-by pastor packing his best heat can waltz in and hog all the glory? Yeah, I can imagine my response, “What do you want with us, out-of-town preacher? Have you come to destroy me?” Which is almost how the demon-possessed man responded in verse 24.

Now let me assure you that I do not feel this way toward our guest preachers. Not usually. I offer it by way of illustration. Throughout Mark, among the most demonic were those assumed to be the most religious: the professional ministers, the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus goes so far as to label “children of hell.” We’re not told that this demon-possessed man was a scribe, but we are told that the demon was sitting in church. And if you’ve been in many churches, you know it’s not hard for demons to get in here. This unholy Spirit interrupts Jesus’ sermon, or better, he disrupts it. He shouts out, “I know who you are, Holy One of God!” To which Jesus replies, not “Be quiet, I’m preaching,” but “Be quiet and come out.” Which the demon dutifully does, albeit kicking and screaming. The congregation erupted in further amazement, for they had never seen their teachers perform such authoritative feats: “Even the evil spirits obey him.” Which may have been Mark’s backhanded way of making another point: If the evil spirits obey Jesus, what does that say about you and me when we don’t?

If we speaking of the Holy Spirit can seem weird, talking about demons can be downright bizarre. These days, much of what used to get called demon possession now gets described in terms of chemical imbalance or as a consequence of genes or bad learning. A good therapist and medication can probably keep your demons in check. Still, there is evil in this world and in human behavior that surpasses anything we might blame on chemistry or even human volition. It’s the kind of evil that causes a father to drown his children to get back at his wife or teachers to abuse their students; the kind of evil that deforms political leaders into tyrants and infects entire nations resulting in the horrors of holocausts, world wars, genocides and terrorism. There’s the systemic or corporate evil that contaminates civilizations and institutions resulting in ecological upheaval, ecclesial crusades and global poverty. For such endemic evil the word demonic doesn’t seem so bizarre.

Jesus preached that the good news that his kingdom was near, which was bad news for evil. In shouting, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” this demon speaks up for demons everywhere. “Have you come to destroy us?” The answer is yes. Whereas in the presence of mere mortality demons feel free to lie and deceive, in the presence of Jesus they tremble with fear. They tell the truth too. “You are the holy one of God,” this terrified demon confessed. Jesus then rebuked the demon, which at first seems sort of odd. Why wouldn’t Jesus want people to know who he is? But then you realize that the last thing you need when you’re trying to get a world religion off the ground is a demonic endorsement. Jesus shuts the demon up and then shuts him down for good. In doing so Jesus demonstrates that the kingdom was more than near. It was here. No wonder the congregation was so amazed.

But for those in that congregation who followed Jesus’ career to its end, any amazement likely soured into disillusionment. How can a man able to conquer demons get crucified by Romans? If that was victory, it sure looks like defeat. Not only on earth, but in heaven too. In the book of Revelation, which I’ve been preaching through on my morning turns, the writer John wins a trip to heaven where he hears an angel announce the coming of the Lord. The angel introduces Jesus as the Lion of Judah and the Root of David. The “Root of David” comes from Isaiah where God’s Holy One is portrayed in warrior-king like fashion; one who “will give justice to the poor and decide with equity for the meek. One who will smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips slay the wicked.” The Lion of Judah was a throwback to Jacob’s blessing where Jacob tells Judah, his lionized son, how “the scepter shall not depart from him, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendents until tribute comes to whom it belongs; and with it the obedience of all peoples.”

Yet when John turns to look what he sees is not a ferocious King of the Beasts but a bleeding baby of beasts, a vulnerable lamb having been slain. Granted, Isaiah had predicted this too. The victorious heir of David was forecast as one to be “oppressed and afflicted, led like a lamb to the slaughter.” But what kind of King comes looking like a weak loser? The same kind of king who rises from the dead still wearing his scars. In the kingdom of God defeat is victory. A lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb conquers by dying. And by eternally wearing the marks of his dying, Jesus shows that crucifixion is not some passing, one-and-done occurrence in the saga of salvation. Instead, crucifixion indelibly stamps its mark on the identity of God, and thus on the identity of God’s people. Which is how we are able to endure suffering and death ourselves. Whenever we’re defeated, we win.

And yet we struggle to believe this. Our models of faith generally remain models of success. The testimonies we hear tend to be told by accomplished people. Not that accomplishment indicates a lack of faith, but imagine if success was all that early Christians got to see and hear about. Condemned to suffer the brutality of political and religious persecution, their accomplishments looked more like failure and foolishness; more like suicide than anything approaching success. The God who would save them would not save them from suffering but through it. Their loss would be their gain. Their triumph over evil would be their submission to it.

Of course to submit to evil is not to do evil. The weapons of evil are violence, hatred and abusive power. The kingdom fights back with weapons of patient endurance, love and peace-making—obedience to the words of Jesus. Read on in the book of Revelation and these are the weapons that work. The crucified Lamb morphs into a white rider of justice who wields a sword with which he eradicates wickedness and slices up the devil and his minions before dumping them into a lake of fire. Yet the sword that the rider wields protrudes from his mouth. And unless you’re willing to think that somehow Jesus jousts with his enemies with some wacky projectile sticking out from between his teeth, then you realize that Jesus’ sword is the sword of his word. He speaks truth to power and kills it, which is how the demon here in Mark knew he was doomed. The kingdom was more than near. It was here.

Dawn and I had the privilege of attending a talk on Friday given by a former Park Street member, Chris Seiple, who is involved in what he calls “faith-based diplomacy.” Funded by concerned Christians, he and his colleagues engage the most strident of Muslim leaders, convinced that to make peace, faith must speak to faith. When you stop and think about militant Muslims, one of the things that strikes you is how much like committed Christians they are in some ways. They have a deep passion for God and possess a willingness to die for what they believe, which actually gives Chris and his colleagues a invaluable entry point. In Washington DC, Chris, president of a group called the Institute for Global Engagement, became acquainted with a conservative Muslim who served as a high-ranking Pakistani official. Chris had this man and his family over to dinner, and even cleared space for them to pray on the floor in his house. In Muslim culture, hospitality is an inviolable value. Eat dinner with someone and they are your friend for life.

I hope to tell you more about Chris and his work, but suffice for tonight, Chris’ relationship with this man was a relationship shaped by Chris’ faith. Whereas most would never break bread with an enemy who believes that America is Satan, Chris follows Jesus who said to love your enemies and did that. Some months later, Chris traveled to the most dangerous parts of Pakistan where this official reciprocated the hospitality. Chris would be safe from harm since in Pakistan to be a guest is to be guarded by the life of your host. Having discovered a shared intensity of faith, if not a shared content of faith, the Muslim official was eager to meet other passionate believers in his district. Chris showed up for a dinner the official arranged, and not only were other Christians seated at this Muslim man’s table, but Hindus and Sikhs too, which is huge when you remember the heated conflict that roils on between Muslims and Hindus over the province of Kashmir. Chris could not tell us how many Muslims had converted to Jesus as a result of this faith-based diplomacy. He didn’t know if there were any yet. But he could tell us about a new church and a new Christian school in Pakistan, the cornerstones for both laid by this passionately Muslim Pakistani official.

What was particularly striking about the presentation was how amazed the presenters were (former military men who knew the power of literal swords) that the teachings of Jesus—love your enemies, be peacemakers—that these words actually worked. These words had authority. They worked for Peter and the rest of the disciples at Pentecost. They worked for the persecuted Christians Revelation addresses. They work for all against the best the devil can dish out. Writing a few hundred years after Pentecost, Athanasius insisted that any Christian worth his salt could cast out a demon. Martin Luther concurred when he said, or better sang, “The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”

I sometimes get accused by my more charismatic brethren of not giving the devil his due. If this is true, it’s only because the devil is doomed. If the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that any evil power we confront on earth is always a beaten power—no matter how contrary it may seem to our experience. The kingdom is not only near, it is here. With our Spirit-infused forebears, we can stand up and endure whatever the devil dishes out. When through the Holy Spirit you’re no longer afraid to lose, no longer afraid even to lose your life, what can anybody do to you?

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