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Sermon for Epiphany 5, Year B (2018)

Feb 04, 2018

Passage: Mark 1:29-39

Preacher: Rob Donehue

Series: Epiphany 2018

Category: Discipleship, Christian responsibility

Detail:

Sermon for Epiphany 5, Year B, 2018
February 4th, 2018
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church (Lackey Chapel), Conway 

Isaiah 40:21-31     1 Corinthians 9:16-23     Mark 1:29-39

If you were here last week, then this week’s report from the Gospel about Jesus casting out demons won’t come to you as much of a surprise. If, however, you’re joining us for the first time or maybe even you’re hearing the Gospel for the first time, then today’s reading might sound a bit strange, with its matter-of-fact talk about Jesus casting out demons … as if that’s a perfectly normal thing for someone to be doing. So to give us a bit of context, first I want to point out that casting out demons was  a perfectly normal thing for someone to be doing…especially if that someone was a first century religious figure of any importance. Because during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, if you had any right to be called a prophet or perhaps something more, then the expectation was that you’d have power over “unclean spirits.” So when the Gospel tells us that Jesus did have power over such “unclean spirits,” it’s not really telling us anything earth-shattering. All it’s saying is that Jesus was doing the things that would have been expected from a prophet or wonder-worker in his day and age. It would sort of be like saying that a twenty first century mechanic has the ability to change a spark plug. And Jesus’ ability to cast out demons is actually something that nearly everyone can agree on when it comes to trying to figure out who the “historical Jesus” was. Even the most skeptical of religious scholars, when pressed, will admit that, no matter what we might think about Jesus now, the fact of the matter is that during his earthly ministry, Jesus was widely regarded as a wonder-worker and a skilled exorcist. 

Of course, that raises all sorts of questions about what was going on when Jesus cast out demons; mostly, those questions boil down to, “How can we understand that language from a twenty first century perspective?” If you were here last week, then you’ll know that we did a bit of digging around into how we might imagine an “unclean spirit” or a “demon” in our modern context. And to give a brief recap, I suggested that we might imagine “demons” to be something akin to the self-generated voices we hear that tell us things like, “You’re not good enough,” or “You should be ashamed of yourself,” or “People will only like you if you’re rich and powerful.” And we need to rebuke those voices and cast out those “demons” because they are nothing but lies. Instead, the voice we most need to hear is the voice that says, “You are my beloved.” Because that is the voice of God and the one that shows us our truest self. That’s last week’s sermon in a nutshell.  

But if you felt like you were left hanging last week and perhaps over the course of the past week you began to wonder, “But how can I hear that voice more clearly?” this morning’s Gospel lesson actually provides an answer to that question. You’ll notice that the Gospel says that after Jesus “cast out demons” and spent time essentially telling the demons to be quiet, he went out “to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” One way to understand this passage is that, after silencing the voices that were causing so much disturbance, Jesus withdrew to a place where no other voices could get in the way, and it was there in the silence that he more clearly heard the voice of God. 

And what that means for us is that there are times when we need to embrace silence and pray alone because it’s only by doing so that we can hear a rebuke to the lying voices that constantly surround us; and it’s in those moments when we can more clearly hear God’s voice calling us “beloved.” But I want to point out that this kind of prayer is not just about sitting passively in a secluded place and waiting for God to speak. The kind of prayer I’m talking about - the kind that allows us to hear God calling us “beloved” - involves a determination to listen, and it does require a good bit of effort on our part.  

There’s a strain of religious thinking called “quietism” that says faith is about abandoning one’s will completely and accepting things just as they are without any attempt to try to change them. Essentially, prayer in the “quietist” tradition is an exercise in total passivity. There’s no desire to hear God’s voice. There’s no desire to hear any voice, really. But if one should be plagued with voices that say “You aren’t good enough,” then oh well, that’s just the way things are and that’s all there is to it because it must be God’s will. If taken to extremes, the “quietist” approach means that prayer isn’t even all that important because if you think it is, then you haven’t really achieved a state of total tranquility. You can probably guess that the church didn’t much care for this approach!  

Still, it may be tempting for us to think that the only aim of prayer is to achieve total passivity of mind. But I don’t think that’s right. I think the aim of prayer is to be with God. To be with God after struggling against all the voices that tell us we don’t need God or don’t deserve God’s affection. To be with God, striving to hear and know that we are beloved. In that sense, I don’t think prayer is passive at all. True prayer requires effort. It requires discipline. And sometimes it can seem like a really hard slog. 

I had a professor in seminary once who had a student say, “I don’t really like the daily office in the prayer book. It seems too much like work.” His response was, “It’s supposed to seem like work. That’s why it’s called the daily ‘office.’”  

The “work” of the church, then, is to do exactly what Jesus did. The work of each of us as members of the church is to rebuke and silence the voices in the world or in our own minds that say “God could never love someone like you” or “God doesn’t love so-and-so.” The work of each of us as members of the church is to take the time and make the effort to be alone with God so that we can hear God calling us “my beloved.” And then the work of each of us as members of the church is to go out into the world and let others know that they, too, are God’s beloved. As Jesus says in the Gospel, “that is what I came out to do.” And, following his example, that is what we are here to do as well.