A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on January 29, 2012.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28
I try to imagine myself as the priest of the synagogue Jesus visits in our scripture today. And I honestly don’t know what I’d do.
It’s the Sabbath in Capernaum some 2000 years ago, and I’m the priest presiding over the service in the synagogue. We proceed through the prayers and the singing of the psalms as usual. We read the appointed scriptures for the day.
Just before the service I hear that a visiting rabbi will be attending, so following the usual protocol, I invite our guest to comment on the scriptures. The teacher, whose name is Jesus stands to speak. Before I know what is happening, our guest turns our service and our world upside down.
Typically when rabbis teach, they quote from the scripture for the day, or from some other scripture, or at least some other revered teacher of the Law to reinforce their points. Not Jesus. He quotes nobody…except himself! He speaks with a clarity and power we’ve never heard, and teaches like he’s the new Moses, the new authority everybody will quote from now on.
As Jesus speaks, I can feel ripples of astonishment reverberate throughout the synagogue. The people are amazed. And I am beside myself. I don’t know whether to accuse Jesus of blasphemy or bow down and worship him.
Meanwhile, someone in the congregation begins interrupting Jesus. But something is wrong, very wrong, because when the man opens his mouth a cacophony of hellish voices shriek at Jesus. These voices from hell acknowledge what I am afraid to admit—that Jesus is the Holy One, the Son of God. Jesus knows he’s in the presence of an unclean spirit, and tells the spirit to shut up and be gone. Now evil spirits are notoriously difficult to exorcise. But this demon knows he doesn’t have a chance. And after throwing a hissy fit, he leaves.
Now the people are beside themselves. “What is this?” they ask. “A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And I agree, but am too speechless to say so. I realize I’ve not only lost control of the service, but of the synagogue. I lead and the God I thought I knew.
This is how I imagine the strange story from Mark 1, in an up close and personal way. So what do we do with this story? Learned commentators struggle mightily to explain demons to 21st century readers. Many want to explain unclean spirits as nothing more than ancient versions of mental or physical illness. But is that too simple?
This week I came across a story that reminds me that not everything in human experience can be explained scientifically, that we are surrounded by mystery which defies simple explanation.
Some time ago a member of our church loaned me a DVD of a televised worship service featuring a Baptist pastor in Richmond, Virginia who tells a very strange story. The pastor was diagnosed as having skin cancer on his nose, and underwent plastic surgery to have the cancer removed. Before the surgery begins the anesthesiologist administers the standard drugs that put this pastor in a pharmaceutical “la la land”, and all is well until the pastor begins talking.
Meanwhile, as the pastor falls into a deep sleep he senses that he has been spiritually transported to a warm and safe place, filled with dazzling light. He is not only in the presence of God, but he is speaking what God wants said. Somehow he knows the words he is saying are God’s words, not his words.
This is not just the pastor’s drug-induced imagination. He is actually talking while under anesthesia and the medical team consisting of a surgeon, the anesthesiologist, and an attending nurse are understandably freaked out. Until they listen to what the pastor is saying. He is speaking in a soft voice. And everything he says is something somebody in the room needs to hear. In fact, the pastor is addressing them as though he knows them, even though he has never met them.
Suddenly the normally noisy room is very quiet except for the weeping of the surgeon, anesthesiologist, and attending nurse. Eventually, the pastor stops speaking, the medical team composes itself, and they manage to complete the surgery.
Now, I’m not sure I would have believed this story if only the pastor had told it. Sometimes, as we all know, pastors can get carried away and embellish things a bit! But this pastor invited every member of the medical team to tell his or her own story in the worship service recorded on the DVD. Not one of these people struck me as emotionally unhinged or as a religious fanatic. In fact they were very bright health- care professionals. And they were confident they had observed what they would have said was impossible—the voice of God speaking with authority through a patient in a deep sleep. And by their own admission, their lives would never be the same.
Here’s an interesting postscript to that story—the DVD of that presentation has been lying on my desk for several months. I never seemed to find time to listen to it this week, but something, or someone told me I needed to watch it immediately. And I did just in time for this sermon.
Now I believe all of us have a deep longing to hear the Voice that is above all voices, the Voice that carries the ring of unmistakable authority, the Voice of God. Think of the many voices that ring in our ears day after day, competing for our attention, demanding our response. And we meander about in confusion, unsure what voices to trust. Consequently even Christ-followers wander in a wilderness of confusion. So do Christian churches. We’re clueless about who we are to be and what we are to do, and clueless about how to address our confusion.
At the same time there is something inside of us that resists hearing the Voice above all other voices, too directly. We see our own resistance demonstrated in the ancient Israelites.
In Deuteronomy 18 Moses is preparing the Israelites for the day when he will no longer be their leader. He assures the Israelites that The Lord your God will one day raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people. Why is such a prophet necessary? Because earlier God had spoken to them directly on Mt. Horeb, and as far as the Israelites were concerned God was way too close to comfort. They needed a buffer between themselves and God. And that buffer, that conduit became Moses who spoke for God to his people, and for the people to their God.
This was a good setup as long as Moses was around. In fact, the Israelites lived in a fool’s paradise because they never had to worry about hearing the true Word of God, admittedly second-hand, through Moses. Now that their authority on God was about to pass off the scene, they were worried.
Moses promises that God will provide other prophets when he is gone. But the Israelites ask very perceptive questions regarding these future prophets—“How will we know they speak for God? And how can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?”
To this day we ask the same questions, don’t we? Even if we believe God still speaks to us in the 21st century, how do we know we are truly hearing from God and not some false prophet who will lead us astray?
Moses is not naïve. He knows malicious voices will deliberately misrepresent God and mislead God’s people. These false prophets, says Moses, will die (a sobering word for any preacher!). And you can judge the authenticity of a prophet’s words by whether or not they ever become reality.
Later in Deuteronomy 34 we read that no prophet ever equaled Moses’ intimacy with God, or his mighty deeds and displays of power. Not Isaiah. Not Jeremiah. Not Hosea. Or Joel. Or Amos.
But the leaders of Israel did not forget the promise of Moses. And when the first century rolled around they were still looking for a prophet who equalled the likes of Moses. In fact, when John the Baptist burst on the scene, the scribes and Pharisees asked him if he was the Prophet, the predicted successor to Moses.
But John knew better. He knew that the one who would come after him was the one they were looking for. Later, a disciple of Jesus named Phillip invited another man named Nathaniel to follow Jesus because Jesus was the prophet Moses had written about. Still later, when he preached his first sermon at Pentecost, the Apostle Peter said Jesus was the man Moses predicted would come after him.
But with one caveat…Jesus was even greater than Moses. Yes, God placed his words in the mouth of Moses. But when Jesus taught, and performed miracles, it was obvious God’s voice had never spoken so clearly and authoritatively as it did through Jesus.
Jesus didn’t quote Moses because he was the “new Moses”. Jesus was, and is in a league of his own. To this day Jesus is the unequalled authority when it comes to the ways and the will of God.
Now as I survey our scripture for today I observe several lessons we can learn. For starters, we are like our Jewish forbears ambivalent about hearing the authoritative word of God. For one thing, the Word of God as communicated uniquely through Jesus and directly through the Holy Spirit might overwhelm us. Like the Israelites, we want God close, but not too close. For another thing, if we ever hear God clearly, then we’d be obligated to obey God’s will. Keeping God’s voice, distant and vague gives us a convenient way out of doing God’s will.
We learn that religion and religious structures can over time run dry. Once upon a time the Torah of God was lifegiving. But by the time of Jesus it had become a form of lifeless bondage. It was time for a change, a sea change in the religious establishment. Many of the first-century Jews didn’t handle change well. Neither do we.
We learn that we ignore the presence of evil at our own peril. I remember sitting in the class of an eminent theologian at Princeton Seminary as he took up the subject of the Devil. In those days I was pretty sure the Devil was nothing more than an interesting metaphor of the Bible, and beyond that a figment of the fundamentalists’ imagination. That’s why I was taken aback when this learned theologian reminded us that the Evil One is a wily one, and his first trick is to convince us he does not exist.
Not only does evil exist. We learn from Mark 1 that evil can exist inside the synagogue, or for that matter a church. We are naïve if we do not think there are forces of evil at work that seek not only to destroy Christian persons but Christian churches. What better way for evil to prevail than for churches to wither and die!
We learn that Jesus does not hesitate to confront evil. In fact, where evil is concerned Jesus always plays hardball. Evil may be powerful and persistent. But at the end of the day, the Evil One is no match for Jesus and the power of good.
We learn that with Jesus in the picture, miracles are always possible. Notice I did not say “guaranteed.” In fact, because the people in his hometown of Nazareth were so skeptical and cynical about him, we’re told that Jesus could not accomplish much there.
But absent an environment of chronic cynicism, Jesus can do the unthinkable. He can cast destructive spirits out of people and organizations. He can heal sick people and sick churches, and can make the dead rise to new life. “Nothing is too hard, for God,” the scripture says, which is why anything is possible when the Son of God is in the picture.
We learn that when God speaks through Jesus or the Holy Spirit, we will know that he has spoken. The great saints of the Christian faith urge us to pay attention to the consolations and desolations of our individual and corporate spirits. When God speaks into our lives, we experience consolation. Our spirits are energized and our hearts burst with compassion. When a false voice speaks, we experience desolation. Our spirits are drained, and our energy level sags.
I believe we experienced a consolation of spirit recently when we were given the opportunity to support the Cook Elementary backpack program Heather Leach was supposed to tell us about today. When I came to you just before Christmas and asked you to help feed children who often don’t eat a bite of food from Friday afternoon until Monday morning, something deep stirred inside our church. The next thing I knew, in a matter of hours we had committed ourselves to raises thousands of dollars and give scores of food bags to Cook Elementary students!
And when I went to the school and saw food bags stacked in all directions, I was AMAZED. And I saw what this congregation can do when the authoritative voice of Jesus ignites and unites us.
I believe as we dialogue about the future of our church, that voice with amazing authority will speak again. Are we listening?