Stranger Things

Scripture:  Mark 1:21-28

Even though it is the end of January, I am beginning to think of warmer times.  It is about this time every year that I begin to plan for church camp.   Obviously that did not happen last year, but we are cautiously optimistic that this summer camp might still happen.  I have volunteered to direct church camp for twelve years and I was a staff counselor before that.  Given all of that experience, there are some lessons I have learned about camp the hard way.   Based on mistakes I have made in the past there are a couple of rules I have for camp now.  First, is no pillow fights.  Campers always want to have one, but it always ends with someone going too far and someone else getting hurt.  The second rule is no ghost stories.  This is because way back in 2005, it was my second year to help direct a small camp.   I was also in a cabin with campers that year, and they wanted to tell ghost stories.  I came up with a story of a camper named Pricilla who wandered into the quarry adjacent to the camp, died and now haunted the camp.  I must have done a decent job telling the story, because the entire cabin instantly assumed it must be true.  By lunch the next day, the entire camp knew the story of Pricilla.   By the next morning at least three different campers claimed they saw a ghostly figure at some point during the night.  One particularly mischievous camper finally took it too far, snuck out of a cabin and vandalized another cabin in an attempt to make it look like a ghost did it.  The whole thing went too far and got out of hand.  It ended up being a terrible distraction that took the whole focus of the week in the wrong direction.   That is why, I now have a personal rule against ghost stories at camp, I know from experience they run the risk of being too great a distraction.

Stories of the supernatural and paranormal can pick up tractions really easily.  It seems that a lot of people are really drawn to the stranger things.  This is true in the Christian faith as well.  Looking for books on the topic of “Spiritual warfare” will get you into the deep end extremely fast because there are no shortage of people who will sell you books about how to find and banish demons.  The bible does not shy away from the concept of supernatural evil, so perhaps we should not shy away from the topic so quickly.  Yet, chasing down these supernatural forces of darkness can be a real distraction.   I like how C.S. Lewis puts it in the preface to his book The Screwtape Letters, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”  While I personally do not deny the existence of supernatural evil, I also have little desire to seek out or give any real focus to demonic forces because doing so tends to distract us from what is truly important.   I think this morning’s scripture is a prime example of that.  This scripture is less about supernatural evil in the form of an impure spirit and more about the world transforming authority of Jesus.  An authority that even to this day can help us resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

If you happened to open your bible and read along with this morning’s scripture, then there is a good chance that your bible like mine labels this morning’s scripture as “Jesus drives out an impure Spirit.”  These section headings are not really part of the scripture, they were added by translators in modern times to aid in making scripture more digestible for modern readers.   That header though can immediately lead us to focus on the impure Spirit as the main point of this section of scripture.  However, we can notice that Jesus casting out the impure spirit is not what the audience in the scripture seems to be really focused on.  Verse 27 states, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other-What is this?  A New teaching-and with authority!”   It is the teaching of Jesus that impresses the people the most, the fact that Jesus cast out an impure spirit is just seen as extra evidence to back up the power of Jesus’ words.   The real emphasis of this morning’s scripture is not that Jesus cast out an impure Spirit it is that he taught with authority.

This morning’s scripture begins in the synagogue of Capernaum.   Now often we read synagogue as Jewish church, but that is not entirely accurate.   The synagogue of Jesus day was a place of worship and prayer, but it was also the community forum.  In Jesus day synagogues did not have a rabbi assigned to them that functioned as a pastor.  There were synagogue leaders and they would regularly open up the synagogue to traveling teachers or to the Pharisees who had something to say.   It was under the banner of a traveling teacher that Jesus taught in the synagogue.  Right away, Jesus impresses the people of Capernaum.  Verse 22 states, “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”

This is really some master level shade that the gospel author is throwing here, because when it came to the Hebrew Scriptures, the teachers of the law were supposed to be the ones with authority!   The Pharisees had devoted themselves completely to studying and knowing the scriptures.   They would memorize the scripture, they would familiarize themselves with all the traditional interpretations, and they were quick to point out when people were not following those interpretations.   The Pharisees had gone to great length to cast themselves as the religious authorities of their day.  Yet, compared to Jesus the authority of the Pharisees came across as nothing more inept commentary from talking heads.

Now unfortunately, we do not have transcripts to compare the words that Jesus said on this day in Capernaum against the typical teachings of the Pharisees to see the difference.   We cannot know for sure why the teachings of the Pharisees lacked authority compared to the words of Jesus, but when we consider the entirety of the gospels we can begin to form a good guess.   Jesus talked about loving God and the Pharisees talked about following rules.   We get the impression that the Pharisees loved the idea of following God more than they loved God.  .   Jesus spoke of God as his Father, he spoke with the authority of a son.   Hearing the Pharisees teach may have been as exciting as some reading the tax code, but Jesus would have spoken with conviction and experience because he spoke from a place of deep relationship.   The Pharisees tended to treat people who did not meet their strict standards with judgement and condemnation.  The Pharisees said it was important to love your neighbor as yourself, but their actions did not back up what they taught.    Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, and he backed it up by having compassion and showing care for everyone, including those that others ignored and actively shunned.   Perhaps this more than anything is why people were able to pick up on Jesus’ authority.   It was obvious to them that he believed what he preached and practiced what he taught.

The Pharisees knew their stuff, but they did not teach with authority because they did not put their knowledge into practice.   Jesus taught from a place of authority because he knew God and he lived out what he said.   We can absolutely follow the example of Jesus.   Because of the salvation offered by Jesus we can know God as our heavenly Father.  Our lives can be changed by grace.  We can then live in a way where our actions back up our beliefs in a divine, life changing love.   We do ourselves a dis-service when the way we live and the way we believe do not line up.   Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”   In other words, the world will see us like the teachers of the law who are all talk but whose words have no real authority.   As we have already stated people are drawn to the supernatural and the strange, so let us show the world the strangest of things:  Christians who actually act like Jesus.

This is done when we authentically live our beliefs, when we practice what we preach.  If we say that everyone is created by and loved by God, then we treat everyone as if they have sacred worth.   If we say to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we show as much care and concern for their wellbeing as we show for our own.   In doing this, we should follow the example of Jesus.  Because Jesus talked to the people his culture said he should not talk to, Jesus ate with the people his culture said were his enemies, and Jesus died so that even the most unrepentant sinner might still be forgiven.  The people that we are willing to love, invest in, or go to bat for should not be limited to a certain type of people.  We need to be willing to love and sacrifice for all the people, just like Jesus did.  When we do this, then we live a life marked by authentic authority.  This means even if someone disagrees with our beliefs they will listen and respect our viewpoint because they know it is authentic and comes from a place of deep conviction.

In this scripture Jesus does not speak with authority.  He displays his authority through actions, specifically through confronting evil.  In the same way, we can put an authentic authority of loving others into action.  There are no shortages of systemic and sustained evils in this world.  There are social systems, embedded attitudes, and structural traditions that exist to belittle, marginalize, or take advantage of people.  When we actively take a stand against and advocate for those who are being hurt then we are resisting and confronting real evil in this world.   Make no mistake, when we speak truth to power it will reveal some impure Spirits.  Catholic Bishop Helder Camara discovered this to be the case.  He served in Brazil in the mid 20th Century and he was a tireless advocate and servant for the poor.   He once famously said, “When I give food to the poor they call me a saint.  When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.”

Whenever we take the side of the marginalized, victimized, and oppressed then there will be voices that rise to tell us we are wrong.   However, I would argue that every positive moral change that has happened, only happens because a group of people is willing to upset the status quo.   They are willing to say the current way of things is wrong.   There is opposition, but eventually those impure spirits are cast out.  We see this play our in parts of our country’s history.  Opposition to slavery, reform to child labor laws and unjust worker conditions, to the civil rights movement, to the continued and ongoing push to dismantle racism are all examples of positive moral changes that began with a minority speaking with authentic authority against the unjust and sometimes evil powers that be. In all of the instances some of the people at the forefront of calling out the injustice are followers of Jesus who are speaking out because of a profound love for others.   There is no shortage of injustice and evil in this world.  With little effort you could likely find a cause that speaks to your heart and stirs your passion.  The question is will we engage in transforming the world?  Will we have a faith that follows the example of the Pharisees and is marked by ritual and legalism or will we have a faith that follows the example of Jesus and is marked by authentic authority?

It is easy to get distracted from what is truly important.  In our faith and in our lives, the most important thing we can do is follow Jesus.   May we not get distracted, may we seek to follow Jesus and may we seek to live an authentic life of loving others because He first loved us.   May we put that love into action because that my friends is what it means to transform the world.

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