Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mark 1:21-28

Mark 1:21-28


There’s a show that I really like to listen to on the radio from NPR as I’m driving or as I’m doing things about the house called This American Life. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a radio program that presents three or four stories all revolving around some central theme. There are a few episodes that really stick out in my mind and one of them was an episode called “The Devil Inside Me.” This episode revolved around stories about people struggling with inner demons or experiences that haunt the way they live their life. The show separates into “acts” or story segments, and the second act of this particular episode was a story entitled “Vox Diaboli.” This act was simply a series of confessionals that people gave about the “inner voice” that pushed or urged them to keep on living in a habit that they had become accustom to. One of the people interviewed had this to say:

I remember realizing just how finely calibrated the voice was to every nuance, every part of my feelings. Including the feeling that I didn’t want to smoke cigarettes. And it’s just like, “Might as well have another cigarette, cause this is it. Tomorrow you’re gonna quit..” Tomorrow something would happen, and there was a good reason to smoke that day. And then it was, “Oh you already smoked today, so today’s not the day you’re gonna quit. So, smoke another cigarette.”

Now let me say before I go any farther, I’m not bringing this up because of the particular vice this gentleman struggled with. It’s because of his struggle that I mention his story. This struggle with our inner demons can feel all too real, and it can be about a number of things that we wish or want to be different about ourselves. Another interviewee said:

Go back to bed for just five more minutes. In five more minutes, you’ll feel great. And then I’ll get up five minutes later, it will be like “Eh, I mean you don’t need to iron the skirt. If you don’t need to be ironing the skirt, do you need to be wearing the skirt? Maybe you could wear a different skirt, and then you could sleep for ten more minutes.” And that seems like a reasonable negotiation.

At the beginning of the story, each one of them described this inner demon as a real voice. They said it was something other, something that spoke in the back of their minds. This idea that you could even have a negotiation like this woman described is not something that is foreign to me, and I would guess that it isn’t something that is very foreign to you all, even if it is simply a little voice saying that you really can just have that one cookie when you know that you probably shouldn’t. But these demons are not so innocuous all the time as one pushing you towards that cookie. These, what I would call very real demons, whether or not one thinks of them as imps and fallen angels serving the devil, cause us to struggle. They cause us to lose our trust in who we are or who we could be. They cause us to lose trust in those people who are all around us making us think the worst rather than reality of the person or group of persons. They even cause us to turn from our faith in God who creates us and gives us the life that we hold so dearly. This doesn’t release from the responsibility to the things that we do, but it does describe the either real or perceived powerlessness as we turn away from the God who gives us life, loves us, and declares that we are good creation. That is sin, and that is what we struggle so mightily with.

As I read this short account from Mark’s gospel, I see Jesus encountering this very same thing – encountering a demon in the synagogue. I keep bringing back up what has just happened in Mark, because, even though it seems like a while since Jesus was baptized or called the disciples, we are still in the midst of the very first chapter of his gospel. As Mark tells this story, Jesus is not far removed from his baptism. So as Jesus encounters this demon in the synagogue, he is not far removed from his time in the wilderness where he himself was tempted by Satan. Jesus sees and lives in a world where these demons are a very real thing – where they are a very real power actively opposing God’s will for creation. That’s what this demon, this unclean spirit, is trying to in the midst of this synagogue – he’s trying to subvert the teaching and authority of Jesus’ teaching that was enthralling the people there.

This demon is trying to plant the idea that Jesus has come to destroy not only him, but the demon is trying to convince the people that Jesus has come to destroy the normal lives of everyone who was gathered in that synagogue. The thing is that the demon is exactly right, but not in the way that he was thinking he would be right. Jesus has come to destroy the current way of life, not in a way that a warring despot might kill people and destroy house and home. Rather, Jesus has come to destroy the old life that is in bondage to such demons, in bondage to such sin, and in bondage to our inevitable deaths. Jesus comes to bring truth and life, so that in hearing and knowing him we might have the faith that restores our trust in our life giving God. Jesus comes to throw away all that brokenness that separates us from God, from each other, and even with ourselves. This is the authority that is astounding the people, because it is the authority that restores life, that restores faith in God and who God is.

We will still struggle with our demons. We will still struggle with our sin. Yet, be rightly assured that Jesus has come to destroy these old powers by restoring us in our faith through his death on the cross uniting with us and giving us the promise of eternal life.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Answering the Call of Discipleship

John 1:43-51


An ancient rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was on its way back. “Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?”

“No,” answered the Rabbi.

The past week it has been just about as cold as it will get here in Wisconsin. That actually warms my heart, because as someone who has just moved here, it is good to know that this usually doesn’t occur too often – cold, but not -25 degrees cold. The cold of the past week has made the nights seem a bit longer and a bit harsher as we more often than not were trying to stay indoors where it is warm rather than be out in the cold too much. It has been a few nights where it doesn’t seem like it ever will change and it will certainly be this cold and dark. As Garrison Keillor usually laments at some point during winter in one of his News from Lake Woebegone, “spring is a distant memory, and winter and cold dark nights dominate our consciousness.”

It can be said that Epiphany is a season of darkness where we are given little flashes of light. It is a season in the church when we are given glimpses of who this Jesus is and what he has come into the world to do. We saw a flash of light illuminating who Jesus last week as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan after being baptized by John the Baptist. The heavens split open and the Spirit descends like dove upon Jesus a voice says from above, “You are my Son, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.” This is a moment where we see Jesus as the Father’s only begotten Son – a moment where Jesus’ divinity is revealed. And now this week we have a story from John’s gospel where Jesus himself gives not only Nathaniel, but also gives us a flash of who Jesus is as that which brings creation back into relationship with God.

However, it is all too easy to be concerned and maybe even consumed with all the worries of our present situations as we face questions of maintaining our buildings as the reality of repairs still stare at us in our face or questions of whether or not there will be a next generation who will fill these walls with all the emotions that come along with living our lives here on earth. How can we know when night has ended and day is on its way back?

Going back to our little story about this ancient Rabbi, another student inquired, “Could it be when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?”

“No,” the Rabbi replied.

Nathaniel, in this story from John, is described as someone who almost smirkingly quips to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The center of religious authority and power had long since been centered in and around Jerusalem as the northern kingdom of Israel had been lost in the Assyrian invasion leaving Judah to stand as the land and kingdom of God’s chosen people. If anyone was to be the one whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets spoke about, it surely was going to come from in or around the area where the temple was located. You might even say that Nathanael is described to be a good Israelite who would know something about this. Yet there is something that is very interesting in the exchange between Philip and Nathanael – despite his first reluctance to Philip’s invitation, he comes to see who this person that Philip is talking about is.

You may not recognize it, but Nathanael responding to Philip’s call is the very first step into a life of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship describes it this way, “The call goes forth, and is at once followed by the response of obedience.” This single act of obedience is what begins that life lived in faith. Whatever Nathanael’s motives might be in coming along with Philip to see Jesus, his obedience, you might say his willingness to do what Philip called him to do put him in the place where his confession of faith can occur. He comes to see who Jesus is. He comes to hear what he has to say. In that, his faith is created. In that, he is called to live a life of discipleship. Now, before we get ahead of ourselves and start to think that this is something that Nathanael did for himself, we must remember that the life of discipleship is something we are always called by God to – not something that we create for ourselves. This is very important for us to remember, because it is because of this fact that the light shines in the darkness and the well spring of eternal life is a reality that we all can hope for.

The rabbi’s students soon grew weary of trying to guess at what the rabbi was getting at as they often did when he posed questions to them. Well, then, what is it?” his pupils demanded.

The wise old teacher responded with words of immense wisdom: “It is when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”

This hope that we have of the coming light, the well spring of eternal occurs when we answer Jesus’ call to follow. Bonhoeffer calls this life of discipleship “grace and a commandment.” The call of Jesus is a call into an uncertain future where we paradoxically live in the certainty of God’s eternal love for us. Bonhoeffer writes:

The old life is left behind, and completely surrendered. The disciple is dragged out of his relative sercurity into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus), from a life which is observable and calculable (it is, in fact, quite incalculable) into a life where everything is unobservable and fortuitous (that is, into one which is necessary and calculable), out of the realm of finite (which is in truth the infinite) into the realm of infinite possibilities (which is the one liberating reality).

The life lived in discipleship is a life lived where the possibilities to witness in word and deed to all those who are around us. We should look at all the men and women that we meet as brothers and sisters who deserve our love, care and invitation to come and see and be a part of the body of Christ. This is what we are called to do even in the midst of everything that seems to be distracting us in our lives. That is when the dark, cold of night gives way to the hope and warmth of the hope we have in Christ.