Pretending to Be a Good Person. A sermon, January 29, 2012

4th Sunday of Epiphany (B)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

 This passage of scripture takes place in the synagogue Capernaum. The synagogue is a holy place. Sabbath is a holy day. Those who gather are holy people. But there is one among them who doesn’t belong. A man with unclean spirit.

Unclean. He has a spirit within him that is in opposition to God. It stands in God’s way. It obstructs what God is doing. This man has no business in this place with these people on this day. He’s a pretender. Acting as if he was righteous and worthy. But a spirit possesses him that makes him powerless to be blessed, powerless to be worthy, powerless to be part of God’s holiness in the world.

We know what God’s holiness in the world looks like, right? Forgiveness, mercy and compassion, extravagant generosity, new chances, new lives.

This man in the synagogue is possessed by something that keeps him in opposition to God’s holy activity in the world. Something is keeping him from forgiving, from showing mercy, from giving generously, from something that as a person of God he is called to be.

Does that sound a little familiar? Maybe even uncomfortably familiar? Lack of generosity, of mercy, of forgiveness? Does that maybe sound like us? Because it sounds like me. We are unclean. We sometimes get so possessed by our pain that we’re unable to forgive. We are sometimes so possessed by fear and lack of trust that we keep way too much money for ourselves. We are sometimes so possessed by anger that we say hurtful things we don’t mean. We are unclean. We are possessed by something that is in opposition to what God calls us to be. We call it sin, gospel-writer Mark calls it having an unclean spirit. I think Mark’s way of describing it gets our attention better, but it’s the same thing. That which keeps us from being what God calls us to be. That which keeps us from living as reflections of the holy God in whose image we are created.

But even though he’s got an unclean spirit, even though he can’t forgive, or show mercy, or give away money, or stop hurting people, or whatever it is, he’s there in the synagogue. He knows he doesn’t belong; he’s been pretending to be good and righteous for a long time—hiding his uncleanness. Apparently he’s welcome in the synagogue, which means no one knows. Do you think he feels holier just because he’s in church? Like a better person because he’s trying? I doubt it. He obsessed with his secret, possessed by this spirit of uncleanness. He can’t get rid of it. It possesses him.

But Jesus comes into the synagogue anyway. He’s right there in the same place as this unclean man who is struggling with his money, with mercy, with forgiveness, with anger. Jesus comes and confronts the man who is pretending everything is OK. Jesus is there, and he’s there with authority. Teaching as if the things he is saying are from God himself. It is astounding.

And suddenly the uncleanness in him—that within him that stands fast against living mercifully and generously, preventing forgiveness from flowing out of him—all that he’s been hiding all these years, rises up in protest in the presence of Jesus. Because he knows Jesus threatens all this. Jesus has the authority. The authority of God. And this man’s protests rise up and give voice to his fear. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” This unclean man, this one pretending all is well, is terrified. He is exposed in the presence of Jesus and has no idea what’s going to happen to him.

Jesus has come to where the man is. He has authority over the uncleanness in the man—and in us. He comes into the places in our lives where we have to pretend everything is fine. He comes with the authority of God. Jesus exposes all our pretending. And that can be terrifying.

And Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit. He commands that it be silent, and that it come out of the man. And it does. Not peacefully, not gently, not nicely. It comes out of him with convulsions and screaming. It is ugly.

But Jesus does have authority over the uncleanness. He casts it out. It doesn’t come out easily—we may continue to struggle with forgiving. It doesn’t come out nicely—we might continue to have difficulty being generous. It doesn’t come out peacefully—we may continue to have a hard time showing mercy. It doesn’t come out cleanly—we might continue to have a hard time relinquishing our anger or resentment.

But Jesus comes anyway. And he has authority anyway. And he casts out our uncleanness anyway. He loves us anyway.

The man asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” No, not to destroy, but renew. Not do away with, but make whole.

“I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Yes, the One who comes among us with the power of God. The One who meets us in those places where we have to pretend. The One who knows the uncleanness that possesses us. And the One who has authority over all of it. He commands even our unclean spirits, and they obey him.

That is amazing.

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