1 February 2015
Mark 1 v 21 - 28 God's not dead
The writer Ludovik Kennedy gave the title to of his books "All in the Mind: A Farewell to God"
One of Kennedy's problems with the concept of God was the idea of miracles.
Like many in our generation he is unable to believe that Jesus walked on the water, or raised Lazarus to life, or changed water into wine. In the book he admits that many Christian scholars accept that these claims need not necessarily be taken literally, but may rather be pointing to eternal truths, but he simply dismissed that answer almost without discussion.
Miracles. Our gospel reading today is about a miracle, a miracle of healing. What are we to make of it? Did miracles ever happen? And if they did, can they still happen today?
Back to the beginning. Lets go back to the beginning, which I think as a song puts it is a very good place to start. Back to the very beginning and to those early pages of the Bible in the book of Genesis, which tell us in story form about the creation of the world.
You remember God speaks and things happen. God said, "Let there be light!" And there was light. God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures," and animals were created. God said, "Let us make man in our own image," and human beings arrived on earth.
The important thing about the Genesis Narrative is what it's saying and it's saying in story form that God is the creator, that God is the energy behind the universe. God speaks and things happen.
Mark begins his account of Jesus' ministry in a similar way. Jesus speaks and things happen things are restored to the way they ought to be, to the way they were when first created by God. Jesus said to the man who was deeply troubled by an unclean spirit, "Come out of him!" And the man was restored to his right mind and his right soul.
So immediately it begins to become clear that Mark has a strategy a plan in the way he writes his gospel. By choosing this miraculous healing as the very first act which Jesus does in his ministry, Mark hints that Jesus is equal with God. In the beginning God speaks, Genesis something amazing happens. In the beginning of part II, Jesus' ministry, Jesus speaks, something amazing happens.
Mark is the only gospel writer who begins the ministry of Jesus in this way. John has Jesus beginning his ministry by changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, a rather different sort of miracle.
In Matthew, Jesus' ministry begins with a short general paragraph about teaching, healing and preaching, but the first act, which is detailed in any way, is the Sermon on the Mount.
And Luke begins the ministry of Jesus by having Jesus read from Isaiah's scroll in the synagogue in Nazareth, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to set at liberty those who are oppressed." And then Jesus goes on to tell the listening crowds that the words he's just read apply to him.
Each gospel writer has his own agenda and his own target audience, and therefore his own slant or spin to use a rather emotive word on the events and life of Jesus. His own way of getting his particular message across.
His message is God is alive and at work in His world
So what else is Mark saying in this story of the healing of the man with the unclean spirit? We no longer know precisely what was meant by the term, "unclean spirit". It may have been the same as "evil spirit" since both terms seem to be used interchangeably throughout the gospels. And most scholars believe both terms referred to various types of mental or emotional illnesses.
Sometimes the unclean spirit seems to be associated with a convulsive illness, such as epilepsy. But in this instance in Mark's gospel, although the healing was accompanied by a convulsion, "unclean spirit" seems to refer much more to what we might class nowadays as bad behaviour.
The man was shouting and yelling, and making a thorough nuisance of himself. I can picture him like a guy who lost his cool outside a church I had and lobbed a stone at the window. I still bear a slight scar where a shard of glass hit me. And people around said 'don't mess with him he's mad!! I didn't!
I can picture a guy standing on the pew during a wedding I was conducting waving a can of lager and shouting out whenever I said anything 'What a load of rubbish' hasn't happened often. And I don't expect it will happen this morning!
And here was this guy in the church, in the synagogue, yelling and swearing at Jesus. Jesus could have reacted by ignoring the man, trying to pretend he wasn't there and hoping he would go away. Or he could have called the Stewards and had the man thrown out of the synagogue.
But Jesus didn't ignore the man or call the Stewards or get the police he faced up to the man and told him to be quiet 'Be Quiet' and commanded the unclean spirit to leave him.' Come out of him' And it did - to the astonishment of everybody watching. The man instantly changed from being a perfect nuisance to becoming a perfectly social human being.
The change is the difference between being possessed by an unclean spirit and being possessed by the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God. And so Mark is saying that when people become aware of the Holy Spirit inside them, the God within, their lives change. They are changed inside out.
Some of us find this language of unclean or evil spirit difficult. But can it not be descriptive of what we see around us or within us. We see it with our eyes we feel it in our hearts.
We see it in behaviour of others even sometimes in ourselves. Behaviour which gives no thought or concern for others which treats people of little or no consequence in there places of work or at home.
There's the unclean spirit of wealth, which regards money as the highest god to be worshipped, and which regards any devious act as justified if it leads to more money. We see it in the exploitation of children or adults merely as sex objects to be used or violently abused.
There's the unclean spirit of nations who will spend 100's of millions on preparations for war and on the arms trade when people the world over cry out for basic food or medicine. The worst kind of pornography is that which leaves people to rot in poverty or sickness when something can be done about it.
Evil unclean yes there is much around us which is frankly bad or so much that suggest we've gone mad. Stop the world I want to get off.
But don't despair don't go home in the unclean spirit of depression or stress!
For Miracles do happen!
Robert E Lee was the leader of the Southern Confederate states in the American Civil war. In the June of 1865 having surrendered his army of North Virginia only a couple of months before he was in Richmond the old Confederate capital. The air was still electric with tension. Richmond was still occupied by federal troops. It had recently been subject to a cruel siege, defeat, looting and burning. Its citizens were bitter with humiliation and apprehensive about the large number of black people who had been freed by the war. It was a communion service at St. Paul's church and when the minister was ready to serve communion a tall well-dressed black man was the first to go to the rail. It was a shock to all the whites who until then had never seen a black man in there church. The unclean spirit of exclusivity and prejudice bound them. To them it was nothing more than arrogance, another attempt to force change upon them. For a few moments nobody moved. Then another man came forward and knelt not far from the black man and the other man was Robert E Lee. The effect said a man who was there, was magical, and the service proceeded without any further difficulty.
Anthony Bloom in a book called the Essence of Prayer says 'A miracle is not the breaking of the laws of the fallen world it is the reestablishment of the laws of the Kingdom of God.'
What Mark is telling us through this 'story of Jesus' is that the God who is able to bring the universe into being is able to bring about a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. If we as Christians don't believe that, if we don't believe that God can actually change people yes even him! or her! or me then we may as well stop wasting our time and stick a for sale notice on the door and have a closing down sale.
The word is. Miracles do happen. Things can Change. We must not be seduced into thinking that the leopard cannot change his spots; we must give credence to the lie that the world around us cannot reflect something of the Kingdom of God.
God is as active now as ever he was.
Donald Soper was once speaking of God on his open air platform in Hyde Park. Someone yelled out. Don't be stupid God,is dead! To which Soper replied 'Really I have not heard he was ill'.
Gods not dead (no) He is alive.
God is alive and well and active, and miracles still happen. And if we dare to call ourselves Christians it's up to us to point people in the miracle maker's direction. Unclean Spirits disappear when replaced by the Holy Spirit of God. And when that happens we experience the finest miracle of all- the new life of the Kingdom of God.