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Submission to Freedom

Submission to Freedom
Old Mystic, February 1, 2009
Mark 1:21-28

Summary

The event in the synagogue in Capernaum, that according to Mark initiates Jesus’ public ministry, is a statement and revelation of the authority and liberating power of Christ. The casting of the evil spirit illustrates God’s saving work; and by our experience of submission to Jesus, we enter into a life of true freedom which though still unfinished it will one day be perfected.

Sermon

This is a story that takes place in a synagogue, the ancient predecessor of what we know as the church. In our days, perhaps, we have institutionalized the church too much to the point of seeing it as a structure, as a place, or an organization; may be a corporation. Yet the church has always being the ekklesia, the assembly of God’s people. The church is not the structure, or the building; the church is the people! And so was the synagogue in the days when Jesus began his public ministry. An assembly of people, a rather small gathering, but with a distinct order of service, a consciousness of what it meant to be God’s people, and a deep sense of the sacredness of the Torah which was read and taught consistently--what we would call today “worship.”

As when we come to church—hopefully with the expectation of experiencing God, and with some degree of excitement—we can assume that the folks gathered at the synagogue in Capernaum were excited. And that was a different day. A new teacher was at the lectern and there was something special about him. And the reaction of the crowd—whether, verbally at that point we don’t know—came out immediately: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” It seems evident to me that some of them were a little tired of their own tradition; those who saw it as a forceful, crystallized, and dogmatic attachment to the law. And there came Jesus. A different voice; an astounding teaching; a new experience. A new sense of awe was in the air.

Did they understand the significance of the moment? Did they realize that they were in the very presence of the incarnate God to whom they could only relate by recitations of the Torah or prescribed prayers? If they didn’t, who can blame them? Does anyone understand the significance of coming into the “House of the Lord,” not because it is a custom, or because of the quality of the programs, or because it is a good place to socialize, but simply because God’s promise that God is in the midst of two or three that are gathered in his name? I pray that the sense of awe of God’s presence invades the atmosphere of this building and comes upon this gathered community.

It was a perfect gathering—the one at the synagogue in Capernaum. That teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of a carpenter—not the typical teacher, was something special that deserved to be heard. Everybody was expectant, everybody was all ears and then the cry: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” A man with an “evil spirit” interrupted the flow of the fascinating teaching of the carpenter. It was disturbing for the witnesses at the synagogue, but perhaps for different reasons than it would be for us—21st Century onlookers.

a. They believed in demons; they were a fact of life. They believed in a constant battle between good and evil; and evil was personified in spirits who would possess, control, and oppress human beings and the manifestation of these demons were sometimes simply horrendous. Shouting, shaking, falling down and loosing completely the control of their bodies, and changing dramatically the tone of their voices were some of the characteristic effects that came along with the presence of evil spirits. Most of the time in the days of Jesus, evil spirits were believed to be the cause of the many diseases people suffered. And, unfortunately, they were also the basis for social sanction. Something was wrong with the person who suffered the oppression of illness; it was a “punishment from God.”

b. We, the people of the 21st century, having undergone the age of reason, we who pretend to have the answers or are diligently seeking a rational, scientific explanation for everything, we the moderns, are no less disturbed than our first century counterparts. We would perhaps say that the man was simply an epileptic (poor thing!); or may be a drunkard, or a mentally challenged individual. Perhaps many would feel pity for the poor man and, even when we might pretend to have a logical explanation, we would be equally disturbed. We don’t believe in demons! That is part of a magical sense of religion that was left in the past long time ago. We now deal with computer viruses, the pest of our technological age. How deep we have been caught in the trap of what French sociologist Jacques Ellul called the “technological bluff!” We are scientific, rationalistic, and technological, how can we believe in a spiritual world or underworld?

If someone started talking while the pastor is preaching any given Sunday, at any given mildly civilized congregation, even among those who are “more spiritual,” we would find a way of quieting that person down. A couple of strong guys might do it. If the drunkard, or the mentally ill, or the “possessed” offered resistance, or some kicking and cursing, it might take four or more to subdue that person. But the key question this morning for both the first century and 21st century church goers is: do we understand what it means to be oppressed? Don’t we realize that we are seeing someone who is suffering, whether a mental illness, or overcome by evil, yet suffering?

I believe in such a thing as spiritual oppression. In fact, I have seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, and anointed with oil some of these “cursed” people using my own hands. Were they demon possessed? Let everyone choose what they want to believe. But the fact remains that many, even among ourselves, are in need of the healing, powerful, liberating, and transforming work of Jesus Christ. This message is not about demonology! Let the focus be on the Teacher, the one who shocked the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus, the Christ; the incarnate son of God; our savior and the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. Jesus the liberator!

We are all oppressed in some way. We are perhaps in the process of being liberated from illnesses, weaknesses, failures, and shortcomings—and sin, which is the ultimate “work of the devil” to enslave us. But if our eyes are turned upon the one standing at the lectern in the synagogue in Capernaum, if we experience an encounter with the Living Christ, than human being Jesus, we have the promise of freedom.

But freedom doesn’t come by easily. Contrary to our perception of what freedom is—the possibility to do as we please as individuals, we are only free when all are free; when we discover the true significance of what it means to be human in the likeness of Jesus and our freedom then translates into making peace, loving, and the joy of service. When Jesus said: “Be silent, and come out of him!" he began the process of liberation of a man who was oppressed, who could not in any way experience freedom. Jesus is the one who sets us free.

I. JESUS SETS US FREE BECAUSE HE HAS AUTHORITY

Did you realize that in spite of the sense of astonishment that the teachings of Jesus brought upon that congregation that the only one, who could clearly recognize who Jesus was, was the man with the evil spirit? Neither the ruler of the synagogue, nor the elders, nor the attendant, nor the scribes. Only the poor oppressed individual. Who are the blind of our age? What keeps humanity unaware? Haven’t we been proclaiming this truth for ages?

Jesus can bring us into the “freedom of the children of God.” The man with the evil spirit recognized Jesus. He said when he saw him: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God." He knew he could not resist the attraction of the amazing presence of the Christ; he knew he had to surrender to the authority of the Teacher. The text does not explicitly tell us much about an act of submission. Yet, he indeed submitted himself to the experience of entering into the promise of freedom. Because of his authority, Jesus forgives us and sets us free. For that reason John says: “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Jesus’ authority has been challenged by many. As Christians we have to endure our own doubts and the challenges that come out of our own ranks. Questions are raised regarding the historicity of Jesus Christ; many of the great sayings of Jesus are now being challenged as being part of the lore of his time and perhaps used by sages in those days. Even the historicity of this passage can be questioned if we submit ourselves to the rules of scientific, historical inquiry. Have we lost that sense of awe, the same that invaded the room at the synagogue in Capernaum? Even the doubters of that day were perplexed with Jesus’ teaching and called it “a new teaching—with authority.” They might have not surrendered to the liberating work of Jesus, yet they recognized his authority; way above the leaders of his time. Jesus is the liberator of humankind and he sets us free because of his authority.

II. JESUS SETS US FREE BECAUSE HE HAS POWER

The text says that “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” And the man was set free. What a demonstration of power among people who believed that the forces of evil could penetrate the lives of individuals and control them! Mark is trying to make a point very clear through this story and in fact throughout his entire gospel—Jesus has the power to bind the strong man, the supreme power of evil. It is the power to set us all free.

Whether demonic or human, we are dealing in this age—like in all other ages—with the reality of powers and principalities that shape us, control us, and oppress us. At a global level, it becomes so visible when we watch civilians bombarded and killed; when we learn that almost half of the population of the world lives with less than $2 a day; when only 10% of the stockholders in America own 90% of the assets, and all of this, in a failing economy where many more these days are jobless, scrambling to make the ends meet. A simple look at these facts makes us feel doubtful about the liberating power of Jesus. Someone may even suggest that this saving power is only spiritual, just for the life beyond this life. I believe that the promises of God for humankind are a historical project. For the time being we are barely seeing signs of the kingdom to come. But the power, the liberating power of Jesus has made us free already by virtue of our faith.

But there is another level of human experience—the personal, the existential—where individuals encounter the experiences of every day life and battle to make the most out of their living. And as individuals we encounter obstacles, we are engaged in struggles, we suffer illnesses, depression, PTSD, isolation, alienation, pain, sorrow, and loneliness. How much we need to surrender to the liberating Jesus! By experience we know that we will not be free overnight. But the promise stands. We will know the truth and the truth shall set us free. For the time being, we only have glimpses.

I want to conclude by saying that we need to recover the amazement that engulfed the folks at the synagogue in Capernaum. We need to grow in the recognition of God’s saving and liberating grace in Jesus Christ. We want to delight ourselves in the beauty of a peaceful freedom, in a kind of a state of bliss; in the hope a glorious future. But this freedom is not just something we are “naturally endowed with;” or a human right, or a civil right. It is indeed all of that. Yet, it is much more. It is the discovery of true life and of real meaning. It is freedom to love, freedom to make peace, and freedom to serve beyond the limitations of our human condition. This is not a freedom that can be conquered; it is a freedom that comes out of submission. And it is possible for anyone who can say differently than the man with the evil spirit in the synagogue, “I understand who you are, Jesus of Nazareth. You are the Holy One from God. I know what you have to do with me and I wish to submit to your freedom.”

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