After a couple of weeks off, I’m looking forward to beginning a sermon series for Advent and Christmas. Here’s what I have planned:
I think I’m as rational and grounded as the next person. Despite being a person of faith, a believer in Jesus Christ’s work in this world, my default way of thinking is to trust what I can see and measure, and be skeptical about what I cannot validate.
That makes me a typical 21st century citizen of the developed world, a product of a place where science and reason are held in high esteem. That sense of being “modern,” however, also can make it more difficult for me and for you to appreciate the truths in what can seem like a primitive story, a story including demon possession and exorcism.
The story itself is told in a straightforward manner—this is, after all, the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had just gathered his disciples, and he headed to the synagogue in Capernaum, the town which would be his ministry’s home base for the next three years.
An Exorcism, Jesus-Style
First, a little regarding Jesus teaching with “authority,” as this becomes important to us later. The declaration of the worshipers about Jesus was not a slap at the scribes, whose job it was to look to the law and provide guidance. When the worshipers said Jesus taught as “one having authority,” they meant he spoke as God would speak, with the voice of a prophet, declaring God’s will directly.
Apparently, that holy authority bothered a demon occupying some part of one worshiper’s soul. I wonder if the man had ever done anything to indicate his problem before; he was allowed in the synagogue, rather than having been driven away from society, as possessed people often were. The resident demon declared loudly who Jesus is, and its fear of Jesus also was evident. Jesus silenced it and exorcised it, presumably freeing this man from some terrible burdens in the process.
To grasp the significance of the demon in this and other exorcism stories, we do have to believe there are evil powers at work but not directly observable in this world. As Christians, there’s really not much reason to reject such an idea. Think what we have accepted already.
We believe there is a personal spiritual force called God who made all things and stands outside all creation. We believe God’s Spirit fully occupies human flesh as Jesus Christ, and we believe that same Spirit occupies us when we accept Christ as Savior.
Few of us struggle with the idea of angels occupying a heavenly realm. So, It really shouldn’t be a stretch to imagine their evil variant, influencing us in a very personal way. As we hear in Revelation 12:7-9:
And war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
In recent years, I’ve found it easier and easier to accept that those evil beings among us take control of people. While working in prison ministry, I’ve had inmates tell me of their own personal experiences of losing control.
Certainly, these people did certain things to open the door to evil spiritual influences—drug abuse in particular seems to increase the risk of possession. But there is an element to their stories that goes beyond the simple rewiring of their brains through drugs or pornography. Something wicked was present. (By the time they told me these stories, they had been freed by Christ.)
Here’s the good news: Christians who cling to their beliefs and guard themselves spiritually have nothing to fear. Our story today shows us demons tremble at the very idea of Jesus Christ. And they were trembling even before Christ had gone to the cross, defeated death and sin, and demonstrated his victory in the Resurrection.
If you’ll back up a few verses in Mark, you can see why demons feared Christ from the start of his ministry. Satan already had made one run at Jesus in the wilderness, testing him, vetting his identity, and badly losing a battle of wits. The entire spirit world must have taken note.
Why can I say we have nothing to fear? When we stay close to Christ, Christ’s Spirit remains in us, and those wicked forces see Christ in us. Evil may damage our bodies, but our souls are never in danger.
All this makes me wonder why people would dabble in New Age spiritualism or witchcraft. Have they not figured out they’re siding with the losing team? After the victory on the cross, the spiritual battle between good and evil is for all practical purposes over. If this were a basketball game, there would be a minute left in the fourth quarter, with Good up by 40 points over Evil.
Do you ever wish God were different? It sounds like a strange question, but the prophet Jonah could have easily answered, “Yes.”
The story of Jonah opens with the prophet at home somewhere in Israel, hearing from God with the clarity most biblical prophets seem to experience. God gave Jonah a simple command: “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.”
Nineveh was to the east, in what is now the northern part of Iraq. (Its ruins are near the city of Mosul, where so many battles have been fought in recent years. With Mosul currently under control of Islamic State, we’re likely to see more.) It was one of the great cities of the Assyrian empire, a wonder to those who beheld it. Jonah had no doubt which direction Nineveh lay, yet Jonah headed west by sea, rather than east by land.
The story tells us Jonah went to the coast and got on a ship bound for Tarshish, a place not easily identified today. In the novel Moby Dick, the clergyman at the New Bedford Whaleman’s Chapel, Father Mapple, preaches on Jonah and asserts that Tarshish must have been a port in Spain, the farthest point west a Jew in Jonah’s day would have known. It’s not a bad notion—we’re told Jonah is trying to go “away from the presence of the Lord,” so what seemed like the end of the earth would have been a logical destination.
Storms soon began to worry the ship on its journey to Tarshish, however, to the point that the pagan crew cried out to their various gods. The captain implored Jonah to pray, too. They cast lots to determine who was the cause of the problem, and the throw of the dice showed it was Jonah.
And, very early in the story, Jonah began to understand that God was present regardless of how far Jonah ran or sailed. He admitted to the crew who he was and what he had done, and despite their initial reluctance, he convinced them to throw him in the sea. The sea immediately became calm.
This brings us to the part we know best from childhood: God sent a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Yes, it could have been a whale; the Hebrew word used in the story literally means a large fish, but the Jews would have used this word to include whales.) In the belly of this large sea critter, Jonah prayed a powerful psalm, in part acknowledging that God is everywhere, even capable of hearing one of his rebellious prophets trapped beneath the waves, “at the roots of the mountains.”
In response to this prayer, God had the fish vomit Jonah out somewhere on dry land. And Jonah once again heard his marching orders: “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” This time, Jonah headed in the right direction, presumably after cleaning himself up.
Once in Nineveh, Jonah preached his message. “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And here’s the twist we might not expect when reading this story the first time—those pagan, supposedly godless residents of sprawling Nineveh responded!
Even the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented. He ordered everyone to do the same, and to fast. They went so far as to cover the livestock with sackcloth and withhold the animals’ food or water. The prayers, wails, bleating and lowing set up a din that had to reach to heaven.
God heard, and God relented from the destruction he had promised. And that, we learn, was precisely what Jonah feared would happen.
“O Lord!” he prayed. “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
Jonah was so bitter, he prayed that God might kill him. You see, the Israelites considered the people of Nineveh their enemy. The Jews had suffered terribly under Assyrian rule; Jonah had hoped for a scene of destruction worthy of Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, here was the God the Jews acknowledged, the God over all things, showing mercy to these people!
All Jonah could do was pout. That pretty much sums up the rest of the story of Jonah. He pouted while God explained his deep concern for the people of Nineveh, using a simple plant as an example.
God is love. God is mercy. Yes, God’s holiness demands justice, too; and yet, God seems to have this unrelenting desire to let people off the hook, to forgive, to find a way to draw people back into relationships with him.
That truth is best expressed through Jesus Christ, of course. Through the great sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God found a way to extend mercy to all, no matter what evil has been done. Repercussions in this life for our bad deeds may be unavoidable, but a renewed, ongoing relationship with God is constantly available, in any moment, on any day, under any circumstances.
When we find ourselves hoping God will crush someone, we’re wishing God were different. When we think there’s no way God could love us, forgive us, or change us, we’re underestimating who God is.
Question is, why would we want to wish for a different kind of God? The one we have offers eternal life. We’ll do no better than that.
The mother of Jesus should fascinate us. I know Protestants sometime feel Roman Catholics go too far in their devotion to Mary, but in our reaction to that devotion, we can fail to pause and really appreciate Mary.
Mary is perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived. (I say “mere” human to take Jesus, who was in some mysterious way both fully human and fully divine, out of contention.) After all, Mary was the “favored one,” the first chapter of Luke’s gospel tells us. God found Mary worthy to carry the Messiah, God in flesh, in her womb. Jesus’ devotion to and love for her was evident even as he hung dying on a cross.
So, what made Mary so special?
Earlier, when I described her as perhaps the most important human to have ever lived, some of you may have flinched a little. Did you begin to run other possible candidates through your mind: biblical characters like Abraham or Moses, or John the Baptist, or great historic figures?
If you did so, consider whether you’re attaching worldly standards to the word “important.” God’s standards are different from worldly standards; humility and unwavering faith would seem to top the divine list, and Mary seems to have been full of both. In addition, God asked Mary to take on an astonishing task, one many older women would resist. She responded with one childlike question about process, and then made a simple statement, “Let it be with me.”
Oh, and we shouldn’t forget bravery. Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide-open to God’s will, one willing to disregard the potential personal cost.
God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the task. She was young, perhaps as young as 13 or 14, but Luke 1:46-55 records her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.
As Mary continued in her prophetic rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.
And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.
Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help us establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.
Mary’s song also calls us to magnify the Lord, regardless of our ability to carry children. The baby in her womb would reveal God’s nature to all. As the body of Christ on earth today, Christians similarly exhibit God’s Spirit to a hurting world.
And while this task requires humility and faith, it also makes us revolutionaries, like the quiet, demure Mary who suddenly sang of a world to be turned upside down.
The great Scottish theologian William Barclay noted that Mary’s song declares three great “revolutions” that her child would spark in the world.
First, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” That is a moral revolution, Barclay noted, bringing about the death of pride. People cannot compare their lives to Christ’s and remain convinced they are somehow superior creatures.
Second, Mary sang that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That, Barclay said, is a social revolution.
If we are to magnify God, we ignore labels used to sort people as important or unimportant. In every face, the Christian sees God’s creation. In every person, a Christian sees a life potentially made whole by Christ.
Third, Mary tells us that the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Barclay called this part of the song a declaration of an economic revolution.
“A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get,” Barclay wrote. “A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.”
Oh, to magnify the Lord in every moment of our lives, to allow revolution to occur in every choice we make. It isn’t easy, of course.
Fortunately, the baby who grew to be a man and live out his mother’s prophecies did not shrink from the difficult task of the cross. May God grant us similar courage in this season; may we learn to say, “Let it be with me.”
The Jewish leaders sent messengers to ask John the Baptist a straightforward question: “Who are you?”
Having drawn crowds of Jews with his preaching and his call to repentance, he answered their real, unasked question, Are you the Messiah?, by simply assuring them he was not the savior prophecy had predicted. The messengers pressed John the Baptist, however, finally leading him to quote Scripture as his answer.
“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the Prophet Isaiah said.”
We largely remember John as looking like a wild man, dressed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Set aside to serve God from the moment he was conceived, he usually is depicted in art with uncut hair and beard, roaming the desert wasteland most of his life until he drew near civilization to declare the beginning of Jesus Christ’s ministry.
To understand John the Baptist, we have to read his story in all four gospels. In Luke, we learn John the Baptist was a miracle child in whom the Holy Spirit dwelled even before he was born. He leaped in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, capable of recognizing the presence of the Messiah.
We also understand from Luke that Jesus and John the Baptist were related through their mothers, cousins separated in age by only six months. We can only speculate whether they spent much time together. Luke also tells us John the Baptist grew up in the wilderness, meaning he may have lived part or all his life as a hermit prophet, possibly among a sect of Jews known as the Essenes.
When John the Baptist began his adult ministry as recorded in all four gospels, he preached a fiery call that the people should repent of their sins in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. Ultimately, Jesus came to John to be baptized in the Jordan river, that great symbol of God’s promises and new beginnings.
It is here we really see John’s humility, rooted in his clear understanding of his role in the universe. John initially resisted Jesus’ request, saying Jesus should baptize him. At Jesus’ prodding, John finally relented and performed the act. Jesus’ servant ministry was launched in humble solidarity with people craving righteousness and holiness in their lives.
As John’s story proceeds alongside Jesus’ story, the ministry of the messenger fades as the ministry of the Messiah burns more brightly. There is no earthly glory for John, no story of victory in this life. Ultimately, he died an ignominious death, his severed head presented to a dancing girl and her wicked mother.
How different John the Baptist’s story seems from ours. And yet, Christians, how similar our calling is to his.
If we are ultimately to emulate Jesus, striving to have the attitude of John the Baptist is a good start. I don’t mean we have to wear itchy clothing and roam the desert eating bugs, or die a martyr. It helps us all greatly, however, if we can keep God’s great plan before us and find our role in it.
John the Baptist existed for one reason, to declare the coming of the messiah. Again, in this Advent season we’re being reminded that we, too, anticipate Christ’s return. The church and its members exist largely to “make straight the way of the Lord,” to call people to repentance so they are ready to meet their savior.
How we do this requires John-like humility and a little artfulness. Humility helps keep us holy; to quote Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Any good work we do can quickly dissolve when mixed with sin. Just think Bill Cosby if you don’t understand what I mean.
Artfulness in relationships and communication comes with prayer and practice. It also helps to trust that God’s Spirit can shape us and others in ways we thought we never could be shaped.
Who are you? Regardless of how you may appear to others, or whether you meet worldly definitions of success, you are a child of God, saved by Christ from eternal death because of God’s love for you. So are all the people you meet. Let them know.
2 Peter 3:8-15a (NRSV)
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
The Apostle Peter, the head of the church after the resurrected Jesus’ ascension, paints a cataclysmic picture of Christ’s return. It is an image of the universe melting away in an unimaginable heat.
The stars and the planets spun out of them “pass away with a loud noise,” a kind of theological Big Bang announcing the end of creation rather than the beginning. Not all is destroyed, however. The earth remains, stripped bare, with it and all its people exposed before God, their inner holiness and evil undeniably on display.
Peter gives us perhaps the starkest scene of judgment in the Bible, one that grows in audacity as our scientific understanding of the size and design of the universe expands. When I read his words, I see an ash-covered earth hanging in the darkness, with all the people who have ever lived on it looking up, put in a position where we recognize our complete dependence on our creator. We see only with whatever light God chooses to provide from his throne. We become actors on a barren stage, no costumes, no props. At this point, nothing matters but our relationship with God.
Peter’s words could be just fantastic symbolism, of course. But as I’ve pointed out in the past, symbols are a simple way of understanding a more complex reality. If we believe the Bible is communicating God’s truth, then we have to acknowledge the experience of judgment will be at least as overwhelming as what we see here, and likely more so. We will come face-to-face with our holy maker, stripped bare of our pretenses and self-delusions.
Peter’s letter is a call to ready ourselves, to undergo our own personal purifying fire now. It should help us to know this: What comes out of the fire is far greater than what went into the fire.
Peter would have been familiar with Malachi’s Old Testament prophecies of a day when one would come to act as a “refining fire” and “fuller’s soap,” purifying what has been tainted by sin. The prophecy is not so much about the refining process as it is about what comes out, gold and silver in their purest forms.
After his images of fiery destruction, Peter also alludes to the “new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” We submit ourselves to purification by God’s Holy Spirit not out of fear, but in joy, knowing God’s purifying work on the universe through Christ will establish a greater way of living. We ready ourselves for a place in the new creation.
So,how do we submit?
Many of you have made that first step, accepting Jesus Christ as Lord. Those of you who have not—well, Peter makes clear God is patient. He has provided a path to holiness through belief in Jesus Christ, and has stayed the end for nearly 2,000 years, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” When the time of patience ends, however, it will end quickly, either in Christ’s return or your departure from this life.
Acceptance of Christ as Savior certainly is enough to save us. Even a sincere deathbed confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is enough. Those of us blessed to come to Christ earlier in our lives are called to something more, though. We’re given a chance to undergo the refining fire in this life, anticipating the life to come.
The early Methodists had a simple set of rules to live by as they pursued holiness. They are just as instructive for us today.
First, do no harm. What are we doing that damages others? How do we stop doing those things? These usually are actions large and small that are easy to identify, although often hard to stop. Ask any recovering addict.
Second, do good. Again, the principle is very simple. Do we do good in every way we can, whenever we have the opportunity? There’s a lot of evil in the world, and it takes a lot of goodness to push back against it. We cannot earn our salvation, but once we find ourselves part of Christ’s contingent, it’s nice to help the kingdom grow. In fact, that’s a good way to measure if an act is good—is it a victory for God’s kingdom over the ruler of this world, Satan?
Third, stay in love with God. I’m borrowing Rueben Job’s paraphrase of John Wesley’s more elaborate statement, “By attending upon all the ordinances of God.” By this, Wesley meant taking those actions we know will keep us in a relationship with God: public worship, study of God’s word, receiving communion, prayer, and abstaining from activities that can be a distraction from God.
When we follow these rules, we open ourselves to the refining work of the Holy Spirit. And we do not miss the dross that is burned away.
We all have our wants.
It is, of course, that time of year when all sorts of wants are emphasized. As I was working on this sermon, my e-mail inbox alert flashed repeatedly with ads from various companies that have fulfilled my wants before. It’s the Christmas shopping season, they were asking me. What do you want?
I have had wants all my life, many of them fulfilled during Christmases past. My mind goes to G.I. Joe and his helicopter. It was big enough for Joe to actually sit in the cockpit, the rotor spinning for as long as my thumb could keep pushing the heavy black button on the frame.
There also was the glittery purple bicycle with the banana seat (I was a child of the ’70s), which I eventually outgrew just as the tires were becoming bald. Later, there was the sled and my first rifle, both of which I still possess.
As the retailers furiously fan the flames of our wanting the next few weeks, they also will tell us how we need to be fulfilling the wants of others. Is everyone covered? Is our shopping done? Did we buy enough? Don’t worry, there will be plenty of places open late on Christmas Eve.
The Christmas shopping season is like a big, glittery sleigh wreck. We cannot avert our eyes despite it being so spiritually draining.
I offer you a solution today. Stop thinking of this time as the Christmas shopping season. Call it what the church calls it: Advent.
The season will still be about wants, but the Advent attitude reshapes our wants, perhaps making us a little more holy in the process. Not holier-than-thou, mind you; just a little more aligned with God’s will.
Advent recognizes the two great wants in history. First was the desire for a savior, for Messiah, the one who could reconnect us to God.
Once we get past Genesis 3, the story of sin’s disastrous effects, the Old Testament basically is about people struggling to recover what they had lost, intimacy with God, and God trying to call them back through the darkness. Our Isaiah text today is just one of many Old Testament passages expressing that deep desire to again know God.
Thank God Messiah came! He came as a baby, so strange, and he died for our sins, again, so strange. But there’s the resurrection—resurrection! It is the root of the second great want in history. Jesus Christ is coming back. All things will be set right, and our greatest desire is that his return happen soon.
In this Advent season, keep that great truth before you, followers of Christ. We are a people living in a state of anticipation. That state of mind will make the commercialism of December tolerable and the approach of the coming holy Christmas season a joy.
It’s okay to revel in the joy of the season. It’s okay to give gifts. Just let that anticipation of Christ’s return shape everything you do. Remember, we give gifts as a reminder of the great gift we were given the first Christmas, Christ among us, the gift resulting in eternal life.
A quick example of quality gift-giving: Last year I received the best present I’ve ever gotten. It topped G.I. Joe and his helicopter, the purple bicycle, everything. It was this:
My wife gave it to me. Inside this pretty little box were all sorts of tiny notes in her handwriting—funny quotes, Bible verses, love notes.
It cost her very little in terms of paper and ink. And yet she gave me so much. When I pull out a note, good days become glorious, or dark days are suddenly much brighter.
It was a boxful of love and joy. As you go about your shopping for Christmas, remember Christ is the source of all love and joy. Perhaps you’ll discover a way to give someone a taste of what is to come when Christ stands before us in full.