A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California
January 31 2021
There’s a word that the author of Mark’s gospel uses over and over again—immediately.
English translators, in an effort to make his language easier on our ears, often leave it out. As they do in this passage. But, as we read through Mark this year, consider that the word “immediately” is providing a drumbeat through this text.
Mark wants to make sure we know that time is moving. Time is marching, and quickly, toward the conclusion of this story. Jesus is marching through this Gospel, with no time for dillydallying.
When we hear Mark say “immediately”, it should call us back to the moment at hand. It should remind us that following Jesus, becoming people who fish for people, as Victor preached about last week, isn’t about something that will happen sometime in the distant future. It is about right now. This very moment.
I’ll admit. That’s a challenge for me in the midst of this pandemic, when I feel like I’m placing all my better days in the future, when we can gather together, when the virus abates. And trust me, I do still have great hope for when I can actually preach in a sanctuary with people in it again, but Mark’s reminder of ‘immediately’ pulled me up short this week. Following Jesus isn’t something we put on hold. God has things for us to do. Right now. Immediately.
What is God wanting from you. Right now?
The newly appointed disciples have just left their nets by the shore when, immediately, they go to Capernaum. Not a big commute. It is town very near the shore of the Sea of Galilee. And the Sabbath arrives, so Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches.
And, in the middle of this astounding teaching, immediately a man with an unclean spirit appears, interrupting the lesson. “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.”
We could get hung up on what it means for this man to have an unclean spirit. But we won’t. Because I don’t have an explanation. And Jesus doesn’t call his disciples to gather around the bedside and make a diagnosis either.
Remember what has already happened in this first chapter of the gospel—the heavens were torn apart and the Holy Spirit descended, until it landed on Jesus. So, Jesus, the man with the Holy Spirit is now, a few verses later, immediately, engaging a man with an unclean, or unholy Spirit.
The heavens have been opened and the battle that is being waged is nothing less than cosmic. From the beginning of Mark’s gospel, it is apparent that the demonic, the unclean spirits, are on their way out. The hold and authority they have had in the world is coming to an end. The beginning of the Good News!
This possessed man speaks to Jesus. And notice what he says, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
The first voice in Mark’s gospel who proclaims Jesus’ identity is God’s voice at Jesus’ baptism. The second voice to proclaim it is an unclean spirit.
Even the demonic realm knows and proclaims Jesus’ identity. What will become clear to the human characters (or at least to some of them) by the end of the gospel is known—immediately—by the cosmic realm from the very beginning.
Jesus silences this Spirit and commands it to leave the man. Because when you are possessed by unclean spirits, you are not free to live the life to which you have been called by God. And Jesus’ call is to freedom, and wholeness, and to new life.
The crowds were impressed with Jesus authority. And the fact that his authority seemed to be so novel and impressive makes me wonder if their religious authorities had not been speaking with authority at all.
If the religious leaders had been speaking out of both sides of their mouths, or had been silent because they were afraid of offending people, the crowd would no doubt have been as thirsty for Jesus and his authority as if they were wanderers in the desert.
I’ve been thinking about that authority of Jesus, which on one hand is certainly different, categorically, than any authority of ours. On the other hand, I think one of the things that drew the crowds to him, that draws us to him today, is the way he spoke clearly and truthfully, no matter the cost to him, and no matter who might be offended or upset.
Jesus is so clearly grounded in his own self, mission, and beliefs that he speaks from a place of deep conviction and authority.
I’ve spent a fair amount of my ministry testifying in state capitols, legislator’s offices, and our own denomination’s General Assembly, trying to bring the authority of the church to advocate for reproductive justice, living wages, marriage equality, and human rights for people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender.
Often, the loudest voice against what I see as treating every person with dignity, safety, and equality, was from people speaking from their deeply held Christian convictions. They claimed they were there speaking, with authority, on behalf of God.
Or think of the crosses the mob carried with them as they desecrated the halls of the Capitol building earlier this month, or the prayers they prayed on video in the rotunda before they went to try and hunt down legislators.
As Dire Straits sang long ago, ‘Two men say they’re Jesus. One of them must be wrong.”
I’m reminded that working for human rights, for civil rights, for justice, is a long game. And we will keep at it, trusting that love will win, despite what we hear on the news.
We will keep at this work for justice, but I keep hearing Mark’s urgency.
We have no time to waste, friends, to share God’s love, to protect people, to make this a safe place for all people to live and flourish.
But when there are so many people, speaking with authority and saying different things, how do we know who to listen to?
Lots of people speak as if God has sent them to give the message, myself included, I’m sure. Speaking with authority about God’s love and mercy desperately matters to the world. How do we discern authority, though, when the messages are so contradictory? I want to speak with love and authority, but I don’t want to be a jerk. How do we know what to do?
I’m certain there are pastors preaching the mirror image of this sermon this morning, telling their parishioners about the supposed faith leaders, like me, who are on the wrong side of the issue.
How do we discern?
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus warns, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16).
And that’s how I see the healing connected to authority in the gospel passage. What are the fruits of what we say in God’s name? Do our words give life and hope to a hurting world? Or do our words wound?
Jesus silences this unclean spirit and commands it to leave the man. Because when you are possessed by unclean spirits, you are not free to live the life to which you have been called by God.
And so the authority with which Jesus speaks serves to bring wholeness and restoration to people and communities.
We can’t be Jesus. Not even on our best days.
We can’t heal the unclean the same way he does. Jesus’ authority is not ours.
We can, however, claim our authority to speak against the powers that bind people, and keep them from being free to live the life God is calling them to live.
Sometimes those powers are big, and seem cosmic—wars, systemic violence or behaviors that seem impossible to change—and sometimes those powers are more personal—bullying, or addiction, or even hunger and economic insecurity.
We need to claim our authority to speak out and free people from those demons that keep them from a whole and healthy life.
Because if we don’t do it, those false prophets in sheep’s clothing will speak in our place. And they won’t speak God’s word of love.
I’m grateful to serve a church that takes seriously our call to speak God’s love and healing, and to speak with authority.
You speak with authority when you advocate, and when you spend time in prayer and witness. You speak with authority when you serve our neighbors, sometimes without saying a word. Your witness with our ministry partners, at food banks, in courtrooms for asylum hearings, brings an authority of God’s love to people who maybe haven’t heard that voice calling them beloved for a while.
The world is desperate for the Good News. It wants to be astounded by the healing authority of the God of Love. How is God calling you to speak with authority? Maybe it involves your words. Maybe it is your ministry of care and presence in peoples’ lives.
Please watch this video, which premiered today in an Adult Ed class, that perfectly illustrates one way Calvary is speaking with authority, in love.
The way you give your money also gives authority, and speaks to what you value. How does your giving speak God’s word of Love to the world? If you’d like to talk about the theology behind our giving, about the ways it speaks our faith into the world, please reach out. It’s not about the amount given; but the way our gifts combine, to speak with authority in a more powerful voice than any of our gifts alone can do.
Today we are ordaining and installing new elders and deacons to serve, with authority, on your behalf. The leadership of this church has been pivotal in the behind the scenes work to help the staff adapt and adjust during covid time. They have been working on re-opening plans, and delivering groceries, and responding to our mission partners whose needs have changed because of Covid. We pray over officers when we install them and ordain them, and one of the things we ask is that God’s Spirit will be upon them as they serve you.
Whether you’re an officer or a member or a child or a visitor, God has given you authority. I invite you this week to consider how God’s hoping you will use your voice in the world.
Whatever it is God has called you to do, with authority, let’s go astound the crowds with the Good News of God’s love. Immediately. Amen.