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January 29, 2006 (Sunday 4 · Time after Epiphany)—“Casting Out The Unclean Spirits Within Us’s Future”

Pastor David Barber

Mark 1:21-28

Sisters and brothers, fellow students of Jesus, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Several years ago, a beautiful and stimulating book wove its way into the hearts of many of us. Tuesdays with Morrie was a wonderful tribute by a student to one of his teachers.

Twenty years after he had graduated from college and long after he had stopped having any regular contact with his teacher, Mitch Albom, the author, began to visit his beloved old sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz.

Why? In part, Morrie was dying, but also this student wanted to reconnect with a person who had played a key role in his life. For this author, Morrie was living proof of these words: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

My wife, Karen, who was a counselor and a teacher for over 25 years lived by and used this particular proverb to guide her:

“In a hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the type of house I lived in, or the kind of clothes I wore, but the world maybe much different because I was important in the life of a child.”

Each of us sitting here this morning can point to a teacher who has been important in our lives. We can think of teachers who have shaped us or changed us. We can think of teachers who have said in one form or another to our heart, our mind, or our feet, “Follow me.”

Teachers are powerful people. On the one hand, most of us are deeply indebted to some caring and very effective teachers from our past. On the other hand, some of us have never gotten over the damage done to us by some cruel or incompetent teacher. To be sure, teachers are powerful people. The world is much different because teachers are important in the life of their students.

Today we meet the teacher—not just a teacher—not just one teacher among many—not just the “Teacher of the Year” from Galilee and winner of a $10,000.00 scholarship, but Jesus the teacher.

We meet Jesus, the teacher, who creates for us a new world, if not a new kingdom. We meet Jesus the teacher who heals us, forgives us, shapes us, and changes us. We meet Jesus, the teacher, who says to our hearts, our minds, and our feet, “Follow me!”

Today we are told that Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum and began to teach. Indeed, we’re told that he taught with authority.

The ushers weren’t well trained or well prepared because a man barges into the synagogue before they could stop him. He interrupts the worship service by screaming, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are. You’re the Holy One of God.”

When Jesus exorcised the unclean spirit the people in the synagogue stood there with their mouths open in amazement and astonishment. They asked, “What is this—a new teaching—and with authority? Why, even the unclean spirits obey him!”

We’re not told what Jesus taught. Certainly there was content. There was life-giving content, but Mark doesn’t stress that. The primary emphasis is on the power of Jesus teaching—primarily the power of Jesus teaching to destroy all the forces of evil.

To the question, “Have you come to destroy us?” the answer is an emphatic, “Yes, yes indeed!”

Jesus has come to destroy all the demons and all the unclean spirits that lurk around us and within us. Jesus, the teacher, has power and authority over the spirits that torment us. Jesus, the teacher, comes with the word of power to heal, to help, and to give life in all those places where the forces of Satan and the demons are crippling, distorting, and destroying our lives and God’s world.

Christ is among us, even when we gather in church, especially when we gather in church, to demonstrate to us that if we devote ourselves to anything less than the doing of his will, then absolutely, he has come to confront those forces which are contrary to his purposes.

What is fascinating is that the man with the unclean spirit doesn’t show up in a bar. He doesn’t show up at a cocaine party—or Hotel Street—or even on the Senate floor of our state capitol. He doesn’t show up at a meeting of the Klu Klux Klan.

He comes to the synagogue. He comes to worship on the Sabbath Day dressed in “aloha attire” in that place and time when you would least expect it. Now, isn’t that interesting? How do you suppose he got there?

Dr. Martin Marty, a Lutheran church historian who writes a column for the Christian Century magazine, once told this story about a young white pastor and one of his old female black parishioners.

On some Sundays, this old woman would say: “Reverend, you sure did teach today.” Then on some Sundays she would say: “You sure did preach today.”

One day the young pastor asked her, “Sister, what do you mean when you say I ‘teach’ and how is it different when you say I ‘preach’?”

The old woman said: “Well, pastor, when you teach, God has given you something that you give me, and I can use it for that day and later on in the week.

When you preach, I can just feel God’s presence, and He’s hugging you real tight and He’s pleased. You don’t necessarily give me nothin’ I can use, but I can feel God hugging you, and through you, I can feel God hugging me.”

One Sunday when the preacher was severely upset by some political situation, he came and vented his spleen. At the door, the old woman said: “Reverend, I could feel God hugging you real close today, but I don’t think He was pleased. In fact, it felt like He was crying while He was holding you tight.”

Is that another way of saying that sometimes the unclean spirits do come to church? Sometimes they hitch a ride to church with the members and sometimes they ride with the pastor. But that’s how they get here. The only way for the unclean spirits to get here is through us!

Sometimes in the life of a congregation it may appear that unclean spirits have suddenly invaded our building. But that’s not true. In one respect the unclean spirits are always here, but sometimes they can gain the upper hand.

Like cancer cells in our bodies that are always present, the unclean spirits can take hold of us in our vulnerability. They’re just waiting for the ideal place and time. They’re just waiting for that ideal host where they can roost and manifest themselves.

Sometimes they take hold of our lives, and they manifest themselves in unhealthy and destructive ways. And when that happens we’re shocked that this could happen in a Christian congregation and we cry out in surprise, “Who turned them loose in here? That’s not who we are!”

But that’s what can happen when we take our eyes off of Jesus, the teacher. That’s what can happen when we take our eyes off the mission and ministry entrusted to us by Jesus. That’s what can happen when there isn’t an environment of communication, listening to each other, understanding, trust, and healthy dissension.

About a week ago I was reading in my daily devotions about a pastor who served as a co-pastor with one of his best friends. Most people said that such a relationship would be impossible. Others asked for documentation and procedural policies that defined how these two pastors made it work as if it were a matter of policies and procedures.

It worked well for 13 years for two reasons. First, they had a deep and real friendship, and second, they agreed that the mission of the church was to take precedence over their professional or personal ambitions. Both of these had to be worked at and nurtured in order to become a reality.

Sometimes a change in pastoral leadership can cause anxiety within a congregation and make it more vulnerable to unclean spirits. That’s why it will be important in the days ahead to keep your eyes focused on Jesus, and as a result to keep your eyes focused on your brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

You are an attractive as well as a challenging and interesting congregation. That’s what I appreciate about you. There’s never a dull moment around this place! It’s never too difficult to get an opinion from you or to find out what you’re thinking and feeling.

You’re a strong-willed congregation—but that’s not a criticism. That’s a compliment. Racehorses are strong-willed. Championship teams are strong willed. But to be champions they give themselves over to a higher purpose than simply their individual egos.

And so with you—when your will together is given over to a higher purpose and a higher power namely Jesus, the teacher, and to the ministry he has entrusted to you in this place, you, too, will continue to do great and faithful things.

For you see, not only is Jesus calling you to health and well being within your life together, and not only is Jesus working in your lives to bring this about.

Jesus is calling you to health and well being so that in the name of Jesus, the teacher, you can go to all those places out there where the unclean spirits are crippling, distorting, and destroying the lives of God’s children.

You can go to all those places where the world is bound by prejudice and pride, greed and hate, and in the name of Jesus, you, too, can say to the unclean spirits: “Be silent! Come out of him!”

In the name of Jesus, the teacher, you can also affect eternity and this proverb will also apply to you:

“In a hundred years from now, it will not matter what your budget was, the type of facility in which you gathered for worship, or any of the other ways you might measure success as a congregation.
But the world will be a better place because you spoke and acted in the power and the authority of Jesus, the teacher, and because you did so, you made a difference in your life together and in this community.”

Amen.


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