Sermon: IV Epiphany (b)
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Several days ago, Fr. Sanderson asked if I would put together a little flyer and some electronic publicity for our vigil mass of the Presentation of Our Lord (5.30PM this Wednesday; coffee and dessert to follow!), which I was glad to do. It was a pleasure, and actually kind of edifying, to do a little Google image search for the Presentation, to scroll across icons and paintings from multitudes of master artists across hundreds of years, all depicting this one event, each using their different materials, methods, and techniques, and bearing differing emphases.
The Gospels are something like that: four different portraits of the one Jesus, with each evangelist using his different materials, methods, and techniques, and bring to the fore different emphases. They are four witnesses to the one Gospel. I thought about that as I approached this morning's Gospel lesson, this exorcism of an unclean spirit in St. Mark's Gospel, because, as it turns out, this exorcism is the first act of Jesus' public ministry that St. Mark reports, and that tells us something, something about a particular emphasis.
In St. Matthew's Gospel, the first reported act of Jesus' public ministry consists of authoritative teaching, and throughout that Gospel, Matthew will show us Jesus the teacher, including five long discourses from our Lord. In Luke, our Lord's first public act is again teaching – he preaches one Sabbath at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth – but the significant thing is that he and his message are rejected by his hometown friends and neighbors. And throughout that Gospel, Luke will show us in a special way our Lord's identification with the poor, the outcasts, the despised, with all the rejected. In John, the first public acts is a great miracle: the water turned to wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. And John will show us in that Gospel the eternal Word of the Father made flesh and dwelling among us, that in Jesus the eternal and ideal has penetrated the mundane and real, transforming it from the inside, like so much water turned into finest wine.
Which brings us back around to this exorcism, this detail from Mark's portrait of Jesus, his first reported act of our Lord's public ministry. We can contrast it with St. Matthew's account. St. Matthew tells us that Jesus began teaching with authority and exorcising demons, and then he gives us some of that authoritative teaching: the Sermon on the Mount.[i] St. Mark tells us that Jesus began to teach with authority and to exorcise demons, and then gives us an exorcism:
Jesus rebuked [the demon], saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed.
Jesus comes exorcising demons. He comes confronting and vanquishing evil, liberating captives. Mark shows us a Jesus who is opposed to every "throne and dominion, all principalities and powers"[ii] who are opposed to his people, to us.
Now, let's admit that this exorcism presents us with a difficulty: it's just a little hard for us worldly sophisticates of the 21st Century to take a passage like this too seriously, too literally. I mean, demons...unclean spirits. But, you know, as Henry David Thoreau once remarked, the ancients—with their gorgons, unicorns, and sphinxes—imagined more than existed, whereas moderns cannot even imagine so much as exists.[iii]
Well, I don't mean to take up our time this morning with a philosophical-theological defense the Christian understanding of fallen angels, of malevolent spirits opposed to God and his purposes of love and who, in mysterious ways, play a hand in earthly affairs. But I will just point out that within the lifetime of some in this room, the most worldly, sophisticated nation in Europe succumbed to a crazed fanaticism that ended in the extermination of six million Jews, 20-odd million were killed in Stalin's purges, something approaching 2 million dead lay in Pol Pot's killing fields, and just back in 1994, close to a million Rwandan Tutsis killed by their Hutu friends and neighbors, in some cases by their husbands and fathers, with machetes. And if we add all of that together, we might be getting close to the number killed in Mao's China. I am not saying that we ought to imagine a demon squeezing every trigger, or that paranoia is always or even often possession. I'm just saying that as for me, even child as I am of this reductionist modern age, I find the possibility of the demonic, of an evil supernature, not too terribly difficult to believe and actually to have immense explanatory power.
So I think it's worth taking a look at this unclean spirit rebuked by Jesus one Sabbath day, and to take him at least on St. Mark's own terms. Because I think this devil can help us to see, if only as a negative example, what saving faith is.
Sometimes we need those negative examples if only as a way to assess ourselves. I remember sitting in a church meeting one time and hearing a priest respond to an earnest and honest question with a stream of pious-sounding platitudes, full of syllables and fulsome, but signifying nothing, certainly nothing of the agony of the cross and the promise of resurrection. But it all sounded a bit familiar to me, and then, all of a sudden, I realized, "My God, he sounds just like me!"
So St. Mark's synagogue demon is a little worrying to me; he sounds a little too familiar for my comfort: What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? ... I know who you are, the Holy One of God. It's a little worrying to me, because the demon knows what I know, knows what we know. We're about to confess it together: Jesus Christ... God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God ... begotten of the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. And yet, the demon is a demon, the demon is Jesus' enemy, and Mark puts this confrontation with this knowledgeable demon right up front in Jesus' ministry; it's a priority. St. John puts it even more explicitly in his first epistle: "The reason the Son of God appeared," John writes, "was to destroy the works of the devil."[iv]
Which means that faith in Christ – that faith that unites us to him in the sustaining, transforming, glorifying love of the Father – that faith must be more than knowledge. Not that knowledge is not important, or merely incidental to faith. "How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?" St. Paul asks in his letter to the Romans.[v]
But knowledge – possessing information, theological facts – as necessary as it is, carries danger. St. Paul, who pleads the importance of knowledge to the Romans, to the Corinthians – who have a whole different set of problems than the Romans – in our epistle lesson this morning, warns us that knowledge puffs up. If we know things, if we have accumulated a little piggy bank-full of theological facts, but our hearts are not correctly disposed, that knowledge will make us arrogant, it will makes us, as one pastor has provocatively put it, "pre-Copernicans," so that we end up "placing ourselves at the center of things, around which the world and everyone else have to turn."[vi]
Knowledge puffs up, St. Paul tells us, but love – love builds up. If anyone imagines that he has knowledge, he does not yet know as he ought to know.
The demon knows, but not as he ought to know. The demon knows, but he doesn't love. Faith, then, that understanding that unites us to Christ rather than, as with the demon, opposes us to Christ – faith involves the union of knowledge and love.
So here, by the way, is that opportunity for self-assessment. Is my knowledge fruitful? Is it lively, showing itself not only on my lips but in my life? Or am I hoping that the great judgment will involve a multiple choice test rather than a review of the record of my life?
Well, notice what Paul is saying: the one who knows but doesn't love, does not yet know as he ought to know. In other words, that knowledge is defective – and the problem isn't necessarily with the information, with the collection of data, so to speak. The problem is in our attitude to, our orientation toward, even our relationship with this information.
Because the truth of God's grace is not information we can merely possess, a set of facts; it is a person, it is Jesus Christ. And the object isn't to know some things about Jesus, but actually to know Jesus, to love him, and to love his. To love him who is, literally, dying for love of us. To bow before him in grateful surrender who, "for us men and our salvation," surrendered himself to death on a cross.
And that grateful surrender before the God who is himself Love... that takes us, takes me, out of the center; it demolishes a me-first, me-in-the-middle view of the world, so that we can then come to see and understand, to know ourselves and our neighbors as the objects of God's love, as partakers in Jesus' own life, as so many satellites orbiting the sun of his Most Sacred Heart.
The important thing, the thing that separates real faith from mere demonic knowing, the thing in fact that separates belief from unbelief, is not that we know some things about God, but that, as St. Paul says, we are known by him. The important thing is that we have learned that he loves us and to have begun, in our own small, halting, and flawed ways, to say "thank you."
Lord we believe; help thou our unbelief.
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[i] Mt 4.23-7.29
[ii] Col 1.16
[iii] Cited in Phillip Yancey, "Beyond Flesh and Blood." http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/april2/33.96.html
[iv] 1 Jn 3.8
[v] Rm 10.14
[vi] Benedict XVI, Credo for Today.