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A Gospel of Confrontation

February 1, 2015


New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR

February 1, 2015 (Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany)


Mark 1:21-28

21They went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “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.”25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

The Gospel of Matthew reports that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.  So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them.”  (Matthew 4:23-24).  


The first miracle reported in Matthew’s Gospel was the healing of a leper following the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 8:1-4).


Luke’s Gospel follows the same pattern.  Luke reports about the wilderness temptation (Luke 4:1-13).  Then we read:  “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  (Luke 4:14-15).


The first healing reported in Luke’s Gospel is the same healing we read about in the Gospel of Mark.  It occurred on the Sabbath.  It happened in a synagogue as Jesus was teaching scripture “with authority.”  The healing involved delivering a man from the oppression of demonic possession (Luke 4:31-37).


These accounts of the first healing by Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Luke show that the gospel of Jesus was a gospel of confrontation, not accommodation.   The grace and truth of God that Jesus represented is not represented anywhere in the Gospels as an attempt to “fit in” or “get along” with oppressive power relationships.  Jesus went throughout Galilee and to the synagogue in Capernaum where he performed the exorcism mentioned in today’s lesson, in the power of the Holy Spirit to confront the powers of oppression in the lives of people, and to liberate oppressed people from those powers.  


Mark and Luke report that the first specific confrontation Jesus had with oppressive power after his own wilderness experience was in the synagogue at Capernaum, a place where God’s power was supposedly affirmed, taught, and honored.  But while Jesus was teaching, “a man with an unclean spirit” interrupted Jesus and challenged the reason Jesus was there.  “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.”  (Mark 1:24).


What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  The spirit of oppression raged against the authority of the Spirit of God manifested by Jesus “in the synagogue,” of all places!  The spirit of oppression claimed authority “in the synagogue” in the presence of Jesus, “the Holy One of God.”  The spirit of oppression questioned the liberating purpose of Jesus “in the synagogue.”  


Don’t miss this!  Don’t ignore the painful yet powerful truth that there are oppressive forces in the world.  These oppressive forces operate in the lives of people everywhere and anywhere.  


Don’t miss the painful yet powerful truth that oppressive forces are present and operate in places and people we consider familiar, comfortable, and inviting.  They are even present “in the synagogue,” meaning places dedicated to of prayer, praise, and proclamation about the power of God!  


Don’t miss the painful yet powerful truth that oppressive forces are present, operating, and quietly operating without being noticed.  The man who confronted Jesus was not an invader.  He was at home “in the synagogue.”  He was in his place “in the synagogue.”  He had influence “in the synagogue.”  He was respected “in the synagogue.”  He could list his synagogue affiliation on his resume.  He might have been a major donor “in the synagogue.” Yet he was all of this and more while being oppressed by demonic forces—forces opposed to the liberating and loving power of God’s grace and truth.    


The Gospels expose a reality we seem all too eager to gloss over today:  oppressive forces often claim authority to operate in the most respectable looking places and people.  That term “in the synagogue” shows our human need and respect for the power of moral authority.  But this lesson shows how oppressive forces can overcome people, creep into and take up residence in our most sacred spaces and in our most sacred times, and challenge the liberating presence and power of God’s grace and truth in our lives and the world.  


The Gospel of Jesus Christ confronts the oppressive forces of capitalism, materialism, materialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, narcissism, and fundamentalism.  Those oppressive forces are often very much at home in sacred places and the people who gather there.    We don’t like to admit that the forces behind discrimination, economic oppression, environmental injustice, mass incarceration, miseducation, poor nutrition and disease, war profiteering, and so many other oppressive realities are present and active in people who regularly appear “in the synagogue” places of our neighborhoods, society, and the world as people gathered to “worship” God!  


This lesson shows that the authority of the Spirit of God presented in the life of Jesus Christ is a direct threat to every oppressive force in people wherever Christ is present.  The forces that hold people hostage and otherwise enslaved are always confronted whenever the love and truth of God is presented and proclaimed, even “in the synagogue” places, spaces, and people.  


Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.  The forces of oppression in the man sought to discredit the power of the Holy Spirit presented by the teaching Jesus by attacking the reason Jesus was there.  Oppressors try to define liberators as threats to the people who live under the authority of their oppression.  


The oppressive forces in the possessed man recognized Jesus as “the Holy One of God.”   The oppressive forces recognized that Jesus had authority to proclaim the meaning of scripture and that the authoritative teaching of Jesus was working on others in the synagogue.  But the authority of Jesus concerning the meaning of scripture threatened the authority of the oppressive forces in the man concerning scripture.  That could not be tolerated.  


Jesus could not be stopped from teaching.  But perhaps his influence could be blunted, if not completely eliminated, if others believed that Jesus was an imposter rather than truly the Holy One of God.   So the oppressive forces in the possessed man tried to discredit Jesus in two ways.  


First, the oppressed forces denounced Jesus as someone from a no account place.  What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  You remember what Nathaniel said about Nazareth, don’t you?  Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46)  


Nazareth was a small village about 16 miles west of the Sea of Galilee.  Surely the “Holy One of God” wouldn’t come from Nazareth.  Surely an authority on God’s power to liberate, love, and restore wouldn’t come from a no account place like Nazareth.  


What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?   This was not only a dig at Jesus and Nazareth.  The oppressive forces in the man tried to work on the pride of others in the synagogue concerning Capernaum.  What was a guy from Nazareth doing trying to teach about God in the synagogue of a big and bustling place like Capernaum?  


Have you come to destroy us, Holy One of God?  While those words were directed at Jesus they seem to have been intended for others in the synagogue.  The oppressive forces in the possessed man observed that other people were astounded by the authority Jesus demonstrated while teaching God’s truth about life and love.  Perhaps their favorable impression of Jesus might change if they viewed Jesus as a threat, a moral terrorist so to speak, to their lives rather than the living, breathing, and liberating presence of God’s love, truth, and hope.


For the truth about God’s liberating love, power, and hope for our human condition and the world is always uplifting to struggling people.  That truth is threatening only to the forces of oppression.  This lesson shows how oppressive power always attempts to persuade us doubt that God means us well.  Remember the lesson of Job?  Instead, the power of oppression suggests that God is out to get us, God is angry with us, and that God wants to destroy us.  


The power of oppression explains why scriptures have often been misinterpreted to present God as terrible and terrifying rather than our terrific Creator, lover, and liberator.  That happens most “in the synagogue” places and spaces, often when people are most vulnerable, wounded, and need comfort.  


How many times have we heard preachers and other “religious” leaders suggest that God wants to destroy the world and people who don’t conform to whatever notion of morality these people claim as true?  When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Rev. Jerry Falwell, Dr. Pat Robertson, Charles Colson, Hal Lindsey, and other self-proclaimed “evangelical conservative Christians” linked that catastrophe to God’s judgment on everything from abortion to lack of vigilance in the “war on terror.”   


But the Spirit of God authorized Jesus to teach scripture in a different way, a way that threatened the authority of oppression.  We do not know what passage Jesus taught. But we know that Jesus was constantly talking about salvation and liberation, not condemnation and subjugation.  Jesus was always talking about God’s determination to set people free, not hold them hostage and fearful.  Our lesson doesn’t tell us what scripture Jesus taught, but it is enough to know that he “taught them as one having authority.”  


The liberating, life-building, and hopeful teaching of Jesus was different from what the synagogue was accustomed to getting from the scribes.  The man possessed by the “unclean spirit” of oppressive force apparently was content with the teaching of the scribes.  Their teaching apparently did not challenge the power of oppression whether “in the synagogue” or elsewhere.  


The authority of Jesus is always a subversive threat to the authority of oppression concerning the truth about God!  The Spirit of God that undergirded the authority of Jesus allowed him to recognize the presence of oppressive forces—an unclean spirit—in the man who interrupted his teaching.  


But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.  The Holy Spirit inspired Jesus to understand that the possessed man wasn’t the problem.  Years later St. Paul would expound on this truth in his epistle to the Ephesians in these words:  For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  (Ephesians 6:12).


An oppressive force—an unclean spirit—tried to portray Jesus as a threat to the whole congregation by using the possessed man as his instrument.  But the truth was that Jesus did not threaten the congregation or the possessed man.  Jesus only threatened the oppressive force in the man.  The same Spirit that empowered Jesus to teach about God’s love and truth with such authority that astounded the congregation empowered Jesus to command the oppressive force to be silent and depart from the man.  


The Spirit that inspired Jesus to liberate the oppressed man from the oppression of demonic possession is always a subversive threat to oppressive powers.  The Spirit that gave Jesus authority to call the unclean spirit of oppressive power out of the man gives followers of Jesus authority to confront oppressive power in our places, spaces, and in the people around us.  People who are under the influence of oppressive power are not the problem.  The problem is the spirit of oppression that dominates and motivates them.  


But thank God!  The Spirit of God’s love is a subversive force in a world afflicted by oppressive forces.  The Spirit of God that we read about in the life of Jesus shows that God loves the world!  


God loves the world so much that God has deliberately lived among us, as one of us, with authority from God to speak the truth about God to people whose minds, hearts, and lives are enslaved by the powers of oppression in many forms.  


God loves us so much that the Spirit of God can, does, and will give people authority to speak healing to the wounded, peace to the troubled, hope to the faint-hearted, and courage to those who are afraid.  


God loves us so much that the Spirit of God can, does, and will command the forces of oppression to hush and quit troubling us.  


God loves us so much that God will not allow forces of oppression to define who God is and how God wants to be in fellowship with us.  


The great salvation and liberation theme that runs throughout scripture is summed up in the gospel of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ and divine inspiration through the Holy Spirit that defined the ministry of Jesus.  The gospel of incarnation and inspiration is also a gospel of confrontation to every oppressive power in the world, including “in the synagogue” places, periods, and people of our living.  


The good news is that the gospel of incarnation, inspiration, and confrontation is not a message of condemnation and destruction.   To the forces of oppression that gospel has this message:  Be silent, and come out of him!  That is a threatening message to the power of oppression in a person and the world.  But it is a liberating and loving message to people suffering from the influence of oppressive power.  


A short time before the event Mark records in our lesson Jesus described the loving, liberating, and life-healing purpose and authority of his ministry in these memorable words in the Gospel of Luke.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18).  


Jesus didn’t get an “Amen” in Nazareth after he read those words from Isaiah’s prophecy.  In fact, the people in his hometown synagogue tried to kill him.  


But the reaction was different Jesus encountered the demon-possessed man in the synagogue at Capernaum.  They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this?  A new teaching—with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”  


That’s good news!  Amen.

©Wendell Griffen