Jesus’ public ministry begins
With a single person. A captive.
One human being who is oppressed.
A child of God who is set free.
What word would you use to describe today’s gospel?
A healing? Certainly. Salvation? Yes. Redemption? Absolutely. Transformation? Clearly. All good words, great words to describe what happens in the synagogue when Jesus meets the man with an unclean spirit. But the particular word that jumps out at me today is this one:
In part that’s because of the way that the author Mark sets the scene. He tells us not only that Jesus’ act of power takes place in the synagogue, the gathering place, the place where God is proclaimed.
He also tells us that it takes place on the Sabbath. Now we tend to think of the Sabbath the way it is described in the book of Genesis, as a day of rest. But there is another tradition, another stream of thought about the Sabbath, a more powerful way of thinking that comes out of the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. The Sabbath is the day of liberation, the day that God liberated the Hebrew slaves and brought them out of slavery.
Jesus’ first public act is an act of liberation, the freeing of this man, a human being enslaved by an oppressive force.
Jesus’ ministry does not begin with a treatise on the nature of God.
Jesus’ ministry does not begin with moral exhortation about how we should live our lives.
Jesus’ ministry does not begin with a political statement about the nation of Israel.
It begins with the liberation of a single human being who is enslaved by a force that captures and overwhelms him. In the language of the day, that oppressive force is called an unclean spirit. We don’t know its exact nature, we don’t get those details. But we do get enough to know this: the force, the unclean spirit, is oppressive and powerful and overwhelming, and it prevents this man from living his God-given life to the fullest. There is every likelihood that he has been estranged from friends and family, there is every likelihood that his life feels like it is not his own. And unclean spirit will not be defeated without a struggle.
Jesus enters the synagogue. And Jesus takes a clear stand against the oppressive forces that enslave us.
They called them unclean spirits. We have our names:
Abuse. Bullying. Anxiety. Opioids. Loneliness. PTSD. White Supremacy. Toxic relationships. Fear. Sexual harassment. Depression. Misogyny. Violence. Racism. Schizophrenia. Addiction. Greed. I’m sure that among us we could name many more unclean spirits.
These are powerful forces that prevent us from living fully. These are agents of oppression that rob us of joy, purpose and meaning in our lives. All of these are things that hold us down and cause us to despair, they endanger our relationships. These unclean spirits, the many that we can name, can have power over us and enslave us. And when that happens, we need liberation.
Jesus’ public ministry begins with the liberation of one human being. Why?
Because Jesus came to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is the place of liberation, the movement that leads us from bondage into freedom. And the good news of this kingdom is that God cares not just for creation, not just for humanity, but for you and for me. Because each and every human being matters. Each one of us is a child of God.
Jesus came so that we might have life and have it abundantly, so that we might be healed, saved, redeemed, and set free, individually and collectively. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of liberation in which we are released from unclean spirits which rob us of joy, purpose and meaning in our lives.
There is a claim here, and there is a promise. The claim is that Jesus has the power to do this, to free us, each one of us, from those things that oppress and enslave us, so that we can live fully as children of God. And the promise is this: that God is ready to do battle with these forces and that God will prevail and we will be set free.
I believe that promise. I believe it because I’ve seen it, and I believe it because many of you have told me your stories about how God has set you free. There is healing, there is salvation, there is redemption, there is liberation. One of the guys I play sports with told me the story of his teenage son. His son was so tormented by bullying, at school and on-line, that he tried to take his own life. And my friend anguished about how it could be that those dark forces that overwhelmed his son could have been so powerful that it got to that point. Now, several years later, with the help of doctors, friends and family his son is well. Released. Set free. Thanks be to God.
But I know that for every story of liberation, there is someone else who cries out “how long, O Lord, how long?”
We have been given the promise of liberation, and yet we live in the knowledge that this promise has yet to be fully realized. We live in that tension and sometimes we don’t know what to do nor what to say about it.
Jesus knew that tension too. He brought healing that day to one man in the synagogue, but surely he knew that there were many, many others whom he would never see face-to-face. And so I think that it is both instructive and helpful to look at what Jesus did immediately before, and immediately after, his first day of public ministry.
Last week we heard about what he did the day before today’s gospel. He began to assemble a team. He called the fishers to follow him. He started to build a movement, a community of people whose task it would be to share in the mission of liberation that Jesus began in the synagogue. The mission is on-going. As followers of Jesus, as the church, we have been called to share in and to continue this work of setting people free.
But it’s not easy, and it’s not something that we do on our own. And so it’s also helpful to look at what Jesus did not just before the Sabbath, before the day of liberation but also the next day. Because the next day, we’re told, in the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
Jesus knew that his mission to liberate people and his authority to overthrow the overwhelming forces in our lives was grounded in the power of God. And so, he turned to God in prayer, not just when it was convenient, but every day, even early in the morning when it was still dark.
We know that the work of liberation is on-going. If anything I think that we’ve seen that more clearly in recent days and months. Jesus came and his mission was to set us free, each one of us, from those things that oppress and enslave us, so that each one of us can live fully as children of God. When you are oppressed, know that the power of God is at work within you, working to heal and redeem, working to overthrow spirits that are unclean, working for our liberation. Know also that as followers of Jesus, we have been called to continue and to share in this work. And know also that the work that we do, the care that we have for one another, is grounded in the love and power of God, to whom we can turn every day in prayer.
Homily: Yr B Proper 4, January 31 2021, St. Albans Church
Readings: Deut 18.15-20; Ps 111; 1 Cor 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28
Image by Alachua County, Creative Commons