Epiphany 4, Year B – “A single act, a single life changed for the better”

Title:Epiphany 4, Year B – “A single act, a single life changed for the better”

By the Rev. David Lose

The passage today is perhaps peculiarly suited to preach at the close of a turbulent and slightly disappointing first month of a new year. Most of us know it pretty well and have preached on it before, as this is the launch of Jesus’ ministry in Mark, when he casts out an evil spirit and is received as one who teaches with authority. It probably bears repeating that “first things” tend to set the tone for much of what is to come. Little wonder, then, that interpreters have noted how the first scenes of each of the Gospels offer a preview of the Evangelist’s insight into Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus climbs a mountain to teach and interpret the law, like Moses. In Luke, Jesus announces that the Lord has sent him to proclaim good news, release, and healing, a message that exemplifies his ministry even as it is met with rejection. And in John the first thing Jesus does is multiply the wine and blessing at Cana, living into the “grace upon grace” promised in the Prologue.

So what does this “first thing” tell us about Jesus according to Mark’s story? That he has come to oppose the forces of evil, defined not generically but rather as anything and everything that robs God’s children of life.

A brief word of warning: it’s easy to get hung up on the issue of the “unclean spirit” – is this demon possession (if so, how do we preach it?), or is it rather a first-century description of mental illness (and if so, how do we preach it? J). That’s understandable, as the language of “unclean spirit” is foreign to us. Until, that is, you start thinking about the unclean spirits of our age – a socially-media driven obsession with our own ideas, thoughts, and appearance; the disavowal, or at least devaluing, of truth amid a cacophony of conspiracy theories as dangerous as they are ridiculous; the increased devotion to the “unholy trinity” of me, myself, and I that measures all things in terms of how it affects me and only me you rather than the broader community. Yes, we may not be comfortable with the notion of an “unclean spirit,” and yet they abound.

And it’s just this – all of this! – that Jesus’ authoritative proclamation of God’s coming kingdom opposes. With that in mind, is it any wonder that January of 2021 doesn’t seem that different from December of 2020, or January of 1921 or 1821 or…. Yes, this has been a particularly difficult time, but the forces of selfishness and fear and violence have always been among us.

So what happened, one might understandably ask. If Jesus came to cast out unclean spirits, and if people received his authoritative teaching and life-giving actions with amazement, then why is the world still the way it is?

This is a question that the earliest Christians asked as well. It’s part of the reason why, in fact, that we have the Gospels. As the earliest Christians realized that their expectations about Christ’s return were off, they retold the stories of Jesus with an eye to equipping his disciples for the long haul. For this reason, Mark’s story, likely the earliest, ends not with an appearance of Jesus but rather by reiterating Jesus’ promise that he has gone ahead of the disciples and they are to follow him. Sometimes called a “realized eschatology,” such a theology invites the church not to place their hopes in a distance revelation but to recognize that in his death and resurrection, Jesus inaugurated God’s kingdom, opened up a future of possibility and hope, and equips his disciples to live into that kingdom now, even while they wait for its full consummation at the end of time.

Which brings me, at least, to ask what I am doing to continue Jesus’ work a month into a new year? Systemic racism, polarized worldviews that tend to demonize each other, environmental disregard and degradation; the list goes on. I likely can’t, I know, make any monumental contribution to solving these challenges, and likely neither can you. But this first act of Jesus doesn’t change the world either, except for the world, of course, of the man previously dominated by the unclean spirit. Just one man helped, one life changed. Yet it is this single act of resistance and healing that Mark chooses to highlight at the outset of our Lord’s ministry. A single act, a single life changed for the better. Perhaps that’s where we start and where we invite our congregations to start as well.

As we contemplate that invitation, I think it’s worth remembering that even amid the well-documented decline in Sunday church attendance, there is still no other single activity that people in the US do with greater frequency and in greater numbers than attend worship. Not even NFL viewership can compete. (And I say that as one who spent a lot of time last Sunday watching football!) Which means if even a fraction of the people who hear Mark’s invitation to be a disciple of Jesus by following his first and lasting example, the world will not only reflect God’s love and will more fully, but those watching may still be amazed… and inspired.