The Challenges of Jesus, Confronting Evil – a sermon for Epiphany 5B – Mark 1:29-39

This sermon was preached 3 years ago. Alas, while the politicians have declared that ISIS has been defeated, conditions on the ground indicate that ISIS has merely gone into hiding. The Canadian military is in discussions to purchase military drones, while the U.S. use of drones continues to inflict violence upon civilian populations. Jesus’ way of confronting evil continues to elude us. The Readings included Mark 1:29-39: Jesus raises up Peter’s Mother-in-law, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956”

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

listen to the sermon here

If there was ever any doubt that they are blood-thirsty monsters who are obsessed with destroying our way of life, this week’s abominable immolation of a Saudi pilot ought to prove to even the most ardent peace-loving activist that ISIS or ISIL represents pure evil. The perpetrators of beheadings and immolations the likes of which even the Western news media is loath to broadcast have demonstrated with their incessant viscous barbarous brutality that they are monsters who are worthy of destruction by whatever means necessary. Such evil needs to be eliminated. However, misguided the members of ISIS are, their brutality cannot and will not be tolerated. We will not even dignify their existence with boots on the ground. This enemy is not worthy. We will not risk our own people in this particular battle. Let the bombs fall where they may. We shall defeat them at arms length; reigning down upon them such devastation that they will become easy pickings for the armies of their own kind. We will not dignify their brutality by being drawn into battle with the likes of them. They are the scum of the earth and deserve every evil we can visit upon them provided we don’t have to get our hands too dirty. These viscous evil monsters have proven over and over again that they are inhuman, and we have every right to wage war upon them. They have crossed the line. They have beheaded, burned to death, and slaughtered their way onto the world stage and it is up to us to wipe them off of it and send them screaming back into whatever dark hole they crawled out of. Besides they have brought their evil madness too near the oil fields, which feed our way of life, they must be stopped before they start costing us real money. So, let all the peacemakers turn the other way while the powers that be take up arms for all our sakes and wipe these terrorists off our news screens. These demons must be destroyed.

We’ve been here so many times before. Face to face with demons. All that is necessary for evil to prevail is for good folk like us to do nothing. So, we’d better stop our bellyaching and get into lock-step with the warriors and support our troop’s because there is no other way to deal with these people. So, keep Jesus out of this. Jesus doesn’t belong in this fight. Jesus will only confuse people. Jesus will force us to second-guess ourselves and while we’re arguing about loving our enemies; our enemies will destroy us. So, leave Jesus where he belongs on the pages of a forgotten book, in the sanctuaries of tired old buildings, in the hearts and minds of a dwindling few who are used to being manipulated and wouldn’t dare make waves in the public square lest they be laughed at for the fools they really are. Keep Jesus to yourselves and let the grownups deal with the terrorists unless you want them to march down main street and behead a few of you. Keep Jesus out of this. Fighting demons is for grown-ups who are prepared to live in the real world. Peace, real peace, means getting your hands dirty. Peace, real peace, can only be achieved through violence. The only way to deal with terrorists is to defeat them on the battlefield. Peace through victory.

If you want to do something useful pray for peace. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Over and over again, we follow Jesus into the dark places of our hearts and minds and we pray. This week my prayers have turned to prayers for peace. Holding my newborn granddaughter in my arms, rocking her to sleep in the darkness of her nursery, I have prayed for peace with the kind of urgency that newborns inspire. I want so much for her. I want a world in which she can thrive; a world where she can grow into all the potential that she holds in her tiny precious little body; a world free from monsters and demons. If the pundits are to be believed ISIS threatens everything we hold we hold dear and the good people of the world must band together and annihilate the evil that ISIS is. Listening to the news you’d be hard pressed to see the war in which we are currently engaged as anything other than an epic battle between good and evil. Pray for peace if we must. But support the military solution that is on offer or accept the peril of terrorists moving into our neighbourhoods. Give up your freedoms, your privacy, your idealism, and join the battle; there is no other way to defeat evil. They’ve almost convinced what’s left of Christendom that if Jesus were alive he too would take up arms in this just war. Peace can only be achieved through victory; so, “they” tell us. The trouble is, “they,” the powers that be, have been telling us this forever and yet victory continues to breed more violence. First century Palestine was full of good folk just like you and me who dreamed of a better life for their children; people who were willing to do just about anything to ensure the futures of their beloved children. Roman oppression was every bit as viscous as the wildest imaginations of the members of ISIS. Roman tortures and executions abounded in the tens of thousands in the first century. The anonymous writer of the Gospel according to Mark together with the anonymous writers of the gospels according to Matthew and Luke took the time in the face of such wicked oppression to record stories about Jesus in the hope that they might encourage their communities to adopt a different way of dealing with the violence that threatened their lives. In Jesus of Nazareth they saw a new way of dealing with one’s enemies; a new way of confronting evil in their world. Jesus of Nazareth, a rabbi who taught in the synagogues moving from town to town proclaiming a new way of living in a world infested with violence, in a world where evil was about as real as evil gets this itinerate preacher forged a new way of being; a way that insisted that peace comes not from victory but through justice; a way that began not with destroying one’s enemy but by loving ones’ enemy.

In the very first chapter of the gospel according to Mark, the writer casts his story as he means to end it, face to face with evil. Jesus encounters evil in a very first century manner.   At a time when people believed that evil was the work of demons who had the power to possess a person and thereby rob them of their humanity, the gospel-story-teller gets right down to business. First the gospel-story-teller fills us in on Jesus baptism and we are told that in Jesus resides the Spirit of God. No sooner does the Spirit of God take up residence in Jesus than the gospel-story-teller takes us out into the wilderness where Jesus is tempted by the very personification of evil, Satan himself tempts Jesus, who is aided in his resistance by angels no less. The gospel-story-teller is setting us up for what will be a cosmic battle between good and evil which casts Jesus as a new way of defeating evil. After calling a few fisher-folk to join him on his quest, Jesus goes into the synagogue to teach in a new way; a way that astounds the religious powers that be.

Immediately, the gospel-story-teller known as Mark is very big on the word “immediately” and uses it to let us know that upon hearing about Jesus new way of being things happen, right away, so look out, pay attention because things are happening, there’s no time to waste. Immediately, Jesus is confronted by a person possessed by an unclean spirit. Jesus drives out the demon by the power of his voice. Amazing the crowds with his new teaching and authority Jesus moves on. The gospel-story-teller lets us know that Jesus wanders around ordering unclean spirits to get out and they obey.

Then begins the story we are concerned with today. “As soon as Jesus and the disciples left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to Jesus all who were sick or possessed with demons.  And the whole city was gathered around the door. And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.”

Mother-in-laws in first century Palestine were considered even more of a curse than today’s caricatures of mother-in-laws could ever match. Back then, women were identified in relationship to the men in their lives. So, we can assume that this unnamed woman was a widow, because she was identified by her relationship to her son-in-law. Widows lived at the mercy of those who took them in. So, Peter would have been on the hook for his mother-in-law’s survival. Illness in the first century was directly attributable to ones’ sinfulness. That Peter’s mother-in-law was described as ill with a fever would have meant that she would have been socially unacceptable. Fever’s meant demons were inhabiting the flesh. People who suffered with fevers were considered unclean, and definitely untouchable. Peter’s mother-in-law would have been hidden away because her demons would have brought shame upon the entire household.

Jesus’ response to hearing that Peter’s mother-in-law is feverish, code-word for possessed, is to rush to her, take her by the hand, and raise her up, and immediately the fever, code-word demon left her. Now, we might be tempted to read this story as that of a healing miracle. But the words of the gospel-story-teller are very clear; clear that is for a first century listener, we need a bit of help with the translations. A feverish woman. First century for: a woman…..hello women are untouchable to begin with….keep them in the background if you please, men cannot be expected to associate with women. Feverish — obviously she is possessed by demons….she is clearly evil…she brought this upon herself. Touched her….what is Jesus thinking?  He’s risking his very life here folks. Touching evil like that. Raised her up.

The gospel-story-teller uses the same word in Greek that will be translated later in his story as resurrect. Jesus resurrects this evil woman. The fever leaves her. Then she went about her work. The word in Greek is “diacone” which when men are involved our translators always translate as ministry. Peter’s mother-in-law is cured of her evil and goes about her ministry. Peter’s mother-in-law is described by the gospel-story-teller as the first deacon. Not only is the first deacon a woman, but the first deacon was introduced as an evil demon possessed woman, who is transformed by touch, into a minister. What is happening here?

According to the gospel-story-teller Jesus is embodying a new way of dealing with evil.  People are so astounded by what is happening that they bring to Jesus all the sick and possessed evil people to Peter’s doorstep to be healed; transformed by Jesus. How does he do it? Presence. Touch. Speech. No cosmic battle. No swords. No battle at all. Barely even a contest. Evil is defeated, driven out by the power of presence, touch, speech.

If the story ended there, we might be forgiven our insistence that this is merely the story of a healing miracle, but the gospel-story-teller goes on to describe Jesus’ Way of encountering evil and violence is not a part of that way.  We can leave Jesus out of our conversations about ISIS if we want to. But the moment we allow Jesus’ presence we will be touched by his Way of being and Jesus’ words will challenge us to respond to evil in ways that might just get us killed. We can leave Jesus out of this or we can invite Jesus into our violence obsessed world and begin to ask ourselves what it would take to heal the evil that possess not just our enemies but our very selves. What will it take to transform the evil we see in our enemies? What will it take to drive the violent fever from the world?

I know a good many people will insist that such talk is naïve and dangerous. They will point to the victims of ISIS and insist that to do nothing is a kind of violence in and of itself. After all, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good folk to do nothing. But we’ve tried violence. Violence created ISIS.

For a just war to be deemed just it must have a reasonable hope of success. At a bare minimum, we must ask ourselves what hope our violence has of achieving peace. We have poured all our eggs into one basket. We have military academies. We have giant war machines. Do we also have peace academies? Do we have giant peace machines? What would Jesus’ way look like in enfleshed in the 21st century? What if we poured millions and millions, even billions of dollars into figuring out how to create peace through justice? What if we simply poured in half of what we invest in peace through victory into peace through justice? What might our evil be transformed into if we even remotely took Jesus teachings seriously?

“Rising early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there.” When we pray for peace are we merely paying lip-service to our desire for a better world as long as it doesn’t cost us anything. Or, when we pray for peace are we seriously opening ourselves to the possibilities of a new way of being in the world? When we pray do we pray with words or with our very selves? When we pray are we prepared to touch the untouchable? When we pray are we prepared to be touched by the untouchable? When we pray are we prepared for resurrection???

Let us pray? Let us pray as Jesus taught us to pray? Let our Amens be transformative as we rise up to be about our work. Let us follow in the footsteps of Peter’s mother-in-law and be ministers of the ONE who calls us to follow a new Way of being in the world.  Let us pray like we have never prayed before.

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