Hard Truths about Hard Truths

Inspired by Mark 8:31-38

Last week’s sermon was pretty challenging, both to hear and to deliver. So I thought to myself, I’ll go easy on them next week. Besides, I don’t think I got it in me to do that again so soon. So, I sat at my desk, after everyone had gone home last Sunday, only to read today’s Gospel story. Well, that’s just great, I thought, thanks God. Last week’s Gospel story was challenging because even though the good news of the Gospel was explicitly stated, “Now is the time. Here comes God’s kingdom. Change your hearts and lives. And trust this good news,” it wasn’t the kind of good news that we like to hear.

Today’s Gospel story is challenging because not only is the gospel not explicitly stated, but it’s really hard to find any good news here! You really have to dig and sift through this to find something that vaguely resembles good news! But maybe, just maybe, we’re asking the wrong question, searching for the wrong thing. Maybe, just maybe, we’re just supposed to be simply listening to whatever God has to say to us, so that we can be the good news when we leave this place. Hold on to that thought, we’ll return to it later.

So, our Gospel story for today, comes immediately after Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ, not just a prophet, not just a good teacher, but the Christ himself. Jesus says let’s not go around sharing that right now. And that’s where our story picks up. And Jesus goes on this very depressing rant about being rejected and killed and rising, and then he calls Peter Satan and he doesn’t end there, he tells them to take up their cross or else they too are going to die.

All of a sudden Jesus turns into a negative Ned. That’s the male version of negative Nancy. We all have one of those in our circle of friends right? That friend who always sees the glass half empty, who sees the negative in everything and just has to comment on it, you know, the Eeyore of the group. And I’m sure his followers were like, where in the world did that come from? Somebody woke up on the wrong side of the bed!

But of course, it was much more than just his attitude that was troubling them, but it was his words. This is the first of three times in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus predicts his own death. And Peter takes hold of him, meaning that he faces him, looks at him, and in so many words says, No! Not gonna happen! I don’t want hear this! Good ol’ Peter, we can always count on Peter to say what’s on everyone else’s mind right? And Jesus gives it right back to him, looks him dead in the eye and basically says, No! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Your head is in the wrong place Peter! With some name calling thrown in there too but we don’t need to go there. But in this exchange, between Peter and Jesus, they are speaking, out loud, one to another, some hard truths. Peter could not accept what Jesus was saying, and had to speak up about it. Likewise, Jesus could not ignore the cross, looming ever closer, and had to speak up about it. And both were speaking up out of love for each other.

I’m sure most of you can relate to them. I’m sure there have been times in your life when you have had to speak a hard truth to someone. And even though it’s done out of love, that doesn’t make it any easier does it? If anything, it makes it harder! Maybe it was a wrong that someone inflicted on you that needs to be addressed. Maybe it was a friend or family member that you see going down a path that will surely lead to no good and you just can’t bite your tongue any longer.

Or maybe it’s something seemingly simple like asking for help, or saying no when asked to do something when your heart just isn’t into it. Or maybe something bigger, like speaking out against an injustice. Hard truths come in all shapes and sizes. But a hard truth about hard truths is this, they’re never silent, otherwise they wouldn’t be hard. No, they are said openly, plainly, as Jesus lovingly did with Peter, as Peter lovingly did with Jesus.

Now, there are a few different ways you can take this sermon on hard truths. You can take this on an individual level. I think that’s the default anyway right? When you listen to a sermon it’s natural to think how it applies to you, and there’s nothing wrong with that. So taken that way, you could ask yourself some challenging questions like, what hard truth is God trying to communicate to me? How have I resisted or dismissed it? Have I outright told God, as Peter did—No, I’m not buy’n it; there must be another way!

Or, what hard truth are you being called to speak to someone else? And when you do, how prepared are you for their response? And the other side of that coin is, how prepared are you to receive a hard truth from someone else? Now that’s taking this on an individual level but I also want you to hear this, and every sermon, communally.

What does this have to say to you as a congregation? What hard truths have been spoken to you in the past O Bethlehem, and how did you come out on the other side of that? You’re still here. You’re still standing! You got through it. Have those hard truths come from God? From other people? From both simultaneously? And how did you initially react O Bethlehem? With defensiveness? Dismissiveness? Anger? Hurt? Sadness? Did you eventually take that hard truth to heart? Or maybe it’s still ringing in your ears. These are important questions because it will affect how you respond the next time a hard truth is spoken to you O Bethlehem. And there will be a next time because thankfully the Holy Spirit never stops speaking! And she speaks both words of comfort and hard truths.

Now let’s flip this around. What hard truths do you feel God calls churches to speak to others? For example, churches are speaking hard truths concerning whether or not they will fully welcome those from the LGBTQ community. And no matter where they fall on that issue, it’s going to make them unpopular with those who don’t agree with their version of the gospel. Does Bethlehem have anything to say about that? There are churches speaking hard truths about the injustices against our black communities.

And no matter where they fall on that issue, it’s going to make them unpopular with those who don’t agree with their version of the gospel. Does Bethlehem have anything to say about that? There are hard truths being said right now about guns in this country. And no matter what side they come down on, they’re going to be unpopular with those who don’t agree with them? Might the church have something to say about that issue? Does the gospel shed any light on that issue? And if so, who will speak it?

And so another hard truth about speaking hard truths, is that they don’t make you very popular. Why? Because they often hurt, both the hearer and the speaker. I would imagine that Peter and Jesus walked away from that exchange hurt, scarred, confused, angry, or all of the above. When you have had to speak hard truths to people, I’m sure you have received a whole bunch of different reactions! And “thank you” is probably not one of them! At least not initially. When you speak hard truths to people they can feel attacked, and get defensive. Seminaries should probably have standard issue body armor to hand out at graduation because of this! Because I don’t care how thick a new pastor thinks their skin is, I can guarantee them, it ain’t thick enough!

Jesus spoke hard truths, and it got him rejected, arrested, beaten, and executed in a most horrific way. That was, quite literally, his cross to bear. And it’s a heavy cross, as seen here in this 17th century painting by Italian artist Domenichino. He called it, The Way to Calvary. And for me, it’s not the cross or the soldier or the angry faces that strike me about this painting. What I find particularly haunting about it, is Jesus looking at us dead in the eye, as if to say, “Be sure you know what you’re getting yourself into. Because this, this, is what speaking hard truths looks like, this is what following me looks like.” We will be laughed at, insulted, mocked, utterly rejected, by many. This is not about winning a popularity contest. This is about the good news of the gospel, and as we heard last week, the good news doesn’t always sound like good news to everyone. Sometimes not even to us! Because the gospel often calls us to speak hard truths that need to be said.

Now, there is good news to be had in all of this. I won’t leave you on that note! The good news is what comes from this hard truth telling—life. Jesus doesn’t speak only of his death but also of his rising. And if we are called to die with Christ in our baptisms then we are also called to rise with Christ out of our baptisms. And Jesus didn’t only speak of us losing our lives, but also of saving them, by being willing to take up our own cross, for the sake of the world around us, by being willing to be rejected, by sticking our neck out for others even when its unpopular, by speaking hard truths that need to be said, even when the cost is high, especially when the cost is high. Jesus does not just look at you in warning, but also looks at you with yearning in his eyes—yearning for you to join him, on the way to Calvary—carrying that heavy cross of rejection, for the sake of the gospel, for the love of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Change is Good News?

Inspired by Mark 1:9-15

Welcome to Lent. Lent is the 40 days leading up to Easter which began on Ash Wednesday a few days ago, but it is also so much more than that. Early in Christian history, the ancients of our faith recognized the importance of our Easter celebration, so much so that they quickly instituted a time of preparation for it, 40 days to be exact. Why 40? Well for a few reasons. The number 40 is an important number in scripture, and so it conjures up many stories to help set the mood of Lent:

the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after escaping Egyptian slavery, reclaiming their identity along the way; Noah and his family were in the ark while it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, giving them lots of time for contemplation; Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights receiving the Ten Commandments which would change the course of history as they knew it; and from today’s Gospel story, Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, emerging from the wilderness with a very particular message, which we will get to in a minute.

But I’m not done with the number 40 yet. So, I’ve given you just a few of the many uses of the number 40 found throughout scripture. But it still begs the question, why 40? Why was 40 such an important number for Biblical authors? Many reasons have been given over the years as why that number keeps popping up in scripture. One of the most compelling reasons that I have come across, is the connection to how many weeks we are in our mother’s womb. And I find that compelling for two reasons: one, because of the incredible changes that we go through while we are in our mother’s womb beginning from fertilized egg to chubby little baby, and two, at the end of that 40, the ending result is a new birth.

Now, what does that have to do with Lent? Well, earlier I mentioned how Lent is so much more than just the 40 days that lead up to Easter, because of all that happens during these 40 days, or all that is supposed to be happening during these 40 days in our hearts. The idea is that we don’t come out of Lent the same people, but rather we come out on the other side as renewed, refreshed, recommitted Easter people! And that should be a reflection of our entire lives right? Are we not called to come out of our baptismal waters a different people—a renewed, rebirthed, reformed people? And Lent gives us this reminder year in and year out.

So with all of that in mind, let us now return to our Gospel story that we heard today form Mark. Now, we began our year in the Gospel of Mark back at the beginning of December and we are still in the first chapter. We have skipped ahead a couple times but we are essentially still in the first chapter. Today we heard the story of Jesus baptism, which we did read back in January, but this time we went further to include Jesus’ temptation.

The first Sunday in Lent should be called Temptation Sunday because we always read this story on this day, whether it’s from Matthew, Mark, or Luke. And it’s fitting isn’t it, after everything we’ve gone over about what Lent is. So, Jesus is baptized and immediately is thrown into the wilderness, immediately is thrown into a 40 day womb, immediately is thrown into a time of gestation, coming out on the other side ready to tackle the world as Christ our savior!

And tackle the world he does! Jesus comes out of his 40 days and utters his first words in the Gospel of Mark, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news! Now if you wrote a book, about one of the most famous people in the world, the first quote from that person that you used in your book would be a significant one. Right? Same goes for Biblical authors. The firsts are always important: the first story, the first lesson, the first miracle, the first words of Jesus. So, these words that comes out of his 40 days are significant and some have said that they sum up his entire ministry in the Gospel of Mark. He begins with “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom!” and let me just pause and share how I hear those words as your pastor.

I truly believe with all my heart that now is the time, that God’s kingdom is coming here. I truly believe with all my heart that amazing things can happen here, that there is potential, beyond our wildest dreams, for the new life of the kingdom to come here! Otherwise, I wouldn’t have accepted the call to be your pastor, nor would I continue to challenge you to be more than you are. And my annual reports would be bland and filled with meaningless platitudes.

Now if that’s the kind of pastor you want, you best let me know now, before we waste any more of eachother’s time. Because let me tell you, there are plenty of pastors out there that can deliver that to you, there are plenty of pastors out there that would be happy to just collect their paycheck, and not rock the boat, and just keep things status quo—but that’s not me, that’s not who I am. Otherwise, now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! And how do we prepare for that? Well, let me step out of the way and allow Jesus to continue with his first directive, “Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” Let that sink in for a minute.

The one that we call Lord and savior, just used the word “change” and “good news” in the same sentence! How in the world do you explain that! And you think changing our carpet or paint or coffee is challenging? Jesus goes right for the jugular and says change your hearts! Change your very lives! And then has the audacity to call that good news! And just so we’re clear, the phrase “good news” is also translated “gospel.” For all of you looking for the gospel every Sunday, well there it is, in all it’s glory! The directive to change your hearts and lives is what Jesus calls the gospel. How can that be?

Fertilized Human Egg
Let’s return to that number 40. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t want to be walking around looking like that! Nor would I still want to be a baby, or a teenager! Dear Lord, you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to high school! Yuk! But transformation and change isn’t supposed to stop when we become an adult. The transformations and changes that we go through throughout our lives, are necessary and also what make us who we are today. And change can be uncomfortable at best—painful, hurtful at worse.

For you see, good news doesn’t always sound like good news. Gospel doesn’t always feel like gospel. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t. If the gospel doesn’t sound like good news to you then that might just mean it’s striking a chord in you. And I’m begging you to not turn away from it, but listen even closer to it. Because our temptation is this, to believe that if something is uncomfortable, then is must be wrong. Our temptation is to believe that if something doesn’t sound nice, then it must be wrong.

Our temptation is to believe that if something doesn’t feel good, then it must be wrong—and that we should stay away from such things. And when we fall to those temptations, the enemy wins. Because we stay right where we are, no change, no movement, but feeling very safe and secure. However, when we open ourselves up to the good news of change, to the gospel of change, we come out on the other end of our 40, renewed, reinvigorated, reborn, transformed, changed, and ready to tackle the world with Christ our savior. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Terrifying Mountains

Inspired by Mark 9:2-9, and Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain...

So Jesus and his squad hike up a mountain. Peter, James, and John make up this funny little inner circle from among his followers. Now, whether Jesus picked these three himself, or if they were just those kinds of friends that follow you everywhere you go and just can’t take a hint is up for debate. But they are with him at the healing of Jairus’ daughter, at the garden of Gethsemane, as well as here at the Transfiguration.

We don’t know exactly what was special about these three, but they got to witness some things that no one else did, and be at Jesus’ side at some pivotal moments in his life here on Earth. So they go up a mountain, a high mountain, where they were alone, just the four of them. And it’s a safe assumption, that the reason they went up that high mountain, was to be alone. This was not the first time that Jesus has done this by this point in the Gospel of Mark. It’s kind of a pattern of Jesus’, to find a place of solitude, particularly to escape the crowds.

But then when they get to the top of the mountain, they get the surprise of their lives when Jesus is transfigured, transformed right before their eyes, accompanied by Elijah and Moses no less! Now, I’ve preached on this story quite a few times. And I have preached about mountain top experiences, and how, like Peter, we want our mountain top experiences to last forever. I’ve preached on the seemingly profound words of Peter in this story.

But something different stuck out to me this time around. The fear that they experienced on that mountain top, which led me to wonder how that may have affected them in the future but we’ll get to that in a minute. Mark reports that Peter’s words come from a place of fear. According to Mark, Peter didn’t know what to say, because the three of them were terrified. Peter was also one of those people who had no filter. He had a habit of just blurting out whatever came to mind. I’m sure you’ve known a few people like that over the years.

They were terrified. Jesus takes them on a hike up a high mountain, seemingly for some peace and quiet, and they end up having this terrifying experience. God reveals God’s self to them and they are terrified! And I don’t think we have focused on that nearly enough. We like to think of mountain top experiences as these wonderful, positive experiences, not terrifying, negative experiences. But if you think about it, when God calls you, to some place, to some one, to some thing, it can be terrifying!

Even when that person, place, or thing that God is calling you to, is something positive. Like, the call to be a parent, the call to be a spouse, the call to take that promotion at work, the call to volunteer for something at church that you’ve never done before, the call to communicate a hard truth that needs to be said, the call to increase your giving at church. All these things are positive things, positive decisions, wonderful, beautiful things that God calls you to, but they can also be terrifying!

And when we humans are scared, the typical fear response is fight or flight—get yourself out of the scary situation as quickly as possible or, get ready to fight. And the reason I mention fight or flight is because I was thinking about the lasting effect that this may have had on Peter, James, and John. Imagine how they responded the next time Jesus said, “Let’s go for a hike.” Like some sort of spiritual PTSD, they may have said, “Uh uh Jesus, no way. I remember what happened last time we went for a hike, and I didn’t bring a change of underwear!” Here’s some good news for you, some gospel in all of this.

Choosing fight or flight is not going to stop God from working for your good, or for the good of the world. If we choose to flee the situation that God has called us to, because it’s just too scary for us to handle right now, you think God can’t work through a plan b, or a plan c, or an infinite number of plans to get what God wants? And what does God want, but healing, and wholeness, and transformation for you and the world. And I truly believe, with all my heart, that ultimately God gets what God wants. And if we choose to fight? You think God can’t take a few cuts and bruises? You think God can’t handle your sticks and stones? I’m pretty sure God has seen worse than whatever we can throw down. So, choosing fight or flight is not going to stop God, and that is good news for us, because God knows we choose these often.

Bet there’s another option. Fight or flight is not the only two options for us to choose from. When God chooses to reveal God’s self to us, when God chooses to reveal a plan for us, a path for us, when God chooses to call us into something that terrifies us down to our very soul, when God says, let’s go for a hike up a mountain, we can just go. In spite of how terrifying it may be, in spite of the spiritual PTSD that we may suffer from because of that last time we took a hike with God, we can just grab Jesus’ outstretched hand and go. And here’s some more good news for you, here’s some more gospel for you, Jesus never, ever, asks you to go up that mountain alone. Jesus will be by your side all the way up and all the way back down, and will even be terrified with you if that’s what you need because that’s just how much God loves you.

So, here’s the bottom line, don’t let your fear of the top of that mountain, your fear of the unknown, keep you from taking that hike with God. Because even though it may be terrifying, even though you may be having flashbacks of the last time you climbed that mountain, it’s also guaranteed to be amazing, to be spectacular, like nothing you’ve ever seen before, as God reveals God’s power, as God reveals God’s very self to you, at the top of that mountain. My prayer for you, is that you can find the courage and fortitude, to grab Jesus’ outstretched hand, and climb that scary mountain when God calls to you, both individually and as a congregation, knowing most assuredly, that you don’t climb alone, and it’ll be one hell of a show! Thanks be to God. Amen.


This Second Life

Inspired by Mark 1:29-39

Today’s Gospel reading brought to mind many historical figures who, in spite of adversity, made positive contributions to society: Helen Keller, Maya Angelou, Anne Frank, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Oprah Winfrey, Mother Teresa, Harriet Tubman, just to name a few.  Two figures stood out among the crowd, Florence Nightingale and Malala Yousafzai. Florence Nightingale was born in 1820, raised in London, and may have been on my mind because she is a character in a video game I’m currently playing but that’s beside the point.

She is credited as the founder of modern nursing, ushering in many practices that we take for granted when we are in the hospital like: washing hands, laundering sheets regularly, good nutrition, well-circulated air, and using sterile bandages. Though she came from a well-to-do and quite progressive family, they did not want her to become a nurse, and urged her to marry and settle down. One thing that I didn’t know about her was what finally cemented her decision to become a nurse, it was visiting a Lutheran teaching hospital in Germany. She was so impressed with the pastor and nurses there, she enrolled immediately.

She was a hard worker, worked herself to death, almost literally. At one point she became so gravely ill they didn’t think she’d make it. But she did. And she had just barely recovered when the Crimean War broke out. Now, at this point in her life she had a choice. She had just recovered from a near death illness, and could have easily hung up her nursing hat, went home, got married, and settled down to a very comfortable life back in London.

However, she believed that her work as a nurse was a calling from God. She wrote to her sister, “God called me in the morning and asked me would I do good for him alone without reputation.” In other words, she saw her work as simply the right thing to do, not for money or fame, just the right thing to do, and her faith is what compelled her to continue. The British military then called on her to help wounded soldiers who were dying of infection and poor nutrition rather than their wounds. And she ended up saving countless lives throughout the rest of her life.

Fast forward about 150 years, and Malala Yousafzai is born in 1997 in Pakistan. At the ripe old age of 11, she began her activist work toward the education of young girls in her country. Something we take for granted here in the states but was not something that is valued in her homeland. She began writing a blog to raise awareness for this effort but had to do so under a pseudonym for safety reasons. However, it was not enough to keep her safe.

At the age of 15, the Taliban found her, on her school bus, and shot her in the head. Against the odds, she recovered, and found herself with a choice. She was already recognized as a leader for girl’s rights to an education, had done great work and raised a ton of awareness for the cause. No one would have blamed her for hanging up her activist hat after being shot in the head for it. But as she puts it, the Taliban failed, because it only “made my voice louder.”

In her book, I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, she writes “I told myself, Malala, you have already faced death. This is your second life. Don't be afraid — if you are afraid, you can't move forward.” And she believes that her second life, comes from God. And therefore, her work as an activist is a calling from God, and ceasing that work just doesn’t seem like an option for her. Since her recovery she has traveled with world, speaking, teaching, writing books, and oh yeah, became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Today’s Gospel reading always catches me off guard whenever I read it. Jesus heals Simon’s mother in law who was on the brink of death. Mark may say that she only had a fever but keep two things in mind: one, your body gets a fever because of an infection, bacterial or viral; and two, this was two thousand years ago, if your body couldn’t fight the infection on its own, you died. So Jesus heals her, in probably one of the most tenderest healings in all of scripture.

Jesus comes to her bedside, takes her by the hand, and raises her up. It has been called the first resurrection story in the Gospels. In fact, Mark uses this same verb to describe Jesus’ resurrection at the end of this Gospel. And then Simon’s mother in law has a choice. What to do with this new life she has been given. After being on the brink of death and raised by Jesus himself, how would she spend the rest of her life?

Mark reports that as soon as the fever left her, she began her new life in service to others. Now at first glance many have dismissed her service as being the place of a woman in the first century; that she was just returning to her previous role in the male dominated society that she found herself in. But upon closer inspection we find that’s not the case at all. This was not yet another example of sexism in the Bible. This was her call story. The fact that we don’t know her name is an example of sexism but not her service. And here’s how we know that. The verb used here that we translate as serve, is the same verb that Mark uses to describe Jesus ministry throughout his Gospel, and on top of that, the same verb that he just used, in this same chapter, describing the angels serving Jesus in the desert after his forty day temptation.

Now the problem with taking a look at these bigger than life historical figures like Simon’s mother in law, Florence Nightingale, and Malala Yousafzai, is that it can make our work look very small. Many of us don’t have a dramatic story like these people did. Many of us haven’t had adversity to the degree of these courageous people. But do we have to? Do we need a dramatic story? No. Because the truth is, we all have a story. And not just any story, we all have a resurrection story. We all have a call story. We all have been given a new life in Christ, a second life, represented by those baptismal waters that we pass to and from this holy place each week.

This week, I invite you to ponder, on your story of resurrection, on your call story. Who did God use to raise you up? Did it happen all at once or was it a slow process over a lifetime? How have you changed? What have you done with the second life that God has given you? Has God placed you in someone else’s resurrection and call story? How has God called you out of your baptismal waters and into this new life? Big questions, I know. But they are questions that need answered, because it is through those stories that we witness to the power of God in this church. It is those stories that will catch the eyes and ears of others. Practice sharing them with each other—so that we can share them with the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Inspired by Mark 1:21-28

Surprises can be both wonderful and terrifying! I love being surprised with a gift, whether it’s something I get to unwrap, or an unexpected hug, or that text sent at just the right time. My wonderful wife and oldest daughter got me this summer with a surprise visit from her all the way from Pennsylvania! I don’t think I’ve ever been so surprised in my life. Many of you saw the video of it on Facebook as she recorded me opening the door to discover Jonah standing outside. The look on my face is one of complete bewilderment and confusion. It took me a few moments to process what was happening! It was a wonderful surprise that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Not all surprises are wonderful though, are they?: losing a job, the unexpected death of a loved one, a natural disaster, a national tragedy. I find myself these days approaching the news by bracing myself because I just never know what I’m going to be faced with. And I’ve had my share of personal surprises that were less than pleasant. Probably because of my recent illness, my family and I have been talking a lot about another time that I was ill.

I was in my early thirties and I had been sick with pneumonia which had led to a lung abscess. I’m lying in bed, can’t breath, coughing, congested, sweating, so my wife calls the doctor and they say, you should take him to the emergency room, like right now. So we go and they take one look at me and rushed me to a room. They told me that it was a good thing I came in when I did because, I had suffered a mild heart attack! Surprise! Those kinds of surprises we could do without!

There are a lot of surprises in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus goes to a synagogue, on the Sabbath, which will be important in a minute, and there he begins teaching. Nothing real surprising there. It was customary to be at synagogue on the Sabbath, and in those days they didn’t have strict rules about who could read the scriptures or teach on them. But they were surprised by the way that he taught, because he taught with authority. Now what does that mean?

Well, it was customary in those days to cite references while you taught, so that your listeners knew you weren’t just making it all up. So most likely, Jesus was not doing that. Jesus was probably teaching from his own mind and heart. Something they had not seen before and so they were surprised. And I’m not entirely sure this was a pleasant surprise. The Greek word that is translated as amazed here, has more negative connotations than positive ones. In fact, the root of this word means to strike or to smite.

The Scream of Nature by Edvard Munch, 1893
But they’re not the only ones that were surprised. Those demons were in for a shock as well! And once again, it revolves around Jesus’ authority. The way Mark tells this story, Jesus was just minding his own business, teaching on the scriptures in the synagogue, when all of a sudden an evil spirit screamed, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?

Now Jesus didn’t seek out this demon. He didn’t confront it. There’s no indication here that Jesus would have even said anything to it. But the demon just exploded upon Jesus and it left me wondering why? Why such a strong unprovoked reaction? I think, it was because the demon was surprised. Not so much that Jesus was there, but because it realized what Jesus was capable of, the authority that Jesus held, and most importantly, it realized that Jesus wouldn’t hesitate to use it, even on the Sabbath!

Remember the Sabbath was a day of rest. Working on the Sabbath was illegal! Wouldn’t that be a nice law today! This is something that Jesus gets in trouble for later and depending on what Gospel you’re reading, it’s what finally leads to his arrest. So not only were those demons surprised because they knew what Jesus was capable of, but they thought they were safe! It was the Sabbath! What were they gonna do? They couldn’t fight them in any way, that’d be working on the Sabbath!

For a demon it was free for all. A Smorgasbord of sin and destruction. A veritable playground for them! And along comes Jesus and says, “Surprise! Sabbath or no Sabbath, you are not going to have your way with my people! Now shut up and get outta here!” And though it was an unpleasant surprise to that demon, it was a welcome surprise to that poor person suffering from that demon. Jesus came to the rescue when no one else would, all because of a misinterpreted law concerning the Sabbath.

But I don’t think that poor demon possessed person really cared that Jesus just broke the law that day, because that person was saved from a life of torment that many of us couldn’t even imagine. And you know, the scariest part in all of this, is not the demon itself, although if you watch as many horror movies as my family does, demons are scary enough by themselves. But the scariest part for me is where they were. They were in their synagogue. They were in their house of worship. They were in church!

Have you ever considered that many of these empty spots in these pews on Sunday, really aren’t empty? If that doesn’t put a shiver down your spine you may want to check your pulse. Now, I don’t want to get into what I believe or don’t believe about demons. That’s best left for Wednesday evening’s bible study which you are all invited to. But whatever you believe about demons this sermon applies just the same.

But let’s get back to surprises. All this got me thinking of the unique opportunity we have been given to surprise the world—to surprise the world with grace and love, when it’s least expected. You see, we no longer live in a world where the Church is thought of as a refuge, as a safe place. And of course when I say Church I mean us, not the building or location. Wherever we go we are the Church. But today, it’s risky to share with people that you’re a Christian, because you have no idea what kind of Christian they are going to assume you are!

Today, the Church throughout the world is too often seen as a place of judgement, a place of exclusion, a place of finger pointing and stone throwing. And it’s the Church’s own fault—after centuries of pointing out people’s sins, excluding certain groups of people, remaining silent when we should have spoke up, protecting our own interests instead of defending others. It’s no wonder so many today look upon the Church with skepticism, suspicion, and distrust. I can’t say I blame them.

Which is why we have this unique opportunity today to show the world that not all churches operate this way anymore, that not all Christians have remained in the dark ages. Today we have this opportunity to surprise the world with love where the Church has traditionally given hate; to surprise the world with welcoming arms where the Church has traditionally closed doors on people; to surprise the world with inclusion where the Church has traditionally excluded; to surprise the world by asking for their forgiveness, instead of demanding their repentance.

Those are just a few examples. What grace-filled ways can you come up with to surprise the world? And in so doing, surprise the demons among us with the unpleasant surprise of living out our baptismal callings wherever we are, whenever we can, however the Spirit moves us, with the authority of Christ by our side. Thanks be to God. Amen.