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.

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