Revd Dr Ray Williamson
8th February 2009 Epiphany 5
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
This first chapter of what we know to be the second part of the book of Isaiah — containing the words of an unknown, yet arguably the most profoundly perceptive, prophet, usually named II Isaiah (Isaiah of the Exile) — is a wonderful chapter. We know it well from the Advent season, for its opening words: "Comfort, comfort my people…".
His prophetic ministry was at a time of a deep sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Many Hebrew people were enduring what was to be 70 years of exile in a foreign land. In that land, and within surrounding nations, it was a time of belief in many gods: indeed, each nation was believed to have its own god, if not several. In such a religious context, this prophet never tires of ridiculing the pseudo-deities of other nations, who posed a severe temptation for many of the Hebrews, who felt that their God had been defeated by these gods in the collapse of their own nation — and so were attracted to them: they went after these foreign forces / spirits — perhaps out of fear, thinking there was no other way.
So, the prophetic ministry of II Isaiah represented a breathtaking expression of faith in the face of feelings of helplessness and the absence of hope that arose out of fear for the future that drove many to embrace the values of alien spirits that distorted who they were meant to be(v.28).
This passage from the book of Isaiah always reminds me of preparing for the WCC Assembly in 1991. A colleague and I ran numerous workshops in many places in Sydney, Canberra and around NSW to help people prepare for that unique experience of the world church. To help people get an idea of what an Assembly would be like, we showed a video of the previous Assembly (Vancouver, 1983). I don't know how many times it! But every time the reading of that passage caught my attention. It was read by a man, with great conviction, in a clear and strong voice. And as he reached the end —but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint— the camera pulled back, and you could see he was in a wheelchair. It was a powerful image of promise and hope — of faith!
It symbolised, too, how the church — especially when inspired and strengthened through Christians coming together from all kinds of traditions and backgrounds and experiences of faith — has been a trail-blazer in affirming and supporting people who suffer and, for one reason or another, are forced to live more at the margins. Most of the time, that is one of the rich and extraordinary things about the ecumenical family of the Church. It certainly can be a powerful instrument of promise and hope.
An unmistakeable example of that occurred at another Assembly of the WCC. Throughout my many ecumenical years, I got to two Assemblies — the second was in Harare in 1998. That Assembly was the occasion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the formation of the WCC that occurred in Amsterdam in 1948), and an unforgettable time was to have the then President of South Africa join us for that celebration. He changed his diary to be there. He wanted to be there, he said, in order to thank the churches for their solidarity through all the years of the struggle against apartheid. Then Nelson Mandela added, "Without the churches I would not be here today". It was a wonderful affirmation of the church — inspired by its faith, and empowered by the Spirit working through Christians being together — as a powerful instrument of promise and hope.
From the gospel this morning we can get a clue about what it means to be such an instrument.
Listen to something from the Eastern Orthodox Churches about what is happening when we are sent out from the Eucharist:
The dismissal at the end of the liturgy sends the whole community into the world, in mission. The kingdom is proclaimed and its power demonstrated through both 'the exorcism of demons' and 'the healing of the sick'. This is no retreat into mythology. The exorcism of demons is 'the struggle against idols, racism, money, chauvinism, ideologies, the robotisation and exploitation of men and women', and the healing of the sick is not only the healing of individuals, but also sick societies. It includes service to the sick and prisoners, solidarity with the oppressed, and being 'the voice of the voiceless', encouraging respect for each human being and for the whole creation.
According to Mark's gospel, Jesus did a number of things after he was baptised. He travelled around the cities and towns of Galilee, preaching the reign of God was at hand and calling people to prepare. He also healed many who were sick, beginning with Peter's mother-in-law, who was ill with a fever when Jesus came to visit her. But what Mark seems to be very keen to tell us about Jesus is that he was an exorcist, a man who casts out "unclean spirits" or "demons". In this morning's passage, all the city of Capernaum came to the house where Jesus was staying, bringing their sick and their demon-possessed. There we are told hecast out many demons, commanding them not to speak because they knew him.Towards the close of the passage, as Jesus prepares to travel around Galilee for the first time, Mark has Jesus say that he is off to preach and to exorcise. This, then, is Mark's summary of Jesus' mission: to preach and to cast out demons.
Now I am not sure what you imagine these unclean spirits or demons to be, but I hazard a guess you find it puzzling. What we have to remember is that people in the ancient world generally, and the biblical world in particular, spoke of demonic possession when they felt themselves held captive from within by forces and compulsions over which they had no control — forces that robbed them of freedom of choice, stunted their human growth, and alienated them from God, from life in community, and from their own individual humanity. This sense that the world, including Israel, had fallen under demonic control is pervasive in the world-view presupposed in Mark's gospel.
Mark says a number of things about how that demonic control can show itself. The first thing he says is that demons are bad for people, and they are very common. Common as sickness! They are oppressive spirits, which, like sickness, make the people's lives miserable. It is not the same as sickness, but it is like being sick. It can happen to anyone. It's not something you necessarily choose for yourself. But their effects are awful, painful, miserable.
The second thing Mark says about demons is that they are multi-voiced. To understand this, we have to remember that Jesus' ministry took place in a police-state. No one could walk very far without running into a Roman soldier, who belonged to a massive force of men who had occupied the country and ruled with absolute power. The people suffered terribly under this yoke. Their lands, their homes, even their bodies and minds, had been colonised and possessed by foreign forces.
We have to remember, also, that he was most likely writing his gospel during or just after the Roman seige of Jerusalem in 70. For Mark, the demons symbolise the devastating effects of the Roman colonisation: poverty, disease, mental illness, despair, distrust, lies, envy, greed, murder, war. The kinds of demons one can still see today in our world.
It is salutary to ask ourselves in what ways the demonic forces of our own culture and time have colonised our lives and our churches — all the various 'captivities' (personal, social and economic) under which people of our time labour and which we seem powerless to control or escape: the multitude of forms of addiction that burden us as individuals and as societies — huge, trans-personal forces that control us and make us their slaves. The globalised economy seems an obvious example at the moment. How have these things whittled their way into our lives and made us afraid? How have we taken on board the values of these demons, acceding to their demands because we feel there is no other way?
If the demons of our time have colonised our hearts and minds, then Mark has a message for us — for us individually, as a church, and, through us, for the society. His message is that this is not the only way. There is another way, another possibility. For what Mark also says about the demons is that they know Jesus, they fear him, and they obey him. Mark invites us to relate the liberating activity of Jesus to all the various captivities of our lives. He affirms for us that Jesus has the authority to drive the demons away. In the end, they are mere shadows which recede when the light of Christ's truth is brought near.
The Lenten season, now just a couple of weeks away, is an invitation and an opportunity. In Lent, we hear again the call of God to take our baptismal promises seriously — to turn from evil, to cast aside the colonising influences of our culture and times, and to turn instead to Christ, to his way.
That is how we renew ourselves as persons and as community, as church for service, to minister to one another, and for mission in the society — that we might be an instrument of promise and hope. It is Christ who drives away all that holds us captive. His truth sets us free.Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.