Sunday, February 8, 2015
“What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” the man with the unclean spirit asks Jesus. At first read, this gospel seems to be very disconnected to our reality today. Of all the titles we might resonate with – Jesus the Healer, Jesus our Savior, Jesus our Friend, “Jesus the Exorcist” is not one that immediately comes to mind as a comforting or relevant image for me, anyway. In our post-Enlightenment American society, it is hard to believe in miracles at all, much less this story of Jesus casting out evil spirits. This passage could be lifted up as an example of how Jesus is no longer relevant for us today. Sometimes as Christians we get caught painting a picture of Jesus as someone who lived in the past – a guy who wears long robes, walks around with a kind of glow in first-century Palestine, who did some cool stuff 2000 years ago that was meaningful for people at the time who actually believed in things like unclean spirits and miracle healings. But when we only tell the story of what Jesus did in the past, it can be hard for others to see how Jesus might be relevant for us today. Our society is asking the SAME question that the man with the unclean spirit asks Jesus in the gospel this morning: “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” And the first reaction from most people might be “not much.”
What does Jesus have to with us when most people would much rather gather together to watch the annual Super Bowl, including commercials that cost millions of dollars to produce, than go to church? What does Jesus the Exorcist have to do with us when I have a list of responsibilities from getting the laundry and grocery shopping done in addition to all the demands I’m facing at work and bills that are yet to be paid? What does Jesus have to do with us when Sunday morning is the only chance we have to take a break from the rest of the hectic week? Sometimes the powerful stories of Jesus in scripture get lost in the past, as something that happened way back when. We forget to tell stories about how Jesus is still active and present, living among us and making a difference in our daily lives. Mark describes the power of who Jesus was for his time and his place, but if we read deeper and sit with this gospel passage longer, we can start to see how this story isn’t just for the people of Mark’s day. Jesus STILL has everything to do with us – everything, each and every single day, is impacted by who Jesus is for us.
I’m struck first of all that Jesus is back in Galilee, close to the town where he grew up, and that makes people skeptical. People who have known this Jesus guy since he was a little kid are now hearing about his miraculous powers. “Wait – Jesus of Nazareth – Joseph’s kid?” they might have been asking each other. “What’s he have to do with us? Isn’t he just a carpenter?” As most of you know, I moved back to my hometown this August, after having NOT lived in Omaha for 12 years. As I come back home myself, I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like for Jesus to come back to his old stomping grounds. Omaha has changed so much during the time I was away, and most of my high school friends don’t live in Nebraska anymore, so in many ways, it’s been a fresh start. But I’ve also encountered some people from my past life in a few remarkable ways.
For example, right before Christmas, I was having coffee with another pastor and recognized a guy who had been in my confirmation class at the same coffee shop. We chatted for awhile about our jobs, our families, where life had taken us, and then, he introduced me to the guy he was having coffee with – his pastor. I about fell over, because this guy was one of those confirmation students that you never want to have as a pastor yourself. Like many kids that age, he was NOT interested in religion one bit – he was out of there as fast as he could after confirmation and made all the trouble he could while in confirmation class. I NEVER would have thought the next time I’d see that guy would be in a coffee shop with his pastor. Jesus made more of a difference in his life than I ever would have predicted.
Then, right after Christmas, I got a call from a friend from college, whom I also hadn’t heard from in a long time. He’s going through a nasty divorce, and he said, “I know you’re a pastor, and I was hoping you could pray for me and my family.” Again, I about dropped the phone, as this friend was a committed atheist that I’d argue with all of the time about why Jesus was important for me. I’m not saying he’s a regular church attender or even at the point of calling himself a Christian, but it’s evident that in the midst of things that are way beyond his control, he’s starting to see how Jesus might have something to do with him.
As people of faith, we talk a lot about planting seeds. We share our faith, and we often have no idea where that will go or what God will do with those seeds. Often we never get to see those seeds grow to fruition. Mark’s gospel story for us today is not just about a miraculous exorcism – it’s a story about how Jesus has the power to change lives. Jesus can change the lives of people who we might be tempted to think were lost forever – too stubborn, analytical, or skeptical to believe, too put-together to need to rely on someone or something else. It’s easy to organize our lives around sports, entertainment and to-do lists when everything seems to be under control. But when LIFE happens – an illness, a divorce, a death, a family conflict, whatever it might be – we start to see how we’re not as in control as we’d like to be. We start to see how life isn’t going as well as we’d like it. And it is there that we can see Jesus entering in – into the mundane household chores, into the decisions we make about how we spend our time and money, into the ways we begin to pray or find conversation with others we trust about who this Jesus is and why he might still matter.
This Jesus of Nazareth is not just the carpenter’s son who lived 2000+ years ago. This Jesus is also the Son of God, who has power over things we can’t control, who enters into our lives when we need him the most to walk with us during those tough times, to bear our burdens, even to strengthen us against the evil forces that try to separate us from God and from one another in unhealthy ways. What has Jesus to do with us? I would say, well, everything! If there’s one thing I’ve learned through sharing my faith with others is that we should never underestimate Jesus. He’s got more power than we realize or give him credit for — Power to change lives, even ours, for the better.
The challenge for us is, how do we share who Jesus is for us in a way that IS relevant for us, that helps others to see how Jesus STILL has everything to do with us? Notice that in the gospel the man with the unclean spirits recognizes Jesus’ power, when others doubt it. This man knows who Jesus is and what he’s able to do. And when others see how this man is changed by Jesus’ power, they begin to share with everyone in the whole region of Galilee, in their own neighborhoods, about who Jesus really is. What’s your story? How has Jesus made a difference in your life, or a difference in the life of someone you know? I think that’s a great place to start – by sharing your stories. This Jesus isn’t just a famous figure from history, but a living reality, the Holy One of God, who has everything to do with us. Amen.