Sunday, February 1, 2015

'even demons have their uses'

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

We might dub our Gospel reading today, in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion, with the title: 'even demons have their uses.' Consider what is going on in the passage: Jesus arrives in the small town of Capernaum on the shore of Lake Galilee. And he goes into the synagogue and starts to teach. And they are astonished, for he teaches as one having authority, and not as the scribes. What the evangelist means by this is that the scribes would point to scripture or tradition and say that this is what God is saying to us through them; but Jesus spoke using his own authority. No doubt you remember that through out the Gospels we hear Jesus teaching using phrases such as 'I say unto you' rather than 'thus says the Lord.' Jesus' teaching was based on his own authority, unlike the scribes who had to take their authority from elsewhere.

Now at this point let us stop and think about the fact that these people have no real idea who Jesus is. Perhaps they know he is from Nazareth; perhaps they know he is a carpenter; they may know he is in some way related to the famous John the Baptist, whom everyone thinks is a prophet, and whom so many people have been going out to see along the banks of the river Jordan. They may even have heard some rumour that this person who has just arrived in their town was himself baptised by John and there is a strange story connected with that incident. Add all this up and you don't have very much: not much more than he is a young carpenter with a well-known cousin; and, of course, they may not know even that.

So it is an open question when St Mark tells that they were astonished at his teaching, because he taught as one having authority, whether they approved or were shocked at first; did they think 'yes, of course it is fine for this young carpenter whom we hardly know to try and teach us on the basis of his own authority;' or did they instead say amongst themselves 'who does this fellow think he is? We have never heard of such a thing, a teacher taking it upon himself to try and teach us new things and say we should accept it for no other reason than he says so.'

Now, let us ask the question as to how we may recognise whether or not a person has authority or not. Often it can be quite easy. If we go to a hospital and meet someone in a white coat with a stethoscope around their neck, we would usually be quite happy to accept that that person is a doctor and entitled to act with the authority of that role within the hospital because they are wearing what we might call the uniform of that particular office. If they are not wearing the uniform, we might expect them to have a badge or a name-tag or some other form of identification. 

But what if you are involved in an accident and someone comes running up saying don't worry, I'm a doctor? No white coat, no name badge or anything like it. If you are a trusting soul, you might take them at their word. But you might be happier if someone nearby said – don't worry, I know this man; you're in good hands. And if that didn't happen, you might at least study his initial actions carefully, looking for signs and clues from them that he was who he said he was. If he seems to know what he is doing, you will trust him; but if he clearly has no idea about the first thing to do to treat an injured person you would likely tell him to get away from you, and quickly before he does more harm than good!

And this is where the demon comes in in our Gospel reading; for he is the witness who is capable of identifying whom Jesus is; for a demon, who is, of course, a fallen angel, is well qualified to know when he is standing in the presence of God's Messiah. And note the real terror of the demon – he asks Jesus if he has come 'to destroy us?' He is testifying not only to whom Jesus is, but also to his power and authority. And Jesus responds with the words 'be silent; come out of him.' And throwing the possessed man into convulsions, with a loud cry the demon is cast out. And so by the terrified witness of the demonic spirit and the testimony of his own actions of power Jesus has demonstrated his authority to teach as he does, on his own authority. And the people in the synagogue go from being astonished to being amazed and they ask each other  ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’

Now, as we read in Romans 13, all legitimate authority in this world comes from God and we are to obey it. If we do not, we are rebels and criminals and will be justly punished. And if God expects us to obey the legitimate temporal powers of this world, how much so should we obey the authority of his only Son and commit ourselves to following his teaching? And not just the bits we like, but all of it, no matter how difficult we may find it. For much of Christ's teaching is hard. But what of that? For as we read in St Matthew, wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction. The easy path offers a comfortable journey and beautiful views along the way. But the problem is that it does not lead us where we wish to go – which is, or should be for all here, to be with Christ in heaven for all eternity. 

To get there we must enter by the narrow gate, we must walk the hard road, we must deny ourselves, we must fight against all the temptations of the world, we must take up our cross and follow him. In other words we must heed all the teachings of our Lord, that which we find tough as well as that which we find pleasing and congenial to our natures. And that is a difficult calling. But the one who had authority over even the evil and demonic spirits and powers does not leave us alone to this task. He has promised us he is with us always, even until the end of time. He did not spare himself torture and death that we might be saved; and even now he strengthens us with the food of his own sacred body and his own holy blood, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament, that we might be filled again and again with his Grace. And he forgives the sins of all those who confess their sins and repent of them.

The demon in our reading today trembled in the presence of Christ, knowing he was going to be cast out and returned to the place from whence he came. So too will Christ cast out all that stands between you and your heavenly destiny; all you must do is submit yourself, willingly and joyfully, to his authority, to the teaching he gave us, in all things. I end with the prayer that all here will. Amen

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