Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2012
Life can be full of many wonderful things. I’m very grateful for all of the incredible joy and love I’ve known over the years. I have, however, also witnessed some terrible things that have left a deep mark on me.
I was with a friend in a hospital room the last days of his life as he died from cancer. Even more terrible than watching the disease ravage his body was knowing the suffering his death would inflict on those who loved him. There were his children (two in college, one still at home) whose mother had also died tragically 10 years earlier. There was his fiancee who had looked forward to sharing many happy years with him. There were countless close friends who loved him dearly.
I also sat one evening with a mother whose only child lay brain dead on a hospital bed after a car accident. Looking at the mother, I wondered: “How can a human being bear such pain?” Looking at the boy who had been so bright-eyed and full of life the day before, I could not fathom how that beautiful, shining face would never smile again.
I remember coming across a suicide victim as I drove a country road north of Bismarck. I found out he was small town bachelor who had never found peace since returning from Vietnam 20 years earlier.
I’ve witnessed the effects of people turning violently on other people… sometimes the very people they’re supposed to care for. I’ve talked with victims of rape. I’ve witnessed families torn apart by alcohol abuse and domestic violence. I’ve seen the consequences and effects of child abuse.
And of course I’m aware of the human race’s long history of suffering from war, poverty, oppression, famine, plague, genocide, and natural disasters.
I know that there is no way to measure the terrible tragedy and suffering many people in this world must bear. This world can be a terrible place. I know that well.
Today’s Gospel lesson from Mark provides the first real account of Jesus preaching in public. He was in the synagogue in the town of Capernaum. And there… as he first began his preaching… he was suddenly and dramatically confronted by… evil.
As soon as the Word of God speaks, evil comes forth to contend with it. An unclean spirit confronts Jesus in the synagogue, declares that it knows who Jesus is and wants to know what he’s up to. It attempts to challenge the power of God.
It’s not easy to have a conversation about evil? Some people simply reject its existence and don’t want to hear anything about it. Others have such childish ideas about evil that the conversation can’t get beyond a Hollywood fascination with demons and possession.
If we try to talk about evil, sometimes we feel like we can’t say anything about it unless we explain everything… where it comes from… why it exists… how it works, and so on. But no one can do this. The reality of evil is full of mystery and troubling questions that simply cannot be answered.
In the books of the Old Testament, we frequently hear the people of God asking the same questions about evil as we do today. “Why does this happen to us?” “Where are you God?” “Why did you let this happen?” “How do we endure this terrible evil?” In Jesus’ time, it was the same. People frequently looked to Jesus for answers to questions about evil and human suffering. Though he gave these people the gift of healing, his presence and the promise of new life, Jesus didn’t give them answers to their questions about evil.
Another problem we have with understanding evil is that we like to objectify it… identify it in things, people and entities that we don’t like. It is so easy for us to use the label “evil” as a weapon against those we see as our enemies. For example, we have heard some people in our nation proclaim that the religion of Islam is evil, while some Muslims declare the United States to be the great Satan.
When we fall into that tempting trap, we may indeed find ourselves neck deep in evil… but more likely as perpetrators than victims.
It is helpful to look closely at the words and concepts for “evil” in our bible. The most common Hebrew word for evil in the Old Testament is “ra” (רע). Its basic meaning is “dysfunctional” or “worthless” in terms of reaching an intended end. In other words, it is the nature of evil to hinder something from being or becoming what it was meant to be.
That meaning and use is also favored in the New Testament. It’s the meaning that lies behind passages such as our Gospel lesson today when Jesus encounters a person afflicted with an unclean spirit. Whether it is the affliction of an unclean spirit, or a disease, or a crippling condition, or social isolation, or wrongdoing, or death itself… when Jesus encounters these things, he acts to free the one afflicted.
He does so simply because the affliction opposes the will of God. The one afflicted is not able to be or become what God created him/her to be. That is the biblical definition of evil. It is that which opposes God’s will for creation by preventing someone or something from being or becoming what God created it to be.
That’s important to remember because it establishes several important points. First, that God’s will for our lives is that we come to know and enjoy health and wholeness, joy and compassion… peace. Suffering and misery are not God’s will for our lives. As it states in the Jeremiah verse that we give to you students when you leave: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your well-being and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Second, that through that wonderful connection created by God which binds us to him — namely faith — we are meant to grow into the life God wants us to have, and become the child of God he has called us to be.
Jesus speaks of this relationship using the image of the vine and its branches: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:4-5a)
Third, that because health, wholeness, happiness and hope are God’s will for our lives, he will accept no less. He will not tolerate or permit the power of evil to rob us of the life and purpose we were created for. He will not allow anything to stand in the way of his love for us. As the apostle Paul proclaims in his letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
There are so many unanswered questions about evil. Just like there are many unanswered questions one might have about today’s Gospel lesson. For example, why on earth was a man with an unclean spirit hanging around the synagogue? How long had he had this spirit? How did it affect him? What happened to him afterward?
But Mark doesn’t address any of these questions. They weren’t important to him because he knew, ultimately, that they had no value for us. What he does know is important is this: That his readers know that evil cannot stand in the face of Christ. The power in this world that opposes God and would claim and ravage those things that belong to him… that power is silenced and driven away by the presence and word of God.
This same message is repeated by Mark again and again in his Gospel. Mark knows that his readers… that we… live in a world overwhelmed by evil. Terrible things happen. Terrible suffering and pain afflict the lives of God’s people.
Mark knows that we will face dangers a
nd troubles in this world that will cause us to fear and doubt and despair. We need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and know that suffering and tragedy are not God’s will for our lives. These things cannot define our lives… or who we are, because God will not let them. In the face of tragedy, suffering and evil… in the face of death… we are called to remember that God has claimed us forever. Though we may, at times, face dark and evil days, our secure future… as well as our present strength and hope… are the love and light of God.