An Easter Sermon for (Not So) Ordinary Time

Sermon delivered on Trinity 2B, Sunday, June 10, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: 1 Samuel 8.4-20, 11.14-15; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.5; Mark 3.20-35.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

We recently entered “ordinary time,” the period after Trinity Sunday that runs through All-Saints’ Sunday and celebrates the ministry and mystery of Christ, God become human. During this liturgical season it is unusual for preachers to focus on resurrection because that topic is usually reserved for Eastertide. But you’re going to get an Easter sermon today because, well, I’m kinda unusual (I know, I know; you already knew that), because today’s Lectionary texts allow it, and because we live in a sin-sick world and need to be reminded on a regular basis about who God is and why we as Christians have a hope that is uniquely ours.

We would have to be utterly blind not to see that there is something wrong with God’s breathtakingly beautiful world. From natural disasters to personal illness to frustrated hopes and dreams to sudden catastrophes to living with the consequences of our sin to broken and dysfunctional relationships, we don’t have to be told that all is not right with God’s world or our lives. As we saw last week, in ancient Israel’s life as well as our own, everyone increasingly did what seemed right in their own eyes, which did nothing but bring about increasing lawlessness, anxiety, and disorder to their society and ours. When the creatures decide to tell their Creator they know better than the Creator, chaos, one of the primary signs of Sin and Evil, will surely follow.

Each of our lessons this morning speaks to this reality as well. In our OT lesson, e.g., God tells old Samuel that in demanding a king like the other nations, God’s people Israel were rejecting God, not Samuel’s leadership. And God commanded Samuel to tell the people that if they got a king, injustice and all kinds of other evil would ensue. The psalmist speaks about God rescuing him as he walks in the midst of trouble, especially from the fury of his enemies. And if we read the overarching story of Scripture carefully, we will see that our sin and rebellion against God not only results in our death, it also allows the powers of Evil to operate more freely in God’s world to corrupt and destroy it. As St. Paul tells us in Ephesians, our enemies are not flesh and blood, i.e., other humans, but the powers and principalities, i.e., the unseen forces of Evil, arrayed against us (6.12). To be sure, we usually deal with the human agents who cooperate with the dark powers, wittingly or otherwise. But our real enemy is the unseen forces of Evil that often control and/or manipulate sinful human behavior. As St. John writes, “…when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning (1 John 3.8a).

If we understand this dynamic and acknowledge the real presence of Evil in God’s good world, enigmatic and mysterious as that can seem, we are ready to examine what is really going on in our gospel lesson. This in turn will help us appreciate what Scripture is trying to tell us, that God is not an absentee landlord who cares nothing about his tenants and who turns a blind eye to our cries. To the contrary, our acknowledgement of the real presence of Evil in God’s world and our lives makes us want to cry out to the Lord in the manner of the psalmists: 

I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me! / When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. / All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted. / I think of God, and I moan,  overwhelmed with longing for his help. / Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be kind to me? / Is his unfailing love gone forever? Have his promises permanently failed? / Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he slammed the door on his compassion? (Psalm 77.1-3, 7-9)

Our gospel lesson testifies to the fact that God has both heard our prayers for deliverance from Evil and has acted decisively to defeat Evil be sending Jesus his Son to rescue us. That’s what this story is about and we need to have eyes and ears and minds of faith so that we don’t miss it. St. Mark never tells us explicitly that Jesus was performing an exorcism in the house but surely that was the case. We conclude this based on the exchange between Jesus and the religious authorities who had come down from Jerusalem to check him out. If Jesus wasn’t exorcising demons from an afflicted person, their criticisms of him make no sense at all, nor does Jesus’ response to their criticisms. Placing this story on the heels of previous exorcisms and healings, which in turn came after the story of Jesus’ victory over Satan during our Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness (Mark 1.9-14, 21-32), St. Mark surely wants us to see that in these exorcisms, Jesus is extending his initial victory won over Satan in the wilderness, i.e., Jesus has bound the strong man, Satan, and has begun to plunder Satan’s house. Jesus, God’s Son and Messiah, is the stronger man and through him and his work, God is going about defeating the powers and presence of Evil. St. John tells us the same thing in his first epistle, except much more boldly. He states that, “The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3.8b). Of course, St. John makes this claim immediately after writing that those who still sin belong to the devil as we saw earlier. From this we can reasonably conclude that release from Sin’s power over us through the Son of God, and only the Son of God is part of defeating Evil. But how?

The cross, of course. In addition to the exorcisms and healings our Lord performed during his earthly ministry, signs that he truly is God’s Son and Messiah, the NT writers are adamant that on the cross God defeated the powers and principalities, but in a most surprising way. God didn’t send in the tanks. God sent his only Son to take on himself the full brunt of Evil and bear the punishment for our Sins, thus further breaking the power of Evil. We therefore have nothing to fear in this world or the next because we believe that in the blood of the Lamb shed to cleanse us from our sins, we are reconciled to God, our only Source of life, and freed from the power of Evil and Sin. And when we are freed from the power of Evil and Sin we are therefore freed from the power of Death because as St. Paul writes elsewhere, the wages of Sin is Death (Romans 6.23). By dying for us in a shameful and godforsaken manner, the Son of God freed us from the dark powers who hate us and want to destroy us (Romans 8.2). Even more remarkable is the fact that God did all this for us while we were still his enemies (Romans 5.6-9).

All this is the Good News of Jesus Christ and is part of the Easter proclamation. But before we look at the heart of the Easter proclamation contained in our epistle lesson, let us stop and consider what this all means for us. First, a word about the unforgivable sin about which Jesus talks in our gospel lesson. I know it has caused a lot of anxiety in faithful Christians. Have we committed the unforgivable sin? The short answer is no, unless you attribute the mighty acts of healing and power performed by Jesus, exorcisms included, to Satan himself. Knowing most of you as I do, I think you all can breathe a sigh of relief and let go of this particular anxiety, because that was the context in which Jesus spoke about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. 

Second, Jesus’ claim to have bound the strong man (Satan) so that Satan’s kingdom could be plundered, i.e., that he was reclaiming God’s good world from the forces of Evil, is also meant to alert us to the reality that the world is full of spiritual dangers. “Go out there with your eyes open,” we hear him say. “Expect to be tempted. Realize that when bad things happen, evil powers may well have a hand in them. Don’t naively suppose that life ought to be like a leisurely afternoon at the beach and then blink in surprise when some sort of evil explodes into the middle of your existence.” Jesus announces that we live in a world held hostage by formidable evil powers, powers always on the prowl, but Jesus has the power to defeat them. He hasn’t defeated them completely, of course. In fact, I was reminded of this reality in a terrible way while writing this sermon. It is precisely at this point I received the news of Dawn Dunlap’s death yesterday. Now I am not suggesting the powers of Evil were behind her death, only that we live in a world where bad things can and do happen, even to good people. So while the evil powers have been defeated, they have not been fully vanquished. That won’t happen until the Lord returns to consummate his work won in his death and resurrection. This can be a challenge to our faith and it is here we must return to the psalmist who has cried out in desperation and anger, asking God where God is and why God allows evil to exist. The psalmist, of course, doesn’t receive an answer to his why questions. Instead he engages in holy remembrance. He remembers who God is and God’s mighty works on behalf of God’s people. Listen to him now:

I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” / But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. / O God, your ways are holy. Is there any god as mighty as you? / You are the God of great wonders! You demonstrate your awesome power among the nations. / By your strong arm, you redeemed your people. (Ps 77.10-11, 13-15a)

God’s people Israel were to remember God’s rescue of them from their slavery in Egypt. For Christians, our go-to remembrance is Jesus’ death and resurrection for the reasons we have just talked about along with the mighty acts of power like Jesus’ exorcisms and healings. 

Third, the presence and power of Evil in God’s world, combined with our utter helplessness to free ourselves from our slavery to Sin and Death remind us we are dealing with powerful, alien forces who hate us and want to destroy us. If we are to be conquerors, therefore, we must rely on help from an outside power who loves us and wants to heal us, especially from the ultimate evil of Death. The NT teaches us, and we believe, that that help comes from God the Father himself who sent his only Son to die for us and free us from our slavery to Evil and Sin, and who broke the power of Death by raising Jesus from the dead that first Easter morning. As St. Paul tells us in our epistle lesson and elsewhere (cp. especially Romans 6.3-11), we are united to Christ in a death like his so that we can also be united to Christ in a resurrection like his. In other words, we share Christ’s reality, both in this world and the next. We did nothing to deserve it, but God offered Christ to us anyway because of God’s great love for us. Do we have the good sense to accept this most precious gift in the world? I pray we do, my beloved.

I can hear some of you saying right now, “I just can’t imagine any of that: God’s love for me, the strange way God defeated Evil, and the resurrection of the dead.” Well of course you can’t. None of us can, not even those of us who actually believe the gospel. We can’t imagine it precisely because this is about the God who raises the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist (Romans 4.17), not us. Last time I checked, none of us can do either of those things; so yes, it is unimaginable in that regard. But it’s true, despite our inability to imagine the power and mercy and love and grace of God behind it. When by God’s grace we do believe the Good News of Jesus Christ and learn to have a realistic view of Evil in the world, we are given the power to overcome that Evil and to persevere when it afflicts us as it inevitably will. 

This is what St. Paul was talking about in our epistle lesson. He had been defending his ministry to the Corinthians because it looked so weird to them. He talked about power in suffering for Jesus. He talked about dying to self and living for Christ, proclaiming nothing but his cross. St. Paul wasn’t a handsome, sexy leader. To the contrary he had suffered terribly for his Lord. And because some in the Corinthian church couldn’t imagine this is how God has chosen to rescue us from Evil, they questioned St. Paul’s legitimacy as an bona fide apostle of Christ.

In response, St. Paul tells them (and us) that he doesn’t lose hope or heart despite his immense suffering on behalf of Christ. In fact, he tells us that when we are faithful to Jesus we can expect to suffer too, and sometimes mightily! That is when we must stop and remember what God has done for us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. He’s rescued us from the enemy and our slavery to the evil powers so that even if we are killed, we have nothing to fear. Paul is not telling us he never had anxiety or fear. Read what he says in 2 Corinthians 1.8-11 about being crushed and overwhelmed in Asia beyond his ability to endure, even to the point where he expected to die. So St. Paul is not offering us some magic elixir full of happy juice that will suddenly make our troubles and sufferings disappear. No, St. Paul is offering us something much better: union with the crucified and risen Lord who has conquered the dark powers and all that can truly harm us, and claimed us as his own. That, proclaims St. Paul, not to mention countless Christians after him, is enough to help us persevere when we are afflicted by Evil because we know our eternal future is secure even if the fleeting present is still chaotic.

And what is that future? Resurrection! New bodily life patterned after our crucified and risen Savior. When St. Paul speaks of things seen versus unseen, he is not talking about the physical world versus the spiritual world (heaven), denigrating the former and exalting the latter. He is talking about the present world in contrast to the future world, the new heavens and earth, with its new type of physicality that will include us with our resurrection bodies that will be impervious to sickness, suffering, sorrow, or death. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated decisively that death had been defeated. It was the turning point in history! And Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of our own resurrection because as we have seen, as Christians we are united with Christ in a resurrection like his. We have this promise, despite our ongoing sin and wickedness and rebellion against God because we are united to Jesus in a death like his, where he broke Sin’s power over us and spared us from God’s justice being imposed on us, thanks be to God! Amen? If this future hope is not enough to sustain you in times of darkness and suffering, my beloved, I don’t know what can. Let us therefore ask the Holy Spirit, whom God gives us to strengthen and guide us, to give us the faith to believe the unbelievable (in human terms) and to imagine the unimaginable (again in human terms). Let us love and forgive and encourage each other as we proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and enthroned as Lord over the entire creation, to a world that desperately needs to hear it. And let our proclamation sustain us in our own sufferings because we know we are proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, which means we are proclaiming the defeat of all that is evil, especially Death, now and for all eternity. That proclamation, my beloved, will preach during Eastertide and any other season as well. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.