Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
Whether it’s football or theater, movies or music, art or nature, we all enjoy a little magic now and then. Whatever your preference, things that make the world feel more alive and engaging are part of what makes life so enjoyable. You can choose your diversion and the extent of your participation, and if you find one doesn’t do it for you anymore, you can choose another, no harm, no foul. Magic, for lack of a better word, does have a place in our lives, but it can never take the place of God. Yet in every age, the temptation to replace God with things we can control appears, albeit in different forms. The danger, though, is the same. For one thing, only God can offer true forgiveness and salvation, and God is the one ultimate source of light, life, peace, joy, and love. For another, you don’t need to turn to fantasy fiction to see examples people who thought they could control magic becoming controlled by it, sometimes being suddenly overwhelmed and, sometimes, even scarier, being corrupted so slowly that the change in the balance of power is evident only after it’s too late.
Today’s Gospel highlights the difference between divine prerogative and human manipulation in two fundamental ways. The first is in teaching. In Jesus’s day, it was normal for any educated person to be invited to teach in the synagogue, and common for those teachings to be based wholly or in part upon earlier teachings. That wasn’t such a bad thing, since it diminished the chance of one person veering off course with an appealing, but false, teaching, and allowed new ideas to grow organically, developing in harmony with established ones and being tested by a thoughtful community. But the trouble came when the teachers of those ideas sought more and more prestige and power, implicitly equating their inherited body of teaching and tradition with divine revelation. When the real thing appeared in their midst, how do you think the established teachers reacted? The word Mark uses to describe what set Jesus apart from the other teachers, which is translated for us here as “authority,” is the same Greek word that the Creed uses to describe the essence of God, and there it is translated as “being.” So the same being that inspired the writers of scripture and who commanded the existence of all things was speaking in the midst of the people of God.
The second distinction Mark shows us between divine and human activity is in Jesus’s response to the possessed man who interrupts the service. Mark’s original readers would have been familiar with healers who used elaborate rituals of their own invention or folkloric imagination in an attempt to drive out evil spirits. Again, Jesus shows the difference between “magic” devised by human beings and the power of God. All he has to do is give the command, for again he speaks in the same voice that spoke to create the universe and commanded the rebellious angels to be cast out of heaven. And so with a word, evil is put to flight, and the goodness and order of creation are restored. Again, those who witnessed the ministry of Jesus understood who he was, saw that he was set apart from the world even as he was part of it. By his words and his deeds, Jesus revealed his true nature, authority giving grace to the world.
At first we might wonder why anyone would choose the old human rituals when the ways of God are so clearly superior. But we know only too well. The ways of the world are more familiar and they are on our level, our scale, subject to our control, at least in part, and in theory. They can be incredibly alluring and may promise all manner of things to us. Even the most committed, mature Christians can feel the pull of earthly magic from time to time, tempting us to call upon made or made-up things to take the place of God. All of us therefore need the regular experience of grounding, formation, inspiration, and encouragement that the Church provides, in order that we might not be deceived, and perceive the right relationship between Creator and creation. We worship God together not because it will get God to do things for us; God works quite differently. God blesses us abundantly out of pure love for us, and we respond with worship because our hearts are glad, and open, and grateful, and because we know that God, and God alone, is worthy of our worship. Your relationship with God is your birthright, so accept nothing less than the fullness of God, word and wisdom, life and light. This relationship will give you more and greater things than all the magic of the world, which vanishes like a puff of smoke.