Text: Mark 1:23-28
Date: Epiphany IV + 2/1/15
Conversion from sinner to saint, enlightenment from unbeliever to believer happens in different ways to different individuals; different yet the same. No one has the ability to come to faith in God on your own. God must first come to us. And He has. When He sent His Son into our flesh, being born of a woman, the ancient doors of heaven, previously barred because of our sin and death, were flung open. In Jesus of Nazareth the heavens are opened to all. Christmas was such a joyful event that even the world gets into the act to a certain extent. We’ve seen those doors dramatically ripped open at our Lord’s baptism, the Spirit resting on Him and the voice of the Father from above. Today we see the awesome power of the open door of heaven as Jesus casts out an unclean spirit from a man; a pretty dramatic event if you stop to ponder each detail. St. Mark tells us how the people at first “were astonished” at Jesus’ teaching. Now he says “they were all amazed,” asking, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Conversion begins with the Word and action of God. When it does it brings a new beginning.
Martin Luther had such an experience. He was studying the passage Romans 1:17 – “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Luther writes, “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.” Call it conversion or more accurately maybe “enlightenment” or “awakening” for one already baptized, faith seems as something new or renewed when the Word and power of God speak and display themselves in a way that causes us not only to take notice but even to change.
The people in the synagogue were astonished and amazed asking, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” Yet there really was Nothing New. The Word of God and His power has always been there. What changed was not God’s Word and teaching, power and authority. What changed was the people’s perception and experience by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Word in their hearts.
This, it seems to me, is what is behind the scene as when so many young people disappear from the church after confirmation, or as when pastors or congregations, troubled by the sparsely occupied pews, ask “what are we doing wrong?” and then try to create a conversion/renewal experience by all sorts of methods and devices and tricks promoted by so-called church growth gurus. How does a hymn, for instance, change from being considered only an old, boring, out-of-fashion archaic remnant of a previous age to suddenly be a beloved source for the expression of deep, personal Christian joy, faith and hope? The hymn doesn’t change. Something else does.
God’s Word doesn’t change. The liturgy doesn’t change (much). Christian hymns do not change. What’s changed? It is always and only the awakening of a person’s heart by the enlightenment and new birth of faith by the Holy Spirit through that same Word and sacramental action of God.
Now, the first chapter of Mark’s gospel gives the impression that Jesus’ appearance and work had all the marks of success as His fame and popularity grew, briefly. But now remember, these same astonished and amazed people would soon hear some criticism of Jesus by their own teachers. Their hopes would eventually be raised to the thrilling point as they would see Him enter Jerusalem like a king and shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And that was great. Yet in a few days, a very few days, their smiles and cheers and palm waving hands would be transformed into the gritting teeth, the clenched fists and the shriek of hate, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” Even His closest disciples would abandon Him. Then He died, and they buried Him and the twelve would hide behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.”
What could change them, save them from their depression, their sense of failure, their fear? What can change us? Maybe we could set up a small memorial of Jesus in the outer courts of the temple and develop a new politically correct liturgy that wouldn’t offend the Jews but would maybe even draw some of them. Maybe we could find more peppy, happy chant tones or settings of the psalms, but only certain psalms you know, the ones that speak of wisdom, peace, still waters and overflowing cups, and not the ones that tell of suffering servants, dry tongues, ashes and the certainty of death.
But seriously, what could change them? What could save them? What can change us? God had and has a better idea: resurrection! Jesus was raised from the dead in body and soul. “What is this? A new teaching?” No, nothing new even here. Think about it. Abraham of old when commanded by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac told his servants when they started up the mountain “we,” he said, “I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you,” “we’ll be back!” (Gen 22:5). Abraham believed in resurrection, he “considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb 11:19).
No, Nothing New here. Job of old sang resurrection faith when he confessed, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27). No, nothing new here. Jesus promised already, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40). Resurrection. It’s always been promised. It’s always been believed. It’s an old teaching to which we look forward for ourselves.
Now I suppose we could spiritualize the idea of resurrection and assume some sort of ethereal, cloudy almost comic book existence. But look! Resurrection! Jesus! “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:27-28). That’s the first time he ever said that! And not the last time, either. It is Jesus’ real, powerful resurrection from the dead that changes everything, as St. Paul says, He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). It is the gospel that has the power to convert, to enlighten, to wake us up out of our sleep of death to newness of life by faith, and that changes everything in ways we could never imagine nor predict.
O Lord God, heavenly Father, You gave Your only Son to die for our sins and to rise again for our justification. By Your Holy Spirit grant us newness of life that through the power of Christ’s resurrection we may dwell with Him forever; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.