Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 28 2018
Deuteronomy 18.15-22; Psalm 111.1-10; 1 Corinthians 8.1-6; Mark 1.21-28
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Those of us who have come to Jerusalem from elsewhere, and even those who were born here, may find food for thought in this exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat, taken from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Which brings us to the man with an unclean spirit.
On the Working Preacher website, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge notes our cultural distance from today’s Gospel. “To attribute symptoms of shouting and convulsing with possession by an unclean spirit,” she writes, “is not consonant with our understanding of the causes of mental or physical illness. Exorcism may appear alien.”
It’s true that nowadays we speak less often of people possessed by demons. But look around us or within ourselves, and we may conclude we should speak of them more.
Obvious demons are the lust for wealth, or lust for power, or just plain old-fashioned lust. Less obvious but much more dangerous are the many ideologies, nationalist or religious or both, that distort our thinking and our living.
On Monday, US vice-president Mike Pence preached a Christian sermon in the Knesset. I read it only on Tuesday, when I was in Gaza with the Moderator’s group visiting from Scotland; I admit this may have coloured my reading.
The people of the United States, said Pence, “have always held a special affection and admiration for the People of the Book. In the story of the Jews, we’ve always seen the story of America. It is the story of an exodus, a journey from persecution to freedom, a story that shows the power of faith and the promise of hope.”
“My country’s very first settlers,” he said, “also saw themselves as pilgrims, sent by Providence, to build a new Promised Land. The songs and stories of the people of Israel were their anthems, and they faithfully taught them to their children, and do to this day… And down through the generations, the American people became fierce advocates of the Jewish people’s aspiration to return to the land of your forefathers to claim your own new birth of freedom in your beloved homeland.”
This sounds very nice; but, as we shall see, it is bad in so many ways.
For one thing, it’s in serious need of a reality check.
Here is Gideon Levy, with a little help from Meretz MK Mossi Raz, describing how in Israel/Palestine we began the year:
“The first two weeks of 2018 were relatively quiet. Israel killed only four Palestinians, three of them children or teens: one settler was killed; the air force bombed Gaza four times, fired 13 times and strafed fields another four times; four rockets landed in Israeli territory; 115 trees were vandalized by settlers; demolition orders were issued for 13 Palestinian houses; and Israel arrested 261 Palestinians – an average of 19 people every night…”
And if we were to turn to listing all that is wrong with the United States under Trump and Pence, we’d be here till next week.
Standing in a Scottish pulpit in Jerusalem, to be sure, I should be wary of throwing stones. Long before America saw itself as God’s chosen people, first England and then Britain did. And the Christian Zionism of which Pence is so proud has its roots in the English Reformation of the sixteenth century.
Amit Gvaryahu has other grounds for criticism. Gvaryahu is a doctoral candidate in Talmud at the Hebrew University. He argues that Pence’s sermon repudiates Jewish tradition, echoes tropes used by Christians in the past to persecute Jews, and casts them as mere instruments in a Christian scheme of salvation.
In Pence’s worldview, Gvaryahu suggests, the return of the Jews to Zion and to sovereignty is a harbinger of the second coming. What is wrong with this is that it leaves no place for real, flesh-and-blood Jews.
Jews in this story are reduced to characters acting out a Christian script. They “are a tool or a pawn for the triumph of the evangelical Christ, perhaps in some apocalyptic event in the future.” They are superseded by Christians, who are God’s true people.
It takes “a special kind of hutzpah,” concludes Gvaryahu, “to stand in front of a Jewish audience and explain their own tradition to them using language and texts that historically have rendered actual Jews pathologically redundant to the world, and still today cast us as a tool for the salvation of Christians.”
Gvaryahu may perhaps overstate his case, but he points to a real problem.
As Christians, we are bound to place Christ at the centre of salvation. But we need to be careful not to do this in ways that reduce Jews, Muslims and others to mere ciphers in our own scheme of things. We need to do this in ways that allow others to be themselves.
The last thing that is wrong with Pence’s sermon is this: True prophets don’t tell their audience how wonderful they are.
The prophets of ancient Israel and Judah called people to repentance. They called them to be a people that does what is just and right so that they might be, as God intended, a blessing to all peoples and, as Second Isaiah says, a light to the nations.
The prophets of modern Israel – Gideon Levy and Amira Hass in Haaretz, Hagai El-Ad of B’Tselem, Yuli Novak of Breaking the Silence – criticize the actually existing state of Israel in the name of the values it claims to espouse but conspicuously fails to live out.
“In the Israel of 2018,” says Novak, “anyone can become a dissident instantaneously. All you have to do is choose – at any given moment, consciously or otherwise – to remain true to yourself.”
But that is just the difficulty.
We are all mad here. So many people in this land are possessed by nationalist or religious demons that they cannot see what they are doing or what is being done in their name.
“The human heart,” writes John O’Donohue, “continues to dream of a state of wholeness, a place where everything comes together, where loss will be made good, where blindness will transform into vision, where damage will be made whole, where the clenched question will open in the house of surprise, where the travails of a life’s journey will enjoy a homecoming.”
But when we are held fast in the bonds of ideology, that dream remains a dream. Change is threatening, and we fear to open our hand and our heart to the other.
Then it is that God must break into our lives, to cast out our demons and set us free from ourselves.
Today’s Gospel shows Jesus healing a man in the grip of a destructive spirit. He faces the chaos in the man’s life. He names what is contrary to God’s purposes rather than letting it persist unchecked, and this makes way for the wholeness we all crave. “It brings release to what has been bound; it invites and enables and calls us to move with the freedom for which God made us.”
The opening chapter of Mark is full of voices: the voice of the prophet crying in the wilderness, the voice from heaven speaking at the baptism, and today the voice of the man, which is at the same time the voice of the unclean spirit that possesses him, who acknowledges Jesus as the Holy One of God not in admiration but in fear.
Our world today, our land today, is also full of voices clamouring for attention. Some are the voices of true prophets, speaking a word from the Lord. Some are the voices of demons, preventing us from being ourselves. Some are siren voices, luring us to our destruction.
To which of these voices do we listen? How do we choose between them?
I wish there were an easy answer to these questions. The demons that most deeply possess us and hold us fast are cast out only by prayer and fasting.
Discernment comes down to this. We recognize the voice of a true prophet when we hear a word that points us to a God of mercy and compassion, a God of justice and peace.
And when we recognize a word that the Lord has spoken, then we can be free.
Angus Calder, Revolutionary Empire: The Rise of the English-Speaking Empires from the Fifteenth Century to the 1780s (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981)
Hagai El-Ad, “The one-state reality of constant exception”, Sur International Journal on Human Rights, 14/26 (December 2017)
Full transcript of Pence’s Knesset speech, Jerusalem Post, January 22 2018
Amit Gvaryahu, “Lucky the Jews didn’t understand what Mike Pence was really saying”, Haaretz, January 27 2018
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, “Commentary on Gospel: Mark 1:21-28”, Working Preacher
Gideon Levy, “A leave of absence from the occupation”, Haaretz, January 21 2018
Yuli Novak, “The making of an Israeli dissident”, Haaretz, January 18 2018
Jan L Richardson, “Epiphany 4: Blessing in the Chaos”, January 21 2012
Robert O Smith, More Desired than Our Owne Salvation: The Roots of Christian Zionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)
Ahmad Tibi, “We protested Mike Pence’s speech, and Israel could not tolerate it”, Newsweek, January 27 2018
Come and find the quiet centre in the crowded life we lead (CH4 716)
Praise the One who breaks the darkness with a liberating light (CH4 348)
Be still, for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One, is here (CH4 189)
Sing for God’s glory that colours the dawn of creation (CH4 172)