Two Minutes to Midnight

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, 2017 – Mark 1:21-28

Picture the scene. It is a hot, dusty day in a small town in the Galilee. Capernaum. It’s a fishing village, bit of a backwater, an ordinary place on an ordinary day, a Sabbath Saturday, and the people are gathered in the synagogue.

A man walks into town with four fishermen; he has just hauled them away from their nets. Simon and Andrew, James and John. The town knows them; two of them are Zebedee’s sons; they most likely live nearby, because Capernaum is right by the Sea of Galilee.

A man walks into town with four local boys and starts teaching in the synagogue, and the people are impressed. They are impressed, but they are not particularly surprised. Another itinerant teacher/preacher has arrived; this is something that people do, in Palestine in the first century, and throughout the Greco-Roman world. They go about teaching and gathering disciples. Aristotle and his students were called the Peripatetics, from the Greek word peripateo, to walk around, because Aristotle taught as he walked around the market-place, so that people could hear what he was saying. Jesus arrives in Capernaum teaching, and the people are interested but not surprised. They know this script.

Suddenly, though…suddenly in the middle of the ordinary day a man screams. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you come to destroy us?”

Suddenly a man starts screaming, and this changes the script. This disrupts the ordinary day. Suddenly we are no longer in the realm of philosophy, or of the scribes, the teachers of the law. We are in the place of screams, where anguish tears the air. Have you come to destroy us, Jesus of Nazareth? This man does not see a teacher. He sees an enemy, he sees a battle. He hears in the voice of Jesus a trumpet blast, not just teaching but power, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant. This man hears in the word of Jesus a mortal challenge to the power that grips his soul, this power of darkness, this unclean spirit, that haunts and twists his mind. “Have you come to destroy us, Jesus of Nazareth. I know who you are.”

And he is right. This is not just another teacher, and this is not an ordinary day.

This is the day a battle is joined; in the place of anguish and screaming the hand of God reaching out in Jesus Christ to touch the soul in darkness, to heal and to save.

This is not an ordinary day, this day when Jesus Christ appears in our midst. This is a day that speaks the truth. This is the day on which we can no longer pretend that things are ok, that the world is ok, that our lives are ok; this is the day on which we can no longer pretend that we do not hear the cries. We have such a remarkable capacity to ignore the suffering that is all around us, even in our own hearts, to go on, somehow, as if we had no part in it, as if we too were not suffering, as if we were not at fault. I am not sure how much longer we can ignore it.

David was reading tidbits from the news to me while we were getting dinner the other day and he tells me the world’s scientists have moved the “Doomsday Clock” to 2 minutes to midnight. We are closer than we have been for 50 years—closer perhaps than we have ever been—to destroying this world of ours, this beautiful world, and if it is partly a problem of foolish and bellicose leaders, North Korea with its finger on the nuclear button and the President of the US posturing right back, it is also partly a matter of the way we live our lives every day.

We are killing the world by the satisfaction of our own desires; we are killing the world for comfort and for fun, this world of beauty God has made.

We are caught up in a will to destroy day by ordinary day. The crazy man in the synagogue is not crazy. He’s just the one who sees that there is a reason to scream. There is a power for evil, and it grips our own lives too. His scream is true. He sees the darkness in the ordinary day; he feels it in the anguish of his own distorted soul.

And he sees that Jesus has come precisely into his darkness, to overturn it, to cast darkness out, to say in the place of anguish, let there be light. The demon-possessed man screams, because he knows this is war.

“Jesus of Nazareth! I know who you are, the holy one of God.”

He is right. Jesus of Nazareth, come in the holiness of God, come in the peace of God, come in the power of God to heal and to save. Jesus of Nazareth, come in the name of the God whose will it was to make this world, to speak light into the darkness and all the beauty of the earth, sun and moon and stars of heaven, the seas and the great sea creatures, beast and winged birds of the air and all the creeping creatures that creep upon the ground. And the earth was formless and void and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the deep—and God said, “Let there be light.” Out of darkness let light shine; let the creatures swim and dance and dive and frolic over the great green land; let there be life. And God saw that it was good. God is the one who made the earth and all the wondrous creatures in it, who made the earth to be good. It is not possible to read Genesis 1 without a catch in the heart, because there is such glory in it, such a profligacy of joy, this birthing of all the creatures of the world out of chaos and the void into life.

We live in a world full of wonder, because this is who God is. And there is more. He is the one who makes out of darkness a garden, and who says then, as if all the leaping greenly creatures were not enough already, “Let us make humankind.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.

Finally God made human beings, man and woman, you and me, someone to live in the very image of the holy God in the midst of the beauty of the earth and to be to it, as God has been, a blessing.

We are the crowning glory of creation, God’s viceroy, to speak light in the darkness as God has done, to build up and not to cast down, to grow in the waste places a garden. That is who God is, and it is who he made us to be, in the joy of his own heart. Let us make humankind! he says in the biblical story, in the joy of his heart. It is the voice of a lover, the voice of the lover who seeks his beloved’s face. Out of the void God speaks and the man and the woman arise, creatures of God’s own heart.

This world is finally a love-song, the out-pouring of God’s own heart, God’s heart reaching out forever in love.

You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes. (Song of Solomon)

Let us make humankind in our image, God says. How beautiful you are, my love. How beautiful this world I have given you, in which you live.

There is a song at the heart of the universe. It is the joy of God’s heart, the word of God’s love. It is heard in the beauty of the earth. He has made us, and invited us to sing this song with him.

How is it that we have come to do just the opposite? How is it that we have created a ticking time bomb, that the world stands now on the edge of darkness once again?

The man who screams in the synagogue speaks true. We are caught by our own choice, by our own choices, in the grip of an evil that is destroying our life.

And so Jesus comes. He comes in the love of God, he comes in the longing of God’s heart, that his beloved should be his once again, that we should turn again in love to him. Jesus comes into the place where darkness threatens, he comes a lover to his beloved, and he comes to save. God wants us back. The demon-haunted man knows this, and he is afraid. Leave us alone, Jesus of Nazareth, he says. He is afraid, and he seeks to strike first. I know who you are, he says: Jesus of Nazareth. I name your name—for to name someone is in the ancient world to have power over them. I will not let God cast out the darkness from my heart.

Jesus comes to us in the love of God and he faces in this place of our darkness a battle. The demons of our hearts do not go quietly. They set themselves against the Lord who comes in love, because they know he is come to cast them out. He is come to cast out all the desires that turn us away from God, the desires that damage and destroy; he is come to turn our hearts back to God again. He is come to change us, and to change our world.

The demon-haunted man even in his anguish is having none of this. I know who you are, the holy one of God. But Jesus says, “Be silent. Come out of him.” Be silent: phimotheti, literally, “be muzzled, be bound.” It is the word used for binding demons. Jesus is the one with the power to bind the power of evil even in our own lives, to cast out of our hearts the desires that turn us from God; he is come for love, to save.

Only it means allowing ourselves to be saved. It means seeing what the screaming man sees: that this is not an ordinary day. That a world hangs in the balance, and all the beauty of the earth. That Jesus stands in our midst today for love, that he stands ready to overturn our hearts, to turn our hearts back to him.

The clock stands at 2 minutes to midnight. This is not an ordinary day. Jesus stands right here with us. Will we hear his word?

Sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Catherine Sider Hamilton at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 28th, 2018.
Catherine Sider Hamilton

Catherine Sider Hamilton

Catherine Sider Hamilton is Priest-in-Charge of St. Matthew's Riverdale, and Professor of New Testament and New Testament Greek (part-time) at Wycliffe College. She has served also as Chaplain at Havergal College and Associate Priest at Grace Church on-the-Hill and St. John the Baptist, Norway (Toronto). She enjoys singing around the piano with her kids, her husband's Indian food, all things Italian -- and above all her two little grandchildren. Catherine and David live in Greektown. She blogs occasionally on feasts and fasts at feastfastferia.wordpress.com.