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The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 5 February 2006
A Sermon on Mark 1:29-39 (RCL) by Samuel D. Zumwalt
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Mark 1:29-39 [NRSV Text from BibleWorks]

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." 38 He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.


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

In the preceding verses of chapter one, we have already seen Mark’s almost dark humor. God’s Son Jesus has been possessed by the Spirit of God when the heavens were torn open at His baptism. And while the good religious folks don’t know who this is, the demons certainly do. It takes one to know one. It takes a demon to recognize a possessed person. And the Lord Jesus is certainly that – possessed – but not by any unclean spirit!

Now in today’s pericope, despite endless centuries of jokes about in-laws, Peter’s mother-in-law doesn’t need an exorcism. She needs healing. Jesus lifts her literally from her sickbed, and, in gratitude, she begins to serve her guests.

It seems no one can keep a secret about Jesus. That evening they brought all who were sick or possessed with demons. The whole city gathered around the door. The Lord cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons – not permitting the demons to disclose that He was the Son of God.

The next morning before anyone else was awake Jesus went out in the dark to a deserted place and prayed.

The disciples wake up. They are concerned that the Lord is gone from the house. They act like it’s a game of hide-and-seek. When they find Him, they whine, “Everyone is searching for you.” But He answers, “Let’s go. There’s work to do!”

He is possessed! He is driven. Fueled by prayer, the Lord Jesus is on His way fighting the devil for every square inch of this earth. What are we to make of that? In the telling, what is St. Mark proposing for present-day disciples? Is it not a call to prayer, first, and then a call to join in the Lord’s battle?

Despite Martin Luther’s deep devotion to prayer, many of the Lutheran Christians I know are rather cautious if not downright skeptical about prayer. Someone has said that military powers are always fighting the last war. Typically, Lutherans, including more than a few Lutheran professors, are still fighting the battle against the Schwaermer (the spiritual enthusiasts) from the Reformation era.

Most of the pastors and professors I knew in my growing up years presented prayer as an ordered command best read from the church’s hymnals and prayer books. Following Luther’s teaching on the 2 nd Commandment against the misuse of God’s name, Lutherans were strictly commanded to call upon God in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Such piety was best demonstrated by faithfulness and reverence in worship, reading from the denomination’s office daily devotional pamphlets in the home, and other safely ordered forms of prayer. Pietists were viewed suspiciously as people that practiced, preached, and taught a kind of holy works-righteousness marked by uttered “amens” in worship at best and by talking in tongues and “holy rolling” at worst.

Early in my first semester of seminary, the Dean of the Chapel, the Dean of Community Life, and a charismatic Professor of Old Testament led a spiritual retreat for first year seminarians in the cabins and lodge of a state park along the banks of the Mississippi River. This was my first introduction to the idea that pastors could and should have a rich interior life of prayer and meditation. During the course of my first two years of seminary, I discovered that not everyone shared their perspective.

Then there was the seminary’s Academic Dean, a high churchman never to be seen in anything but black clerical garb. While the whole seminary community was invited to chapel at 10 a.m. each weekday, the Academic Dean also invited the community to a noonday Eucharist. Few answered the call. The Dean of the Chapel advertised the availability of private confession, but few availed themselves of that spiritual discipline. Even a deep liturgical piety was viewed by most of the seminary community as an oddity lampooned as “chancel prancing.”

On my seminary internship, or vicarage as we called it, I discovered the strangest anomaly. My bishop, as we called our vicarage supervisor, was a man with impeccable academic credentials (a doctorate in New Testament under Ernst Käsemann at Tübingen) and an old-fashioned warm-hearted liturgical charismatic’s piety. Within his workaholic personality, he held in tension poles that had been previously presented to me as diametrically opposed temperaments. Clearly his personal piety was cause for official suspicion in Lutheran circles. Yet, since that day when I first met him back in 1978, I have struggled to master that tension as well within the shape of my own very different set of pastoral and personal gifts. But I digress.

What does it mean for a Lutheran congregation and its pastor to be possessed by the Spirit of God, called to prayer, and sent into the world to fight against the devil?

I suspect that many of our congregations and pastors today would be suspicious if not downright embarrassed by such a question. That, at the same time, our congregations are shrinking and dying in most places while many of our pastors seem increasingly disconnected from the faith of the previous generations is not, I think, an altogether unrelated phenomenon.

Simply attempting to address that concern in the life of our parish has led to a recent question by a thirty-something Christmas visitor, a young woman that had grown up in this parish long before the current pastor came to serve. She asked her mother: “Does he serve fire with his brimstone?” You get that sort of response from post-moderns when you use words in sermons like devil, hell, and conversion.

In the recent movie Lord of War, Nicholas Cage plays arms dealer Uri Orlov. As the son of Ukrainian immigrants to Brighton Beach NY, Orlov learns the power of deception from a Roman Catholic father that pretended to be Jewish in order to leave the Soviet Union. Orlov also learns that he is not cut out to run a Mom-and-Pop restaurant like his folks, but his dubious “Jewishness” grants him first access to Israeli weapons dealers. Upon his first sale of Soviet-made automatic weapons, Orlov discovers his calling. He is a born weapons dealer. From his father, he has learned how to be a chameleon. From his uncle a Ukrainian general in charge of a large cache of arms at the collapse of the Soviet Union, Orlov receives the means to reinvent himself as a major arms dealer on the world stage.

The movie shows us one more time how easily we humans can compartmentalize our lives in order to be loving spouses and parents at home but agents of the devil on the job. The devil’s empty promises don’t seem so empty when you’re doing a good job of providing for those we love. As a phrase, the devil’s empty promises seems the stuff of B movies rather than how a man like Orlov facilitates genocide in Africa in the course of putting bread on the table and jewels around Mama’s neck. How could a man that throws away his son’s toy gun (the gift of an unruly uncle) be in league with the devil?

How could a sweetheart like that woman on the morning talk show be involved with third world sweat shops? And how could nice people like us who are just trying to make the family dollars go further by shopping at those big box stores from Arkansas be helping the devil enslave third world children in sweat shops?

Today’s forensic pathologists of the Bible, usually professors in divinity schools and departments of religion, would urge pastors to fight evil (not really a devil, they say) by writing letters to Congress, voting for candidates only on the left, and organizing boycotts of those bad boy merchants. Oh, yes, we should have an occasional prayer vigil as part of the latest cause so that the world will know that we’re the good guys of religion. Maybe we should write books about how to politicize God the right way?

But then again in today’s pericope from Mark’s Gospel we see God’s Son Jesus, fueled by prayer, doing battle against the devil for every inch of every heart and mind in the world.

Which means that the Lord of Life is still doing battle against the devil today not only in the politically correct causes of the left but also in the politically correct causes of the right! Of course, most Lutheran pastors today don’t want to upset many of the people in the pew by talking about 40 million babies legally killed since 1973. Surely that couldn’t be the devil’s work? It’s a right. It’s a choice. OK, yes, a tragic choice, we all agree. But we in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have a social statement that permits it, so it can’t be the devil’s work. Right?

Did you know that the ELCA Health Plan through either of two insurance carriers pays for church employees and their families to have an abortion? But it doesn’t pay for any of the tests or procedures for couples struggling with fertility to get pregnant. That’s our church’s health care plan. But it couldn’t be the devil’s work. Could it?

St. Paul gave us words to describe us well-meaning pastors and parishioners of Lutheran churches that are caught in the devil’s bargain in so many ways today: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Who will rescue me from this body of death” (Romans 7:19, 24)?

The reason that the Lord Jesus in St. Mark’s Gospel keeps striding forward against the devil while telling friends and foes alike to keep silent is made clear by the fast pace of the Gospel. Our Lord wants us to struggle on to His cross where we will see how God’s Son in human flesh gives His life to conquer sin, death, and the devil. The answer to St. Paul’s question is nailed there for us to see. That’s who will deliver us from ourselves and from those empty promises. At the end of Jesus’ passion, a Roman soldier, not a pastor or parishioner, declares over the corpse of Jesus: “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39).

By our baptism into His death and resurrection, we are possessed through no effort or merit of our own as His beloved daughters and sons. And in that one baptism by water and the Word of God we are enlisted in the great mopping up action against sin, death, and the devil. We are part of an army both here and there that follows our Lord in His mission to claim every inch of every heart and mind for the Kingdom of God.

And lest we endlessly distracted and deterred in that fight by the devil’s lies and all his empty promises, our Lord calls us to prayer – to hear the Word of God and to listen, reflect, and be fueled for the battle at hand by the very presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament. As we come before Him with empty hands, we are made bold to declare that through His cross and resurrection the Lord Jesus has already won the war!

We do well to remember that Luther’s recommended pattern of prayer begins with listening to the Word of God rather than naming our wish list to a Santa Claus god. Just as the Lord Jesus got away to a deserted place for communion with His Father and the Spirit, so we who follow Him are to devote ourselves to the discipline of daily prayer. And if we do indeed listen to the Word and ask the Spirit’s help to do the Father’s will, we might indeed find ourselves acting less like the toadies of one political party or the other and more like the daughters and sons of the Most High God.

Of course, as readers of St. Mark’s Gospel that have already visited the ending, we know what happens to the One that does battle against sin, death, and the devil. He ends up on a cross crucified by nice pious family people that can’t imagine that they are doing the devil’s bidding. But the devil doesn’t get the last word. God does. And that’s why we press on as people of prayer that are on our way through the cross to real Life!

Today we remember a man of study and prayer, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who took up arms against the devil when the old enemy wore a swastika and sought to kill Jews and Gentiles standing in his way. By joining in the fight, Bonhoeffer ended up on the end of a Gestapo rope. But that was not the end of Bonhoeffer.

And if you will answer the Lord’s call to pray with Him, you, too, will find yourself going, perhaps not so dramatically, but nevertheless going to your own cross. And that will not be the end of you, for the One you follow and the One who calls has promised that you will see Him. Yes, you will enjoy life with Him forever!

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

©Samuel D. Zumwalt
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington , North Carolina USA

[An mp3 version of this and each week’s sermon is available by 8 p.m. Saturdays at www.stmatthewsch.org]