By Linda Rex
January 31, 2021, 4th SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY—There is a fascination nowadays with the spiritual. Stories, information, and related materials can be found in movies, books, anime and television shows. It seems as though, even in our information age, we are seeking for something beyond the physical, as though we sense there is more going on than what our reason tells us. We seek out the occult, the mystical, the mythological. But when I speak of spiritual things truly existing and that God or Jesus are real, people immediately take offense or ridicule the idea.
Sometimes I am told that Jesus is just some historical, mythical figure and he has no existence beyond this one. Even many Christians today believe that healing and other miracles no longer occur in the world. In all practicality, they are atheists, living as though God doesn’t really exist and if he does, that he doesn’t care. Indeed, how would one explain an encounter with the living Jesus when there are so many practical reasons not to believe it occurred? It is difficult to explain the way in which the things of the Spirit invade our human existence and genuinely alter it, and it is equally difficult to explain to someone else what it is like to encounter the living Lord. We each have to experience this for ourself.
The gospel of Mark describes how Christ during his ministry would follow the common Jewish practice of attending synagogue on the Sabbath. There the scrolls would be opened and read, and the scribes would expound as best as they could what the meaning was. Their interpretations were drawn from the many writings of the scribes and rabbis before them. They spoke of only that which they understood, and focused on the details of the law and all the meticulous rules these forebearers had established in an effort to keep these laws properly.
On this particular Sabbath day, Jesus entered the synagogue at Capernaum and began to teach. He amazed the listeners because he spoke, not upon the authority of the those prior to him, but upon his own authority. It was as though inherent within himself was the authority to declare the meaning of the scriptures. He didn’t need someone else’s exposition of the Old Testament scriptures to inform him—he simply knew what the intent was and so he presented it. The implication here was that he knew the intent of the scriptures because he was the One who had given them to his people in the first place.
Jesus’ teaching that day was interrupted by a man who was under the control of a presence other than himself. This spirit, Mark explained, was “unclean” or “impure” or “evil”—it is translated in different ways. But the unclean spirit obviously did not have the man’s well-being in mind, but had completely supplanted the man’s will with its own evil will. The spirit in the man called out to Jesus, seeking to silence him by exposing who he was—the “Holy One of God.” He challenged the Lord, asking whether Jesus had come to destroy him and those like him.
It was significant that Jesus immediately silenced the evil spirit and told it to leave the man. Jesus was indeed beginning his warfare against the kingdom of evil, but not in the way which was expected of him. He did not want people to get in mind a wrong idea of what kind of Messiah had come to them. Nor did he need evil spirits to affirm who he was as the Son of God in human flesh. He was Lord over all these spirits, the evil and the good, for they were created by him and had to bow to his will and wishes at all times.
The obedience of the spirit to Jesus’ command astonished the crowd. Here was another way in which Jesus’ authority was made evident. He didn’t need fancy incantations and magical spells. He didn’t use the formulas the Jewish leaders used for exorcism. No, he had the power over the spiritual world as well as the physical world, so he simply commanded and it was done. This was an epiphany—a clear revelation of who Christ was as God in human flesh, the Lord over all his creation, of both the physical and spiritual realms. From this event in the synagogue the news spread out all over the area about Jesus and what he had done.
One of the hardest things for us as humans to accept is the reality that there are some things we just don’t have control over. Some may seek out the things of the spirit as a cry to be able to know something which can’t otherwise be known, to do what could not otherwise be done, or to control others or situations which are out of their control. They do not realize that when we seek the things of the spirit world apart from God that we will often end up enslaved, controlled by forces and spirits beyond ourselves which steal from us our ability to make our own decisions and choices, and in the end, drive us to self-destruction.
We also tend to give ourselves over to attitudes and behaviors which in many ways take control in the same way as the spirit described in this story. Sometimes we allow anger to dig deep roots in our soul, creating a bitterness that begins to affect everyone around us. Resentment and bitterness, and a desire for revenge, can so consume us that we in time we may lose all desire or ability to choose another option apart from God’s intervention on our behalf. There are many other desires that we have as human beings which when properly used within God’s limits are healthy and build us up, but when we give ourselves over to them, they in the end begin to consume us and to control every aspect of our lives, even removing from us our own ability to choose another way.
God does not deprive us of our will nor control it—even though he could—because he loves us and respects our personhood. Any other spirit than that of God will not treat us with this type of respect. This includes some humans, who seek to control our will and keep a tight reign on our every decision, forcing us to do what we do not wish to do. This is not God’s way of being, nor what he created us for. He does not force himself on us. He created us and redeemed us to be his dwelling place through Jesus in the Holy Spirit, to worship and serve him joyfully out of gratitude and love—voluntarily, simply because we desire to.
God through Jesus invites us into relationship with himself and offers himself to us in the Holy Spirit, allowing us to resist, reject, or silence him. He asks us to open ourselves up to him, to make ourselves available to him, to participate with him in what he is doing in the world, but he always leaves us free to say no. When a follower of Jesus speaks of surrender to God, or being filled with the Holy Spirit, they do not mean that they intend to lose their own ability to make decisions or to lose control of their own mind or body. Rather, they are saying that they are agreeing to God’s invitation to voluntarily give space for him to live within them and form them into what all of us were originally created to be—places where God dwells through Jesus in the Spirit so that we might be true image-bearers of Jesus Christ who both love God and love others as we love ourselves.
Mark tells us this story about Jesus so we can discover for ourselves who this teacher is. It is the Holy Spirit in us who enables us to see with spiritual eyes—to see beyond the words on the page and the historical figure of Jesus into the reality of who he is today as our living Lord. This is the beginning of Mark’s testimony that this person Jesus Christ was God in human flesh—the One who lived, died, and rose again, and who comes to us as the living Word in the Spirit. This living Lord Jesus Christ is not just a prophet or teacher, but One at whose word evil spirits are silenced, teachers are amazed, and people are healed. Invite Jesus to make himself real to you—to enable you to see him for who he really is. Seek him out, and he will, in time, enable you to find him. Then you will know, in that moment, that all I have said is true—there is a world beyond this world, and Jesus is Lord of both, and is just as alive today as he ever was, and best of all—he loves you.
Heavenly Father, thank you for the precious gift of your Spirit through your Son Jesus. May your Spirit open the eyes of our minds and hearts so that we may perceive the spiritual realities and come to know Jesus personally as he really is—the living Savior and Lord of all. May we freely give ourselves to you, God, that we may receive ourselves whole and complete through Jesus Christ by the Spirit in return. Amen.
“Just then there was a man in their synagogue with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, saying, ‘What business do we have with each other, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!’” Mark 1:23–25 NASB
See also Mark 1:21–22, 26–28; 1 Corinthians 8:1–13.
by Linda Rex
I was watching an old classic TV series recently called “Nanny and the Professor.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with this show, it is about a nanny who helps a professor care for his three children. She has a Mary Poppins-type knack for knowing exactly what is needed in every situation. She always seems to know who’s at the door before they knock or who’s on the phone before it rings. At the beginning of each show, we hear the question being asked about all the amazing things Phoebe Figalilly does: “Is it Love or is It Magic?” And it is left up to the audience to decide.
I think sometimes that the current interest in all types of spirituality blurs the lines for us between what is magic and what is love. Whether we like it or not, our view of God and spirituality is influenced by our culture and all that we see and hear in the media. What we believe about love and being loving is also affected.
The apostle John wrote: “God is love.” That, I believe, is a true statement. But what does it mean?
Does “God is love” mean that love is God? No. Love is a relational property, something expressed. Love in itself is not a being. God is a being, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, who lives in love—love describes his being. It describes how he lives in mutual submission, caring and oneness—in perichoresis.
So if God is love, does that mean that God has to always do nice things for us? I mean, if God is love, how come there are so many nasty things going on in the world—so many hurt people, ruined lives—so much rampant evil? How can God be love and let that happen?
Well, no, God isn’t Phoebe Figalilly who’s going to make everything wonderful for us all the time. And he’s not obligated to do that, even if he is love. Love doesn’t equate automatically with being nice all the time.
And love doesn’t equate with God giving us what we want all the time. That’s a magical God that we can control and use. Magic is something we use to try to manipulate spiritual realities.
But God doesn’t work that way. God is completely free to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, however he wants. He’s totally free, but he’s also totally love. And he loves us enough that he does not allow us to control, manipulate or use him. He does, rather, allow us to influence him as a child may influence a parent to say yes to his request for a new puppy.
God teaches us, through Jesus, that real love is serving, sacrificial and never works in opposition to what is right, pure, holy and true. Real love is relational in a heavenly way. Real love calls out the best in people—raising them up to be all that God intended them to be when he created them in the first place—a true reflection of himself. Sometimes this means saying “No” or putting boundaries in a relationship. Sometimes real love hurts, causing or experiencing suffering, in order to help and heal.
Much of the evil and suffering we see and experience is the result of our own choices and our own stubborn willfulness. We inflict it on one another, even sometimes without realizing we are doing it. Sometimes love allows people to feel the full impact of the consequence of their choices—not to hurt them, but to motivate them to repent and change. God does this with us.
I think there is a huge difference between magic and love, one that God demonstrates to us through his Son Jesus Christ. Real love can be seen and experienced in a personal relationship with God in Christ by the Spirit. Real love can be seen and experienced as we reflect God in Christ by the Spirit in our relationships with one another.
But God isn’t interested in our magic incantations, our self-help programs, or worship rituals that we use to try to somehow get God to do what we want—to try to fix problems or heal people. God can do that all by himself and often does do that without any of our help. He likes to include us in his miracles—but only as participants, not as magicians. It’s not about magic—it’s all about love.
“Holy God, forgive us, please, for all the times and ways in which we try to manipulate, control and use you. Forgive us for seeing you as something to fix things with rather than as a person to relate to in love. Thank you that your great love goes beyond anything we can ask or imagine, and that you have our best interests at heart all the time. Perfect us in your holy love in Jesus. In your name, Father, Son and Spirit—you who alone are God. Amen.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jn 13:34–35