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When Jesus Comes to Church
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

JANUARY 29, 2012

When Jesus Comes to Church
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Mark 1:21-28

I have been going to church all my life, and over the years, some rather surprising, incredible things have happened. Once I was worshipping on a snowy Sunday in the Princeton University Chapel. Two feet of snow had blanketed New Jersey so it was a sparse crowd in the Chapel. In the middle of the sermon, a man burst into the service, marched like a drum major or a soldier up the center of the long aisle, turning left in front of the pulpit, and marched out down the side aisle. I never saw the man again, but the sermon was titled, "Marching to Zion," and the preacher just went on with his sermon like it never happened.

As an Associate Pastor in Basking Ridge, New Jersey one Sunday, I got up to call the children forward for the Children's Time, and the Senior Pastor's wife, who struggled all her life with severe mental illness, got up out of the choir loft and said to me, "Todd, I'm doing the children's sermon today!" Her husband looked at me to ask if I knew this was coming. (I was as surprised as he was.) It soon became apparent after a few minutes that things were not headed in a good direction, and my boss, a man I will always love dearly, had to guide his wife, gently but firmly, out of the sanctuary, get the help of a trusted friend, and then somehow return to the pulpit to preach. You could have heard a pin drop in the sanctuary and the pain of the moment was palpable, but there wasn't a person in that church who was not moved and full of compassion for their whole family.

Like I said, go to church long enough and some interesting, even unbelievable things, will happen. Like the day Jesus showed up in Capernaum. Mark tells us that on the Sabbath Jesus "entered the synagogue and taught." We are never told by Mark, or by Luke or Matthew, who also include this account, anything of the content of what Jesus was teaching that day. But what they all notice is the response of the people that day to Jesus. "They were astounded (or amazed) at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes." It is a favorite word of Mark – Jesus taught "as one having authority." The Greek word is ’îïõóéá. "Ex" means "out of" or "from," and "ousia" means "essence" or substance" or "source." "Out of the original source" is not a bad literal translation. That is why the English word "authority" is so close to the word "author." Jesus taught like He was the author of life, and to hear Jesus was like hearing "from the original source," from God Himself.

Something vital, something powerful, something dynamic happened when Jesus spoke. (You sense this throughout the Gospels.) And the unclean spirit that had possessed the man in the synagogue that day knew it. We are told that no sooner did Jesus begin to teach than this poor man with an unclean spirit cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." Isn't it interesting that no one really knows yet in Mark's Gospel who Jesus is except the demons possessing this man? The demons recognize immediately Jesus' authority, that He is speaking "out of the original source." They even name Jesus, "the Holy One of God." From beginning to end irony runs through Mark's Gospel like a flowing river! The disciples are more like the seven dwarfs than the heroes of Mark's Gospel. They ought to be named "Sleepy, Grumpy and Dopey," for they never get it! At the end of Mark's Gospel it is the Roman Centurion, and not Peter, James or John, who says, "Truly this man was the Son of God." Here, it is the demon-possessed man who knows exactly who Jesus is.

I think I know why. Jesus has power over every form of evil, and every demonic force feels rightly threatened by the presence of Jesus. Jesus is the Truth and in His presence all liars are going to feel very uncomfortable. Jesus is the Life, and in His presence every one who seeks to destroy life or harm it is going to quake. Jesus has in fact come to destroy and defeat evil, the devil and every demonic force. Indeed, in this account, Jesus speaks, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, "convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice," came out of him. Jesus spoke His word, and the demons were cast out, defeated. It reminds us of God at the dawn of creation. God said, "Let there be light," and there was light!

This is one of eighteen miracles that occur in Mark's Gospel, all wrought by Jesus. Thirteen of them have to do with healing, and four involve exorcisms, casting out demons. Jesus speaks as one with "authority," and His word has power over evil. When I get into a passage like this, I get a feeling like I really know something about who Jesus was. His very presence was electric, alive, life-giving. And before the Word of Jesus, which is the Word of God, evil cowers. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "Preaching is Christ Himself walking through His congregation with His word." And his older friend Karl Barth was fond of saying, "God never rests." That is, God is always on the move, always alert, always active and alive. Isn't that what the Psalmist said? "He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps."

So can I tell you a story about what happened one Christmas Day in church? It is one of the few exorcism stories I have to tell! For the second time since I have been your Pastor, Christmas came on a Sunday this year. I have to say that we had a joyous service here this Christmas morning. (Jesus showed up!) It happened only once that I recall in the eleven years I served in Spartanburg. That Sunday a young man in his twenties showed up at 11:00 on Christmas morning to worship God. I noticed him because of the few hundred folks who came to church that Christmas morning, he was the only one I did not know. After the service he asked me if he could speak to me. I confess I thought immediately he was going to ask for money. It was usually what follows such a request from a stranger who shows up out of nowhere. But this guy was well dressed, I noted, and put together rather well. As we walked to a place where we could talk, he said, "Thanks for the service today. I'm far from home, and I'm traveling, and I really needed it." Then as we sat down, he said, "I need for you to bless me. I've got 'a devil on my back,' and I need God's blessing more than I need anything else."

Normally, I confess, I would ask more about what he meant by "a devil on my back." Normally, I would fall into the pastoral mode of listening, of asking him to tell me his story. But that morning, for some reason, I didn't. Maybe it was because it was Christmas morning, and we were leaving for Florida and I wanted to get home. Maybe it was because he was a stranger, that he was just passing through, and I would never see him again. Maybe it was the earnest intent in his blue eyes that stared into mine as he spoke. Maybe it was all of those things and more that had to do with God than the two of us.

But I said, "Alright. I would be glad to bless you." Spartanburg has an exquisitely beautiful chapel, and I invited him to follow me into that holy, sacred space. I took one of the kneeling pads we kept in there and asked him to kneel on the chancel steps. I realized in that moment that I didn't even know his name, so I asked. "Ethan," he said. So calling him by name, I laid my hands upon his head and I prayed for God's blessing. I gave thanks for Ethan's life, and prayed that he would know how much God loved him, and that he would somehow find his way home and reconnect with God's good purposes for his life. It was a rather traditional prayer, properly Presbyterian, not too much like Robert Duvall's prayers in The Apostle, or Benny Hinn's, or even Father Damien's! That's not who I am, and if you can't be yourself, you really have no business praying to One who is the Truth. But then I remembered about Ethan's words, about "the devil that was on his back." And as if out of someplace beyond me, I prayed, "In the strong and powerful name of Jesus, I pray that Ethan will be freed from 'the devil on his back' that is keeping him from being who God wants him to be. Cast out, Lord Jesus, whatever is possessing him, whatever is keeping him from being the man you intend for him to be. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."

Ethan stood up after the prayer. He said, "Thank you, pastor, it is just what I needed." And he left. I never saw him again. But I still remember his words: "I need for you to bless me. I've got 'a devil on my back' and I need God's blessing more than I need anything else." So as best as I could, I offered him that blessing and prayed that Jesus would make things right, and set him free.

I have wondered about Ethan over the years, and whether this Presbyterian preacher's poor efforts to call upon the power of Jesus worked in his life. One thing I know for sure: I am still amazed by Jesus! I pray to God you are too!

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