Harrowing Of Hell
January 28, 2018

Liberation from Cultural Expectations and Evil Spirits

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr

Today is our annual meeting. Sounds pretty corporate. Businesses have annual meetings, and churches have annual meetings. Businesses do so as a way of reflecting on where they have been and articulating where they are going. Same with churches. There are a lot of numbers; for businesses and for churches. Nothing I love more than numbers…other than my wife and Jesus.

I remember when I was at a party at Nick White’s house when we lived in Cleveland. He was the Rector of our church, St. Paul’s. I was in the process of considering the priesthood, and Nick introduced me to the Bishop who was also there. The Bishop asked what I did. I mumbled something about mergers and acquisitions, to which he responded…now you’re going into sales.

So, is the church nothing more than a corporation with a Jesus product to sell? Some would say yes. And in a way they are right, and in another way they are completely wrong. We have do have a product, but it is a product designed to liberate us from all of the other products. It is a product designed to give us clarity about the Kingdom of God, like a pair of Jesus glasses. It is a product designed to help us focus on the Kingdom of God, like a Jesus flashlight.

Clarity and focus are the one two punch of product placement designed by Jesus to liberate us from those things which bind our spirit.

The Gospel today is helpful in illuminating the liberating power of Jesus. In a few short sentences Jesus reveals two liberating opportunities: one from untenable cultural norms, and the other from evil spirits. Ummhumm, that is right. I said it… evil spirits.

But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s go to the Gospel to review these liberating events. We find Jesus in Capernaum. It is the Sabbath day. He goes into the synagogue as is his habit, and begins to teach, presumably on the law of Torah – Nothing new here. But it is the way he teaches that astounds people….not like the scribe- Jesus teaches with authority. And this authority unlocks the law in a way that brings liberation to the people listening.

Then a man with a demon comes into the synagogue and cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus rebukes the spirit and calls it out of the man. He thrashes around on the floor for a bit, and then is healed. The people are amazed: “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” And Jesus’ fame spreads.

So, let’s unpack what is happening here. We’ll start with liberation from the binding restrictions of cultural norms. Here is the context. The community Jesus is speaking to organizes their lives around the 613 laws of the Torah. That is a lot of laws not only too know, but also to keep. As a result of this onerous cultural expectation the people lived under a perpetual pall of failure.

This cultural norm of rule following put everyone in a constant state of judgment… leaving people with a sense of not being good enough, or made well enough, or being worthy enough. You get the picture.

And then Jesus comes to the synagogue and teaches the law in a way that honors it while also unleashing its liberating power. He teaches that the law was designed to call out our better selves not to highlight our inadequacies. The people were astonished. Jesus wasn’t teaching like the scribes who used the law to magnify failure and provoke shame. No, he did just the opposite. He took those 613 laws and whittled them down to a simple message: love God and love your neighbor. And this love will liberate you.

When I think about the liberating love of the Jesus product, I think about all of the cultural expectations that bind us. The one that hits home for me, maybe because I suffered under it as a kid, is the culture norm of academic achievement. We have systems of education, it seems, designed to force us to spend more time on the thing we are less good at. If you are good at math, you just blow through it and then spend all the rest of your time struggling with Spanish. It is like the 613 laws of the Torah, designed to magnified failure.

A Kingdom of God school would look entirely different. After all the foundational stuff was taught, we would be liberated to pursue our greatest skills and passions. They go together, incidentally; that is a design feature of the Kingdom of God-the things we are best at are the things we are most passionate about.

So, if math was your thing, you’d spend most of your time doing math. If you were into creative writing, you would get to write and read and write and read. If you love music, you would spend your days playing music, and listening to it, and writing it, and understanding how the brain processes it, and how the lung fills with air to best blow your trumpet. And sports… sure sports would be included. You’d watch films, study anatomy, understand diet, and, of course, play the game itself.

Imagine that. A world where you did what you were best at, instead of spending all of your time worrying about what you were bad at. That is what Jesus was teaching in the synagogue. He was teaching about the liberating power of the law which is love.

Our liberation from the binding restrictions of cultural norms happens when we love our neighbors. You see, God made us to be good at some things, so we could apply our gifts to our neighbors who weren’t good at these same things. God didn’t give us our gifts to beat others up or to shame them; God gave us these gifts, so we could engage others and help them and serve them and love them. That is the Jesus product we peddle, liberation to be good at what we are good at, as a way of loving our neighbors.

Here is a little Kingdom of God take away message for you parents, grandparents, and friends of students…praise the gifts; honor the skills; encourage the passions; and always downplay the “failures,” because in the Kingdom of God there are no failures.

Now let’s transition to the second part of today’s Gospel… evil spirits. Just as we can be bound in spirit by cultural norms and expectations, we can also be bound in spirit by evil powers and principalities that set upon us.

I don’t know what was going on with this man who came into the synagogue and fingered Jesus as the Son of God and then thrashed around on the floor. And I’m not going to spend time trying to figure it out because we have our own evil spirits, in this time and in this place, that we can connect to the Jesus product.

If we are honest we know what it is like to have “things” come upon us and seize us, like we are possessed. I remember when I was kid I was a serious tennis player, and sometimes I would become insane in the heat of the competition, as if possessed by an evil spirit, which, more than once caused me shattered my racket on the net pole.

I remember being in Germany the day after the US invaded Iraq in 1991. There was a huge anti-American rally in Frankfurt, and I went to check it out. As I stood there I was subsumed by the power of this angry crowd and sort of frozen. And by the grace of God in that moment I remembered the words of a wise old friend I used to work in international relief: “Stay away from big crowds,” she cautioned, “They develop a spirit of their own that can rob you from your freedom.” Her words liberated me, and I left.

A spirit of compulsive consumption can feel the same way.
A spirit of compulsive pornography can feel the same way.
A spirit of compulsive rivalry that sweeps you up at a Seahawks game can feel the same way.
A spirit of cursing another car on the road can feel the same way.
A spirit of compulsive drinking or binging or purging can feel the same way.

I don’t know what was going on with that guy in the synagogue, but I do know that evil spirits can come upon us and rob us of our freedom.

Jesus offers liberation. That is how the people saw it. And here is the interesting thing: while they were amazed by Jesus to be sure, they responded by asking…“Is this a new teaching?” They didn’t see what Jesus did as magic, or something only he could do, but rather something they could learn to do from him. This liberation was a product they could obtain, own, and apply. That is the power and authority they saw in Jesus, and they were right to believe that it could be their own. And we are right to believe that it could be our own as well.

We can live without demons. When the evil spirit, whatever that evil spirit is for you, comes upon you, plug into the liberating product of Jesus. Not as a one time, wave your hands in the air and shout the name of Jesus liberation; but rather as the slow blossoming of relationship with God, through worship, and prayer, and confession, and scripture reading, and authenticity within small groups, and over time that evil spirit atrophies, little by little, becoming like chaff that the wind blows away.

Jesus came to liberate us from onerous cultural expectations, and from unhealthy evil spirits. Liberation is the product we push, and Jesus is the manner by which we do so. And that isn’t done to maximize corporate profits, or gain market share. It is done so we can live the good life, so we can be in the rhythm of the world as it was made to be, so we can know love, and be loving, and experience the love of God, and love on our neighbor with our greatest skills and passions. And finally, so we can be people of gratitude who happily give thanks to God by owning the Jesus product and sharing it with others.

That is my annual report.