2nd Sunday after Pentecost – Mark 3:20-35
If I had been Mark’s editor, I would have sent this passage back to him.
I would have questioned the sequence of events, noted his lack of smooth transitions and suggested that he choose one analogy rather than three or four. And what is this bit about eternal sin? How, exactly, does it fit here?
Mark has a habit of sandwiching one story between the parts of another, so evidently the writer of the Gospel won out over a more orderly editor. Maybe he argued his case that this literary device served an important theological and narrative purpose. But what?
Here is my answer to that question: These verses, odd as they seem at first reading, really are connected. The thread that weaves them together is one of identity: Jesus’ identity and our identity in relationship to him. This Sunday’s readings echo Joshua 24:15, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” There is a right or wrong answer. Jesus demands family and foes alike make a decision about who he is and who they are as a result.
The Old Testament reading resonates with this theme, too. The Israelites are demanding a king, rejecting their true King, because they want to be like other nations (1 Samuel 8:19-20). They are rejecting both God’s true identity and their own.
This divided loyalty is destined to lead to destruction. No one can serve two masters. Something or someone must be ultimate and Jesus makes clear in these verses that nothing less than choosing between good and evil, God’s rule or Satan’s, is at stake.
Is this stark division possible to proclaim in our postmodern, hyper-pluralistic world? Don’t we run into trouble when we start to label some things good and others evil? Given our corrupt and sinful nature, how can we claim to know the difference?
How do we bind the strong man if we don’t recognize him – or, as C.S. Lewis pointed out so well, we don’t believe he exists?
Eugene Boring writes, “Jesus pictures what is happening in his ministry as the eschatological binding of Satan; as he and his disciples preach, heal and cast out demons, they are plundering Satan’s kingdom and setting the captives free” (“The New Testament Library: Mark,” page 108). Is that what you imagine yourself doing every Sunday morning?
Maybe you should. It might energize your preaching. Preach recognizing that something is at stake. No, preach like everything is at stake. Preach like the core of who we are is at stake. Ask who is it that reigns over us? Who or what has power over us? This day and every day, whom do we serve?
Here is the thing, if you preach and teach like this, as if recognizing Jesus and following him is a matter of life or death, people will think you are out of your mind, beside yourself, maybe even possessed! It sounds so strange to talk about evil and the need to name it and consciously turn from it. Strange, even though those are the words of baptismal liturgy. The Lutheran worship book puts it this way, “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?” Start your sermon with that question and folks might lean forward in the pew.
If that is too off-putting for your context you could ask this question, “Who do you want to be like?” That is at the heart of this text. Are you kin to Jesus or not? Do you resemble him? Do you claim your relationship to him? Do you want to be like other nations or like the holy one God calls you to be? What needs to be bound in order for you to be free to do the will of God?
Answering these questions, choosing whom we will serve, will be transformative. It may even plunder Satan’s kingdom and set the captives free.
I recently went back and re-read some of Jacque Ellul. In his introduction to Ellul’s “The Presence of the Kingdom,” Daniel Clendenin writes this: “…what is first required of a Christian is not action (although that cannot be neglected) but a presence, a style of life, an attitude, a special mode of existence… Authentic Christian existence trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit to give our ‘presence’ a revolutionary and explosive force in history. By incarnating their God-given identity as light, salt, and sheep, Christians effect a present reality of the kingdom of God which will be culminated in the future” (page xli).
This week consider who Jesus is and who we are because of him. Do some plundering of Satan’s kingdom and set the captives free. Trust the Holy Spirit to make your presence, and that of your congregation, a revolutionary force for good. Don’t worry if others think you are out of your mind. You will find, I think, that you have never been more at peace.
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