Sermon: Detectives in the apocalypse (June 10, 2018)

Pentecost 3B
June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15; Mark 3:20-35


Last week when we began working through Mark, I talked about how Mark’s Gospel is a little rough around the edges because Mark is in such a great hurry to get this story out. This week I want to expand a bit on that. Part of his rush was that the world was in turmoil. Mark was writing right as the Great Revolt was coming to a close – the Jewish people had revolted against the oppressive Roman Empire. This Revolt culminated with the destruction of the 2nd Jewish Temple, which is right when Mark is writing. Because of his particular context, Mark has a very apocalyptic feel to it.

Now, usually when we say “apocalypse,” we think, “end of the world,” or “final judgment.” But the original meaning of that word, apocalypse, was, a big hope-filled idea that dominant powers are not ultimate powers: the message is, when empires fall and tyrants fade, God is still around. The word actually means a sort of pulling away of the known, to reveal what’s underneath.

And so when I say Mark is apocalyptic, I mean that Mark shows us how Jesus is pulling back the reality of the empires and oppressive systems in which we find ourselves, and showing us what is underneath, showing us that there is another way. For the first century Christians, this was good news, to hear that the bad guys wouldn’t win, that the terrifying situation in which they found themselves was not the final word. But for the powers that be, it was not such good news – and that is why they push against Jesus’ message, dismissing it and undermining it however they can.

In our first story today, we will hear about how from the beginning of time, people have been quick to point fingers and cast blame elsewhere, and about how this behavior damages even our most important relationships. In our Gospel reading, we will see how quick we are to dismiss that which would challenge our beliefs, that would dare pull back what we have know to reveal something different. We see this as Jesus’ adversaries are so put off by this that they say he is possessed by the devil himself. Let’s see how these stories can guide our lives of faith.


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

From the beginning of time, humans have pointed fingers, dismissed each other’s pain, and been divided. Since the very first humans, we have hidden ourselves from one another and from God, hoping that no one else will have to see our insecurities, that if we put up a strong front and deflect any blame, then we can continue to hold onto our beliefs, no matter how misguided.

It’s no wonder division has been a mark of human society from society’s very inception.

I have always loved this scene in Genesis, where the insecure Adam and Eve hide themselves from God, and as soon as they are called out on their shenanigans they point fingers anywhere else to keep themselves safe. I just see so much of my own experience in this story. Because don’t we all want to be safe? Physically safe, sure, but I mean, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually safe. We don’t want our deeply held beliefs to be challenged, we don’t want to admit that someone else could be right, and we definitely don’t want to admit that we are wrong, especially not in front of anyone else. And so we blame, blame, blame, even if it means throwing someone else under the bus, and cast people’s attention anywhere else to discredit the thing that might accuse us.

The behavior is very obvious in the Adam and Eve story. But it’s pretty clear in our story from Mark, too. Jesus has been pretty busy, healing a lot of people, casting out demons, and most recently, appointing his twelve disciples. Now they are back to business, having headed to Jesus’ hometown. And people are watching. And they are getting nervous, because what Jesus is saying and doing these days is an affront to the powers that be, and does not jibe with their understanding of God. As I said in the introduction, Jesus’ message is an apocalyptic one, pulling back the cover and revealing the truth about how Roman rule is not ultimate rule, and that in fact God’s power is not revealed in domination, but rather in reaching out to and serving those on the fringes of society. They had expected the Messiah to be a military power, to overthrow the government by force, but here is this carpenter, reaching out to the fringes!

In response to this counter-cultural message, what do the religious authorities do? Do they thank him very much for directing their attention back to the God they love? No… Do they say, “Tell us more about that. It’s intriguing, and we realize we might be missing something in our understanding of the world.” No…. They do just as Adam and Eve did and more: they hide from the truth and instead offer false information. “He’s crazy,” they say. “He’s lost his mind. He’s clearly possessed by the devil.” Discredit, dismiss, do whatever you need to do in order to protect your understanding of the world, no matter how misguided it may be, from being challenged.

Jesus’ response to this is a very logical one: “a house divided cannot stand,” he says. Basically, how could he be using the spirit of Satan to cast out Satan? Why would Satan work against himself? It doesn’t make sense.

And yet, the irony in his response is that working against ourselves is exactly what we humans do all the time. We choose what does not bring life. We let the voice of the devil convince us we are unlovable, even though we know ours is a God of love. We drive wedges between ourselves and other children of God by casting blame on one another, labeling and dismissing each other, and clinging to false truths. When we feel the movement of the Holy Spirit blowing us in a way that scares us, or that requires us to let go of a belief that does not bring life but does provide us a sense of safety, we shut it down, and convince ourselves that we know better than the Spirit.

I keep going back to Mark as apocalyptic, about how Jesus’ ways and words pull back what we thought was true, and, if we are humble enough to see it, reveal to us a different way that is of God. What is that different way?

Our keynote speaker last week at Synod Assembly was Ruben Duran, who works out of the Churchwide office with new congregations throughout the ELCA. In his address, he talked about being “detectives of divinity” – willing to really look for God not only in our congregation, but out in the public arena. Sometimes this is pretty easy – whenever we see good happening, we assume God must be there! Where being detectives of divinity gets a lot harder is in those Adam and Eve moments, those Mark moments, when we are suddenly confronted with the possibility that everything we previously held true might in fact be wrong, or at least not completely right, and we are immediately inclined to blame, point fingers, name-call, discredit, dismiss, and continue to hold onto whatever view it is that makes us feel safe.

These are very human defense mechanisms. They are “safe.” But they are not life. And that, in the end, is what our faith is based on: it is a story that is rooted in death but does not stay there. The story of our faith is one in which the government put to death a man who challenged what they held dear, thinking that this would put him out of sight and mind, that it would silence this opposing and resistant power, that it would keep safe their beliefs and way of life. But it didn’t work. Instead, Jesus rose from the dead and showed the world once and for all that trying to stifle God’s Word of life would get us nowhere, that no human actions can stop God from being a God of life, a God of new life that emerges out of death. We can’t stop it!

So yes, recognizing we are wrong can feel very much like a death – it is death to something we held dear. It is a death I have experienced many times in my life! But what if instead of leaning into the death by jumping to the human tendencies to blame, discredit, and dismiss, what if we looked rather to the possibility of new life, by taking a moment to ask ourselves, “Where is God in this? What is God pulling back to reveal to me in this? What belief of mine is being threatened, and why do I insist on holding to it even more tightly, even at the expense of my relationships? Where is life trying to emerge here?”

If we did this, I wonder what would happen to our relationships with those from whom we feel divided? Because Jesus is right – a house divided cannot stand. Neither can a church divided, or a country divided, or a family divided. The breach must be healed. So let us seek to be “detectives of divinity,” brothers and sisters, finding God in one another. Let us, when we feel challenged, seek to find how God is working there, not to shame us, but to bring about new life. If we did that, we might find we are able to overcome division. We might even find ourselves to be a new sort of family, united by our shared desire to do the will of God

I think I’m willing to take the risk – even if someone thinks I’m out of my mind for it! Are you willing to take that risk with me?

Let us pray… Uniting God, we are prone to discredit and dismiss people and ideas that challenge our beliefs. Yet we also know you are at work in everything, taking what feels like a death, and turning it into life. Help us to be detectives of divinity, always searching for the ways you are bringing about new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.