Weekly Sermon (4)

Sermon – January 28, 2024


January 28, 2024

Scripture: Mark 1:21-28

We have all heard the term ‘saved’. But I wonder if we all understand what that means? How many possible definitions are there for this single, yet quite significant term in our faith language? And how might those differing definitions speak to our understanding of the true nature of our God? Truly this is a complex question, as well as one that if fully thought out or discussed, might reveal deep disagreement or division between different groups within the Christian faith. Which I suppose, could make one wonder if it is a topic we should address at all, rather than simply ignoring it, and agreeing to remain in a place of willful division over a central topic of our belief. I really am not sure, but I do feel that whenever we can lift up and perhaps further clarify the nature of our God, we should at least attempt to do so.

Now to be sure, there are many oft-quoted scriptures that can be used to bolster the majority opinion that for one to be truly ‘saved’, there are a number of requirements that must be met…a number of beliefs and actions which must be an active part of one’s faith practice in order for that person to be assured of a resting place in the heavenly realm. Which is no small thing, in fact this question of whether or not someone is ‘saved’, goes to the ultimate questions of all of us frankly, and it has been, and remains a driving force of all the major religious traditions since the very beginning. And in addition, the question of ‘where one will go after death…of whether or not they are saved’ is probably the greatest tool of control ever wielded by religious authorities and others in power. So whether or not we want to discuss this idea of being ‘saved’, we must at least acknowledge that it is a topic we ignore at our peril…or maybe better, the peril of our faith community.

As I said, I think this question is at heart a question of our understanding of the true nature of God. And that question is whether or not we believe that our God, as evidenced in the life and ministry of Jesus, is truly a God of love and compassion, and a God of both mercy and forgiveness that is truly unconditional. For if in fact we believe that, then all those other ‘requirements’ for ‘entrance into Heaven’, just fall away as so much human misunderstanding of the true nature of God’s love.

Either God loves us and will always forgive us, or God’s love is not unconditional. And if in fact God’s love does come with strings attached, and all the fear and control of centuries of Church teaching turns out to be right, then the vast majority of humanity from the beginning of time will be consigned to eternal torment after death…while only a precious few ‘elect’ will feast at a relatively small table with the Lord someday up in Heaven.

Personally, that just does not sound like a God of love to me. Rather it sounds like a God of our own choosing, or perhaps our own ‘creation’, one who will support us…while simultaneously harming or weakening those who are not aligned with us. We simply must find a way to get out of the business of looking judgmentally at those who believe differently than us and get into the business of witnessing the ways and words of our Lord through actions of love, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness…for indeed, that is what Jesus did, and continues to do, for each one of us.

We are accepted just as we are by our Lord of love…and the Holy Spirit spends every resource on molding and fashioning us over the full course of our lifetime into closer reflections of that love. And the scriptures that support this assertion are both familiar as well as plentiful. In the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul says that, ‘while we were yet sinners, God loved us’. In 1 John chapter 4 we hear that ‘we love, because God first loved us’. In chapter 13 of John’s gospel, Jesus says, ‘everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’  And of course one of the most well-known and ‘half-quoted’ verses in John chapter 3 and verse 16 and 17, we hear that ‘God so loved the world’…so loved everyone of us…‘that he sent Jesus’…‘that whoever believes in him would in effect be saved’…and continuing on in the seldom quoted verse 17, ‘for God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but rather that through him all of humanity might be brought into the saving knowledge of God’s love’All of humanity might be brought into the saving knowledge of God’s love’. Which of course, is the fullest expression of our calling as Christians!

And in my experience, it is only possible to teach of the love of God by demonstrating that same love…demonstrating that same compassion…that same forgiveness…and the same mercy that was first extended to each and every one of us. Being ‘saved’, is simply being willing to spend your life in imitation of the love shown to us by Jesus. Being ‘saved’, is accepting the fact that God loves you as you areas you have been, and as you will become…and…that God feels that you are worth the time and effort required to bring your likeness into a clearer and closer reflection of Jesus our Lord. Being saved means you are willingly in the process of becoming a disciple of grace…it is fully a journey that is life-long, and not a destination simply to be hoped for!

Now…all that said…what in the world does all that have to do with our gospel reading for today? Good question! But one I think we may find the answer to, if we look closely at the actions of both Jesus, and the man who accosted him there in the Temple that morning.

Our passage tells us that as Jesus taught in the Temple that day, those there listening were absolutely amazed and surprised at the clarity and care with which Jesus spoke truth to life from the ancient texts. Somehow his teaching from the ancient scrolls seemed to speak deeply into their own individual situations, his words seemed able to find each one of them, as though speaking directly into the heart of each one there. Never before had anyone opened up the old and familiar scriptures in a way that so revealed the true and loving nature of God, while at the same time zeroing in on the inner story and landscape of each one in the gathering. Jesus spoke with authority, as one who was on a mission, as one who came to tell them something new and important about life, and about their life together.

This stranger had found them, and had located them, and it was not all that comfortable for everyone there. Not everyone had come to Temple that morning seeking to be challenged to the very core of their being…not everyone there wanted to listen to this upstart Rabbi who had a knack for intruding on their comfort and causing them to look at life in a far different way. For the voice of the Lord always carries with it a call to deeper relationship and deeper engagement in things often opposed to the status quo.

And somewhere in that room there was one in particular who was really hearing Jesus…one deeply unsettled by the words that seemed to go right to the heart of the struggle within him. This individual felt fully exposed by what Jesus was saying…he felt as though he had been found out…found out in all of his hiding places, in all of his secret and at times less-than-holy nature.

And as Jesus continued speaking, sharing the loving and saving message of this God of unconditional love and loving kindness,  there came a point when this individual could no longer take it and suddenly he burst out, shouting and disrupting Jesus and causing quite a stir among the others gathered there. Jesus’ words had penetrated so deeply into his soul that he had come face to face with the reality that Jesus himself was indeed the living image of God. He knew without anyone telling him or even hinting at the possibility, that Jesus was in fact sent from God…sent right into the very center of his soul…sent to disrupt his trial and darkness-riddled life, sent to lovingly call him out of that dark shadow into something entirely different.

And so he shouted out at Jesus, asking him what exactly he wanted of him…calling him the ‘Son of God’ which had to have immediately caught the attention of everyone else there. Not only had this apparently very disturbed man disrupted the whole assembly, he had also made a very dangerous claim. Surely the rest of those in the gathering had to have been caught completely off guard at this strange outburst which so offended their sense of proper behavior and decorum in the Temple service.  Surely they saw this man as deeply disturbed and of unsound mind, perhaps even thinking he was possessed by something they could not understand, perhaps something demonic and frightening.

And as Jesus looked over at him, the whole assembly had to have hushed in anticipation, for this was such an unheard of exchange within Temple tradition and protocol. Jesus looked over at this one who was in such inner turmoil and distress with the deepest of compassion. Indeed he could see the conflict absolutely wrenching the man apart from the inside out.  Catching the troubled man’s eye Jesus said simply, ‘Be silent, and come out of him’. Immediately the man was restored to calm, everything that had so disturbed him just a minute before, was washed away in the loving and all-forgiving look of Jesus. All of the bondage, guilt, and sin-sickness of a lifetime was brought to the fore and completely forgiven. A life filled with fear, worry, and self-loathing was healed in an instant, as the loving glance of Jesus truly found him, giving him the assurance that a whole and healthy relationship was still possible between him and God.

This man, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, was not only restored and liberated by the love of God, but in truth this man was saved in that moment…saved from the deadening burden of a life controlled by forces other than love…saved from fear, from worry, and from the separation of a broken relationship with our Lord of love. This man, this one who reacted so strongly to the breaking in of God’s light and love upon his inner soul, is the first account we have of Jesus extending the true salvation he came to offer. And that ‘salvation’ , that liberation from all that holds us back, or binds us up, is the same thing still offered to each one of us every moment we remember Jesus is there.

Our Lord of love offers us the opportunity to stand saved, forgiven and loved before the throne of grace, accepting us just as we are, with all past moments of sin or weakness gone forever as they are swallowed up in a sea of forgetfulness. As the true light of Christ pushes its way into all the inner spaces of our hearts it ‘saves us’, cleansing us fully anew, and leading us forward, that we might truly live into the commandment to love one another just as Jesus first loved us.

And you know, that man there in the Temple was really not any different from any one of us. Each of us has inner places of darkness and sadness, each of us has done things in our past for which we are ashamed, putting us in need of divine reassurance of acceptance in the heart of God…each one of us is bound up with feelings of inadequacy, discouragement, loneliness, fear, or worry…all of which at times can bind up our hearts so tightly.  Somewhere as well, each one of us is afraid to be fully known to God, afraid we are not worthy of forgiving love, or unconditional acceptance…unsure of the salvation Jesus so freely offers to us all.

The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ came in like a thunderclap before all those gathered that day in the Temple. Each one was amazed at the power and authority with which Jesus’ words first found them, and then entered into their own story, how his words and actions broke in upon their inner feelings of inadequacy and need.  And each one was blessed to see the power of love acted out right there in front of them as they saw one of their own first embrace the deep challenge of Jesus’ message…and then receive the greatest gift…that of a restored relationship with the Lord.  Salvation was offered there that morning and at least one man had the courage to embrace it…

Then, and now, our Lord Jesus stands ready to call us into newness of life and relationship…both with each other, and with God.  Then, and now, the words of Jesus always spoken with love and authority are able to pierce through the hardest of resolves, and the toughest of unbelieving hearts to extend God’s offer of salvation…an offer of deliverance unto newness of life and purpose starting right now…not at some far off point in the future.

So…when you are challenged by the teachings and actions of Jesus…when the discomfort within you caused by unfulfilled potential and unmet dreams crashes against the call to love even more deeply, don’t hold back your inner cry of anguish, for the loss of past understandings can at times be fearful and painful. Go ahead and shout out to the Lord and insist that he reveal himself to you in all fullness…for he most surely will do so…

And then…surrender to the one whose soft and sure response simply calls you to himself.  Lose your past worry, fear, and pain in the glance of the one who looks at you with such all-encompassing grace and compassion…lose yourself in the salvation of our God as you enter fully into holy and blessed relationship with him.

For true salvation…begins at this point of contact…at the very moment when the loving touch of God breaks into your heart and you receive it…at the moment when all of the turmoil within you and all of the deafening voices clamoring for your attention are silenced by the words, ‘Be silent, and come out’. When the overpowering love of our God finds you, calls, and then in mercy welcomes you into the forevermore of relationship…that my friends, is true salvation…that is being saved…


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