Announcements come in many forms. You get a baby announcement in the mail and you think: Good news — and you know that it’s true. After all, why would anyone lie about having a baby? But, we get other announcements via snail mail or email that look like good news, but that you know are definitely not true: “Dearest John, I am a Nigerian prince and because you are a Christian man I would like to give you $1,000,000 if you could help me transfer $100,000,000 to America. Please help me by sending your social security number at your earliest convenience to my barrister via the link below.” That announcement when it arrives is definitely not good news and it is not true.
Sometimes good news is announced by a good friend. The King of Late Night Johnny Carson had his longtime pal and sidekick Ed McMahon announce for decades to the millions watching The Tonight Show what it was they were watching; who the guests would be; and who their host was by saying, “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” Still other times, good news is announced not by a friend, but by an adversary — if not an outright foe.
If you ever watched American Idol or X Factor, you know that all contestants had to get by the villainously harsh judge Simon Cowell. The British-born Cowell would sit there with a know-it-all grin delivering brutally honest judgments that could make dreams come true or that could instantly kill careers. Contestants knew that Cowell was not their friend. He was their critic. And if they were not sufficiently skilled, Cowell would announce the truth: A truth that could be trusted even if it was a truth that was delivered by a foe.
We get that right up front in the gospel that Mark is telling: an announcer who tells the truth about Jesus: Not because he is Jesus’ friend, but precisely because he is Jesus’ foe.
Jesus is in Capernaum, a Galilean fishing town, in the synagogue and Jesus is teaching. Boldly. Laying down the Word of God with authority. Suddenly, a man with an unclean spirit involuntarily shouts out: “Just what do you think you’re doing, Jesus? Yes, you: Jesus of Nazareth. Have you come here to destroy us? I know who you are: The Holy One of God!”
Jesus hears this and shouts back: “Shut up and go to hell!” And the unclean spirit crying bloody murder comes out of the man’s convulsing body leaving him right before Jesus. Right there. And word spread: This man — this God Man — his teaching, his deeds: They are righteous. He is righteous. This Jesus, he is an authority. He is something else.
- S. Lewis famously said:“Either Jesus was completely crazy or he was exactly who he said he was.” Here Jesus’ deeds speak louder than words. But there are words, too: Words announced by Jesus’ foe declaring that Jesus is the real deal.
Stories like the one we have today from Mark’s gospel are hard for us to deal with. We don’t know exactly what to make of them, I think, because over the centuries people like me in the religious-industrial complex have watered down Jesus. We preside over the rituals that have domesticated Jesus into a cleaned-up, tamed-down, consumer-tested, child-friendly, seeker-sensitive buddy for all of us who want to feel better about ourselves. Truth is, though, that Jesus didn’t come to sweeten up this old world. He came to usher in a new one.
Sometimes the best way to understand that and get that word is to receive it not from a conventional preacher like me, but from someone that is a little less concerned about our delicate sensibilities. Someone like Karl.
A bunch of us met Karl some years ago when we went to serve an evening meal to 200 homeless men in downtown Indianapolis at the Wheeler Rescue Mission. Karl was the kitchen steward, who gave us our jobs and supervised our work, and when we asked for a tour of Wheeler Mission, Karl said, “Sure. I’ll show you around. But how about if we start with me?” It wasn’t a question.
“Heroin made me homeless. Jesus made me whole. I lived on the street for 10 years. Before that, I had a good job, loving wife, great kids, a wonderful future. But I lost all that shooting up. When I ended up fired, divorced, and homeless, I ended up living like an animal. I have seen things that no one should see. My life was a walking death. I got to the point where I wanted to die. I prayed over and over and over, ‘Lord, take me.’”
“And the Lord did: Jesus took me off the street and brought me here to Wheeler Mission. When I gave my life to Jesus, he got me off heroin. I’m clean because of him. Now I’m in Wheeler’s Life with a Purpose Program. I go to recovery meetings; I’m learning a trade; I’m even saving up to get my own apartment. For ten years, I was an animal. Now, I’m a man. And I tell everyone this: It don’t matter how bad you think you’ve messed up because, if you give your life to Jesus, he will save you. That is what he does. That is what he did for me.”
Now, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis: Either Karl is completely crazy or he is where he is because Jesus is exactly who Jesus claimed to be.
How many of us here believe in Jesus; believe that, yes, Lord, you are who you say you are — but how many of us believe that, but also do not believe that that matters one bit to our lives today: “Oh sure, Jesus will do what he does — he will save me when I die. Years from now; in the sweet by and by. But whatever Jesus is going to do for me, he is going to do it then — and only then.” Not so, according to the Bible. Not so, according to Karl.
When you give your life to Jesus, that changes you. Sometimes changing us in dramatic ways. Sometimes changing us in incremental ways. But always changing us in ways that so that our lives are changed for good. Not just when we die in the future. But also right now.
That doesn’t mean that Jesus makes everything alright. Jesus does not whisk away the consequences of our past choices. Jesus does not “miracle away” the pain of past years. You should have seen Karl: You could tell how all those years of hard living had aged him: His weathered face was deeply wrinkled. His voice was gravelly. His arms were covered with do-it-yourself tattoos, leathery scars, and needle marks. He looked like hell, but hell didn’t hold him anymore. He had a new future. He was building on his dreams. He was helping others. His relationship with the Lord was alive: Karl spoke about his relationship with Jesus in such a way that you could tell that very his life depended on it. Because it did — and it does. Just like our lives do as well.
The spiritual writer Kathleen Norris says that from antiquity up until about 150 years ago, if someone was really plagued and tormented, people would say, “That person, they have a demon.” Today, Norris notes, people don’t much say that much anymore. Today we say, “That person has issues.” Like Norris, I think it doesn’t matter too much what you call it because the misery is the same. Did Karl have a demon? Or did Karl have issues? Doesn’t matter. Because whatever we want to call it, that “it” almost killed him. And that “it” was conquered by Christ.
If we think about everyone in the Wabash Avenue family of faith, I don’t think many of us would say that anyone in this congregation has a demon. But I think we would all agree that all of us here have issues: We drink too much or we have an eating disorder or we have never recovered from a tragedy or we are worried we are stuck in a stalled career or a lukewarm marriage or that we are going to outlive our money. We have a troubled child or a struggling spouse or a failing parent or a dysfunctional family. All of us — me included — have issues that keep us from fully living our lives. We have problems; things that have exiled us from our life; from our best days and brightest hopes and greatest dreams.
Jesus is the One who can help all of us exiles get home. And not just home as in get us to heaven after we give up the ghost. No. Jesus is the One who calls us by name in order to bring us to his side; in order to make us fully alive today.
What if that unclean spirit was right: that Jesus is here to destroy death? What if Karl is right: that Jesus is here to destroy death by giving us life? A brand new life with him?
If that is true, then Jesus is here — today — now — to make you a new creation. A new person. One whose life can be filled with compassion, gentleness, hope, and love. If you have things that are stifling your life, Jesus can resurrect you and help you toward a brand, new future today. Maybe, like Karl, you need to get yourself regularly to recovery meetings. Maybe you need to work on an unresolved issue with a counselor or therapist who can help you work with God to overcome what has been troubling you for so long. Maybe you need to listen to your doctor who has been urging you for some time to make a change you’ve been stiff-arming. Whatever it is that has exiled you from the life God seeks to give you, Jesus can get you there. Whatever you fear, Christ can conquer. Just turn to him and work with him and that new day will dawn.
Thank heavens, that new day already has. It is here because Jesus Christ is risen today. You can be resurrected, too. Jesus will not fail you.