Archive for February, 2015

The Needed Oil

Posted: February 23, 2015 in Book and Article Reviews

Ash Wednesday is one of my favorite observances of the Church year.  We recognize our dust, our nothingness without God’s Spirit breathing new life into us.  These two realities are symbolized in the ash and oil mixed together that is applied as a paste in the sign of the cross on the foreheads of believers as they prepare for the Lenten journey toward Easter.  In my preparation for Wednesday night I used all of the oil I had left for my batch of ashes.

Sunday morning rolled around.  We were preparing to baptize our daughter.  I had set out the water and the towel.  It then struck me… I had no oil.  Oil is an essential part of baptism.  After sprinkling the water on the infant’s head, oil is applied in the sign of the cross on the forehead as a tangible expression of the Spirit’s blessing.  We had no oil.  Major problem.  I panicked because I literally have no place to go quickly and pick up oil for anointing.  What to do!?

It wasn’t too long after this moment of shock a congregant approached me.  She had received a letter in the mail and had received something in it she didn’t need.  She thought we might be able to make use of it.  I was a little confused.  She handed me a small vial of anointing oil.  Stunned doesn’t begin to cover the sensation I experienced.  God had provided what we needed in an unexpected way.

I’m hardly advocating that we come into worship unprepared.  But, it was a tangible reminder that God is the one that provides for the needs of the worshiping community – even before we know what we need.  And, as oil is the sign of the life of the Spirit in our midst, it was also a visible token of God’s continued presence in our midst.  May the Spirit enliven our ashes, empower us to live out our baptisms, and inspire our worship.

The most popular conceptions of baptism revolve around what is typically called “believer’s baptism.”  A significant transformation or yielding of our heart to God is followed by a public proclamation of our intent to follow God and God alone.  In Evangelical circles, that is the typical way of understanding the purpose of baptism.  It is something I do in response to something God has done.

When baby baptism is discussed in these circles, it is sometimes looked at with suspicion.  If baptism is something I do, then how can the child possibly be baptized if they are unable to really respond?  Isn’t that cutting baptism short?  The quick answer is “yes” if baptism is about our response.

However, there are other modes of baptism even within the scriptures itself.  For instance, entire families that came to faith would sometimes be baptized, which included servants and children.  The early Church initiated a three year period of testing before being baptized in order to see that your life reflected the change you proclaimed, but baptism itself was not the proclamation of the individual.  Rather, it was the affirmation from the Church to God’s transformation in your life.  Baptism, throughout its history, has not always had one particular way of understanding what is happening.

Thinking back to Jesus’ own baptism is helpful as well.  Jesus is baptized under John’s baptism of repentance (believer’s baptism?).  Yet, Jesus has not sinned, nor does he.  Interesting.  In this baptism, Jesus is identifying with Israel’s sin.  As he rises out of the water, the Spirit descends upon him in the form of a dove.  The Father says, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.”  As such, the significance of the baptism isn’t in Jesus’ testimony but about the Father’s testimony about the Son.  This is where I think we can discern something about baptism that we have muted in believer’s baptisms.

The primary speaker in baptism is God, not us.  In baptism, we hear God speaking the words over the waters: “This is my child.”  These are the waters of death into which we are baptized, yes.  But, they are also the waters of creation from which new life emerges, which is rooted in God’s claim over the Creation: “This is mine.  It is good.”  Now, that does not entail that this vision of baptism negates the response of the creature.  In fact, a response is intended.

After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit blows him into the wilderness to be tested.  The Father has spoken over Jesus, saying that Jesus is God’s Son.  Now, in the wilderness, we will see if Jesus will continue to live into that vocation.  Satan tempts Jesus to misuse God’s gift, to chase artificial means of establishing God’s Kingdom, and to take shortcuts that avoid pain and suffering of the cross.  In other words, the issue at hand for Jesus is what does it look like to faithfully live as the Son.  Jesus’ response to God’s affirmation in baptism is to live in faithful obedience… even to death on a cross.

I was recently asked why I would want to baptize my child.  It’s a good question.  When my little girl comes to me and asks why she was baptized, I want to be able to say, “It is because God loved you so very much and says, ‘You are my child; I knit you in your mother’s womb.'”  John Wesley would call this preventing or prevenient grace (the grace that goes before).  God loves us first before we can love Him.  In raising our child as a disciple of Christ, my hope is that she will come to live out her baptism as a child of God.  As the Spirit blows her out into the wilderness, hopefully she will respond in faithful obedience.  Baptism is about God’s grace given to us.  I look forward to the day when my girl will be able to testify to God’s grace in her life as enacted in the waters of baptism.

The woman’s hands lie motionless next to her body.  The pain is a constant reminder of her aloneness, for it is her only companion.  The skin is peeled, cracked, and bleeding.  Sores lie open, some scabbed while others pucker with pus.  The skin is scaly and ashen, resembling sandpaper under her touch.  The stench of rotted flesh hangs over her like a specter.  It is the smell of death though she still breaths in shallow gasps.

Eyes closed tight to seal out the light, to bar the disease out of sight, she can barely recall the last time somebody was willing to hold her hand, to embrace her with the loving warmth of a hug.  After she was diagnosed, an invisible perimeter seemed to set itself around her separating her from friends and family.  Nobody dared venture too close for fear of contracting her disease.  The throb of loneliness nearly drowns out the pain of the sores.  Her hands sit empty, aching for another’s touch.

Would you grab that hand, risk contact?  Such a question might cause us to shudder in hesitation, fear, and caution.  We see her agony and anguish and possibly can’t imagine putting ourselves in her place.  Why would we put ourselves, our loved ones at risk by holding her hand?  If the world has taught us anything, it’s to take care of ourselves, measure the risk, and act accordingly.

We’re good at that – risk management.  We buy insurance for this purpose.  In the event that something unforeseen might happen, we should have our bases covered.  We buy house, car, medical, and life insurance to make sure that there is minimal, if any, risk that we might have to endure.  We insulate ourselves from risking too much for fear of losing anything, possibly everything.  The question remains: “Why would we risk reaching out and taking this woman’s hand?”

READ Mark 1:29-39

The Temple was a place of purity, of cleanliness.  To be part of the community, to be granted entrance into the Temple, a person had to be clean.  To be defiled or made unclean carried with it serious repercussions – even possible banishment from that community.  Being part of the life of the community required that holy people avoid the possibility of being polluted or tainted.

As an extension of the Temple, synagogues were no less stringent in their call for purity.  It was important to be set apart and to remain clean, but there was always the threat, the risk of becoming unclean.  Dead bodies, diseases, improper relationships, violating dietary laws, wearing clothes made of the wrong kind of material.  The list was endless.  The world is full of things and people that desecrate the sacred and tarnish the holy.  Holy people avoid those places and people that might contaminate.

There were a lot of things to consider, but rabbis and priests were cautious to avoid coming into contact with the unholy and impure.  In fact, if they happened upon a man mugged on the road, they might even cross over to the other side to avoid any possibility of contact with a dead person or, at the very least, a bleeding person.

Jesus, a rabbi, walks from the synagogue, a holy place, to the home of Peter’s mother-in-law.  The door swings wide to allow the group entrance – James, John, Peter, Andrew, and Jesus.  Others are in the room, lines of worry crease their faces.  One of them notices the rabbi that enters and immediately steps toward to him.  “Rabbi, Peter’s mother-in-law is deathly ill.  Her fever hasn’t broke and I’m afraid she may not have much longer.  I wouldn’t come in, if I were you.  You don’t want to become ceremonially unclean.”  We don’t know if that was the conversation starter, but I can imagine the conversation going in that direction.

Perhaps other voices join in, granting Jesus permission to leave, begging him to leave before it’s too late.  It is too risky to stay or to go in to see her.  Jesus shouldn’t risk contact with that which is diseased and unclean.  Maybe they thank him for coming as they try to usher him out the door.

There are always voices that caution us about getting too close to those who are considered contagious and diseased by our society.  Sometimes the voices are from people around us and sometimes it’s our own voice.  These voices tell us to proceed through life with caution, keep those that are diseased, defiled, and desecrated at a distance.  Don’t get too close.

The woman with the diseased hands and skin reminds us that there are just some risks that are too big.  We are compassionate people, but we have our limits.  We are compassionate within reason, as long as there is no great cost to ourselves or to our loved ones.  We don’t mind helping others as long as it isn’t too burdensome, tiresome, or demanding.

In the mid-1800’s, the Kingdom of Hawaii created “a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Moloka’i” (www.wikipedia.com).  It was a quarantine designed to isolate the people suffering from Hansen’s disease, sometimes known as leprosy, so that they wouldn’t infect others.  The people suffering from Hansen’s disease were eventually left on their own with little care given from the outside.  They were neglected and avoided.  It could be deadly to be in contact with these individuals.  The voices of society spoke loudly, “Don’t get too close; don’t risk contact.”

We’re not sure what happens in the conversation between Jesus and those gathered in the house, but we do know that Jesus goes to see Peter’s mother-in-law following this dialogue.  If those gathered in the house caution him about the risk of seeing Peter’s mother-in-law in her current state, Jesus does not heed their warning.  Instead, he draws close to her and raises her up.  He grabs her hands, he risks become ceremonially unclean, and he raises her.  It’s resurrection language – death to new life.  She is healed, her fever is gone, life has come.

The woman, now healed by Jesus’ touch, begins to “serve him.”  The word for serve is diakoneo, the word from which we derive “deacon.”  The word creates a web of connection for us.  The woman receives healing for her disease and her grateful response is to begin serving Jesus in return.  The Kingdom that Jesus has been proclaiming on the beach, in the synagogue, and now enacting in this woman’s life, is in turn embodied in her loving service to Jesus.

The act of humble service the woman offers back to Jesus enacts and embodies the freedom which God’s Kingdom proclaims.  The Kingdom manifests itself, reveals itself, in the self-giving action of this peasant woman.  It is easy to presume, as we often have, that service to Jesus is without danger, without risk.  We don’t see risk in this woman’s act.  It appears simple and easy.

Fast forward to Jesus’ crucifixion outside the city walls, the place reserved for those accused of sedition and acts against Caesar’s kingdom.  Mark’s Gospel tells us that a group of women were standing there at the time of Jesus’ death.  It was dangerous to be associated with political criminals.  You might end up hanging with them.  But, wouldn’t it be a beautiful picture to think that Peter’s mother-in-law is among those women, watching, and weeping?  Wouldn’t it make sense that service to Jesus inevitably leads her to the Cross with Jesus?

Serving, giving up our very selves for the sake of others, is risky business.  It’s difficult and dangerous because it leads us to those places of intersecting the lives of others, sometimes even those that are deemed unclean, impure.  It’s quite possible that Peter’s mother-in-law stood at the foot of the Cross because that is exactly where her humble service to Jesus led her.  In living out this grateful response to Jesus, she unfolds before our eyes what it means to be a member of the Church – humble servants.

Mark’s Gospel tells us that word slips out about Jesus.  Peter’s mother-in-law has been healed by this rabbi.  When the sun sets, people begin bringing those who need healing to Jesus.  In fact, it says that the whole city comes to the door to find healing, to find Jesus.  All through the depth of the inky blackness of night, Jesus heals and sets people free from their afflictions – from disease, death, and the demonic forces that dominate their lives.

All night… perhaps it felt like the dawn would never break.  Perhaps in giving and giving and giving, it felt like the night would never draw to an end but endure forever.  When we confront the brokenness of the world, it always feels overwhelming and over-large!  God, will the night ever end?!  Serving others can feel like the night that never ends as we are bombarded by wave after wave of those who are hurting and helpless.

Perhaps that is what the Kingdom of Hawaii experienced in the mid-1800’s with the leper colony.  The problem was so overwhelming, heartbreaking, and difficult that it was just easier to ignore it, to hide the problem away, and to maintain silence about the pain.  Rather than serving those that were afflicted, it was more convenient to avert their eyes from the suffering.  When the night will not end, sometimes we feel the only option is to run from the problems or to ignore that they even exist.

Mark’s Gospel says that while it was still dark, Jesus left the house.  He left the people.  He went to a secluded place.  Is Jesus running from the darkness, turning his eyes from the hurting people?  Perhaps he has had enough, and who can blame him?  Except for a little phrase that alerts us to something else – Jesus praying.  Is prayer an escape?  Is it a way to ignore the world’s deep pain?  Does it resemble our quick remark to another’s pain, “Yeah, I’ll pray for you,” that allows us to save face while avoiding entering into their pain and sorrow with them?

We might think this is what Jesus does – prays like we sometimes pray to avoid being bothered by the problems of our world.  But, the story continues.  Jesus’ time of prayer does not cause him to remain secluded, removed from the world’s hurt and pain.  Instead, prayer draws him back toward it to proclaim the Kingdom’s healing for those who draw near.

When the disciples find Jesus praying, they alert him that “everyone is still looking for him.”  His response is not to run from the needs that press but says, “Let us go somewhere else to the towns nearby, so that I may preach there also; for that is what I came for.”[1]  If prayer draws Jesus away from the world’s pain, it is a temporary respite so that he might be re-energized to go back into the darkness as light piercing the shadow.  He continues his preaching of the Kingdom throughout Galilee, willingly risking his life to be brought into close proximity to those deemed unclean.  The unclean, in Jesus’ presence, are made clean, whole, and empowered to serve.

Recall the story about the leper colony.  John Ortberg writes about a surprising end to the tale: “Father Damien was a priest who became famous for his willingness to serve lepers.  He moved to Kalawao – a village on the island of Molokai, in Hawaii, that had been quarantined to serve as a leper colony.

For 16 years, he lived in their midst. He learned to speak their language. He bandaged their wounds, embraced the bodies no one else would touch, preached to hearts that would otherwise have been left alone. He organized schools, bands, and choirs. He built homes so that the lepers could have shelter. He built 2,000 coffins by hand so that, when they died, they could be buried with dignity.

Slowly, it was said, Kalawao became a place to live rather than a place to die, for Father Damien offered hope.

Father Damien was not careful about keeping his distance. He did nothing to separate himself from his people. He dipped his fingers in the poi bowl along with the patients. He shared his pipe. He did not always wash his hands after bandaging open sores. He got close. For this, the people loved him.

Then one day he stood up and began his sermon with two words: ‘We lepers….’  Now he wasn’t just helping them. Now he was one of them. From this day forward, he wasn’t just on their island; he was in their skin. First he had chosen to live as they lived; now he would die as they died. Now they were in it together.

One day God came to Earth and began his message: ‘We lepers….’

Now he wasn’t just helping us. Now he was one of us. Now he was in our skin. Now we were in it together” (John Ortberg, God Is Closer Than You Think).

Intersecting the lives of others is dangerous and messy, it is difficult and risky.  Service inevitably leads us to the Cross, to self-sacrifice for the sake of others.  To touch the hands of the lepers of our world means that we might suffer as they suffer.  Yet, by entering into their suffering, we both might find the healing of Jesus that raises us up and gives us life.

Jesus is willing to get himself dirty for the sake of others; he enters into life with us and for us.  He is willing to share the pain, the hurt, and the sorrow because that is the beginning of healing.  In response to such extravagant love, Jesus heals us and empowers us to be His servants for the sake of the world.  That entails suffering alongside the world, entering into its darkest places, and offering a word of hope through our presence and loving touch in their lives.

The question, I think, for us is: Who are today’s lepers?  Who are those most desperately needing the healing Jesus offers?  Who are those most neglected in our world, isolated, hurting, and sick?  Is it the widow without a family living in a nursing home waiting for visitors?  Is it the “illegal” aliens that cross the border seeking hope for a better life?  Is it the destitute couple whose medical bills are piling up, but have no way to pay their debt?  Who crosses our path that is like the leper and what would Jesus’ healing touch look like for those people?  Now, as Jesus’ hands and feet, go and serve them in this way…

[1] Revised Common Lectionary. (2009). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

Our initial glimpse into Jesus’ ministry places him in Galilee, the home of the ruling tetrarch, Herod Antipas.  Openly Jesus calls for disciples to follow him, proclaiming that a new kingdom is now being established.  It’s dangerous work, to be sure.  Caesar and the Herods were not exactly known for their willingness to tolerate other claims of authority and power.  They weren’t likely to reprimand you over a cup of coffee either.

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t bother giving us the details of Jesus’ childhood.  Instead, the narrative moves right into the thick of the tension which eventually leads to Jesus’ crucifixion – Rome’s way of dealing with those who were deemed un-patriotic.

Like two locomotives riding the same tracks destined for a head-on collision, Mark’s Gospel helps us to see that Caesar’s authority stands in total opposition to Jesus’ authority.  The course is set.  The battle lines are drawn.  We await to see if God’s Kingdom will be overcome by Caesar’s way in the world.

With all of this riding on the line, one might imagine that the confrontation between God’s Kingdom and Caesar’s kingdom might occur in Herod’s palace or some similar political venue.  Perhaps the city council or community philosophers and leaders would be the most appropriate audience to address.  Instead, the confrontation happens in the Jewish synagogue.

The synagogue was the local place of worship for faithful Jews.  It was the place to be reminded of who they were – God’s people – be being reminded through prayer, song, and scripture of the great narrative of God’s redemption of God’s people throughout time.  The synagogue served the community of faith as an arena of identity formation and counter-formation.

Worshiping communities have long played a significant role for calling into question the arrangement of power structures that benefit those in authority or positions of affluence.  The Psalms challenge this kind of power that is typically employed by Israel’s monarchy.  Over and over again, the royal monarchy’s certitudes are questioned by the community’s poetic songs of praise and lament.  Kings that have forgotten or neglected their role as spiritual guides and leaders are confronted by a God that judges and brings low the proud but exalts the humble.

All of this is brought to fruition through God-centered worship.  The ideology of power founders and crumbles in light of the community’s doxological imagination.  In other words, power is turned upside down by God’s power that is manifested as servanthood.  That is, after all, the point of God’s call to Israel in the wilderness: “You shall be to me a royal priesthood and a holy nation.”  God’s people embody God’s rule in the world be practicing dominion, not domination, of the world through self-giving service to it.

Jesus enters the synagogue on the Sabbath, a day wholly devoted to God, and begins teaching.  Those gathered to worship are astonished at his teaching because he taught “as one having power and authority, not as the scribes.”  It’s intriguing that the community is shocked, astounded because Jesus teaches with power, unlike their leaders.  Why is it that Jesus teaches with power while the scribes do not?  That is a troublesome question, but not one that we are unfamiliar with ourselves.  It should trouble us when the Gospel seems to lacking in power.

The word for scribe in the Greek in this passage is grammateis.  It is the same root-word from which we derive grammar.  In other words, the scribes were those members of the community of faith that majored in words – particularly those of scripture.  They were the keepers of the community’s language of worship.  Understanding the grammar of a language is to understand its life, the way it works and functions.

In saying that these scribes’ teaching lacks authority or power indicates that they truly don’t comprehend the grammar of scripture.  Their teaching lacks power because it has been divorced from the very thing from which its power is derived: God’s Spirit.  Jesus, it seems, preaches with a proper grammar.

Language is essential for our lives.  It shapes the way we live, how we think about the world, and how we understand our part in it.  Language is always a part of worship because worship is also trying to shape our vision of the world.  How destructive it is when our words are separated from God’s Word and our language is co-opted for another purpose.  When our worship-language is separated from God or re-directed for another purpose, our language is hi-jacked and often used in opposition to God.

Our words may still resemble the language of faith… but it has become a grotesque mutation.  In a very real sense, this kind of language, which possesses us, grabs hold of our very imagination through which we view the world, becomes demonic – that which is opposed to God.  And, when our imagination is gripped by something other than God, the results are usually devastatingly destructive for both individuals and communities.

It is perhaps very difficult to imagine being possessed.  In our rational, scientific culture, we are often suspicious of those things that cannot be directly observed through the senses, least of all demons and the like.  Yet, we often use the language of possession to talk about individuals or groups of people acting in destructive ways.  “He was beyond talking sense to, it was like he was out of his right mind.”  Or, “Such an uproar was whipped up in the auditorium that they lashed out at each other as if possessed by something, like a wind carrying a leaf in its grasp.”  Even if we don’t want to spiritualize it, speaking of “being possessed” is not out of our ordinary use of language.

One of my good friends, we’ll call him John, lives in this kind of reality.  His life revolves around work and football.  He works the night shift (so that he can get overtime) six days a week for 12 hours each day.  During football season, he travels to watch the Dallas Cowboys play every time they play at home.

Watching his Facebook status gives a fairly clear indication what drives him.  Money and sports.  That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t make an effort to be a loving husband and father.  He does.  But, you can see what is valuable to him because that is the very thing he hands on to his daughters.  The market economy has swallowed him whole.

If I were to leave the story there, you might be led to think that he doesn’t profess faith or attend church.  Quite the opposite.  But, his choices don’t seem at odds with his faith for the very reason that this kind of life is validated by the church he attends.  This particular church is every bit as possessed by consumerism, gaining more money and stuff, as he is.  The language of worship in this community has been manipulated to reflect the culture rather than a language reflective of God’s self-giving love.

Jesus’ sermon in the synagogue is interrupted by a man possessed by an unclean spirit.  He cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”  Us?  Wasn’t it just one man that had the impure spirit?  It’s possible to read this as the man having more than one spirit, although the word is singular in its usage here.  We have no idea who the man is, other than he appears to come from the congregation itself.  To speak of “us” seems to indicate, perhaps, not multiple spirits, but that this spirit which possesses this man, who has no identity outside of this synagogue, is the same spirit which possesses this worshiping community.

This community is amazed at Jesus’ powerful, authoritative teaching about God’s Kingdom.  The unclean spirit voices a question that asks what kind of power it is that Jesus wields.  “Have you come to destroy us?”  In other words: “Have you come to use your power like Herod and Caesar – to destroy us?  Have you come to fight fire with fire, sword with sword, power with power?”

The impure spirit follows this by saying it knows who Jesus is: “The Holy One of Israel.”  God, King of Israel and all Creation, stands in their midst in the person of Jesus.  How is God going to wield God’s power in establishing this new kingdom?  Will it resemble the kingdoms of Pharaoh, Babylon, Caesar, Herod, and Pilate?

Jesus immediately commands the unclean spirit: “Silence!”  Mark’s Gospel regularly has Jesus telling people to be silent, not to tell anyone about his identity.  In each of these situations, it’s typically because Jesus doesn’t want his identity to be misinterpreted.  In this case, Jesus doesn’t want the unclean spirit to give testimony, to give shape, to define who and what Jesus is to the community of worship.

Oh, this synagogue isn’t the first community of faith to wrestle with these kinds of issues.  As the old joke goes: “God made us in His image and we returned the favor.”  Too often we have allowed our language of worship to be re-tooled and re-oriented to define God on our terms.  It’s interesting that when this happens, God begins looking a lot like us.

Look down through art history for a perfectly good demonstration.  Whenever a culture picks up a paintbrush and pictures Jesus, oddly enough he typically doesn’t look Jewish.  He resembles the culture that paints him.  God, I’m afraid, doesn’t fare much better.  Jesus silences the unclean spirit so that the Kingdom Jesus proclaims is not re-framed as merely another kingdom, another power like those already operational in this world.

Again, in response to the kind of power Jesus would wield as coming King-Messiah, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man.  Simply put, Jesus utilizes his power to set those who are captive to the powers of this world free.  This kind of freedom in the worshiping community means that its language can once again be aimed toward its proper goal: God and His coming Kingdom.  To be brought out of slavery, a new Exodus, means that this worshiping community can begin to embody God’s new way of power in the world: self-giving love that denounces power used to oppress, to enslave, and to destroy.

It’s interesting that the loudest voice among the worshiping community that Jesus encounters is the man with an unclean spirit.  Sometimes those that offer the loudest opposition to God’s coming Kingdom are those who have the most to lose because they have become so deeply entrenched in our culture’s way of life – or, more appropriately, way of death.  Jesus’ Kingdom comes as a challenge to us all.

In fact, the community that witnesses Jesus casting out of the demonic is quite amazed by his power yet again.  It’s hard to tell if they are awed in such a way that they are drawn to follow him and become citizens in God’s Kingdom rather than Caesar’s.  Or, possibly they are awed but wary of what this might mean for them – they too might have to be cleaned of that which is unclean.  It’s difficult to say what happens because the story doesn’t tell us completely.  It’s open ended.

But, the story does suggest what is possible in our condition of being possessed by the narratives, the language of this world.  Jesus is able to free us, to draw us out of that which stands opposed to God’s way of life.  Jesus is able to speak a new word in our midst that breaks the chains, breaks the silence.  Jesus breaks the power of the demonic over this community, so that they might be possessed by God’s holy love.  Which is not to say that God controls us like marionette dolls, but that we are inspired, energized by God’s love.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:13-21: “If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are in our right minds, it is for your benefit. 14 Either way, Christ’s love controls us. Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. 15 He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

16 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” 21 For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”

When God confronts us with those things that have taken hold of us, pulling us from God, our first reaction should be to find ourselves in a posture of prayer – seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.  I know my own reaction has been like that spirit in offering loud counter-arguments, deflections, and justifications to God’s convictions.  Sometimes my worship reflects how deeply I have been enslaved by the world.  Yet, it is precisely in the worshiping community where Christ Jesus speaks a liberating word of new life possibilities that can set me free from my enslavement.

The unclean spirit takes many forms.  It can be like my friend that has become so consumed with entertainment and acquiring more money and stuff.  The spirit of violence that causes us to lash out against those that are not like us because we feel threatened by their ideas or presence.  The spirit of greed which hordes needed resources without sharing them with those that cannot afford basic necessities.  The spirit of busyness which keeps us so pre-occupied that we have no time for God or God’s community (which should include our family).  There are many others that I could name and some you could probably add.  The unclean spirit takes on many forms but all lead to the same place: Death.

Jesus desires to cast out those things that have become so important to us and to replace it with God’s holy love, which can purify us through and through.  A love that empowers us to live as fully human, fulfilling our God-given call to be a reflection of God’s self-giving love.  A community of worship whose language reflects God’s character in this way will surely offer a better world, a new way to use power in serving one another.

Jesus still speaks with power today, calling us to “follow him.”  To be led out of our bondage, even as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.  God desires to deliver us from the things that have such a powerful grip on our life as both individuals and a worshiping community, so that we are no longer possessed by the kingdoms of this world but gripped by God’s life-giving Spirit, enabling us to live as God’s Kingdom-people.