“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come here to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God.”
First, no, he hasn’t come here to destroy, but to save us. He’s come to destroy all evil, yes. But to save us. “Have you come here to destroy us?” is a question directed at Jesus by a raging, mad demon who knows his time is up. The demon is the one destroying the poor man he possesses by his ravaging nature. Yet, in the irony of ironies, he fears being destroyed by the Holy One of God. Jesus destroys demons, and saves us, the people he loves. He destroys the results of the sin of Adam, but saves those who turn away from the sin of Adam.
And second, “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” At least the unclean spirit made an honest admission before being destroyed by Jesus, like the Patriots will do to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl next week. This honest and correct admission of the unclean spirit is spoken out of fear. The sort of fear that sees before it, its own destruction. It’s all negative with unclean spirits. Their nature is fully corrupt.
Our honest and correct admission of Jesus is spoken, I pray, from faith and love, and not from abnormal fear. We believe in him because he promises a gift that will bring eternal joy to our souls first, and our bodies in the resurrection. This is what our faith is built upon. And we love him not only because he died for us – we love those who make great sacrifices for us, like parents and grandparents – but we love him also because he stands by us through thick and thin right now.
As a preacher, I have a slight hesitancy to present Jesus to you as a friend. But his friendship is a notable part of our relationship with him. A faithful friend is someone who stays with you through the good times and the bad, in sickness and in health. Christ does this for us, and I pray that over the length of our years, we come to know this intimately.
My hesitancy is caused by our seeing Jesus only as a friend; a nice guy who cares about us; a man who spoke some friendly words of teaching; healed a few sick people; and was put to death by some pretty bad people. Jesus is a friend, as the possessed man in the Gospel comes to know. Jesus is there for him. But he’s more than a friend; he is God and Savior of the world.
As our Lord begins his ministry early in Mark’s Gospel, the first miracle that comes to us through this Gospel writer is one of destroying that which is unclean. This is how he baptizes our world. The man with the unclean spirit is the one who claims the center of our attention in this story, and much less so the demon. There’s a grave danger today that many souls are offering their attention to the ways of the demons, as they play with fire, and not to the cleansing. Our Christian focus is to be on the man who is healed by the power of God, and less on the power of a wayward spirit who loses the battle in the end.
The time that the unclean spirit spent in possession of the man who was bedeviled by it, was limited time. If our attention remains true to Christ, and not offer any degree of allegiance to their evil ways, any unclean spirits become temporary. Our attention is directed toward the saving power of God; towards the positive, the good; the loving; the forgiving. This first healing in Mark’s Gospel is like the first explicit experience of the Sacrament of Reconciliation in all the Gospels. The unclean man is made clean by the power of Christ. And here it is; the first spiritual and physical message of Jesus in his opening encounter with the crowds after beginning his public ministry. It’s not by chance or happenstance that our Lord’s forgiveness is first up. Forgiveness is the leadoff batter to many other virtues to follow in the lineup.
He came to fix a broken world. And the first fix that God had in mind was to fix the sin of Adam and Eve. The only way to fix that debacle in the Garden is to clean that which is unclean, and destroy the unclean. Jesus sees not only an unclean spirit controlling the life of a man that Jesus loves and created. He sees the effects of the Garden of Eden event in that mad spirit before him, and does what he does best; he runs it over with the Mack Truck he drove down from heaven. He flattens that spirit, like the Patriots are going to flatten the Eagles. I would have let Jesus borrow my UPS truck for such a noble purpose.
As I speak so much about he unclean spirit here, our attention is centered more on the man made clean by the touch of God. Aren’t we always happy to see someone recover from any dreadful condition? The loving touch in this story is the spoken word, “Quiet! Come out of him!” As long as our hearts are given to him, the Lord doesn’t rebuke us like that. He calls us to continual repentance for sure. But he doesn’t rebuke us in this way. His love is kind, gentle, and patient, as long as our hearts are given to him. We are not the unclean spirit; we are the man he healed and made whole. This incredible gift of being made whole is already partly realized in the present, if we so desire it. It will be fully known after we go through the Pearly Gates.
The first action of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is the action of cleaning the unclean in his path. The heavenly tornado. Just like the Patriots are going to clean up the Eagles. Get out of the way!
He offers to us the clean. The shiny soul. The bright heart. All that is good for us. The first action of Jesus is a profound act of love. And for this we give thanks to our Lord and Savior.
One good turning away from deserves another good turning away from.
When the Ninevites turned away from their evil ways after hearing the cry of Jonah that their city was going to be destroyed in 40 days, which God would have carried out, instead of a false missile landing in Hawaii in 40 minutes after hitting the wrong button, the Ninevites turned away from their evil ways, knowing it was not a false alarm from God. The voice of Jonah caught. It reached their ears and their hearts, unlike others today who are not heeding the warnings of evil practices and evil ways.
By turning away from their pagan practices, and turning toward the mercy of Jonah’s God, who is God, God copied the Ninevites’ good choice and repented of the evil he had threatened to perpetrate on them. Mercy won out over violence, as it always does with God, and as it always should in our personal relationships. The cry of forgiveness beat the ways of violence, in the same way the Patriots will beat Jacksonville today.
One good turning away from not only deserves another, but will cause, in many situations, another turning way from something that avoids destruction and heartache. The power behind the first reading from Jonah cannot be underestimated in its effect in our lives, and how it should unequivocally touch us very personally. This reading is a method for how to find peace.
We see the same religious thought in today’s 2nd reading; one good turning away from deserves another, but in a slightly different way from Jonah, the Ninevites, and God. In St. Paul’s Letter to the people of Corinth who are now Christians, Paul gives them a new way of seeing the world in which they live, and not return to their old sinful ways. It’s a way that continues to speak to our lives today, revealing the continued relevance of Scripture throughout history for all people.
Before being baptized into Christ and learning the beautiful teachings of Jesus, the Corinthians were pagan non-believers who knew nothing about the one, true God, living totally for the material world in which they resided. In like manner of the many lost souls who still do today. But in this short reading, Paul is instructing these newer converts to turn away from the world for the reason that the world is passing. Even though God created the world and saw that it was very good (Genesis), God knew he created a passing world.
Paul didn’t arrive at this truth in his science class at Damascus High School where he grew up. His “world is passing” comment derives from his Christian understanding that there is now something called eternal life; something that says human beings can live forever with rejoicing, with no more weeping, no buying goods to own, and where a man and his wife is now a relationship that goes so far beyond the joys of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
Paul’s turning away is not too different from Jonah and the Ninevites, because to turn away from the world affected by the stain of Original Sin, and any of the enticements it holds for us – the greed, the power, the lust, the vengeance – to turn away from these present material realities, is to turn towards God. It’s a turning from the finite, the limited, to the infinite and the eternal. That is the penultimate Christian disposition in this life.
So, when Paul writes that the world in its present form is passing away, is that a religious statement of sadness, or a statement of hope? If we call ourselves Christian, then it is a scientific, religious statement of hope. Because the more the world as we know it passes away, the closer we draw toward the eternal perfection of heaven. May we make this beautiful truth central to our lives.
And in the Gospel today, it’s easy to see the turning away that occurs on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. One good turning away from here, deserves a turning toward. It is a daily challenge for us Christians. Peter, Andrew, James and John turn away from their boats, their livelihoods, their comfort zone, and to a large degree, from their families, and they turn towards working for Christ fulltime.
Not all of us are called to be Apostles, or missionaries, or priests or religious to work in a fulltime capacity for Christ. On my one day away each week – not my day off- if something comes my way, I put my superman suit back on, and head out to whatever’s going on. Whether it’s connected to the Parish, the Fire Department, or anything else.
But most of you do in fact do apostolic work in a different way. You turn away from the things you enjoy at times, you make sacrifices, you care for, support, and tend to your families. You minister to those who are emotionally hurting and physically ill in your families, neighbors, and friends. You show Christian concern for how someone may be doing, rather than being consumed by selfishness. These are just a few of the thousand ways in which you leave your boat, your comfort zone, and turn to do the Lord’s bidding.
This turning toward actions of sacrificial love on our part when and where they are needed, participates in the reason why the Apostles left their nets behind for Christ. Any action of Christian love on our part, even the smallest action, is a participation in the salvation of souls. Every action of love on our part turns away from a passing world, and makes the kingdom of God at hand right now. It leaves the boat of this world, and sees that Christ Jesus has called us to something greater than a passing world. He has called us to hope.
Peter, Andrew, James and John turn from their boats so quickly because they visualize a whole new world in Christ. They like what they see. In him alone is the fullness of our deepest joys.
One good turning away from deserves another. Turn from a passing world, and turn to him who is eternal.
Wouldn’t it be nice to know a few more details about the calling of the Apostles? Such as, when the 2 Disciples went to stay with Jesus for the day, what did they discuss? What were the topics of their conversation? Did they talk sports? Did they discuss matters of heaven and earth? Almost certainly they did. Did Jesus say anything to Simon before he changed his name to Cephas? It seems odd that the first words Jesus would speak in the presence of Simon are words that changed his name. There had to be some conversation between Jesus and Simon prior to the name-changing.
We find all these smaller details absent from this encounter between our Lord and two Disciples, and a third named Peter. Inquiring minds wish to know the minute details. But it’s the big details that the Gospel writer attends to while giving us room to interpret the rest of the story.
And the big detail in our readings on the 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, is the big detail of Calling. Or, being called. Or, even more specific, being called by God, which all of us have been. It’s appropriate that the calling of the first Apostles is the Gospel reading for the beginning of Ordinary Time, shortly after the start of a New Year, because a calling is a new beginning. It’s the start of something new, in this case the start of faith in Christ, and that he is in fact what Andrew speaks about him in John’s Gospel; “We have found the Messiah.”
How could Andrew know so quickly the truest words he would ever speak? He hears John call Jesus the Lamb of God; causing Andrew to follow Jesus; then stays with him at his place for a day; and Bang! The words to Simon, ‘We found the Messiah!”
What are all the details in between? How did Andrew arrive at those words? We don’t just come to that conclusion by hearing something said about him, follow him for a short distance, stay with him for half a day, and then conclude he’s the Anointed One of God, which you say to your brother named Simon. I want to know all the details about how Andrew arrived at those words.
So, I guess we’ll have to wait until I drive my UPS truck through the Pearly Gates of heaven, with all of you as my packages. Hop on board! At one time I would have said we’ll have to wait until the Red Sox won the World Series, or the Patriots won the Super Bowl, but we don’t have to wait for that anymore. Some details we’ll just never know.
Truth be told, as much as any curious person wants to know all the smaller details regarding Andrew’s final assessment of Jesus, it’s the one big detail of the Calling that makes the front page of the Gospel. It’s on the front page of our Catholic newspaper because it’s the first thing we are to notice about ourselves in order to understand and live the rest of the story. All of us have been called to follow and work for Christ; to find the Messiah as Andrew did from that day forward.
This is an everyday assignment in ways where we are to share the front-page news of our personal newspaper with the world each day. The headline on Monday is the same headline on Tuesday, and likewise on Wednesday, and so forth; “Jesus Is Calling Me To Follow Him.” The small details that follow the one major headline produce a different story each day, depending on what God is sending into our lives that given day. No two days of the smaller details are the same, even though the major headline remains the same; “Jesus Is Calling Me To Follow Him.”
In the first reading today, where it looks like God is playing a game of hide-and-seek with Samuel, we gain some understanding of one aspect of the one big detail of Calling; that God is persistent, gentle, and patient. God calls Samuel three times in this reading. After the second calling when Samuel still didn’t put the puzzle together, God doesn’t say, “That’s it! I give up! He doesn’t get it! He’s not smart enough!”
No, God is persistent, while also being gentle; “Samuel, Samuel.” A tiny whispering sound of Samuel’s name. Almost spoken in holy silence, the same way God calls us; through gentleness. And God is patient, waiting for Samuel to figure out the truth of who is calling him. The Lord will wait years, if he has to, for us to listen to the Voice that speaks to our hearts.
This is a very moving scene where Samuel opens his life to the service of God’s will for him. There are many details of goodness that will follow in the life of Samuel, in the same way they have happened in our lives, much of which will be known to God alone. The big detail here is the Calling, that makes all the small details of God’s love possible.
So, as Andrew and the other Disciple sat with Jesus for a day and discussed things of heaven and earth, and how the Patriots are going to destroy the Tennessee Titans tonight, the smaller details of their time together are known in the mind of God alone, and not in ours. But the big headline, the Calling, we know about.
Jesus called them by name to continue his work after he ascended. We are called to the same as Andrew and Simon Peter, with no fear and the love of God in our hearts.
It’s natural to rest when we’re tired. It’s natural to eat when we’re hungry, or drink when we’re thirsty, and to dress up warm when it’s bitter cold outside. It’s natural to turn the heat on in our vehicles on mornings when the wind chill registers in the negative numbers, rather than driving on the highway with all the windows down so we can freeze ourselves. It’s natural for planes and blimps to fly, and for trains to ride the track. When it goes off the track, it’s not good news, because it loses its natural purpose for existence.
So much of what we do is second nature, or natural, that we don’t think about it when we’re doing it. We just do it in order to satisfy some aspect of our life, hoping to complete it safely and well. It doesn’t always work out that way, as we know. I had an on-call overnight stint at UMass and Memorial earlier this week, and one of the calls was to speak with a family of a woman patient who was eating a meal at a restaurant, began choking on her food, and now was to the point where the family made the tough decision of having to remove all the medical machinery. Just one example of the many each day throughout the world where occasions and simple events, like eating out as many people do, may not end as expected.
However, much of what we do is natural, second nature, no thought of ending in any way than what is expected. In our celebration of the Epiphany, the Church gives us these readings today to help us understand, among other reasons, how the most natural course of the human person is to journey toward the One who is our Creator. To travel another road in life other than the one that leads to the eternal and fulfilling presence of God is to travel an unnatural road. A road that will lead to frustration, to hopelessness, to misery, and ultimately to spiritual destruction.
If the Magi, the Three Wise Men, had stayed home and not followed the star, or traveled away from the star rather toward it, a star that was most natural to their livelihoods as astrologers, then it would have been time for them to hang up their telescopes. Or put them up for auction on eBay. It would have been the most unnatural choice they ever would have made in the history of their stargazing and looking into the heavens. Instead, they made the natural choice, and they followed the inviting star. They followed the star through storms, through calm, through the uncertainty of where the star was going to stop. Where is this star leading us? Where is Jesus leading us, as we follow his star?
Rather than stay home in the safety of their warm living rooms, with cable tv and delivery pizza, the Magi pack their bags after noticing this unusual star and traveled a journey that held many uncertainties, full speed ahead to Bethlehem, even though they lacked knowledge of where the star was leading them. They trusted the star to be legitimate.
The Three Wise Men offer us a couple of basic understandings of what each of us is in the midst of doing in our spiritual lives. First, that looking for Christ in our daily living; that following him when times are tough with sandstorms and lack of direction; that coming here every Sabbath Day and receiving him in his word and in his Eucharist, is natural for us. It’s natural for every person to draw ourselves back to our Creator. To search him out. To desire his love and purpose for being born into a body like ours. It’s as natural as most New Englanders cheering for the Patriots and Red Sox. Chasing after God, chasing after our Savior Jesus, is natural. There is nothing more natural in this entire worldly existence than chasing after God. There are many who do not, living the most unnatural lives. But for those who do, may we know that our most basic human instincts are being fulfilled.
Second, the Magi teach us how to handle and address all the Herod’s we’re forced to face on this journey. They are the weeds among the wheat, which Jesus says don’t tear out the Herod’s lest we destroy some of the good wheat too.
When they enter the presence of Herod, the impression the story gives is that the Magi enter before the king with innocence and a strong dose of being naïve. You don’t walk up to wretched, violent Herod and say, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” That’s a death wish. It’s nothing short of miraculous that they left Herod’s presence alive. How did that happen? They must have had the best Guardian Angels. It’s the only reason I can discern.
When the Herod’s arrive for us, and indeed they will, and for some they already have, we do what the Magi did. Continue to follow the star. Why? Because we haven’t reached the Kingdom of Heaven yet. If the Magi were not so innocent and naïve concerning Herod’s intentions of wanting to destroy the child, they would have lived in fear for the remainder of their journey to Bethlehem.
We never have to live in spiritual fear as Christians, getting knocked off the course of following the star of Christ. He will provide the grace and strength needed to finish the race, as St. Paul wrote about himself. Take on the same determination the Magi possessed to finish the race, all the way o Bethlehem, all the way into the eternal presence of our Creator. It’s the most natural course for our lives.