"The First and Last Word: Hope"

Date Sunday January 28, 2018
Service Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Text Mark 1:21-28
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Couldn’t it Happen to Us Too?"
Next Sermon "Win Regardless of the Score"

     Two million Americans are dependent on opioids; for most it is an addiction, which is why, due to overdoses, opioids are the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. If we asked why this opioid crisis exists, many theories would be offered.

     Some would say that physicians over-prescribed these pain-killers, and when they stopped doing so, people turned to heroin. Others blame pharmaceutical companies for being aggressive (and some would say dishonest) in marketing these drugs. Health insurers are responsible, it’s said, because they are more likely to cover these drugs than alternative therapies or addiction treatment. And, socio-economic factors make the list – particularly the lack of job opportunities that offer a living wage and health insurance.

     I suppose that’s just the beginning of the list of answers to “why” there is an opioid epidemic. But, the one response I found to that “why” question, which I felt spoke particularly loudly was this: HOPELESSNESS. People feel hopeless. It does not really matter if that’s the reality; feeling like it is is enough.

     In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus picks a fight with hopelessness and sets the tone for his ministry. In the Gospel of Mark, confrontation is first of Jesus’ agenda.

     It’s not a complicated story. Having acquired a few disciples, Jesus goes to Capernaum, to the synagogue, to teach. What he shares (which is unknown to us) astounds his listeners, which include a man with an unclean spirit. (Shall we call it hopelessness?) This spirit protests Jesus’ presence; hopelessness obviously is threatened by this teacher who has upset the usual state-of-affairs. Could it be that Jesus spoke a word of hope?

     So, to be blunt, Jesus gets rid of it. “Be silent,” he says, “and come out of him!” We often are so focused on the “unclean spirit” that we forget the person who was overwhelmed by it; an honest-to-goodness man was freed from hopelessness that day.

     The message, writes Dr. David Lose, is that Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life that God desires for all of us. God wants the most for us from this life and stands in opposition to anything that robs us of the joy and community and purpose for which we were created. (1) Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ presence, words and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over people’s lives. Those other authorities have something to lose, writes Matt Skinner. (2)

     I’ll be less articulate: Jesus gives hopelessness the “old one-two punch” in today’s introductory account, which is important to keep in mind as Jesus’ story unfolds. Even though he knocks out hopelessness repeatedly in his ministry, it appears in the end that hopelessness – in the form of death – might win. But, that’s not the final word.

     So, in Mark, Jesus’ ministry begins with him restoring hope to a broken individual. They – broken individuals – still exist, as I’m sure we all know. Commentator Ismael Ruiz-Millan tells his story of encountering hopelessness at El Parque Del Mapa in Tijuana, Mexico in a recent edition of Christian Century. I’ll quote him: “I approached a man to ask if he wanted a meal. I introduced myself as a pastor. ‘I killed several people just for fun,’ he screamed at me, ‘and if I want to, I can kill you right now in front of all these people!’ As I think back on this encounter, I feel the shivers in my body again. After what felt like a long pause, I responded like this: ‘I don’t know why you did all that, but please know that God loves you, and because I have experienced God’s love in my own life, I can tell you that I love you too.’ This made him more upset. He started screaming in despair, ‘No! no, that is not possible. I am a bad person; no one can love me.’ ‘Yes’, I said, God loves you, and I love you.’ Miraculously, the man’s demeanor changed drastically. He held my arms and then started to cry. I asked if he would allow me to pray with him, and he consented. Did he have a specific request? ‘Pray for my family. I have not seen them in years, and I don’t think I will see them again.’ I prayed, and when I finished, he left without a word.” (3)

     That day hopelessness was banished, at least for awhile. We, and people around us, struggle with hopelessness in our lives – thankfully not to the degree of the man in Pastor Ruiz-Millan’s story. Yet, disappointment, illness, pain, fear, doubt, anger, are the seedbed of hopelessness. We fight it in various ways – often ways that make it worse.

     That’s why it’s important to note that Jesus does not ignore the unclean spirit (shall we call it hopelessness) but faces it. He is not taken captive by it but speaks the truth and gives freedom. Reflecting on the Gospel, Pastor Ruiz-Millan wonders if, since the man was already in the synagogue, he had been interrupting the religious leaders’ there before Jesus arrived, and they had ignored or chastised him. But not Jesus, who acted not just with boldness and authority, but compassion.

     To make it simpler than it is, often the way to address hopelessness is with compassion, which is a heart-felt desire to do that which will truly bring hope and healing to people’s lives. Often, it’s difficult to sort out the best way to show compassion, but sometimes people tell us what they need, as was the case for Pastor P.C. Ennis who tells how, while serving a historic old church in downtown Atlanta, a man stopped in to ask for a “blessing.” Now, the pastor assumed this was a way to get a foot in the door and ask for money, but decided to see him anyway, although with skepticism.

      I’ll relay the story in the pastor’s, Pastor P.C. Ennis’, words: ‘He was not what I expected. He was neatly dressed, clean-shaven, late twenties. There was an air of dignity about him, no glassy look in the eye, none of the usual signs of having “been on the street,” as we say. ‘Sorry to take up your time,’ he said, ‘but I just want your blessing.’ He went on to explain in a rather articulate, if un-Presbyterian way, that he had this “devil on his back” that he could not shake. As much as he tried, he could not get rid of it, and he thought that if he could just find a minister who would “bless him” it would go away.

     ‘So, I made some feeble attempt to explain that Presbyterians were not usually in the practice of casting out devils or conferring blessings on people. He had not come for a lesson in ecclesiology. ‘All I want is a blessing,’ he said.

     The visitor knelt down on the carpet while the pastor prayed a number of things, but particularly that “God would take away this “devil” that was preventing him from being the kind of person God intended him to be”. He then left, having asked for nothing more … just a blessing. (4)

     Who knows if that young man was set free; what we do know, though, is that he experienced compassion in Jesus’ name – and perhaps that put him on the road to freedom.

     Hopelessness abounds; it is at the root of much that is wrong in the world. BUT … in Jesus hope is more powerful; that’s the first, and, also the last, word. AMEN


(1)   “Epiphany 4:B First Things First” by Dr. David Lose, Jan. 26, 2015, www.partnerinpreaching.org

(2)   “Commentary on Mark 1:21-28” by Matt Skinner, www.workingpreacher.org

(3)    “Living by the Word” by Ismael Ruiz-Millan, Christian Century, January 3, 2018, pg. 23

(4)   Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Year B, Volume 1, pg. 311-312