4 Epiphany B—2/1/15
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Pr. Scott Kramer
Kick-off for the Super Bowl is just a few hours away. It’s been a wild ride getting to this point, hasn’t it! Early in the season it was looking like the Seahawks wouldn’t even make the playoffs, but here they are, back in the Super Bowl!
What’s the difference in the team between now and last September? As the coach and players tell it, individuals were getting into arguments with each other, even fights. There was finger-pointing and blame. They were, as they put it, “playing for themselves, not for one another.” In other words, they were distracted from what got them to the Super Bowl last year.
One day, Jesus was preaching in the synagogue when all of a sudden a man stood up and said, What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God. Mark describes the man as having an “unclean spirit” so immediately we imagine someone who we might call unbalanced, mentally ill—possibly even dangerous.
But notice that there’s nothing in what the man says that sounds like mental illness. Have you ever been to a meeting—city council, service organization, church–when someone stands up and argues against proposed changes? “Have you come to destroy us?” might just be a way of saying, “Why are you trying to change things?” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
The gospel writer says that on that day in the synagogue Jesus was speaking with authority, and evidently what he was preaching was not what everyone wanted to hear. Why are you rocking the boat? Have you come to destroy us? It’s a question of survival. When survival becomes the most important thing, it’s easy to lose sight of what may be more important.
God never sets out to destroy us. On the other hand, the gospel has a habit of turning our worlds upside down. When we feel like our beliefs and habits and most cherished traditions are being threatened, it can feel like God—or someone–is trying to “destroy” us.
Who was the man that stood up that day? Maybe, an upstanding citizen. Maybe, a very respectable man! “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Telling the truth about someone’s identity is not always a compliment. This earnest man may have had good intentions but he was distracting from Jesus’ message and drawing attention to himself and how much he knows. In today’s second reading Paul speaks of such distractions: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
The man who stood up in the synagogue might have been “disturbed.” Or, he might have just been afraid. Or, he might have felt a need to call attention to himself. He almost surely felt threatened by Jesus’ teaching. Whoever he was, one thing is sure: He was a distraction. “Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus said. He wasn’t out to destroy the man. Instead, he was trying to return the assembly’s focus to the good news of God’s grace and mercy for them and for the world.
The man was a distraction but distractions aren’t always a bad thing! One of the things I’ve learned about the Seahawks is that during their practices Coach Pete Carroll intentionally creates distractions. In this past Friday’s Seattle Times one writer says: “What Carroll has constructed is an environment is which “normal” is a million things happening…rap music on the practice field…shooting hoops…soldiers dropped into the lake walking onto the practice field…” Coach Carroll says, Whether it’s the crowd, the setting, the weather, the time on the clock, there are a lot of variables to be connected to and distracted by. So the more accustomed we get to things going on all around us when we need to focus is really the idea…Let’s have our ability to hold on to the focus that allows us to perform like we’re capable regardless of what the setting is or what’s going on around us.
Distractions are not always a bad thing! They can help us force ourselves to pay attention to what’s most important. For example, last Sunday while I was preaching some children came in and dozens of eyes—shoomp!—shifted focus and allowed the distraction to claim their attention. I knew in that moment that few were hearing the sermon! At our best, distractions make us more intentional about keeping our focus.
Distractions are all around us and will always be around us. It’s not just TV, radio, Internet, and newspapers, either! This past week I was talking with a pastor friend from Canada. She had just returned from a Christian leadership conference in Phoenix—talk about distractions! But what she remembers most is not the city so much as the Phoenix and San Francisco airports—an almost constant blare of security warnings: “If you see something, say something!” She was baffled, because she experiences none of that in Canadian airports. “Have you come to destroy us?” The fear of being destroyed can be a very powerful distraction. If you’ve spent much time in airports you know what this is like—unless, maybe, you’ve become so used to it you don’t even notice!
A constant diet of fear and anxiety can lead us to believe that constant fear and anxiety is normal. Like the man in the synagogue we allow our fears to distract us from what matters most.
So what’s the answer–get rid of the distractions? Well, we do have some power. We can turn off the laptop or the TV. We don’t have to subject ourselves to this stuff. But the truth is, distractions will always be with us. It’s how we respond to those distractions that determines whether we will continue to be anxious and distracted, or, whether we will practice keeping our focus on what is good and life-giving and hopeful and eternal.
Coach Pete Carroll intentionally uses chaos to focus his players. The Seattle Times article I mentioned has this to say: The coach uses “subtle shifts in routine that, even for a moment, startle his players. And if that happens often enough, if he’s able to acclimate them to that organized chaos, then he has prepared them for whatever unexpected adversity awaits.”
We don’t know who will win the Super Bowl this afternoon. But we do know one thing; it will be full of distractions! The reason we’re here this morning and every Sunday is to set aside distractions and remember what’s most important: nothing less than the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Signs of that gospel include love, faith, joy, peace, compassion, forgiveness, justice, reconciliation, patience, hope, healing. These are not distractions! Wherever we recognize and celebrate and practice these things we become more ready…for whatever comes our way! AMEN