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"The Holy One of God"
Scripture – Mark 1:21-28
Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson
Sunday, January 31, 2021
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"He can feel Death in the room," Maggie O'Farrell writes in her novel Hamnet.1 A novel of the plague, the subtitle reads. It is an imagined account of Shakespeare's family — his wife, his two daughters, and the son who died. Hamnet is his name. It is a novel about grief and loss, set against the backdrop of the Black Death — one of the historic pandemics we used to think of when we heard the word "plague." Before we'd endured a plague ourselves. This plague — the Black Death — creeps across Europe in the 1580s, spread by fleas carried from shore to shore by the cats and rats aboard merchant ships.
In the novel Hamnet's twin sister, Judith, is the first to fall ill. At one point she is on the brink of death — feverish, weak, lying on a pallet near the fire. And, in that moment, the boy — Hamnet — pleads with Death not to take her.
"He can feel Death in the room," O'Farrell writes.
[It is] hovering in the shadows, over there beside the door, head averted, but watching all the same, always watching. It is waiting, biding its time. It will slide forward on skinless feet, with breath of damp ashes, to take her, to clasp her in its cold embrace, and he, Hamnet, will not be able to wrest her free ... He glances over his shoulder at the tunnel of dark beside the door. The blackness is depthless, soft, absolute. Turn away, he says to Death. Close your eyes. Just for a moment."2
So many of us have felt it too — Death in the room. Lurking by the door. An all-too-constant presence. These days, Death is not relegated to funeral services and graveyards; it is not confined to hospice beds where families hold vigil as loved ones breathe their last. Now, Death — the fear of death, the pain wrought by death — is always there. Lurking by the door. Shadowing our worried minds. Presiding over the daily count of pandemic dead. We have yet to wrest ourselves free of it.
And we are not the only ones. They can feel it too — the people in Capernaum, the audience that witnesses the first public act of Jesus' ministry. Death is there, lurking by the door of the Synagogue, where the faithful have gathered on the Sabbath day. The Gospel of Mark does not call it by name. But, as is so often the case in the world of Scripture, Death is there, disguised as something else. This time, the forces of Death come in the form of an unclean spirit possessing a nameless man who enters the Synagogue as Jesus is teaching the crowds. And as this man wanders in, Death transgresses a boundary. It abandons its usual haunts — sickbeds and tombs and profane places beyond the city walls. And it claims a place at the center of Jewish life — in the most sacred of spaces, on the most sacred of days: the Synagogue on the Sabbath.
Death is here to confront this teacher — this mysterious teacher who is still unknown to the astonished crowds. Those listening are amazed at the authority with which he speaks, but they know not who the stranger is. The unclean spirit is the only one who knows this Jesus, who knows what Jesus can do.
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?, the man with the unclean spirit cries. Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.
The title is not a reference to Jesus' identity as the Messiah, as we might assume when we read the words "Holy One of God." Rather, it is a reference, an allusion to another "Holy One of God." In the Old Testament book of Second Kings, a woman in Shunem says of the prophet Elisha, "I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God." And later, in that same story, Elisha raises the woman's son from the dead. The Holy one of God enters a room where Death lurks by the door, and he frees the child from its cold embrace. The body of the boy, which has already lost the luster of life, grows warm. The child opens his eyes. "Take your son," Elisha says. And the Holy One of God returns the boy to his mother (2 Kings 4:8-37).
Likewise, in our story from Mark's Gospel, another Holy One of God confronts the forces of Death. And Death, now lurking beside the door of the Synagogue, trembles in fear. Have you come to destroy us?, the man with the unclean spirit cries out. I know who you are, the Holy One of God.
In the ancient worldview, the one who names has more authority than the one being named. Consider Adam giving names to the milk-cow and the sparrow, and every other creature God brings before the human to see what it will be called. So, when the unclean spirit names Jesus, it is clawing for control, attempting to gain the upper hand. I know who you are, the Holy One of God. But Jesus — the one who has been teaching with authority — now acts with authority. Silence!, he commands. Come out of him!
With these words Jesus claims authority over the unclean spirit; he claims authority over the forces of Death. And the unclean spirit obeys. With convulsing and crying out, the demon flees. Just like that, Jesus frees the possessed man from Death's cold embrace and banishes it from the Synagogue, from the community's sacred space.
As one commentary explains, Jesus — like Elisha before him — "[restores] the correct boundary between the demonic realm of death and the world of life created by God."3 The Holy One of God restores the correct boundary between the demonic realm of death and the world of life created by God. Jesus feels Death in the room; he sees it hovering in the shadows, lurking beside the door. And he casts it out. "Turn away, he says to Death. Turn away." Jesus liberates the demon-possessed man. And, in ridding both individual and community of the unclean spirit, he destroys the forces of death ... at least in that moment, in that space.
But we know this will not be the last time. For this is but the beginning of his ministry. Across all four Gospels, Jesus' first public act tells us something of the work to come. And, here, at the beginning of Mark's Gospel, Jesus launches his ministry by liberating a man lost to the demonic forces of Death. This Jesus, the Holy One of God, will continue to cast out unclean spirits and heal the afflicted and restore people to life; he will continue to put the forces of Death in their place, until — once and for all — he conquers Death by turning the tomb, the domain of death, into a site of new life.
This is who Jesus is — the one who liberates from the cold embrace of Death, the only one who is able to wrest us free.
But here, now, in this season, Death still hovers in the shadows. In ordinary times we know this to be true. It's clear whenever we commend dear saints to God and commit their bodies to the ground. But, in a plague — well, the forces of Death are clawing for control. And some days, it seems like they just might best the Holy One of God.
Of course, deep down, we know that Death will be put back in its place, relegated once again to funeral services and graveyards and hospice rooms. Thanks to the heroic efforts of scientists and public health experts and medical teams, we know that — before too long — the boundary between the realm of death and the world of life will, at least, be reset. And we will be free from fear, free from anxiety, free from the pall of this deadly disease.
But we also know that removing the threat of the virus is only one facet of the liberation we seek. Because it is not just the fear of death that possesses us, but the pain wrought by death. For some among us, this pain is sharp, acute. For others it is a dull, nagging ache. But all of us who have felt Death in the room for the better part of a year know well its constant companion: Grief. Grief. And, when it comes to grief, it will take more than a vaccine to restore the boundary between the demonic realm of death and the world of life created by God.
As people of faith, we look to the Holy One of God — who conquers Death — for comfort, for hope. We place our trust in this Jesus of Nazareth. For, in Christ, the demonic forces of death will be cast out and destroyed. The Holy One of God will wrest us free from its cold embrace.
But right now — even as Death hovers in the shadows and grief hangs heavy in hearts and minds — this Gospel story still points toward healing. Because it reminds us of a timeless truth; it reminds us there is power in calling something by name. We will never be free of the forces of Death, we will never be free of the grief that possesses us, unless we call it by name ...
Twelve days ago lights lit up churchyards and neighborhood windows and the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. And bells tolled across our nation. Our own Sue Spilecki rang out hymns of hope from our tower chimes and tolled the bell. One, two, three, four, forty times. Forty times for four hundred thousand dead. Some of you were gathered here to listen, to pray, to remember. And, as the bell tolled, we held up candles against the January darkness — lights to honor the dead, lights to bear witness to our hope.
Reflecting on that night, a colleague wrote this:
When I was in seminary, our professors taught us the first rule of pastoral care for those who are grieving: acknowledge the grief in the room. This is the first rule and not the second because it is impossible to hear the promise of resurrection without first being heard when we weep for those we have loved and lost to death. Perhaps this is why Jesus listened to Martha and Mary's grief and wept for Lazarus before raising him from the dead. A colleague who lost both of her parents in a car accident just over a month ago recently said, "Grief is love with no place to go." I feel in the depth of my soul that until this evening, our grief as a country has been a deep and profound love with no place to go.4
There is healing in naming the grief of this moment. There is liberation in naming the grief of this moment ... No, the forces of Death have not been utterly destroyed. But, as we hold up lights against the darkness, Death will be cast out of the shadows and put back in its place. We will continue to do this — to name our fear, to name our pain, to strip the forces of Death of their power to possess us. And we will continue to shine lights as witnesses to our hope, until — once and for all — Jesus, the Holy One of God, liberates and lifts us to the fullness of life.
Prayers of the People ~ Gregory Knox Jones
Gracious God, we pause for a moment to breathe deeply and to calm our racing mind... As we slowly fill our lungs with fresh oxygen, may we be filled with your healing Spirit (large inhale). As we slowly exhale, may we release the thoughts that unsettle us (large exhale). We breathe in your loving Spirit (inhale). We release our anxieties (exhale).
Generous God, today we reflect on the healing ministry of Jesus and remember that to those who were physically ill, he brought health; to those with mental illness, he restored clarity of mind; to those who were beaten down by cruel blows, he replenished vitality; to those who had become blinded, he renewed sight; to those who were overburdened with guilt, he dispensed forgiveness; to those living in darkness, he unleashed light.
Ever present God, the pandemic has discharged too much suffering and death to people around the globe. The shadow has not only fallen on those far away – grief has come to our own doorsteps. We have lost friends. We have lost loved ones. We pray for healing. May we be comforted by your abiding presence; may our burdens be lightened by friends, may our memory of past suffering spark confidence in our resilience; may the darkness of today be followed by the dawn of hope.
Loving God, our personal suffering becomes more bearable when we lessen the suffering of others and our joy is deepened when we lift the spirits of another with kindness. May we broaden the healing ministry of Jesus by becoming his agents of healing.
Where we encounter heartache, may we bring comfort;
When we learn of someone in distress, may we be a patient listener;
To those who feel unwanted, may we touch them with warmth and welcome;
For a friend besieged by turmoil, may we sow seeds of peace;
And to those in despair, may we help them embrace glimmers of light.
May we strive to become ambassadors of health and wholeness, love and joy, knowing that, it is when we give ourselves to others, that we discover serenity in our soul.
Now we join together in the prayer of the Balm of Gilead, praying,
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
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