Pastor Michael Frye:

In his book The First Circle, Russian author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, makes an interesting observation about how Soviet authorities handled the church during the heyday of the Soviet Union.

Solzhenitsyn, who had defected to America, commented:

“No one stops churches from ringing their bells; they can break communion bread any way they please.

“They can have their processions with the cross.

“But they will in no way allow them to have any connection with social or civil affairs.”

In other words, the church was allowed to go through the motions and have a presence in the community, but it was not allowed to have an influence.

In a similar way, religious leaders at the time of Jesus’ ministry didn’t seem to mind his preaching and teaching (he was even invited to do so in the synagogue).

What concerned them more than anything else was that Jesus’ sermons and teachings were moving the people to believe in and follow him into action.

Jesus displayed great power and authority, and he wasn’t afraid to use it for the good of the Kingdom of God.

For example, look at the story in our Gospel lesson today.

Jesus held the crowds in the synagogue in suspense as he read scriptures and taught.

Those who listened were astounded at his teaching and the knowledge he seemed to have of scriptures, although religious leaders began to take exception with Jesus’ interpretation.

Then, this man who Mark says was possessed by an unclean spirit identified Jesus as someone who was far more than a teacher or prophet.

When the possessed man posed the question, “What are you going to do; are you Going to destroy us?”

Jesus acted.

Jesus wasn’t quite ready to reveal himself as the Messiah, so he ordered the unclean spirit to leave the man’s body: “Be silent and come out of him!”

The man with the unclean spirit understood who Jesus was far better than anyone else who witnessed the miracle that day.

He had experienced for years the terrifying effects of being under the influence of a power he could not control or understand.

His demon prevented him from having a normal life; it kept him on the fringes of society and ostracized him from his family and neighbors.

But Mark shows that God had given his Son the authority and the power to engage with and defeat the evil that exists in the midst of humanity.

Christ has come to break the bonds that fetter human beings and prevent us from being in a perfect relationship with our Creator.

Christ frees us from the demons of prejudice, pride, greed, arrogance, and intolerance.

He has come to defeat injustice and to restore faith and the freedom for us to be who God created us to be – sisters and brothers united around God’s throne.

Kathleen Norris writes:

“When I think of the demons I need to exorcise, I have to look inward, to my heart and soul.

“Anger is my best demon… harmful when I use it to gratify myself, either in self-justification, or to deny my fears… in exorcising the demon of anger, that which could kill is converted, transformed into that which can heal.

“What are your best demons?

“To name them for what they are and how they bring suffering, is half the battle.”

Norris is right, we must look to Christ to exert his authority over us so that our demons may be flushed out and God’s grace may fill the void with the Spirit’s presence and blessings.

E. Stanley Jones tells the story of a missionary who got lost in the jungle.

After wandering in the bush for hours, he finally found a small village and asked one of the natives if he could lead him out of the jungle.

The man agreed, and they began their journey.

They walked for hours through the dense undergrowth, hacking away at the obstructions with machetes.

The missionary became frustrated, asking his guide:

“Are you quite sure this is the way?

“Where is the path?”

His guide responded:

“In this place there is no path.

“I am the path.”

Brett Blair observes that our path in the jungle of this world is Jesus Christ, who acts on our behalf.

Jesus is the path.

Yes, we have been taught to be self-reliant about many things in this world; but when it comes to our spiritual journey and our own salvation, we must come to rely fully upon our Lord to unbind us and set us free.

In the Order for Public Confession we name some of the demons that threaten our relationship with God and with one another:

“We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Then we ask God to forgive our sins and renew us so we may walk in God’s ways.

But how many of us truly… truly believe that God can and will set us free from our sins (our demons), without prejudice and without asking anything in return other than our sincere contrition and our acceptance of God’s absolution – “Your sins are forgiven.”?

If we truly believe that we are forgiven, should our behaviors not change?

Should we not be freed of the burdens that have weighed us down for the week?

Should we not look upon one another more kindly and benevolently as ones who are restored and made whole as a family of God? Should our actions not be more Christ-like in nature, having taken on the Holy Spirit as our companion and guide?

A teacher noticed one of her students, a shy young girl, was having trouble working out her math assignment.

The teacher went to the child and quietly asked if she could help with any questions, knowing that the girl was timid about asking for help.

When the problem was solved the girl thanked the teacher.

The teacher told her not to be shy about asking questions:

“That’s one of the reasons I am here.”

The little girl thought about that for a moment and asked quietly, “what’s the other reason?”

There is a clear reason that Christ calls us together as his Church.

If we truly believe that Christ has the authority to forgive sins and offer us salvation, then there comes a time when our actions must reflect our beliefs.

Yes, we will stumble; and yes, we will sometimes fail; but in Christ we have a Savior whose heart and arms are always open to us and whose forgiveness is without boundaries.

I conclude with the words of a hymn that unfortunately was excluded from our present hymnal, but which resonated with me as I prepared this sermon:

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.

(LBW, Hymn 323, Matheson/Peace)

Sisters and brothers in Christ, let us be of one heart and one mind as we are set free to praise and serve our Lord.

Amen.