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A Sermon on the Gospel
Dr. David Smith

Preached on the Third Sunday in Lent at St. George's Anglican Church,
Prince Albert Saskatchewan, February 27, 2005

Our gospel reading begins with Jesus restoring a man who was unable to speak.  For the people who saw the miracle, it leads to the question, "what does Jesus' ministry mean?"  What is the significance of his healing, driving out of demons, and of all the miraculous things he did?  Some of the bystanders suggest that although he does amazing works, it is really by the power of the devil that he does them.  And in response to that charge, Jesus tells us something about what his miracles really mean.


Jesus says that it is ridiculous to suppose that he delivers people by the power of the devil.  The works of evil are marked by oppression, impurity, and falling away from God.  The works of God are marked by light, thanksgiving, and a free relation to God.  If his works lead to deliverance and freedom before God, then it is by the "finger of God" that he does them.  He uses the picture of a strong man, clad in armour, carefully guarding his possessions in his own palace.  This is a picture of the devil, holding on to those that he is oppressing by evil and sickness.  But Jesus himself is a stronger man, who comes in and binds the devil and takes away from him the people that he had as his own.


That is the picture of Jesus' ministry and the meaning of his miracles.  When he heals, when he delivers from evil, even when he teaches God's word, he is setting people free of the devil and bringing the rule of God to what the devil had ruled.  The devil's will is sickness and imprisonment, God's will is health and freedom, and in Jesus we can see God's kingdom happening right before our eyes.  It is as if Jesus in the gospels is walking along in a spiritual spotlight, and for anyone who steps into the spotlight with him by faith, God's will for healing and goodness are realized.  The miracles are signs that in Jesus God's true will is finally being done.


And yet the bystanders, the Pharisees and scribes, see the signs of God's work and say that it is the work of the devil.  How could this be?  What kind of people can see the signs of God working good and think that it is bad?  They were people who had such a vested interest, such a prejudice that Jesus couldn't be who he seemed to be, that they were ready to say that white was black in order to condemn and criticize him.


So the miracles are signs of God's good working but they are "speeded up" signs. The work of getting rid of the bad in ourselves and bringing in the good is all done in a moment.  Jesus delivers us too from the bad and brings us to the good, but it is usually a much longer process of turning away from bad habits and forming good habits.  This is the work we focus on in Lent, and it is really the work we do all through the year as well.


In the Gospel, when Jesus is doing this work of deliverance, when he is inviting people into the spotlight of God's goodness with him, some of the bystanders look on and even though what happens is good, they criticize and condemn it.  "This is not the right way for people to be changed," they say.  "That way is evil, the proper way is different."  We too can see the path to being better people in front of us, but we can remain bystanders.  We can say, "I do want to change but not this way, I want some other way.  I'm not going to have any part of this way."


You may have heard the story of the man telling about his visit to the doctor.  "So he told me that I have to go on a strict diet and exercise regularly."  "What are you going to do," his friend said.  "I think I'll find another doctor," he replied.  Doctors know that simply giving the right prescription is not going to make people well.  They have to follow his advice.  Similarly, the way of Christ is taught, but there are all kinds of reasons why people cannot follow it.  "I have my own way of being with God."  "The church is full of people who are one way on Sunday and completely different Monday."  "The church is just after money."  People make themselves critical bystanders while the ministry of Christ goes on in front of them.


But if we do step into the spotlight of God's goodness as we see it in Jesus, what happens then?  What does it look like for God to deliver us from the bad and to the good, not in the speeded up form of a miracle, but in the more usual human way?  Let's consider one example, we are having a hard time keeping our temper with someone at work.  We feel very angry towards them and we can't seem to help it.  We have a sense that this anger does not belong to the goodness and freedom that Christ came to bring, but it somehow belongs to the other kingdom of oppression and imprisonment.


If we can admit that our anger is not a part of God's will, then we've come a long way.  We have seen the beginning of the path to healing and instead of condemning the path, we've humbled ourselves.  We've admitted that we are in need of Christ to come and deliver us, that by ourselves, we are bound.  And the next step is probably not to make a lonely resolution that we will try harder, that we will keep a tighter reign on our anger.  It is probably to talk to someone about it.  Alone, bad habits and emotions are very difficult to change.  With help, they become easier.


I have a friend who sometimes calls me on the phone to vent.  He is really angry and he will say some pretty harsh words.  But every so often he will say, "I don't really mean this, but I just have to get it off my chest."  I think it is real wisdom to know when you have to say some harsh words to get them out, and yet you still know that the real picture isn't like that.  You find someone who will listen, and you vent.


Probably much later, will come a second step.  You start to ask your sympathetic friend, "how does this situation look to you?"  You start to give up your personal prejudice that you must be in the right and start to "see yourself as others see you."  If the first step of sharing may need God's help, the second step needs God's help even more. Usually, when we are very angry with someone, if we turn around and face the mirror, we find that there is something in us which we are not willing to face.  We are looking at a mote in our neighbour's eye, and there is a beam in our own eye.  A friend can help us to see things more clearly, but that friend may have to wait a long time before we are ready to see.


Once we are starting to face our anger as someone else might see it, instead of according to our own prejudice, then we are really on the road to God's healing.  Then we have really stepped into the light with Christ, and he can start to do something with us.  As long as we remain critical bystanders, saying that this way is no good and that step is quite impossible for us to take, no healing is really possible.


Jesus is the stronger man, who can deliver us from the bonds of anger, or anything else that holds us.  Usually, he doesn't do it by a miracle, but by a process of sharing, admitting, asking for help, and humbling ourselves.  When we are in need of his healing, let us be sure not to be critical bystanders, unwilling to accept the path of healing that God has given us, but let  us step into the light with him, and see God's goodness realized in our lives.