Binding the Strong Man

by David Baer, June 10, 2018

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Text: Mark 3:20-35

This week I got to go over to Brookside School here in town. It was an orientation for students who are going to be in 4th grade this fall and their parents. The principal went through a typical school day, and the weekly schedule, and then showed us a video showcasing the parts of the school fourth graders need to know about. And then they sent the kids out in groups led by eighth graders to see the school for themselves, and the principal got to speak to us parents alone.

He wanted us to understand something, he said. Our kids, aged 9 right now, are primarily oriented toward us, their parents, he said. And that’s wonderful, it’s adorable, but it’s going to change so fast you won’t believe it. And pretty soon, he said, they are going to be choosing their own friends, their own activities, their own elective classes, the principal said, and so we need them to be able to take responsibility for themselves, and to be confident making decisions on their own and acting independently. And he saw his job, and the school’s job, as guiding these young children on their way through the middle grades into adolescence.

Yikes.

I guess he’s right about all of that. But I wasn’t quite ready. I came there that day to learn when the school day started, and what kind of foreign language they offered, and maybe at what grade they’d start using lockers. And instead, I feel as though I’ve been grabbed by the lapels and had it shouted at me that my role as a parent is going to change. I wasn’t prepared, and I don’t quite know what to do with all it calls up in me—excitement, fear, pride, loss…

Change is hard for me. Maybe it isn’t hard for you—maybe you’re someone who likes a different schedule every day, someone who likes to pick up and move every two years, someone who can’t stand still. But that’s not me. I take comfort in familiar things—the carnival at Guardian Angel Church this week, for example. It happens the same time every year, and our family can look forward to it, can count on it. Maybe you have a favorite vacation spot, or a holiday tradition. These familiar signposts help us orient ourselves, help us understand who we are, and they bring a lot of comfort.

But kids grow up. Jobs and relationships end. People move away, or they grow old and die. Try as we might, we can’t ever escape the turning wheel of change. And when that wheel rolls across our life’s story, as it inevitably does, it shakes up all those things we depend on to identify ourselves. I remember that during my senior year of high school, on a couple of occasions my mother lit into me about getting to bed on time, in a way she hadn’t done for years. And I think I get it now… Sometimes when a meaningful part of who you are is about to change, you want to hold on tight to it, and not let it go, even if that’s ultimately what you’re going to have to do.

Change is hard, even when it’s good change. Because change is never purely external. When my environment, my relationships, my circumstances change, it changes me too, on the inside. And when what’s at stake is my identity, I’m going to be incredibly anxious. Change is hard, but it’s inevitable, and when it happens, it provokes anxiety, and everybody responds to that anxiety in a different way.

Jesus was someone who brought change. It was good change he brought, for the most part, but still dramatic, life-altering change for the people who sought him out for wisdom and for healing. Now, these Bible stories involve a lot of demons and evil spirits, so they can sometimes be difficult for us to relate to, because those things aren’t part of the stories we tell today about why people suffer physical and mental illness. But I think we can relate to being in pain, and being subject to something we can’t control. And what Jesus did was to free people from those forces, to leave them restored to health. Paralyzed people got up and walked. People who had lived for years with a stigmatizing skin disease got better, and they could live in their community again. All sorts of people began to seek him out, and at the beginning of the story we read today, there are so many of them that Jesus and his disciples can’t even leave the house to go get food. That’s the kind of impact he had on people—astounding life change.

What do you think the appropriate response would be from the community? You would think everyone would be overjoyed! But there’s one group that is conspicuously down on Jesus, and it’s the religious scholars, called scribes. These are people who treasure and study the sacred scriptures which contain God’s promises and God’s teaching. And this is not just an abstract intellectual exercise for them. As pious Jews, they see the identity of their people wrapped up in the story and the way of life they share. Generations have fought and died for it. It’s that important.

But then here comes Jesus, who is Jewish himself, who knows the scriptures, but who points people not to the traditions handed down through the scribes, but to something mysterious that he calls the kingdom of God. It’s the reality of God being truly present and in charge… of our lives, of nature, of the world. And when he teaches, he tries to describe the kingdom of God by telling stories. And when he heals, it’s a way of showing what the kingdom looks like. But Jesus and the kingdom he’s announcing seem to be unruly and unpredictable. He heals people on the Sabbath, the age-old day of rest. He tells people that not only are they healed, but their sins are forgiven—something only God could legitimately do. And that was upsetting to the scribes, who were so sure they already knew how God worked, and what God could and couldn’t do. There’s a different story about God playing out right in front of them, and they can’t square it with their identity.

And so they have a choice. One option might be to embrace Jesus and his teaching wholeheartedly. Clearly they don’t want to do that. But another option might be to reserve judgment, to hang back and see what comes of this healer and his kingdom of God talk. But they don’t do that either. What these religious scholars do instead, is to say, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Basically what it means is, “This guy is in league with the devil.” Think about that. They’ve seen people healed of life-long, devastating illnesses. They’ve seen lives transformed forever, relationships restored, communities and families made whole. And what do they say to all that? Not, “I don’t get it.” Not, “This is strange, and it makes me uncomfortable.” No, what they say is, “No doubt about it… This is evil!”

I think that’s why Jesus is so harsh with them. Because they’re not just dishonoring Jesus and his gifts. They’re disrespecting the people who received those gifts. They’re saying to all those people who were healed, “You were better off before this happened to you.” Can you imagine saying to someone whose cancer went into remission, “I’m sorry, but I think that’s terrible!”? You’d have to be pretty far gone, in terms of basic decency and human feeling. So I think that’s why Jesus singles out this one act as the only sin that won’t be forgiven. If you take something that is so obviously, unambiguously good and call it evil—and not only that, if you abuse your position as a religious leader to make people who have experienced an incredible miracle doubt themselves and feel bad about it—then there’s not much hope for you, is there?

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Photo courtesy of flickr user Matti Mattila. Used with permission.

And it’s these people Jesus has in mind when he tells this funny story about the strong man. I don’t think we’re meant to feel sorry for the strong man who has his house robbed. After all, he’s supposed to represent the devil. I think we’re meant to see his house full of all the things he’s stolen from people–health, innocence, hope, joy. No way is this villain going to let go of his stolen treasure, says Jesus. No way is he going to let anyone give those things back to the people they belong to. If I’m giving people back their health, it can only happen because this strong man is tied up, that he’s been disabled, so that he can no longer rob or victimize anyone. Wherever a miracle happens, it’s a sign that the strong man has been bound.

One of the things Christians believe is that we’re meant to continue Jesus’ work. And sometimes that looks like healing—I remember a few years ago, someone stood up in this sanctuary and told us how grateful he was to have our prayers holding him up as he finally decided he needed treatment for his chronic anxiety, and how this community had been part of him experiencing healing. Sometimes that looks like serving people in need—the food we provide to the Center for Food Action, the folks we send to make dinner and provide company for homeless families that spend a week in Allendale. But however it gets expressed, it’s all connected, it’s all an outgrowth of the same reality underlying everything we do—that God deeply, passionately loves this world and all people, and that we see what God’s love looks like in Jesus’ story and everything that flows from it. And because it’s all connected, building a caring community, gathering to search for God in worship, and serving other people all give us hope, because any everyday miracle, any act of kindness, any change for the better is a sign that the strong man is bound.

Change is hard. I’m wrestling with it myself. I wish I could tell you that believing in Jesus is an anchor that keeps all of life’s changes from moving you, or that only good things happen to people who believe in him, but you’d know I wasn’t telling the truth. What Jesus is is a promise that the things that frighten us or diminish us—every illness we suffer, every loss we live with, every regret and all the guilt about what we ought to have done or not done, even death itself—don’t get the last word. He’s the promise that the strong man can be tied up, and everything he’s taken from us restored. We see it happening, not only in the Bible, but in the life of our church and ourselves as people who believe in him. And so every change you and I might be wrestling with today is a step on a story that bends toward our good, toward our healing, toward being at peace with God and with each other. “You are my family,” says Jesus. “You are my mother, my brother, my sister. Come with me, and we’ll make it home.” Amen.

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