A sermon given at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Loveland, Colorado on August 19, 2018 (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
- Mark 1:21-28
Last Sunday I began a series of sermons on the Good News of Jesus Christ. In that sermon I referred to a book written by Brian McLaren titled “A New Kind of Christianity.” In that book, he asks the question, “What is the overarching story line of the Bible?” Most of us have been taught what he calls the “six-line” story of salvation: that humans are fallen and sinful because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, and if we die in this state, we are condemned to eternal punishment. But Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins and save us from condemnation, and if we will just believe, we will gain admission into heaven.
There are a lot of problems with this story, and many folks have rightfully questioned it. Author Brian McLaren claims that this was not the original story line of the Bible, and not what Jesus came to offer us. Rather, this is a story that developed several centuries after the time of Jesus because of the influence of Greek philosophical thought in the ancient Roman Empire.
But if that is not the good news of Jesus, then what is? Because that is what many Christian churches are teaching. Why does Jesus matter? Today, I am going to offer one alternative – suggested by Brian McLaren. In weeks to come, we will consider some others.
Actually, the good news for today long predates Jesus. The second book in the Bible, the book of Exodus, tells the story of how a group of Hebrew slaves escaped their bondage in Egypt more than a thousand years before the time of Jesus. Many of you know the story – it has been told not only in the Bible, but also in films (like “The Ten Commandments”), and animated films (like “The Prince of Egypt”).
Here’s a brief summary: A long time ago the Hebrew people -- descendants of Abraham and Sarah -- left their promised homeland during a time of famine, and journeyed to Egypt because there was food to be found there. They settled in Egypt, and lived peacefully with the Egyptians for a time. But years passed, and a new Pharaoh (king) came to power in Egypt who did not know their history together. He saw the Hebrews as a threat (because they were so numerous), and as slave labor pool to build his cities, and he put them to work.
Their life became miserable in hard labor and bitter bondage. So they cried out to God to help them, and God called a man who had been born as a Hebrew but raised in Pharaoh’s household – Moses – to go to Pharaoh and demand that he let the slaves go (Moses at the Burning Bush). Pharaoh basically said, “No way.” So God sent a plague on Egypt to convince him otherwise – God turned the water of Egypt to blood. When that didn’t work, God sent more plagues – a total of ten of them: an infestation of frogs, gnats, flies, diseases on the livestock of Egypt, boils, hail, locusts, and total darkness. Still, Pharaoh would not relent. Finally, the tenth plague – the death of the firstborn of every Egyptian household – including Pharaoh’s own son. So Pharaoh finally let the people go, and they left Egypt to start their long journey back home.
But Pharaoh quickly had second thoughts, and he sent his army in pursuit of the slaves. The army pinned the Hebrews against the waters of the Reed Sea (usually called the Red Sea), and they thought they were doomed, until Moses parted the waters of the sea, and the Hebrews crossed over on dry ground. The Egyptian army pursued, the waters came back together, and the Egyptian army was drowned. The Hebrews sang and danced in celebration.
It’s a great story. Jews remember and celebrate this story every year in their great holiday of Pesach – Passover. This is one of the overarching stories of the Bible.
And it was – and is – a shocking story. Whoever heard of a god that cared about a bunch of slaves? In the ancient world, the gods were assumed to support the rich and powerful – the rulers of the world. What Pharaoh did to the Hebrews was both legal and popular in Egypt. But the God of the Hebrews was on the side of the oppressed. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Moses, and Jesus, is a God of liberation.
But here’s the greatest thing about this story. Like every good story in the Bible, it isn’t just something that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away; it is a story about what God is doing now.
You see, Pharaoh didn’t die back then. Sure, that particular ruler of Egypt eventually died, as all mortals do. But the drive to gain power and control and wealth by oppressing others is remains today. The spirit of Pharaoh is alive and well.
Our nation’s economy is very much driven by the spirit of Pharaoh. We are taught to believe there is not enough – we always need more -- so people have to work harder for less in order for the economy to work. But the fruits of their labors don’t usually go to the workers, they go to the few at the top.
The spirit of Pharaoh oppresses minorities of all kinds. People of color, women, LGBT folks, and immigrants are treated as second-class citizens in order to keep straight white men (like me) in power.
And unclean spirits – like the one Jesus rebuked in Capernaum – take control of people’s lives through self-hatred, or undue pride, or addictions.
The story of the Exodus inspires communities of the oppressed to challenge their oppressors because they believe God is truly with them. It is a story that inspired and sustained African-Americans in this country as they endured slavery, and as they fought for civil rights.
A whole branch of Christian theology, known as Liberation Theology, is based on this conviction that our God desires the liberation of all people. One of the earliest theologians to develop Liberation Theology, Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian Dominican priest who now lives in the United States, made the claim that God is “preferentially on the side of the poor.” He started working with poor communities of farm laborers in his native Peru against the wealthy land owners in power. Now there are theologians working for Black liberation, Feminist liberation, LGBTQ liberation, and more.
Some of us may not be members of any those minority groups. In fact, we may feel threatened by some of these movements. If that is the case, we may be the oppressors! And so we need to look at how we may unconsciously think about and treat others who have less power and privilege than we do. We may need to be liberated from our position of privilege. Do men see women as challenges for sexual conquest? Do we assume that people of color are inherently less moral and more dangerous than whites, and that our justice system treats all people fairly? We are in need of liberation. As liberation theologians would say, if the gospel isn’t liberating people – freeing them from oppression – then it isn’t really the gospel!
In the biblical story, when the Hebrew slaves escaped from Egypt and found freedom in the wilderness, they had a hard time. They grumbled against Moses about the lack of water and food. Some of them even wanted to return to Egypt, where they at least had food every day. Freedom is hard! It is risky. It is uncertain. It turns out that many people prefer bondage to freedom because it is easier. There is a Prayer of Confession in our United Church of Christ “Book of Worship” in which we confess:
You lead us out of the land of slavery; yet when the journey is hard, we long to return to the comfort of our chains.
Soon after their escape from Egypt, the Hebrews made their way to Mt. Sinai, where Moses went up the mountain and received from God the Ten Commandments. Some people in America these days believe these were given to be posted in public courthouses for the good of ne’er-do-well criminals, not for them. I believe they were given to the people of Israel to keep them from returning to bondage – bondage to other so-called gods, or to anything made by humans, or to our own desires and passions.
I have come to believe that there are really very few, if any, true atheists in our world. An atheist is a person who believes there is no god. Lots of people claim to be atheists. But I think we make gods of whatever we believe will save us and make our lives better. It might not be some formless spirit that created our universe, but if not, then it is power, or wealth, or knowledge, or youth, or beauty, or popularity, or escape. Bob Dylan once sang, “You gotta serve somebody. It might be the Devil, or it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” I think he was right.
But of all these would-be gods, only one actually values us and loves us and desires our freedom: the God of Liberation. All others will take, and take, and take, and then abandon us in our time of need.
So where does Jesus fit into this work of liberation? The Exodus happened long before the time of Jesus.
Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. He hung out with people who were oppressed by the social and religious systems of his day: poor working people, people with illness or disabilities, women, people of other ethnic or religious groups. He helped to liberate them from the oppressive Roman Empire, and even from their own religious tradition.
But perhaps the greatest oppressor of all – the biggest, baddest Pharaoh of them all – is our own fears: fear of the unknown, of strangers, of not having enough, of loss, of not being in control, of not being loved. And fear of death.
Jesus taught us what it looks like to trust God. To have faith in God. We need not fear. And when he suffered and died on the cross, it was to show us that he shared with us the most terrifying things that could happen to any person. It is liberating to know that we are not alone in our suffering and struggles. And then, when he was raised, he showed that we need not fear even death. Oppression and death are not the ultimate powers in our world, any more than Pharaoh was in biblical times. The God of Love and Liberation is the ultimate power. God can make a way out of no way.
Why be a Christian? How does Jesus save? What did his death and resurrection do for us? Christ liberates us from oppression by any merely human power. Christ saves us from the sin of putting our trust in idols rather than in the God of Life and Love. That is real good news.
Robert J. von Trebra