Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)
Some of you, having been down this road (without much success) one time too many, may have given up on such resolutions. Others, who are still trying, may find it very hard to stick with them – even after only four weeks.
Why is that? Why should it be so difficult? After all, whenever we make New Year’s resolutions, we make them with every good intention of following through. We pick some bad habit we seek to curb, or some good habit we seek to promote, and focus on that. We try to eat better, to do more exercise, to be more available to family and friends, or more generous to those in need. We try to pray more consistently. We may try some other good resolution. We are excited about it, we want it, and we commit to it. It seems to be consistent with our best values, and with what the Lord has taught us. Why do we stumble?
The answer may be different for different people, but the roots of the problem may lie here. As soon as we start to take on a better habit, we start feeling some resistance. Something tests our resolve. It could be other people, who may be uncomfortable with this change in us (as it implicitly challenges them to change) and so they say things, consciously or unconsciously, to undermine us. It could be voices within us – voices that we have somehow internalized, that tell us that we’re no good, we can’t change anyway, and so why try? It’s failed before and it will fail now. The voices may challenge our motivation and accuse us of secretly selfish intent. These voices seek to separate us from our best motivations and from any help we might receive in remaining faithful to them. We need persistence, resolve, and the support of people who truly love us if we are to succeed. Most of all, we need prayer and the help of the Lord. We are trying to take one or two steps away from a nightmare that has a hold on us. It is only through the Lord’s grace, given to us in so many ways, that we will succeed. Indeed, we will succeed only to the extent that the resolution we have chosen is in harmony with the Lord’s loving will for us and as long as we maintain our faith in the Lord’s ultimate loving purpose for us.
With all this in mind, we are now ready to look at this Sunday’s Scripture readings.
In the first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, we find Moses speaking to the people of Israel not long before they are to enter the Promised Land. Moses is easily the most important human being in the Old Testament. Every rabbi, even at the time of Jesus, would trace his teachings through the rabbi that taught him, back, ultimately to Moses himself. God gave the Law, the Torah, through Moses. Moses has a great deal to say to the people of Israel from Exodus through Deuteronomy.
Yet, in this reading, Moses speaks of a prophet who is coming, “a prophet like me”, who would speak God’s own words. Moses adds, “To him you shall listen.” Not “to me” (Moses), but “to him”. Many prophets appeared in Israel in the centuries after Moses, but none of them were seen or spoke of themselves as this “prophet like Moses”, one who would speak with God’s own authority.
Fast forward to the Gospel reading. Here, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is just beginning his public ministry. Last Sunday, we saw how he walked into Capernaum and called four fishermen to leave everything they knew and follow him. They do, without question or hesitation. Now, Jesus is in the village synagogue on the Sabbath day. He begins to speak. We aren’t told specifically what Jesus said, but we can be sure that he was announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God. In other words – your nightmare is over. God is on the move. He is now offering everyone healing, peace, freedom – everything he promised though Moses and the prophets. It’s happening, now. Yes, through God’s grace, you can keep your deepest resolution – to be faithful to him, to love as he loves, to be freed from all sin, to be restored as God’s own people.
Immediately, there is resistance. (Sound familiar?) In this case, it’s someone who is literally possessed by “an unclean spirit”. There is a power active among us that does not want us to hear this word of the Lord. The unclean spirit recognizes the danger that Jesus represents. Evil has no foothold in Jesus, no power over him. On the contrary, Jesus is the greatest threat to the power of evil that one can imagine. So, the resistance happens – interestingly enough, in a place of worship. The unclean spirit knows that this truly is the Holy One of God, the One promised by Moses, the One who would speak the very words of God. The people have been struck by how Jesus speaks with authority (literally, “from his own substance”) and not like the scribes, whose authority is derived from their teachers and their traditions. So the unclean spirit resists and seeks to shame and discredit Jesus (that mere Nazarene) in the eyes of the people. It fails – miserably. Jesus, on his own authority, drives out the spirit. The possessed man, imprisoned in that unspeakable nightmare, is set free. All are awestruck, not knowing what to make of this.
Note that only the unclean spirit, the opposition, correctly identifies Jesus. The crowd is awestruck, but does not draw the conclusion. As an aside, if you are ever on any kind of committee and seek to pass or enact something, it is always good to listen to those opposed to it – even if the committee as a whole decides to go with it. Often, the opponents see the implications of the thing more clearly than those who support it. So it is here.
Most of us do not have to deal with literal possession by an unclean spirit. But, for many of us, a nightmare haunts our own thoughts and dreams. A great fear – named or unnamed – lies just beyond our peripheral vision. Some sin or addiction has enslaved us, and mocks our efforts to free ourselves from it. It may be a nightmare that most people would never suspect we have. It may be something that afflicts us directly, or something that has a hold on someone we love as we watch, helpless to change it. Even if the nightmare did not come directly from an evil spirit, surely evil powers will take advantage of it to torment and weaken us.
We are not alone or abandoned to this nightmare. There is One who speaks with authority, One whose word can free us. Even if the nightmare affects us even as we pray, this One is there. He speaks words of healing to us and for us. He gives us his own power, that we might be free to love as He loves, to forgive as He forgives, to know the joy that He wishes us to know. His presence will always be with us.
So, what about those resolutions?
In just over two weeks, we will be beginning the season of Lent. Lent is a time when many people will seek to do something special, or give up something – in other words, to make a kind of resolution. Doing something for Lent is praiseworthy. The danger is that we settle for something we do only for the days of Lent, and then abandon once Easter has come. That’s not what Lent is all about.
There’s a better way. Begin by asking yourself what nightmare may still have a hold on you or on anyone you know and love. What sin, what fear, what anxiety, what doubt, what cynicism, what deep pain, what addiction, what despair? Pick something which is a symbolic way of acting against that nightmare and resolve to do it, beginning at Lent but going beyond it. Now, whatever you choose to do will not, in itself, end the nightmare. What you are doing is reminding yourself of your deepest need, acknowledging your powerlessness, and making a space for the Lord to enter. You are now waiting, in prayerful trust, for the Lord to act. That’s the key. That’s the resolution that will work. Only the Lord can drive out the unclean spirit. Only He can break the power of that nightmare. He may end the nightmare once and for all. He may leave the nightmare in place, at least in part, but give us the ability to be free of its fear, that we might inspire a similar hope and resolve in others.
Know – and expect – that if you do this kind of resolution, you will encounter resistance. But you and I are also promised the power of the Lord through it all. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. The Lord has already made a ‘resolution’ to be with us until the end.
So… what will be your resolution?