Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

It is considered one of the most influential books in the history of publishing.

Released in 1936, it sold a quarter-million copies in the first three months, and went on to sell 30 million copies in total. It began as a series of transcribed lectures, loosely based on the topic of public speaking, interwoven with tips and anecdotes on how to manage people and bring them around to your way of thinking.

And while Dale Carnegie didn’t invent the self-help book, he revolutionized the genre by creating a template of sorts that could be replicated on any number of topics related to self-improvement and self-actualization.

Of course, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has received it’s fair share of critique since 1936, beginning with the charge that the book teaches how to be insincere and manipulative. It’s runaway success in Nazi Germany was an embarrassment to the publisher, and all the poor imitations within the genre didn’t help the book either.

And perhaps the most damning is the way the marketing world embraced concepts in the book, and used then (still use them) to liberate money from your wallet. Take, for example, the fifth point in the section called “Twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking.” Carnegie writes, “Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.” The theory here is that if you ask a series of questions that prompt a yes, the person is more likely to answer yes to the last and most important question of all. When a telemarketer calls and begins with “are you having a good day?” or “are you enjoying the sunshine” then very soon you’re going to agree to having your ducts cleaned.

And then there is the third point in the section “How to make people like you.” It reads: “Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” So the exchange usually goes something like this:

Him: “Hi what’s your name?”
Me: “Michael”
Him: “Mike! Glad to know you, Mike! Mike, do you know about this product?

I share all this not because some of the most effective telemarketers seem demon-possessed, but because the first thing the demons do in our passage this morning is take a page from Dale Carnegie. It seems they can’t help themselves, and you might even say ‘the devil made them do it,’ in a Flip Wilson kind of way.

The passage begins in the typical Markan way, with little preamble, and an economy of words, heading straight into the heart of the scene. Jesus is teaching, and amazing others with the authoritative nature of his teaching, when the service is interrupted. A man possessed by an unclean spirit cries out: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

And using the same economy of words, Mark describes what happens next: “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. A couple of things to note in this little exchange. First, Jesus is primarily interacting with the demons, and the man himself is a bit of a peripheral character in the story. He’s not really crying out, it’s the demon inside him, making this trio of participants more of a duo. The demons make their best effort to win friends and influence Jesus straight away (“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”) but to no avail. Jesus can see right through these cheap demonic tricks and begins with that phrase every demon and telemarketer dreads to hear: “Be quiet!” and “Come out of him.”

The second thing is the extent to which this will be an ongoing dialogue, and a relationship of sorts, as Jesus sets out to rid the Galilee of demons. Rather I should say rid Galilee of demons until the word gets out, then suddenly it’s possessed people from Judea, Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan. In chapter three, people are pressing in on him, and those possessed pushed forward. Mark says, “Whenever the evil[a] spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’"

Or chapter five, a man that even chains could not restrain, ran to Jesus and shouted, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” In this case, Jesus takes the dialogue even further, and asks the demon his name. “Legion,” comes the famous answer, “for we are many.” The story ends, of course, with the demons transferred to a herd of pigs that come to a quick end in the lake.

In each of these cases, the demons know Jesus and know who he is. Son of God, Holy One of God, Son of the Most High: the demons understand exactly who they are up against. The demons understand even as others struggle to understand, responding to Jesus with puzzlement and fear.

Time and time again, the people around Jesus ask “What kind of man is this?” like Matthew 8 overcoming the wind and the waves, another type of possession. I think I prefer the King James’ version of the same questions, asking “what manner of man is this?”

What manner of man is this? God speaks and confirms that this is God’s son. The wind and waves obey him. He demons flee even as they confess that he is the Son of the Most High. Yet people seem confounded. Some witness the very power of God on earth and still they ask “what manner of man is this?”

In a sort of time-twisted homage to Dale Carnegie, Mark is manipulating us in the best possible way. Mark is using a narration technique to draw us nearer, and draw us into the text. He’s turning us into insiders, people in the know, people who can then take this knowledge and confidence into the world.

This is how it works: every time someone in the story asks a question like “what manner of man is this?” we already have the answer. We have the answer, the demons have the answer, and a entire cast of players within the story are gradually getting the answer.

But we know from the beginning. And every time some one says “what is this?” and “Isn’t that Joe and Mary’s boy?” and “what manner of man is this?” we answer. We answer and our answers get louder until we’re practically shouting at our Bibles and people start to think we’re demon-possessed. Our knowledge causes our confidence to grow, until we can tell others what the demons declared from the start: This is the Son of God, the Holy One of God, the Son of the Most High. Worship him, and call on his name!

So what can we do, having this primer on Dale Carnegie, demon-possession, and the subtle art of winning friends and influencing people? How do we apply this to our modern scientific age? I guess I would begin by saying that demon possession continues, not in a literal “hi, my name is Legion and I’ll be your demon tonight” but in the sense that people still get caught up in things beyond their immediate control.

Some weeks ago I preached about my fear that we may somehow lose civility in our public life, that something has been unleashed as people cry “build the wall” and “lock her up.” Every day some commentator continues to wear out the word “unprecedented.” And every day we seem to slip further and further from the life we know before that fateful day a certain candidate came down a certain escalator and began talking.

Since then, all manner of seemingly rational people have acted as if they are possessed, and social-scientists and psychologist struggle to explain. But think the answer is is scripture: Who are you? We are legion, for we are many. I’m not saying the devil is in each politician that I disagree with, only that we have seldom seen a clearer example of a world quickly gone mad.

So what’s the answer? What manner of man can solve this crisis? Only the one who teaches with authority can show us God and God’s way. Only the one who teaches mercy and shows compassion and offers forgiveness (amnesty?) can show us God’s way.

Jesus didn’t avoid the possessed, and he didn’t flee the village. He extended special care to those possessed, because even in their compromised state, they remain children of God. The demons would have us hate and condemn, but Jesus only loves. He loves and forgives and never stops seeking the lost and the possessed, and thank God for that. Amen.


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