A Storm of Conflict

2 Pentecost B                                                                           

June 7, 2015

 In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 Welcome back to the gospel of Mark!  But I wish we could have dropped back into this gospel and hit some nice story like a healing or a taming of the storm or even a challenging sermon.  But no, the lectionary plops us back into Mark in the middle of a whole lot of conflict swirling around Jesus.  And Jesus himself doesn’t always seem so mild mannered here either, does he?

 The conflict is stirred up by the scribes, the religious officials, who come down to Nazareth from Jerusalem.   They’re looking to discredit Jesus by claiming he’s demonic—in league with Beelzebul, or Satan himself.  I guess that charge isn’t too surprising, given what we know about how Jesus was hounded by the religious elite of his day.

 But besides these accusations there are 3 other parts to this passage that are really troubling.  And they are:

    Jesus’ family troubles;
    the parable of the strong man, which seems like a real non-sequitur in the passage; and
    the sin against the Holy Spirit, which cannot be forgiven.  That allusion has kept people up all night, wondering if they might ever be forgiven for some of the things they’ve done.

 So let’s take a closer look here.

 First, the family troubles.  Jesus’ mother and siblings seem to think he’s gone out of his mind--that he’s in over his head with all these people following him all the time.  They want to restrain him to get him to stop.

But he ignores them when they arrive and instead use them as a teaching moment.  He says that the person who does God’s will is his true mother and brother and sister.   He’s not quite rejecting them, but he’s not exactly embracing them either.

And we know that this distancing couldn’t have lasted too long, since Jesus’ mother stayed with him till the very end, and his brother James later became the head of the newly fledged church in Jerusalem.
Now to the next point—what about that parable?  Jesus tells the story right after he’s trying to parry with the accusations of the Jerusalem scribes.  They say he has Beelzebul, or the strongest leader of the demons.  And Jesus finds this mighty odd, since he was casting out demons from people for a good while now.  So why would a demon cast out another demon?  A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand—cannot remain strong.

And then he launches into that parable.

He says, “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”  OK think of it in this way:  the strong man is the Devil—Satan—Beelzebul.  Jesus entered into his house, tied up the Devil, and then plundered his property.   In other words Jesus came into the realm of evil, neutralized the power of Satan, and saved some people by casting out their demons and curing those who were oppressed by evil.  So Jesus is saying that not only is he NOT the devil, but that he has stolen from the Devil what had previously been under the Devil’s spell.

Then we have something else that seems like a non sequitur, but that really isn’t.  Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin,” for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”   What is this sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven?  And then some of us may worry, “Have I committed that sin, and am I consigned to Hell for ever and ever?”

 Scholars explain what Jesus means in all kinds of ways, but I think the best explanation I found is that the sin against the Holy Spirit is thinking that Jesus and everything he does and teaches is evil—is from the devil.  It’s very strongly indicated in the part of the sentence where the scribes say “He has an unclean spirit.”

Another way to look at this eternal sin against the Holy Spirit is in these words of a biblical scholar who wrote, “Anything can be forgiven, apart from the determination (by persisting in one’s evil ways) not to be forgiven!”  [H. King Oehmig, Synthesis for June 7, 2015, p. 4]

But this isn’t to say that God’s patience will run out with us.  This isn’t to say that God will get tired of waiting for us to change our minds.

There’s a fine little vignette written by the novelist Madeline L’Engle that illustrates this so beautifully.  I’m going to close this sermon by reading you the little story.  Some folks might find this offensive, actually.  See what you think.

“There is an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept in his repentance and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up toward it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with 12 people seated around a table. "We've been waiting for you Judas," Jesus said. "We couldn't begin until you came."

[Madeleine L'Engle, "Waiting for Judas," from The Rock That Is Higher, 1993 Crosswicks, Walterbrook Press, pp. 312-313.]