By the church calendar, this is the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, but for everyone else, it’s Super Bowl Sunday. A team that beat the Vikings will square off against some other team in Super Bowl L-I-V. Or for those who don’t speak Latin, Super Bowl 54.
The Super Bowl is a big deal. Companies spend millions on TV ads. In 2017, the game went overtime, and Fox made $20 million just on the four extra commercials they got to show. This year, 30-second ads are selling between $5 and $6 million dollars.
Tickets are setting all-time records. CBS reported that the average ticket is just over $9000, with a range of $5800 on the low end to over $46,000 on the high end.
$46,000 for one ticket! And how much will you make this year?
If you had a game ticket and could book a flight, decent rooms in Miami can be had for under $300 a night. But if you wait to eat dinner at the stadium, even just a beer and a hot dog will cost you over $16.
In other words, you can’t afford it. I’m not even sure I’m allowed to say “Super Bowl” without paying the NFL. The league actually sends out a list of rules for churches on exactly what we can and can’t do. But none of that will stop thousands of us preachers from talking about it in the pulpits this morning.
Some churches really get into it. Many report that Super Bowl Sunday now draws the third best attendance, right after Easter and Christmas. One of the big publishing houses has special curriculum for today, complete with game videos.
In the midst of all this hoopla, an actual game gets played, in between the commercials.
That 2017 overtime game was a thriller, sort of, but that’s because Atlanta blew a 25-point lead. But do you remember who even played a year ago? The AFC team beat the Los Angeles Rams 13 to 3.
It’s not always the most exciting game. Traditionally, the average has been a two-score difference. 2/3rds of the time, the team that scores first wins. The team ahead at halftime wins 80% of the time. And if a team gets behind by ten points, they almost always lose.
That’s the risk tonight. On paper, this should be a great game—the best of the best. But it’s more likely that one team will take the upper hand, get that insurmountable 10-point lead, and then sit back and drain the clock. Maybe I’m wrong—but odds are that it will be a boring game.
By contrast, today’s gospel lesson is not boring. There’s a real contest here, a classic conflict between good and evil, played out in this encounter between Jesus and the demon, in the Capernaum synagogue.
The demon wastes no time. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? And of course, the answer is, Yes! Jesus came into this world to destroy everything that enslaves people, everything that leaves us being less than noble humans created in the image of God.
Jesus came as the Destructor. That may seem strange. We think of Jesus as a creator. The opening verses of the gospel of John tell us that “in the beginning was the Word,” and “through him all things were made.” Yet the one who creates also has the power to destroy, and Jesus came to destroy everything that stands in the way of his creation.
Some folks will find this too superstitious to take seriously. It’s a story cast in terms of demon possession – “a man with an unclean spirit.” For us, this man obviously had some sort of psychiatric disorder, some schizophrenia – multiple personalities.
Now, if there was a story in the Sunday paper about a man who started hollering at people during church, and the reporter said he had an “unclean spirit,” we’d laugh or maybe even be offended. To speak of mental illness as an “unclean spirit” sounds as primitive as trying to cure a headache with leeches or bongo drums.
Likewise, the therapy Jesus applies would seem completely inappropriate. A psychiatrist would medicate the poor guy. A psychologist would try to get him into the office for long-term counseling.
But what does Jesus do? He tells the guy to shut up and stop it: ”Be silent and come out of him!” Old Dr. Laura on the radio always used to cut off people, but no trained professional would ever do that. No, Jesus is saying, I don’t want to hear about your childhood or your potty-training or anything else. Just shut up and stop it.
If it shocks us, it also shocked the crowd that day. For Mark, the point of the story is not the miracle as such, but that the forces of evil recognized Jesus’ superior power and authority. People said that Jesus spoke with authority. “They were all amazed,” he says. “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
Now we can understand the gospel truth. If I were to approach someone with an “unclean spirit,” whatever that means, and just do what Jesus did–if I simply said: “Shut up and stop it!” . . . I would fail. I don’t have that power or authority. But Jesus did.
As you drive into Iowa City, there’s a little welcome sign that says: Iowa City is a Nuclear-Free Zone. It’s a cold war leftover from the 1980s. It always struck me as pointless. I don’t think Vladimir Putin would say, “Oops, we’d better nuke Cedar Rapids instead. Iowa City has that sign.
It seems silly to stand up to evil with a sign–with nothing more than saying “shut-up and stop.” But Jesus had exactly that kind of power, and it worked.
Now Mark isn’t telling us this as dry historical fact, just to be taken at face value or laughed off. He tells us this story because this same power of Jesus to destroy evil is still at work among us, even two thousand years later.
In truth, all of us face demons, whether we call them “demons” or not. There are times when we need to be saved from some sort of oppressive force in life. Our demons have names like addiction, guilt, shame, prejudice, greed, depression, meanness, hopelessness, the despair of loneliness, the despair of a broken heart, or the anguish that comes from making bad choices.
Any of those demons can grab us and control us, just as the demon controlled that guy in the synagogue. And so we come to church, to seek out Christ, because we also want to be healed. We want to be freed from our demons.
We want to be free, and yet so often it’s difficult to let go of our demons.
In our objective, rational mind, we know full well what that demon is doing to us. We know we’d be better off without it.
And because somewhere inside we know we’d be better off, we make a fatal mistake. We assume that somehow, we’ll find the inner strength: We’ll find the inner resources to drive out the demons all on our own.
Who else could do it? You don’t know what I’m thinking. You can’t read my mind. And even if you could, you wouldn’t understand. We think that no one really understands us–not even Jesus Christ himself.
The problem could not be more obvious than it is today, on Super Bowl Sunday. This morning, we come in here and worship a guy we picture a skinny guy with long hair, a shaggy beard, running around barefoot in a bathrobe, This evening, we’ll gather in front of the TV and worship heroes double our size, bedecked in helmets and armor. We worship the raw physical power of the football hero.
What power does our scrawny little Jesus have? Why even bother? What authority could he really have to cast out the demons that plague our modern world? What does Jesus know about life in 2020?
That’s what the demons thought. They called out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
And the answer is this: Everything. Jesus has everything to do with us and the demons we fight for control of our spirits. Jesus came to destroy them, and can do so with nothing more than the force of his word. To the demons inside us, he says– Shut up and go away.
All he asks us is to believe him; to trust him; to let his power work on us. Jesus wasn’t just some ordinary traveling preacher. Jesus wasn’t even some extraordinary athlete with physical strength, speed, and skill. Even tonight in the Super Bowl, the biggest guy on the line is not simply going to be able to say to the man in front of him, shut up and get out of my way – and make it happen.
Even the greatest, strongest, holiest human beings cannot blast away evil just by speaking to it firmly.
But Jesus can. Let him. Let him speak his powerful word to whatever demons are haunting you. Let him speak his powerful word to the demons that haunt our world. Believe him. Trust him, and then watch the miracles happen through Jesus Christ our Lord.