Of the Old Time, the New Time; Demons and Cancer – Chapel Sermon, 5/3/2012

Below is the manuscript from a sermon I preached in Emmanuel Christian Seminary’s chapel this morning.

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“The time is fulfilled.”

From the time that I became a Christian in college until about a month ago, these four words comprised the most powerful, hopeful, and meaningful message to me. They are, of course, the words uttered by Jesus in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, just before he announces that the Reign of God has drawn near. The time is fulfilled. One age, the one marked by darkness, evil, sin, and brokenness, has passed and another – the one marked by justice, wholeness, and the beginning of God’s reign on earth – has begun. These are cosmic words that bespeak an entire re-ordering of all that is: if the new time has come, and the old time passed away, then everything will change in light of God’s goodness and God’s justice.

I will readily admit that the meaning I have up til now affixed to these words has been at least partially naive. During my latter years at Great Lakes Christian College, I lived with friends in the urban heart of Lansing, and spent a summer as an intern at North City Church of Christ in inner-city St. Louis, MO. In both instances, I lived and ministered among people in bad places: I would often hear gunshots and sirens at night; once, in Lansing, a teenaged boy was murdered in a park five blocks from my house. These things bothered me, in fact they broke my heart, but I believed fervently and committed myself whole-heartedly to the notion that the time was fulfilled – and that made it bearable. That is, of course, the pious answer. Because, while all that is true, it is also true that I was able to leave those places: my internship in St. Louis ended, I went home; my lease in Lansing was over, so I moved here. Nevermind that after I left St. Louis, a boy died in a drive-by shooting on the steps of the church. Nevermind that the problems plaguing inner-city Lansing remain to this day. I was able to leave, and what’s more, I was able to forget how broken the world is; how dark this age is. It is pretty easy to believe that the old age has passed and the new age has come when you can leave a dark place behind. The time always feels fulfilled when you are forgetful and live peacefully. In hindsight, I wonder if the families of those murdered boys believe that the time was fulfilled. Sometimes I wonder if they don’t find it to be a terribly unrealistic claim.

On Good Friday of this year, I remembered and I have not yet forgotten how unrealistic that claim can be when you hear it in the throes of a tragedy. On that Friday, my wife of just one year was diagnosed with cancer. On Easter weekend, the three days that the Christian calendar literally revolves around, I felt like I had been duped. The time is not fulfilled, for disease still exists. The time is not fulfilled, for we have only been married a year. The time is not fulfilled, because whatever iniquity and unfaithfulness exists in me – my wife is righteous, and she is faithful. The time is not fulfilled because on that Friday that was anything but “Good”, I felt for the first time in my life forsaken by God.

I would be lying to you if I said that, between that day and today, I felt much comforted by God. None of my prayers were kind, they were all antagonistic; a vicious anger and a throwing of stones in God’s direction, to hurt God’s feelings, anything to get God’s attention, that God might see the calamity besetting us and be moved to make good on God’s word that “the time is fulfilled.” As I sat in that place, even though I was so angry, so alienated from God, I found myself drawn back to an old story in my favorite book.

Mark 7:24-30

Now from there he arose and went off to the territory of Tyre. And entering a house, he wanted no one to know about him, but he was unable to escape notice. You see, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, came, and fell at his feet. Now the woman was Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth, and she begged Jesus to drive out the demon from her daughter.
And he said to her, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it isn’t good to take the bread for the children and throw it to the dogs.”
But she answered and said to him, “Yes, lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”
So she went home, found the child lying on the bed…and the demon was gone.

In this story, there are three characters: a woman, her child with a demon, and Jesus. In this story I see myself, my wife, her cancer…and the God at whom I have been throwing stones. In this story, Jesus does not omnisciently know about the plight of this woman and her daughter. He shows up in town, avoids all the crowds, and retreats to a house, hoping to go unnoticed. But Jesus did not count on the efficacy of his message in and around the area of Tyre. You see, when Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, saying that “the time is fulfilled” – the message spread, Mark 3:8 says people came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon. Whatever it was that Jesus was doing in Galilee, it was good news to people all over the place – and so the message spread like a germ, like a cancer, and somehow this mother of a demon-possessed girl found out.

I’ve never met Jesus, but I did hear about him once, something about the time being fulfilled and the Reign of God being near. And when I found out, I wanted in on that good news and have spent the time ever since, in fits and starts, trying to experience it for myself. And so I’ve always felt at least a basic connection with that Syrophoenician woman – I can relate to her as an outsider who wants in, one who hears Good News and comes to Jesus and asks him to fulfill the time in her own life.

I relate to this character even more now, however, because I, too, have a loved one with a demon. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and frankly, I’m not sure what else to call it. The cancer in my wife is a foreign entity whose sole purpose is to kill and destroy, devouring life from the inside out. That is an unholy aberration of Creation, the negation of good; it is a demon that literally cripples (for Naomi can hardly walk) and it never goes away. It follows her, it follows us; It even shares our bed. I think I can feel that woman’s anguish, and I can certainly feel her fear, at the thought of the demon destroying her most beloved girl.

I see God in this story as well. I see him in the Jesus who is oblivious to the plight of this family of two, who tries so hard to be far-removed, who if he’d had his way would have stayed holed up in some house while the daughter’s body was ravaged by the unclean spirit, while the mother was powerless to save her. On that Good Friday, when the time was anything but fulfilled, this was God to me: alone, in a house, trying his best to go unnoticed.

In the story, though, the Syrophoenician woman refuses to let Jesus stand idly by; she refuses to let him have his quiet night and barges in on him, calling him to make right what has gone so terribly wrong. This act we could call defiance, or we could call begging — but I prefer to call it faithful, to call it courageous – for she shows up believing the gospel that she’d heard and expecting it to be fulfilled. She comes expecting it to be true – despite the bleak reality of the old time and its unclean spirit. In her faithfulness, this woman gives me strength.

She gives me strength because she stands at the crossroads of the darkness of old time and the message of the new and has courage to call upon God – even if God is trying his best to close the doors and get some sleep. She makes a choice to stand before Jesus and call upon God to make good on God’s promises. She kneels before Jesus and, even though his words are as barbs and sting her more than a little, she asks him for just the crumbs of the new age. She kneels, yes, but in her kneeling she shows the dignity, the worthiness, of her daughter and the courageous faith of her own heart. In her kneeling and in her courageous trust she calls upon God to be reawakened, to draw near and fulfill the time, draw the reign of God near to her daughter, her most beloved girl. And when she does this, God is awakened and matches her own faithfulness. Jesus casts out the demon. And the woman goes home to find her daughter well.

In the weeks following Naomi’s diagnosis, we have run all over Johnson City and Kingsport for what feels like every test under the sun. What we have found, as many of you know, is that the cancer has not spread. It is limited to two tumors around her left knee and that it is treatable and, likely, curable. This news has been met by almost all of our friends and family with cheering and all manner of thanks and praise to God. But yet there’s a part of me who is offended by that. Or, at the very least, not ready for it yet. Because my wife still has a demon, still has cancer and its only cure is still six months of debilitating illness. That’s not good news, and it doesn’t even feel like the time is fulfilled, but with cancer and demons, I suppose, you take what you can get. My prayers have changed, however; I am throwing fewer stones, and hurling less empty threats. I am hopeful at the Dr’s prognosis and believe that my beautiful wife will be healed.

What I am not sure of, however, is whether or not this is evidence that the time is fulfilled. For all the world seems to me to be a Chaoskampf, a struggle against the forces of chaos like demons, disease, war and the broken heart of humankind. The struggle only continues – and no matter how many times you read Mark 1:15, sometimes – most of the time if you watch the news –  it doesn’t feel like the time is fulfilled at all. It feels like the old time, through and through.

But let us be tutored in faithfulness by the Syrophoenician woman. Despite the bleak reality of her daughter’s demon, the constellation of oppressive powers in First Century Judea, or a resistant Jesus…She chose to have courageous trust in the good news that she had heard. She chose the message of the Reign of God and the goodness of God’s New Age despite all the odds. And when she kneeled before Jesus and made her case, the time was fulfilled and her daughter was healed.

To some, this has probably seemed like strange exegesis, probably even worse theology…it is pathos, and it might not even be constructive…but it’s what I have, and in an odd, backwards way, it is my own attempt at faithfulness. And so I challenge you all to follow the Syrophoenician Woman’s example in choosing to believe that the old age has passed and the new age begun – in choosing to believe that God’s Reign truly has drawn near despite the suffering of the world and the brokenness of Creation. Follow after her as she follows after the Good News. And on my best day, when all of this has passed and my wife has been healed, perhaps I will see you there.

Go in peace and in courageous trust. Amen.