The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (2/7/2021)

Ps. 147:1-11; Isa. 40:21-31; 1 Cor. 9:16-27; Mark 1:29-39

Subdue, [I]n a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize. So, run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things … I do not run aimlessly… but I pommel my body and subdue it …” (RSV vv. 24b, 25, 27a).

In addressing the Corinthian church Paul was writing to Spartans possessed of a warrior ethos. Achaia’s greatest warrior, Achilles was a Spartan demi-god. Spartan boys at one time were given over for military training under severe conditions.

Exercising his commission to preach, Paul employed the imagery of martial discipline and training, the runner and boxer, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things … I pommel my body and subdue it…”

Jesus came out of heaven, “the Holy One of God”, a man to wage war against God’s adversaries. The pummeling of Jesus began at his Baptism. Resurrected out of the Jordan, Jesus heard his Father’s voice; believing he would accomplish the work for which he was sent: to attain victory over sin, Satan, death, and grave.

The Spirit “immediately drove” (Mk. 1:12) God’s champion from water to wilderness, Satan’s lair; there Jesus fasted among snakes, scorpions, and wild beasts forty days. When sufficiently subdued, Satan came for the “coup de grace” by temptations to assuage and flatter Jesus’ deprived human flesh;

But Jesus the consecrated warrior, had food others did not know, “My food is in doing the will of [the Father] and to accomplish his work” (Jn. 4:34). Strengthened in his communion, Jesus overcame Satan’s blandishments that would later mark him for death (Lk. 4:13b).

Last Sunday a demoniac, brazenly interrupted Jesus in Capernaum’s synagogue. Most moderns do not credence demon possession; “first world” complacency, no doubt, is result of the church’s success in retaking the world for God.

Still, one need only look for spiritual evil on display in the lives of the benighted where the church is suppressed. And if we look to our own devolving spirituality it is hard to deny the devilish loss of civility, love, and ascendant animus discourse from irreligious.

The demoniac’s profanity is paradigmatic of our general problem, that sin misshapes to unholiness; we are no longer authentically human, in the “image and likeness” of our Creator. We rage against the will of God in our lives and like the possessed man are hostage to its alien nature.

Paul expresses our dilemma, “[We] do not do the good [we] want, but the evil we do not want is what [we] keep on doing” (Rom. 7:19) helpless of ourselves to change. If we change, we must be exorcized by Baptism into Jesus’ death; washed, new creations into the Holy One of God.

By Baptism we are a new begetting from above, trusting with Christ, in God’s will and pleasure; and that on the Last Day he will raise our pummeled bodies from bruising in a profane world.

Thinking to assert power over Jesus, its divine Adversary, the demoniac of Capernaum claimed to know Jesus’ name (Mk. 1:24b); instead, Jesus destroyed the demon, cutting it off by “one little word” (LSB 656, s. 3), “shut-up” and consigning it to a dark place deprived of human food. The man, restored to health, was Jesus’ first Sabbath healing.

Jesus departed the synagogue for Peter’s house, a portent movement from Mosaic assumptions to Christ’s house of authoritative NT teaching (Mk. 1:22). Once there, Peter’s mother-in-law was laid-low; Jesus dispatched the punishing fever as the demon, restoring her to service among the disciples, our shared churchly vocation.

At sundown Sabbath restrictions concluded; town folk brought all who were sick and possessed to Peter’s house; Jesus attended them throughout the night. Exhausted, he rose early to pray to the Father, his sole reliance and source of strength.

Peter hunted Jesus down, thinking he should return to follow-up on the previous day’s success. But Jesus, mindful of his commission would advance in waging war. Going through Israel, Jesus cast-out demon usurpers of God’s rightful rule in the world and warn of judgment for those rejecting his new reign.

Into his mission of reclaiming the world from demons and those aligned (Ps. 2:1, 2), Jesus invited the disciples on march, “Let us go on to the next towns” (Mk. 1:38a).

The Galilean invasion continued, preaching the nearness of God’s kingdom in his presence. Finally, Jesus would arrive in Jerusalem, stronghold of those entrenched against his mission. Jesus’ death would complete his baptismal commission. Jesus trusted in God (Mt. 27:43a) to glorify him (Jn. 12:28; 17:5) and vindicate his victory in the Resurrection.

At the cross Jesus, God’s pure warrior, exercised supreme self-control over his will in favor of the Father’s purposes, allowing “violent men” (Mt. 11:12) to pummel and subdue his body, a sacrifice for our forgiveness and new begetting in the new creation.

“[U]nder the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21b) we too are commissioned in Baptism, trusting God for all things in all circumstances. St. Paul urges Spartan-like discipline through faith, as from Isaiah, “But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength… they shall run and not be weary (Isa. 40:31).

In Christ, water, blood, and Spirit cleanse, disciplining our flesh; we await the Lord with renewed strength. Through newness, the Baptized are joined to their Captain against Satan, sin, and death, that still inhere in our marrow until the finalizing Last Day.

By our baptismal identity in the Holy One of God, we possess grace advancing in self-control and pummeled flesh in this world. When we fail, we are given repentant hearts in the promise of abundant forgiveness and nourishment in the same food of our Lord’s glorified body, to do the will of the Father, by which faith we have already won the race. Amen.