Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Quiet! Come Out of Him!

This is my homily for this Sunday. In paragraph three, the regular reader might notice a similar thought from a homily two weeks ago. But I was preaching to a different congregation that week, so I’m not doing reruns just yet. This week what really gets me is the whole idea of demons coming into Church with us. Has that ever happened to you?

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

One of the earliest Scripture texts that I can recall knowing is the antiphon to today’s psalm: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” I kept thinking this week as I was praying over the readings that maybe if I had listened to that a little better, I might have been ordained a lot earlier in my life. But then again, if I hadn’t listened to that verse, maybe I wouldn’t be standing here now.

I think that’s the point, though, of today’s readings: we need to listen to the voice of the Lord, and when we hear it, do what he asks, hardening not our hearts. But will we hear the voice of the Lord today? The question is not whether the Lord will speak to us, but more whether we will hear his voice. I’ve heard God’s word compared to radio waves: they’re always there, but you have to turn on the radio to hear them. And God’s presence is that way too: God is always with us, but we have to tune in to realize it.

And that can be hard to do in today’s noisy world, right? There are so many distractions that keep us from tuning in to the voice of the Lord. We have radio, television, cell phones, iPods, email, text messages, and so much more. Sometimes we can barely concentrate on driving our cars, let alone listening to God. And even if we find time to sit down and concentrate on even just one of them, they will ultimately fail to meet our needs. Dr. Phil, Oprah and Martha Stewart may all be interesting, but they can’t give us the unconditional love that only comes from God, nor can they bring us to salvation and the union with God for which we were created.

We are a people who need to hear the truth. Whether or not we’re conscious of it, I think we yearn for that truth. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t spend so much time tuning in to the people I just mentioned. If it weren’t the case, most of the books at Barnes and Noble wouldn’t be selling right now. If that weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be the hunger for spirituality that we see in the New Age movement and even various fundamentalist religions. We are a people who have always wanted to know what it’s all about, why we are here, and, by the way, what’s the meaning of life?

The people of Israel had that same hunger in today’s first reading. As they prepared to enter the Promised Land, it was clear that Moses wouldn’t be going with them. Moses had been the voice of God for them, especially since they were literally scared to death to hear that voice or look on the face of God all by themselves. If they were going to enter the land of milk and honey, they would need someone to walk with them so that they would know the will of God. The good news for them is that God promises to provide such a voice: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth; he hall tell them all that I command him.” The people are commanded to listen to the prophet’s words, and are promised that those words would always be spoken to them.

The people were still looking for that word when Jesus walked into the synagogue at Capernaum. The tradition of the time was that the male members of the synagogue would take their turn teaching at the service, and it was Jesus’ turn this particular day. The people recognized a difference in Jesus’ preaching and that of the scribes. The scribes dutifully quoted predecessors and based their teaching on what was spoken before them. But Jesus spoke on his own authority, and that for them was astonishing.

It was so astonishing, in fact, that it even caught the attention of demons possessing one of the men in the synagogue. While the people were still wondering who this Jesus was and what his source of authority could be, the demons possessing the man addressed him by name: Jesus of Nazareth, the Holy one of God! They knew who Jesus was and why he came, and based on Jesus’ authority, and on the one command Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel reading, “Quiet! Come out of him!” the demons leave the man, and everyone in the synagogue continue to wonder at Jesus’ authority.

This is an incredible Gospel passage for us, I think. We don’t very often get to hear demons interrupting the celebration of Mass, and still less often see the presider rebuke the demon and cast it out. But I think that demons come into Church with us all the time. If we’re honest, each of us has a demon or two that from time to time distract us from the worship of God and our own prayer. That demon can be some kind of addiction of substance abuse or unhealthy behavior. The demon can be a pattern of sin that has us in a grip that we just can’t escape. The demon can be indifference or hard-heartedness that has its origin in real hurts or abuse. There are probably demons among us now, and probably some of us feel guilty about that – maybe we have all felt guilty about that from time to time.

And that’s where I think today’s Gospel is very good news for all of us. We see that Jesus wasn’t put off by the demon or angry at the man who was possessed. So we can be sure that he has certainly seen our own demons before, and still loves us despite their grip on us. Even more than that, we can see that he longs to silence those demons and cast them out of us, so that we can worship God in spirit and truth. Today’s Gospel reading shows us what may be the most important message in all of Jesus’ ministry: that God loves his people and deeply desires that they be freed from the evil, sin and death that have so long kept us from unity with Him.

Listening to these demons all the time can certainly harden our hearts. That’s why they are so hard to get rid of. Demons don’t respond to our limited authority. But we don’t have to drive them out on our own. Because we know that the demons certainly respond to the authority of Jesus, the ultimate prophet. And Jesus will cast them out for us, if only we would tune in, if only we would listen and hear his voice.

“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”