Mark 1: 21-28 / Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 2012 / Norman B. Bendroth
We are in Year B of our three year lectionary cycle and the gospel we walk with during this year is Mark. For those of you unfamiliar with the lectionary, it is a three-year cycle of readings from the Bible. It was put together in 1983 as an ecumenical revision of the earlier three year lectionary produced by the Roman Catholic Church. The revision was the product of collaboration between American and Canadian Catholic Bishops as well as many traditional “mainline” American and Canadian Protestant denominations. It thereby represents the majority of American and Canadian Christians and has been widely adopted in Great Britain. Each week there is a selection from the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, a Psalm, a Gospel lesson, and a selection from one of the New Testament letters. In this way, after three years a pew-sitter and sermon hearer will have gotten a broad exposure to the Christian story, God’s plan of redemption.
Mark is the earliest of the four Gospels and has the barest bones among them. Mark, who was a secretary for Peter as tradition holds, wanted to get to the point and didn’t mince words. He doesn’t fool around with birth stories like Matthew and Luke, no long teaching sections like the Sermon on the Mount, no parables as in Luke. In fact, if you count the times Mark writes “immediately” you’d think Jesus never sat still.
Mark lays it down early what he’s up to. In verse one he writes: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s his purpose—to tell the good news that God has appeared among us in Jesus. So Mark covers in half a chapter what Matthew and Luke take four to tell.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus launches his ministry. He goes to synagogue in Caper-naum, on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee, like any good Jewish boy would on the Sabbath and he began to teach. The first century synagogue was primarily a teaching institution that consisted of prayer, the reading of the Torah, and the exposition of it. There was a designated Ruler of the Synagogue who was basically the administrator. There was no professional ministry so it was incumbent upon the Ruler to call on any competent person to read and give the exposition of the Torah. So Jesus slid easily into this natural opportunity.
Jesus begins teaching, but we are not told what the content of his teaching was. This is the first time we’ve seen Jesus teach in Mark. I for one would like know what he’s saying, what he believes, where he’s headed. We get nothing. All we get is the congregational reaction to his preaching. The folk were astounded by Jesus teaching “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (v. 22). His preaching evoked “astonishment.” I want to know what he said. I want people to be “astonished” at my preaching too. Give us a clue. But we are not told anything about how they reacted to Jesus content; we are told what they thought about him.
I often hear people say that, “When I go to church, I want to get something out of the sermon,” which often means a thought for the day, an inspirational anecdote, five easy steps to a successful life and so on. We preachers like to truck in ideas and we are so disappointed when someone tells us something that they appreciated in the sermon that we didn’t even say! Either that or they remember the story we told, but not the point of the story. But it seems to me that Mark might be saying that people come to hear Jesus, to meet him, not to take notes on how to live a better life.
He also preached “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes were a class of scholars that arose to interpret and apply the Torah. They set themselves out to extract rule and regulations for every possible circumstance in life from the great moral principles of the five books of Moses. They deduced and extracted official procedures that became known as the Oral Law and in some instances they were more binding than the written law. No Scribe ever gave a decision on his own when making judgments and rulings. He would always begin with, “There is a teaching that…” and would quote all his authorities. If he made a statement he would buttress it with this, that and the other quotation from the great legal masters of the past. But he never gave an independent judgment!
Jesus, on the other hand, spoke with personal authority. When he spoke, he spoke as if he needed no authority beyond himself. He didn’t quote Barth or Borg or Oprah or Rick Warren. He spoke with the positive finality of the voice of God…and people sat up and took notice.
There are different kinds of authority. One is expertise and the other is authenticity. There is, indeed, the authority that comes from scholarship or expertise in a given field. A person who has scoured the Biblical texts in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, who has studied how the great thinkers of the Church have applied the scriptures over the ages, who knows history and movements is going to speak with deeper knowledge, conviction and passion about these things. But they can also be deadly boors. Have you ever heard a preacher exegeting a text from the pulpit, parsing Greek verbs, talking about syntax, presenting arguments and counter-arguments? I have and it’s not a pretty sight. You might say, “Boy that guy is pretty smart,” but you wonder has he lived this? Does this stuff burn in his belly and bring fire to his bones?
Authenticity flows from the center of one’s being. You sense a person is being true to who they essentially are. They may speak with the authority of a learned person, but there is more, you hear the Kol Yahweh, the voice of God, in their words. They have the authority of their experience—“I’ve been there, I’ve lived this, it’s really true.” And that’s what people heard in Jesus.
Suddenly in the middle of Jesus’ teaching there is a commotion—not unlike most church services today; a baby starts squawking, someone’s snoring, a hymnal drops. A man with an “unclean spirit,” Mark tells us, starts screaming, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Now everyone in the synagogue knew this was Jesus of Nazareth, so no one would be surprised that the man knew that. But what was alarming is that he identified Jesus as “the Holy One of God”—another name for God’s anointed One, the Messiah. How on earth would he know that?
We moderns stumble over these kinds of references in the New Testament to “unclean or evil spirits” or references to being possessed by a demon. Mark uses these phrases interchangeably. We must first realize that in the first century people believed in a world filled with demons. They accounted for much, if not most, of the evil in the world. Demons were malignant beings that stood between God and humanity.
It was also believed that when the Messiah came his reign would overcome the demonic, so when the demon in the man encountered Jesus he shrieked in terror because he knew his days were numbered. Jesus rebuked the spirit and with convulsions and screaming left the man.
There are one of three ways we can understand this: we can relegate the whole matter of demon-possession to a primitive belief system that accounted for disease this way before the advancement of medical science; that demon possession was true in New Testament times and it still is today; or, if we believe the first explanation, then Jesus accommodated himself to what people believed they suffered. The trouble with that is that it makes Jesus somewhat dishonest and it really doesn’t explain his words and actions throughout the Gospels by taking evil spirits seriously.
Perhaps there is yet another way to understand this. The collective Greek word for demons (mazzikin) translates as “one who does harm.” Can we not see disease, mental illness, or any malignancy in human beings as “demonic,” in the sense that they do harm to innocent people? Although Christians today rarely attribute mental illness and epilepsy to demon possession, aren’t we keenly aware of the spiritual dimensions of the sick and the suffering? Paul Tournier, the great Swiss psychiatrist writes in his book A Doctor’s Casebook, “Doubtless there are doctors who in their struggle against disease have had, like me, the feeling that they were confronting, not something passive, but a clever and resourceful enemy.” The root word of salvation is the Greek salvus which means healing. Healing always has a spiritual dimension.
And aren’t there times when there seem to be forces so evil and larger than life that it is only appropriate to call them “demonic”? Hitler’s gas chambers, Stalin’s work camps and Pol Pot’s killing fields easily come to mind. Paul talks about “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6.12) that are malignant forces in God’s world that lie behind institutions, nations, corporations, and bureaucracies that crush people and oppose all that is good. While I don’t believe in a literal devil in a red leotard, horns, a long tail and a pitchfork, there would appear to be evil forces in this world alien to God’s purposes. We don’t know if these are personal or impersonal, but they are real. Ultimately we must claim agnosticism about these things. But the good news of today’s gospel is that Jesus is stronger still. He struck the first blow against evil with his arrival in Bethlehem, he delivered the knockout punch by his death and resur-rection, and he will deliver the fatal blow when he makes all things new in the age to come.
With Paul we can say, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
But a funny thing happened after Jesus freed this possessed man. Mark says, “They were all amazed…” which seems like a natural response. But note what they were amazed at. “What is this? A new teaching—with authority.” They weren’t amazed that a new miracle worker was in town, they weren’t amazed that a demoniac was cured; they weren’t even amazed that no one fell asleep during the sermon. They were amazed at Jesus’ teaching. To be sure a healed human being was an amazing thing, but it was the effectiveness, the authority of that spoken word, that teaching that blew them away.
Jesus is a teacher. That is one of Mark’s favorite terms for Jesus. But he is more than that, or at least he is a very special sort of teacher. He is “the Holy One of God.” He is God among us. His message is intimately related to himself. Thus, whatever he said that day, it was considerably more than a set of spiritual platitudes, or vague religious ideas. He spoke himself. He was not just a set of interesting thoughts about God. He took up space. He carved out room for himself. He was nothing less than God among us.
And those who encountered him were “amazed.”
Those dear folk who sometimes say, “I’m not sure about all those high theological claims for Jesus – Son of God, Savior of the World – I just think he was a wonderful moral teacher, a great example of the highest and best of humanity,” have not said enough about Jesus, not by a long shot. He was, he is, as much of God as we ever hope to see. Such is the amazement that is at the heart of the Christian faith.
One evening in the 17th century, John Wesley, an Anglican priest and scholar, “went reluctantly” to a meeting at Aldersgate Street in London. Wesley had led an exhausting life up to this point, journeying to America as a missionary, working day and night for the good of others, preaching until he was almost spent.
At Aldersgate Street someone was reading from Luther’s lecture on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Now that sounds like a page turner. And yet, Wesley said that night he came to a conviction that “Christ had died for my sins, even mine.” And thus the Wesleyan revival was ignited. It was a revival that was stoked by Wesley’s amazement that God’s grace was for him.
Blaise Pascal was one of France’s greatest minds, a great mathematician and philosopher. He tried to think his way toward God, but without success. He had spent his whole adult life trying to make sense of the Bible and its witness. Then, late in the night, November 23, 1654, Pascal wrote in his diary, “Fire! God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,” not of the philosophers and the learned. “Certitude. Certitude. Joy. Peace. God of Jesus Christ.” It was one of the world’s great conversions. Conversion seems to be intimately related to amazement. We’re talking about that emotion, that mystical experience that is at the heart of it all in this faith.
In this age when naturalism tells us that the sum of who we are can all be explained by our blood, genes, chemicals and neurons; when the only kind of truth we can know is what we can observe, measure, and postulate; when we honestly think that technology will save us and science will remove all of the mystery from life, my prayer is that every Sunday week after week you will come here and continue to be amazed.