The Sunday Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – January 28, 2018
Scripture: Mark 1:21-28
Out of the Gate
Okay, now … .buckle up. Here we go. Were way beyond the manger and the shepherd’s fields. (Though, to be fair, Mark never went there is his writing of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. But, still …) We’re out of the river, we’re back from the wilderness, and we have a “posse,” not complete yet, but four followers so far, former fishermen, current disciples. So, buckle up. Here we go, now … Listen for the Word of God from Mark.
Read Mark 1:21-26 … The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
“At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” I imagine it would when, right out of the gate, Mark records Jesus’ first miracle, an exorcism.
So, it turns out that the oldest, shortest, most succinct gospel emphasizes the miracles, healings, and exorcisms of Jesus more than the other three. Almost one third of the verses in Mark recount miracles. And right out of the gate, Mark records Jesus’ first exorcism. And … right of out of the gate … we are skeptical. Right out of the gate we begin asking al the wrong questions.
“Did these events really occur because of supernatural intervention?”
“Do demons really exist?”
“Do miracles really happen?”
Right out of the gate, we begin asking all the questions that were of no concern whatsoever to the first readers and hearers of this, or any of our gospels. It’s true that the men and women of first century Palestine had a different worldview than ours, one in which divine intervention into human life was a common occurrence, be it from the God of Abraham or the gods of Rome or pagan gods. They were “pre-modern.” We “enlightened” men and women of the centuries since have a different understanding of the causes and remedies of illness, both physical and emotional.
But it’s not quite as simple as first century superstitions versus twenty-first century enlightenment. I believe in some ways, men and women of faith in the first century understood what faith, and faith stories, are about more than us. In the experiencing and expressing of their beliefs, they didn’t insist on equating truth with factuality. They didn’t have to prove that something actually happened to understand the point of a story in which a miracle, a healing, or an exorcism is used to illustrate a greater truth.
I’ll tell you now with full integrity that I don’t know whether this first miracle in Mark’s gospel (or those that follow – and there will be more spectacular ones later – like walking on water or feeding a lot of folks with a little food) – I don’t know whether this story ever happened. And believing that it did happen, is not a requirement of my faith. Because, but I do believe it’s true. I believe the first readers and hearers of this, or any of the other miracle stories in Mark, Matthew, Luke, or John weren’t at all concerned with whether this event ever actually happened. Most likely they did believe in its “factuality,” but that wasn’t the point of the story! They looked for the “truth” that the Gospel writer was trying to share about Jesus.
What does it “mean” that Jesus teaches as “one with authority?” Who is the one, or the “ones” that rebuke Jesus and mock him? Why is Jesus’ act of exorcising and “unclean spirit” called a “teaching?” And, why is it important that Jesus “entered the synagogue and taught?”
I know it’s unsettling to think that two thousand years ago, pre-modern men and women were exploring more complicated issues and asking more sophisticated questions than we’re asking about who, and how, and why Jesus could be the Christ, the Son of God. But I believe they were. We rarely, if ever, “leave our nets and follow” Jesus as Mark, the other gospel writers, and their communities did because we get distracted “right out of the gate.” Believe whatever you want about whether this event we just read about actually happened, but ask yourself, “What does this mean?”
Unfortunately, even when finally ask the right question, we almost immediately overthink our answers and distance ourselves from the people in the story. Were good at that, we preachers, intellectualizing what we have difficulty interpreting. And you’re good at, you churchgoers, assuming the stories in our scriptures are about someone else. But what if I try really hard this morning not to be too cerebral. And what if you all tried really hard not to separate yourselves from the story? What might we uncover? Something new, I think.
If nothing else, the early telling of Jesus’ healing power through this exorcism in the synagogue suggests that there just may be some connection between … get ready for it, especially you young people … there just may be some connection between well-being and religion, between wholeness and the communal practice of our faith.
The “man with an unclean spirit” was in the synagogue, with Jesus, probably listening to his teaching. I know we’ve probably always assumed that he stumbled in off the street, that he was not actually a part of the congregation, that he had no connection to organized religion at all. That’s comforting, to think of this man as an outsider. But it’s also kind of absurd, isn’t it? When was the last time some one stumbled into our sanctuary on Sunday morning and challenged my teaching? Those challenges don’t come form outsiders stumbling in. They come from insiders crying out, upset with something.
Jesus is “teaching as one with authority.” And whenever that happens in the synagogue, the mosque, or the church, whenever someone is given the authority of God and accepts that responsibility, teaching and preaching becomes not simply “informative,” but “transformative.” Transformation is scary stuff to all of us with demons to exorcise. And whenever a congregation gets too scared about what’s being required of them, someone cries out. Take a look at those questions in Mark again:
“What does this have to do with us?” the parishioner is asking. “Do we really have to give up, to ‘destroy,’ our way of life? I know who Jesus is and what we say we believe about God, but … Is this going to be too hard?”
Those are the questions of each one of you here this morning. And if they’re not, then they should be. You are the ones with the unclean spirits. You come here week after week wondering, hoping, that you will find the answer to the questions that will exorcise your demons: What does this have to do with me? Am I going to have to change? I possess my own such demons, to be sure, but week after week (get ready for this, it’s going to be shocking, too) I get to play the role of Jesus. You come asking me, consciously or unconsciously, “What is the point of my being here? What earthly difference does this one hour in my life, or maybe two and half hours in my life, make for me?” And, what do I do? What do I say?
Well, if I’m truthful, I admit I most often mumble a few sentiments about community and sacrificial love. I humbly submit that I teach and preach as one with knowledge and training, but … I don’t “rebuke” you, understanding that word to mean “correct,” or “change,” you. Not very often, anyway, if at all. And so, very few, if any of you, are ever “astounded.” Very few, if any, of my words actually cause “something different to happen”
But, before you feel too sorry for me, at least half of the fault for that is yours. You don’t want to hear it. You don’t want to be “rebuked” anymore than I want to rebuke. But the truth of this first exorcism story is that this is exactly what following Jesus of Nazareth will do: rebuke us, call out our complacency and contentment about the way things are, exorcise those demons so that we may be transformed. That’s what God’s words spoken through Jesus do.
I want, we want, the same thing come Sunday. Not to simply provide more information about a particular scripture text or social issue. Not to simply add to all the other words we’ve ever heard uttered from pulpits since we were old enough to remember, just because that’s what preachers and congregants are supposed to do on Sunday mornings. We want our words, spoken and heard, infused with the power of the One who speaks through us and for whom we listen, to cause something to happen!
That’s the truth of this short story, this first miracle, this exorcism: God’s words from Jesus can do just that. This is the “new teaching.” Not just information, but transformation. God’s Word from Jesus, God’s Word that is, we confess, Jesus, can transform us if we let it. If we let him. If I speak with humility and authority and if we hear with an open and honest desire to change our ways.
The early telling, right out of the gate, of Jesus’ healing power through this exorcism in the synagogue tells us that there is some connection between our well-being and our religion. Something happens here, or can happen here. Something should happen here, that can’t happen in our individual spiritual practices, as important as they are. There is a community here. There is a preacher here. There is a teaching here. There is consolation and challenge, comfort and rebuke, here that is not found in any other place in our life.
The preponderance of miracle in the Gospel of Mark indicates Mark’s unmistakable conviction that in Jesus of Nazareth God was doing something “new” and it began in the community. Don’t ask whether these things ever happened. Ask what these things “mean.” God is breaking through into the world in profound ways. Will we experience and accept it?
I promise to try harder this year, to teach and preach as one with authority, because you have given me that. You must promise this year to accept that authority, even as you challenge and question it. In this way we will all be “rebuked,” changed, transformed by the renewal of our hearts and minds and the restoration of our lives. That is the truth of this miraculous story.
May it be so this year … Right out of the gate. Amen.
Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / January 28, 2018