What is This?
The passage from Mark’s gospel today is the inaugural act of Jesus’ ministry. In it he teaches and he heals. However, as is often the case with Jesus things are never as they appear on the surface.
His teaching sets up his authority. His authority is reinforced by his healing. If it were that straightforward it would be enough. The healing represents more than just a man who has been restored, rather it represents a nation which will be remade through a new understanding of God’s word.
Text: Mark 1: 21-28
What is This?
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to the synagogue.
Some of them went sleepily, others went with a great weariness following a busy week of work. Still others trekked over in a rather irritable mood for who knows why–maybe it had been no more than that they were out of cream cheese back at the house and the bagel at breakfast that morning just wasn’t as good without it. In any event, something set them off and so they weren’t in the best of moods as they approached synagogue. Still others arrived having bickered with their kids on the way over. “We’re going to God’s house, for pity sake! Shape up, you kids!”
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
From various paths, emerging from a variety of experiences in the week gone by, awash in a welter of differing emotions and mental states, they came. They came because, among other things, it was frankly their pious habit to do so. For as long as many of them could remember they had gone to synagogue on Sabbath morning. It was the thing to do. It was what was expected of you. You went to the synagogue, moved your way through the fairly staid and predictable liturgy, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a hallel doxology, and then you went home for the feast day meal at noon.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue. (Thank you to Scott Hoezee for the excellent start to the sermon.)
However, on this particular Sabbath the regular teacher was away. Instead, there was a new fellow from Nazareth. Jesus was his name. Hmm, they thought. Well he can’t be that bad, can he? I suppose we’ll tolerate him until the regular guy returns next week.
But then something began to happen. No, he didn’t preach with great theatrics. He wasn’t like that John the Baptist fellow who had just been arrested. He didn’t have the latest in technology at his fingertips, he read from the same Torah scrolls everyone else did. But it was the way he taught, the way he spoke. There was something about him. If you were to look around the room you would see all eyes on him, people were transfixed. This Jesus of Nazareth knew what he was talking about, he was reinterpreting the law and he taught as one who had authority.
Wow! This was good stuff and then it happened, from the back of the room, “Whhhaaaaaaattttt”
People were startled, shaken, wondering what was happening.
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” The voice continued, “Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are – you are God’s holy messenger!”
Well this didn’t happen in synagogue each week. This was more the behaviour for the market!
“Be silent!” Came the command from Jesus. And let’s be honest, everyone was glad he said it. Because while they were thinking it, everyone else was a little too shocked or unsure of themselves to do anything.
But Jesus continued, “Come out of the man.”
The man collapsed, the spirit came out of him and at that point those present knew that they were in the presence of a teacher who not only taught with authority but was able to exercise that authority. To have been there that day. To have witnessed that teaching, to have been in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. That would be transformative.
Yet, today we are here in Cobourg and God is with us today.
Jesus taught as one with authority. He didn’t share the same old interpretations that the scribes had been repeating. His was a new teaching and if we stop and consider this fact, we might well acknowledge that this was among the reasons why he was put to death.
In this passage, this is the inaugural act of Jesus. He teaches and he drives out an unclean spirit. These are the first acts of his ministry and already you get the sense that things can never be the same again.
What is this? That is what the people were asking. What is this? Never have I ever, seen something like this.
But let’s be clear, as Professor Matt Skinner writes, “Jesus and his message represent nothing less than God’s attempt to enter into and reclaim our existence, bringing the reign of God into places where other reigns claim to hold sway” (reference).
Which brings us to an interesting point. Is the second part of this passage really an exorcism of an unclean spirit. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge writes, “The ancient world view that attributes illness to unclean spirits that lies behind this story, although outdated medically, does dramatize forces that wreck havoc within individual, communities, and countries — mental illness, addiction, sexual abuse, and racial hatred. The gospel proclaims Jesus’ “authority” over even the most unclean of spirits that continue to take us over” (reference).
We witness Jesus exercising authority, bringing a new teaching and God is moving in to where other powers have held sway. Friends, this passage today is dangerous.
The idea that this man is possessed doesn’t jive with our understanding of mental health today. I wonder, might this be better understood as a political argument? That possession by demons (legion), as we see in Mark 5, is a parallel to the occupation of Israel by Roman power? The conflict is couched in the terms “Have you come to destroy us?”
Is there a socio-political argument being made here by Mark about who Jesus is and about what he has come to do? In teaching a new teaching, what was Jesus doing? We only know he taught as one having authority and that it was a new teaching. We don’t know what Jesus said on that first day of his ministry. However, based on what Jesus says elsewhere we can make some fairly safe assumptions. I would start with Matthew 5 and the Beatitudes and move forward from there. As I stated early, friends, this passage is dangerous.
What we see Jesus do is challenge the status quo and the way things have always been. I read a quote this week which captures this passage and our required response to it perfectly. Anathea Portier-Young writes that our task is, “To make the invisible visible while also revealing the true nature of visible things” (reference).
To make the invisible visible while also revealing the true nature of visible things. In our passage Jesus reinterprets the scriptures, making words, thoughts and ideas that were always there visible and plain to see for all who were present. Think of the Good Samaritan, what is the most important law: To love God. And the second, to love your neighbour as yourself. But who is my neighbour? And we get a story which unfolds the way the law should be lived out, a reinterpretation of a law we all know. Jesus then in the unclean spirit reveals the true nature of a visible thing, that the law to live under is God’s, not Caesar’s. Jesus goes where no one else is willing to go.
What in our own lives, what in the world we live in today needs to be revealed. What hidden things need to come to light? In our community we are reckoning with a housing and homelessness problem. What some would call a crisis. Homelessness, which is often hidden because we don’t want to address it. How might we bring this hidden crisis into the light of God’s love and take dedicated steps towards fixing things? How might we make this invisible problem, visible?
And what things which are visible require their true nature revealed? What is right there in front of our eyes, something we are all aware of but don’t see? What questions should we ask about ourselves and our community in light of a housing and homelessness crisis? What barriers have we constructed, which while seemingly well intentioned only get in the way.
It was the Sabbath and people went to Synagogue because that’s what you do on the Sabbath.
It is a Sunday and we are at church, because that’s what we do on Sunday. We come from our various walks of life. We interact with our friends here, our brothers and sister in Christ. We deepen our relationships. Sometimes we come because it’s what we’ve always done. Sometimes we come out of guilt. Sometimes we come out of a sense of obligation.
It’s not enough to come to church to feel good or out of obligation. At it’s root the message we receive from scripture and what we learn about Jesus forces us to ask radical questions about the lives we live. We no longer live in a Christian society, we are post-Christendom. But let’s not lament that, because it’s a good thing. It allows us to interpret scripture for the times we live in. To find God affirming, life bringing responses to our community.
Friends, it’s time we ask the question that the Jews in Capernaum asked that day, ‘What is this?’
This is the time to preach good news in difficult circumstances. This is the time to make the invisible visible and to reveal the nature of visible things. All done in God’s name and for the glory of his kingdom. Amen.