The Fourth Sunday of the Epiphany
1 February 2015
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today, after the last two weeks of saintly digression, we resume our reading of Mark’s version of the “coming out” story of Jesus. We’re still in the first chapter, so in one sense we do not have to reach back very far to see where we have come. But in another sense, each snapshot-episode Mark gives us reaches back to the larger story of the call and redemption of Israel, making Mark’s gospel for the attentive listener a story within a Story. I won’t rehearse what we’ve already seen except to say that each bit of the story, from the Baptist to Jesus’ appearance on the public stage, depends on echoes and allusions to Isaiah’s imagination of God’s Servant whose way is wonderful as well as dark and dangerous.
Mark just glimpses at the next event—the Spirit’s thrusting out of Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. It is in this event that Jesus, now standing in for all of Israel, returns to the Wilderness and with flying colors passes the test that the people of Israel so miserably failed. It is as the true Israel, God’s faithful Son, that the story of God’s blessing and redemption can continue in Jesus. The test had to be passed, in a way to ratify the baptism declaration of God. For the calling of a people alone did not assure that people’s faithfulness. In Jesus, all of this was now coming back on track.
There is one other piece of the developing story needed to fix the total context. Jesus went public with a message called “the gospel,” urging that people were to change their way of thinking and put their faith in this “good news.” What is this gospel? Should we think of it in Mark’s post-resurrection terms, or on Jesus’ terms? Whatever it meant for Mark, for Jesus “good news” takes its meaning from the same prophetic story of God’s redemption in Isaiah 40—66. The gospel of Jesus’ proclamation was nothing so refined as Paul’s gospel. There is no hint of gospel and salvation as a transaction between God and humankind; no talk of “God in Christ reconciling the world to himself”; no talk of Jesus who knew no sin becoming sin for our sakes; and so on. These things are implicit in Jesus’ message, and come much closer to the surface as Jesus takes to himself the figure of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah 53 (Mark 10:45); and the disciples will eventually have to come to terms with Jesus’ prediction of death, but that is still eight chapters away. Here Jesus was announcing that God was now, in Jesus, commencing the consolation of Israel after her torment in exile. The people in Galilee were to see in Jesus, in his message, his power, and in his solidarity with the poor and those forsaken, the commencement of the salvation of God announced as “good news” by the ancient prophet. Here is the gist of that good news:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God;
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty has been paid.
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
But when will God do this?
Now, says the Lord; How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
But through whom will God do this? How? Through the One who said of himself:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor, and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.
Mark especially has woven into his shortest of all Gospels the entirety of Isaiah’s epic story of the Consolation of God. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God, God’s power and love, was making its appearance. And, as Mark gives it to us, at the very outset of Jesus’ own “coming out,” in his message, his actions, and his teaching, in his selection of disciples to assist him in this work, the Kingdom of God began to take shape. And as it did, as our Gospel lesson for this day suggests, it took the people completely by surprise. Well, that too is a part of the story in Isaiah:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Metaphorically, a grand irrigation project to reclaim desert lands. But as “good news” this is God saying, “I will do what you think impossible; I will be in places you think have no potential; I will inhabit and redeem what you have cast off.”
This is the Jesus of Mark. We find Jesus, as he begins to go public, entering Capernaum’s synagogue on the Sabbath. Now while the synagogue could be the Jewish town hall on most days of the week, on the Sabbath it was a place of worship. Jesus, taking up the role of the rabbi, began to teach the people—what he taught, we do not know, though we might guess—but it was not just what but also how he taught that caused the people to react: they were utterly astonished. The first thing a rabbi learned from his mentor, and passed on to his own students (and so too the legal experts called Scribes) was display the proper deference to Moses and the prophets. So, their interpretations of the Scriptures were always prefaced with “as Moses taught,” or “as Rabbi Hillel, or whoever, taught,” in which case Rabbi Hillel had already clearly in his own teaching said “as Moses taught.” Even the prophets prefaced their announcements with, “Thus says the Lord.” But Jesus dared to say, “I tell you,” and in doing so claimed an authority to understand the will of God that was unprecedented (and, just so we’re clear, held by the religious leadership to be blasphemous). It was believed that when Messiah came he would explain, in full, the meaning of the Law; but it was not said that he would speak so directly as God himself spoke with Moses on Mount Sinai. Yet this is what Jesus was doing. The people are astonished; but not simply by this audacity. What he did next went beyond audacious.
We might well ask, what it means that a man with an unclean spirit was even in this Jewish synagogue on a day of worship. In the Jewish worldview of that day, the wilderness was the home of unclean spirits. And the Gentile habitation and desecration of the Land, during the time of exile and after the return to the land had turned it into a wilderness more suited to unclean spirits who wandered about seeking to do damage to vulnerable people. And people thought to be possessed by demons, had been rendered vulnerable because of sin and because God had disclaimed them. The same was true for some sicknesses, which were held to be a kind of Jewish karmic payback from God for sins perhaps done by the afflicted one’s parents or grandparents. In some way, the presence of a demonized man in that synagogue may be a commentary on the state of the covenant people’s religion—but Mark offers no enlightenment here, no enlargement. Yet it is telling and somewhat ironic that this demonized man, the force of evil within him, already knows with clarity who Jesus is. The question, “What have you to do with us?”, is a Jewish formula of dissociation, which can imply, “we have nothing in common,” and the question that follows, “Have you come to destroy us,” reveals how evil unravels in the presence of goodness; and yet how ironic that evil seems quite at home in the Synagogue and at worship. There were among the rabbis and priests some who attempted the work of exorcism; but when they did so, they employed complicated formulas and ritual intercessions designed to bring God to bear on the evil spirit. Jesus utters two simple commands, two verbs in the imperative: essentially, “shut up,” and “get out.” And while evil attempts to do one last bit of damage, the people looking on are completely amazed. Their takeaway is summarized as “a new teaching with authority,” demonstrated in a command issued to a demon who cannot but obey. The report was spread far and wide, and Jesus’ fame spread. But there is a thin line between fame and notoriety, and Jesus more often than not was on the wrong side of that line.
God was indeed unleashing in Jesus the new, unexpected things that Isaiah’s prophecy announced. But this newness, the intervention of God’s kingdom, is not just about Jesus going head to head with demonized people, or his forthright declaration of the meaning of the Law. What was new and unexpected as much as the action of the kingdom was the venue, the location of its demonstration. In large part, Jewish piety in that day—the sort of piety that was associated with faithfulness to the covenant, the Temple, and the current religious leadership—was demonstrated by avoidance of all that was unclean, desecrated, forsaken by God, and building fences to keep such people in their own place. The new thing that Jesus announced and embodied in his earthly ministry—what he handed on as a baton to the apostles and they to the church—came most clearly to light when he reentered uninhabitable places, the unclean spaces, enemy territory, to reclaim what was God’s. In doing so, he broke all the rules; time and again he scandalized his hosts at dinner parties, he used the wrong fork for his salad; he slurped his soup; and he surprised everyone.
There are several ways to respond to this in twenty-first century NYC. Perhaps, we might think the first matter of business is to demythologize such stories about the demonic or the personification of evil in this one called Satan. But however we finally describe it, we all know the possibilities of evil. And here I would agree with the late Walter Wink, Professor of New Testament at Auburn Theological Seminary—after all, Presbyterians can sometimes get it right. He understood evil as a negative and destructive force that will seek empty spaces to occupy. If I then extrapolate, this includes places we leave vacant; places we pay no attention to; places we leave open to negotiation; playgrounds in the heart and mind; but also spaces of human power and prestige in our larger social world, where government and commerce do their business and take no prisoners. Jesus’ “gospel” is the announcement that God seeks to reclaim these spaces and bring order to our chaos and disarray. To be astonished is not enough; to give thought and prayer to our own spaces and to open even the most private and precious of these to God’s power, love and forgiveness is the response anticipated by Jesus to the gospel of his Epiphany in our world. Amen.
© 2015 Philip H. Towner