The fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B, 2015 – Deuteronomy 18:15 – 20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
I have a particular fondness for Scotland- my wife is of Scottish decent, I love the rugged landscape, the bracing winds and especially the solitude of the north. Scotland’s been in the news a lot this past year, voting to stay in the United Kingdom and being very proud of their oldest citizen, a woman of 107 years who eats a bowl of porridge every day announced to the media last week, “My secret to a long life has been staying away from men. They’re just more trouble than they’re worth.”
As a young man I once went to Edinburgh’s famous Fringe Festival. I found a ‘short’ version of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The whole cycle of three very long operas was somehow squeezed into an hour and a half. It was a very funny send-up that poked fun at the bizarre plot-lines, the pompous fervor of Wagner fans and of course, the fact that Hitler was very fond of Wagner and of the Ring. Suddenly, in the midst of this hilarity a woman stood up and started shouting in German. The entire production ground to a halt, as she was ushered out screaming, my darling Wagner, my darling Wagner. Somehow the comic exposure of Wagner’s vision was too much for her.
The truth, even dressed up with comedy, can evoke violent reactions.
I tell this story because our gospel text has some elements of this. Very early in his ministry, Jesus comes into the town of Capernaum and like all the Jews there, went to the synagogue on the Sabbath. It was a worship service people would have remembered for a long time.
The people were astounded by the authority with which Jesus spoke. This was unlike any teaching they heard from the ‘credentialized’ teachers of their community – the formally trained scribes. The comparison drawn by the congregation is crucial for us. Unlike the trained scribes Jesus was not working with the various interpretive traditions of the day – you know this one says such and such, and that one says something slightly different, but perhaps we can see another way to read the scriptures.
The people were astounded at the way he taught. He taught with authority unlike others.
Now Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us anything about the content of Jesus’ sermon. We can think about that a bit later. Instead, the gospel writer emphasizes the authority of the teaching. Mark’s whole gospel presents the authority of Jesus and the inevitable showdown with other authorities as a central feature.
One can imagine them asking questions like these: “For whom does this man speak?” Or “Who has authorized his ministry?” or “Is he another prophet like the ones in Israel’s history?” Such questions are answered in the most unusual way on that morning in the Capernaum synagogue.
Suddenly there was an eruption mid-service and a man with an unclean spirit started shouting, “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” In other words the unclean spirits, opposed to God’s purposes recognized that something of a greater magnitude was happening there and, in a sense, they cry out, “why are you goading us into a fight? Can’t you leave us alone?”
Jesus’ response is remarkable. He simply tells them to be silent and come out of the man. Note there are no long prayers, no special rituals, just a simple command from one who has authority. The spirits obey Jesus. The point about Jesus’ teaching authority is not lost on the congregation “He commands even unclean spirits and they obey him! This is not simply another teacher.”
I don’t think we should, however, miss the central connection between teaching, authority and the advance of the kingdom of God against opposing powers. This lies at the heart of Jesus’ entire ministry. His teaching and his actions, particularly as they are set out in Mark’s gospel represent an attack upon evil powers. St. Paul would later clarify this in his letter to the Ephesians (chap 6): “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
How might the teaching of Jesus accomplish this attack and cause the unclean spirit to cry out and be silenced?
We can easily get the drift of Jesus’ teaching from each of the four gospels. He not only taught about the reign of God but demonstrated it with his miracles and finally in the journey into the death, trampling even that down at Easter.
Every time Jesus taught about the reign of God he was taking pokes at the prevailing ideologies and the powers of this dark age.
What if the congregation at Capernaum, described in today’s gospel, heard Jesus say something like this: “It’s not the powerful or famous who will inherit the earth, but the poor and the humble and the meek, and peacemakers”? To get the full impact of the shock value you would have to remember that the powerful, even in Palestine, had bought into prevailing notions that life was about the accumulation of honours and military victories. The whole purpose of a man’s life according to the culture, was to accumulate the trophies of social honour and stack them up as family treasure for the advancement of future generations. These badges gave one social value and were inscribed on monuments after your death.
Imagine then, if someone comes in and says this is rubbish and the real prize in the kingdom of God, was to be meek and humble. And that those who appear first in social ranking will end up last in the kingdom. Imagine a prophet with authority restating the call of the living God to reveal God’s love in care for outcasts, for the poor, for those who might not have the support of a country’s laws – the foreigners, the lepers, the orphans!
Average folk sitting in the synagogue in Capernaum may have found themselves nodding quietly in agreement. This man speaks with authority!
Why the demonic explosion? When old boundaries are broken, when the average person no longer has a free hand to avenge the blood of a family member, then even the dark powers know that another kind of rule is breaking in. Jesus had the authority to say that this new way of relating to people and the changes in the human heart would allow people and communities to flourish. Could this possibly have been God’s intention for the world all along? No wonder the unclean spirits cried out as Jesus was teaching. Why are you goading us into a fight? Can’t you leave us alone?
Well they couldn’t stop the one with authority from God. Other gospel accounts of healing and deliverance tell us that the unclean spirits even identified Jesus correctly as the Son of God. They knew his authority. They knew he was the son of God.
Recognition is, of course not enough. It is given to each person to act on that recognition – to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and then, most crucially, to follow him. The poor and the simple found it easier than the honoured and the wealthy to give up the old view of life and to follow him.
Many of you can look back to the time when this dawned upon you by God’s grace and you chose to follow him and the whole world and its future changed for you. That change will go on. Because every time you hear God’s word it comes with the authority of the Son of God and it has the power to do crack open some blindness or some arrogance or some ignorance about what God’s reign must mean for us. Does the way we live as the body of Christ declare to others that they also can be released from the things that destroy them? That they can be freed from things that they thought were beyond their control?
All this may sound exalted and even triumphalist. But be sure that there will be a fight. That’s what this gospel passage tells us. In fact you could argue that if there is no reaction from the depths of darkness, no nasty opposition, the teaching isn’t sound or has no authority.
Wouldn’t it be exciting at all times to be in a congregation like the one at Capernaum? Wouldn’t it be desirable to be in a place where the Word of God comes regularly with power and authority? It might be terrifying for the people of God to have the Word pierce through and dethrone the darkest powers. But that’s the advantage of coming regularly to the house of God and to hear the scriptures read, sung and preached. The One with authority will make himself known.