Deuteronomy 18:15-20 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Mark 1:21-28
Let us pray: Gracious God, speak to us now and help us to listen. Open our ears to all the ways your voice may come, until it becomes so much a part of us that your voice is heard through all we are and do, that we might respond in faith to the glory of Jesus name. Amen.
Two lines in this week’s Gospel reading stand out to me. Both refer to the people who encounter Jesus’s Sabbath teaching in the synagogue: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority,” and, “They were all amazed and kept asking one another, ‘What is this?’” They were astounded. They were amazed. Can you relate? When was the last time Jesus astounded and amazed you? Can you recall a time in the recent past when the presence of God in your life caught your attention and held it? When a sacred moment, encounter, word, image, or experience brought you to your knees? I ask because (let’s face it), these are rough, unlikely days for astonishment. Almost one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are battling a deep and persistent feeling of weakness. We are weary, anxious, dejected, bored. We’re too worried about the future to live attentively in the present. Time drags on in soggy shapelessness, or flies at breakneck speed as we struggle to multitask under face masks, death tolls, mutations, and quarantines. For many of us, church is still online, so our access to spiritual community, space, ritual, and sacrament is limited. Where, in the midst of all of this, might we experience Awe? Wonder? Astonishment? Surprise? Where is the voice of authority, power, grace, and healing that can snap us back into full and vibrant living, now? Fighting my own sense of weariness, I spent the past few days trying to enter into the characters who populate the story St. Mark offers us in this week’s lectionary. I imagined myself by turns as a member of the audience who heard Jesus speak, as the man possessed by the unclean spirit, and finally, as Jesus himself. Specifically, I imagined my way into these roles in an attempt to recover some of the original wonder that animated this ancient story. If I had been there that day, if I had experienced the particular Sabbath when Jesus astounded his listeners in a synagogue in Capernaum, what would I have thought and felt? Here is some of what I came up with: The congregation: We don’t know their names, ages, or backstories. All we know is that they showed up in the synagogue, listened to Jesus teach, and allowed his words to penetrate to a place of freshness, newness, and transformation. The implication, of course, is that these worshippers came to the synagogue in a spirit of curiosity and openness. Alongside whatever sense of responsibility, tradition, and habit compelled them to show up that day, they also held onto the possibility of surprise. Of encounter. Of trust that God might show up and do something different and shocking. Do we approach God, Scripture, church, and faith in this way? With anticipation? With a hunger for encounter? Or have we allowed the trials of this past year to make us cynical? However we worship these days -- over Zoom, via YouTube, on Facebook, in person -- do we come before God and God’s people, desiring and expecting the shock of actual divine presence? If not, why not? Many of us live in times that are deeply (and perhaps rightfully) skeptical of “authoritative” religious claims. How can we make sure we’re not so entrenched in our theological, liturgical, cultural, or political points of view that we fear and resist the new? These are especially hard questions to ask ourselves if we’ve been Christians for a long time. The new becomes old. The fresh becomes familiar. The heart hunkers down for a comfortable and unvarying long haul, and we forget that Jesus came — and comes — to make all things new. The audience in Mark’s Gospel was “amazed and astounded” by the work of God because they allowed Jesus to be unfamiliar in their midst. This need not be the unusual. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Jesus will be amazing if we allow him to be. Amazement is the birthright of God’s children. The man with the unclean spirit: I’ll get the obvious out of the way first and admit that I have no idea what the “spirit” in this story actually is. Some commentaries consider it as a mental illness, or as a medical condition like epilepsy. Others insist on it being an actual demon — an evil spiritual being that ensnares human souls. Still others argue that spirits in the New Testament are metaphors for anything that might “possess” or “control” us — anger, fear, lust, greed, hatred, envy, etc. I don’t know which one of these explanations is true, and I don’t think it matters. When I tried to imagine my way into the life of the man with the unclean spirit, what disturbed me most was not “who” or “what” the spirit actually was, but how utterly it ravaged the poor man whose body and mind it possessed. According to Mark's account, the man had no voice of his own — the spirit spoke for him. The man had no control over his body — the spirit convulsed him. The man had no community — the spirit isolated him. And the man had no dignity — the spirit dehumanized him. Granted, this picture of “possession” is extreme. But all of us suffer (or have suffered) under the bondage of “spirits” that diminish, distort, and wound us. All of us know (or have known) what it’s like to lose help, mobility, and dignity to forces too powerful for us to defeat on our own. Some of us might even name the current pandemic and its global effects as just such a “demon.” A huge, powerful force that robs us of life. Of loved ones. Of community. Of safety. Whether we regard such forces as spiritual, psychological, biological, metaphorical, or cultural, this Gospel story tells us true things about how “unclean spirits” affect and manipulate our souls. In Mark’s story, the unclean spirit goes to the synagogue and listens to Jesus. It recognizes “the Holy One of God” before anyone else does. It calculates the stakes, realizes that Jesus’s presence signals its doom, and puts up a loud, vicious fight before it surrenders. Does any of this sound familiar? Sometimes our “unclean spirits” take up residence in our holy places. That is, we carry our destructive habits and tendencies right into our churches, our friendships, our families, and our workplaces. Sometimes our demons — our fears, our addictions, our sins, and our compulsions — recognize Jesus first because they know that an encounter with him will change everything. Sometimes our lives actually get harder when we move towards faith and healing, because unclean spirits always fight the hardest when their time is up. In this season of pandemic and loss, what possesses us? What wreaks havoc in our hearts and minds? What distorts our humanity? These forces might not leave our lives without a fight, but the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel will do battle for us if we’ll let him. Will we? Jesus: Mark never tells us what Jesus taught his audience that day. All we know is that he entered the synagogue, taught with an authority his listeners found astonishing, and underscored that authority with an exorcism that rattled everyone who witnessed it. Is this a character we can relate to at all? Or is Jesus’s role in this story so completely enshrined in his divinity and power that there’s nothing for us to emulate? I think the story offers a couple of reasonable takeaways. First, Jesus didn’t use his authority to self-aggrandize or to accrue power. He used it only to heal, to free, to serve, and to empower those around him. Maybe this is precisely why his audience found him so compelling — his was the authority of a servant king. He had no political power -- and sought none. No earthly throne or kingdom to speak of. But he had an integrity and a generosity that compelled people to listen and to follow him. Second, Jesus stepped directly into the pain, rage, ugliness, and horror at the heart of this story. He wasn’t squeamish. He didn’t flinch. His brand of holiness didn’t require him to keep his hands clean. Yes, he preached with great effectiveness to the faithful, but he also spoke the unclean spirit’s language, listened to its cries, and rebuked it for the sake of a broken man's health and sanity. Consider the question the spirit asked before it left its victim: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” There’s only one answer to that question. “Everything. I have everything to do with you.” Wherever pain is, darkness is, torment is, God is. God has everything to do with us, even and maybe especially when we're at our worst. When the shadows overwhelm us, when the demons shriek the loudest, when the hope of liberation feels like nothing more than fantasy -- that is when Jesus’s authority brings the walls down. In this difficult season we’re all walking through, I pray that we can recover a capacity for holy amazement. I pray that like the man with the unclean spirit, we will surrender to freedom when Jesus offers it to us -- even if the "exit" of our demons causes us hardship. And I pray that like Jesus, we will speak words of loving, healing authority to a world that longs for an astonishing encounter with the divine.
Let us pray: We give you thanks, O God, for your power and might, and for how you use your authority for all things for good. Awaken in us the authority you have given us to act in your name. Bless, Oh Lord, your church, with the power shown by Jesus. Make us as caring and as effective as he. We ask it in His name. Amen.
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Epiphany 3 Jonah 3:1-5, 10 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 Mark 1:14-20
Let us pray: O God, just as Jesus came to a waiting people and pronounced the Kingdom of God near at hand, draw near to us; speak to us; let your reign on earth surround our hearts and minds, that we might be faithful to follow you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
We all remember the story about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, but what we might have forgotten is why. This is the story: God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, a corrupt city, and tell them that if they repent, God will not destroy them. This annoys Jonah, who thinks that the Ninevites deserve whatever they get. So he pouts, and frets, and finally runs away. He takes a ship as far away as he can possibly go, to the ends of the known world. But there is a storm, and in desperation the sailors toss Jonah -- who had told them he was fleeing from God -- into the sea, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. Jonah prays to the Lord for three days, and at the end of that time the Lord tells the fish to deposit Jonah on dry land.
After all this, God again asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and he finally does so, reluctantly at best. The king and the people hear Jonah’s message, and they fast and repent. God saw this, and the scripture tells us he changed his mind and did not destroy them. While God is pleased, Jonah is very displeased that God relented, and God rebukes him for his lack of charity.
In contrast, we have the gospel from Mark, the story of the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John. According to Mark, the men “immediately” left their fishing nets and boats to follow Jesus. And then there is Paul telling the Corinthians that time is growing short, that they should live with the knowledge that “the present form of this world is passing away.” We sometimes interpret Paul as being against “the world,” against marriage and emotions and family ties, but it is really more his sense of urgency that comes through his letters. It’s not that he’s against these things so much as it is this urgency that informs his understanding of discipleship.
This same urgency colors the gospel accounts of Jesus. Mark’s tempo or pace is so much more rapid and less literary, if you will, than the other gospels. He is in a hurry to tell his story, and the spoken tradition of Mark’s gospel comes through clearly. There is also that same sense of urgency, of no time to waste -- the early church really believed that the end of the world was near. So it would have been unthinkable to Mark that the disciples would have done anything else but respond to Jesus immediately.
Being human, it is likely that the apostles really didn’t drop everything that minute to follow Jesus. They probably had to make arrangements for their workers, check in at home, and all the usual things that we have to do before going on a trip. But Mark is telling a story and trying to make a point: this wasn’t just any journey, this was important.
How often do we drop everything and follow when God calls? We tend, rather, to be more like Jonah than James and Andrew in our response to God. We are slow and reluctant, we drag our feet, we are reluctant, and we are annoyed when God doesn’t do what we think God should do. We have lots of excuses about why we can’t do it that way, or why we can’t do it now. Often God’s plans for us, God’s interventions in our lives, have very little to do with our own plans, and they are usually inconvenient. It’s not what we had planned, the way we thought things would work out, or what we thought we would do with our lives. Sometimes, like Jonah, we just simply don’t want to do it.
The other interesting thing about Jonah’s story, aside from his reluctance, is how annoyed he was that God was willing to give the people of Nineveh a second chance (or third or fourth). Jonah just wanted God to smite them. He didn’t think they deserved a second chance, didn’t deserve saving. How often do we feel the same way? How often do we think that people with whom we disagree or people who are different from us don’t deserve God’s mercy, don’t deserve saving? Republicans or Democrats, liberals, or conservatives, female or male, straight or gay, environmentalists or developers, black or white, young or old, Christian or non-Christian -- the lists we make are endless in terms of differences, real or perceived, and where we draw the line in the sand. Usually we feel it is only people like us who will be saved, and who are deserving of it.
We may find Jonah amusing, ridiculous, or appalling as he mutters and whines against God’s offer of redemption to the Ninevites, and as he tries to run away from God. But if we let the story touch us, if we plumb the depths of our own hearts, we will find Jonah there within us -- that part of us that judges and condemns, that desires revenge rather than justice, vengeance instead of mercy.
Jonah spends three days inside the whale, in the darkness, so he will have time to think, so he will learn a lesson. We, too, spend much time in darkness. The vengeance that we desire, the hurt feelings and grudges and rages that we carry for years weigh us down and eat at us. We are the ones who suffer the most in these situations. It doesn’t hurt the other person--the Ninevites were not hurt by Jonah’s reluctance, only Jonah was -- but it damages us spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and physically. We are the ones spending time in darkness, we are the ones imprisoned.
Like Jonah, we sit outside the city, angry and hurting, separating ourselves from God and others. But there is a way out. We can choose to let go of our hurts and move on. As in the story of Jonah, God is ready to offer us love and mercy, too. It is that love and mercy that heals us and allows us to move out of the darkness. It doesn’t change the fact that we were hurt, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t right to be angry, but it moves us beyond that into a different place where we can go on.
Maybe that’s what those first followers saw in Jesus: a way to move beyond the things that were keeping them stuck and in the dark. Maybe they could sense his acceptance, his love, and his mercy toward them. In a society where they lived under Roman rule, where they were the downtrodden ones, perhaps they sensed the freedom he offered them to live in a different way, more wholly and more alive.
Is it possible that our judgment and condemnation of others is really a commentary on how deserving we feel ourselves? If we do not believe that we are deserving of God’s love and mercy, it is easier to deny others as well. If we feel stuck in the dark, downtrodden, not free, not whole, not really alive, we are in desperate need of what God offers us through Jesus Christ. Opening ourselves to that possibility is the only way we will be healed.
How much healing could we bring to ourselves and our broken world if we could accept God’s love and mercy for ourselves and for everyone else, as we have seen it lived out and made real in Jesus? How loving and generous could we be with others if we could learn to be loving and generous to ourselves? In a world torn by division and strife, these could be the most important questions we ask ourselves at the beginning of this new year.
Let us pray: Lord, you call us not only to follow you; you also call us to go out into the world and to feed your sheep, and be fishers of people. Strengthen us in our calling as your disciples through your Son Christ Jesus, our Lord and our Savior. Amen.
Epiphany 1:Baptism of Our Lord Genesis 1:1-5 Acts 19:1-7 Mark 1:4-11 Let us pray: Most gracious God, as the heavens were opened at Jesus’ baptism, so open to us the gates of your mercy. As the Spirit descended upon him, keep your Holy Spirit upon us also. As Jesus heard your voice above the waters, may we listen and keep your word so our thoughts and actions are pleasing to you and a blessing to others and to ourselves. We ask it in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today, we remember the baptism of Jesus by his cousin John in the River Jordan. Now, John’s the guy we’ve been hearing a lot about lately (since the beginning of Advent), and after today, he drops into the background.You see, we no longer need that voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” For the Lord is here, born on earth to save us. And we no longer have any confusion about who is the Messiah, for the one more powerful than John has come.John’s role as prophet, foretelling the great story of salvation as known in the person of Jesus Christ: that role is fulfilled with Jesus’ baptism today. John is sometimes seen as the last of the old order: the last prophet in the line of Isaiah and Jeremiah, the last to baptize with water only and not also the Holy Spirit, and the last to demand repentance before the coming of the kingdom of God.
For Jesus proclaims over and over again that the kingdom of God has drawn near us; it is here, and now. No longer coming, or far off, or even just the other side of a thin divide—but here, very near us.Among the very first documented acts of his earthly ministry, the twelve-year-old Jesus picks up a scroll and reads from an earlier prophecy of Isaiah: that the spirit of the Lord has anointed him, and that he has been sent to announce good news to the poor—and that this prophecy has been fulfilled. “Today, in your very hearing this text has come true,” he says.
So, this baptism of Jesus: it seems to have achieved a radical transformation in him. No longer just the carpenter’s son, no longer a refugee in Egypt, no longer just another human being to walk the face of the earth.He moves on from here to teach in synagogues and have people sing his praises. He will heal the sick, and make the dead live again. He will preach and perform miracles. He will amaze people with his teaching, and baffle us even today by submitting to a shameful death on a cross.And he will appear again when he ascends into heaven, prophesying of his return in glory to judge the earth—a second coming we still anticipate, two millennia later.One day people know him as that clever boy, Joseph’s son. And the next he’s revealed as the Christ, the Messiah, the chosen one—God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.In his baptism, Jesus seems to have become an entirely different person.
So, too, with our baptism:None of us is Christ, but each and every one of us is the beloved, with whom God is well pleased.And each and every one of us was forever changed and transformed in our baptism.And each and every one of us continues to be changed and transformed—in ways big and small—throughout our earthly ministry.Now filled with the Holy Spirit, we—like Jesus—are commissioned and sent forth to proclaim the good news of God’s favor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim that the time of God’s favor is here.
That’s our job: to live baptismally.We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.Baptism is an amazing gift. By the waters of baptism, we are lead from death to life, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life. In it, we are buried with Christ in his death. By it, we share in his resurrection. Through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. And baptism is also an awesome responsibility. We are also no longer simply to live as ordinary people in the world:We are to boldly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior;to strive for justice and peace among all people;and to seek and serve Christ in everyone we meet.
Those of us who profess and call ourselves Christians are called to live a different kind of life, a life set apart from the world around us and yet somehow also very much in its midst.By baptism, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled—in Jesus, and in each one of us. God looks at us—the beloved, with whom God is well pleased—and says, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of God has risen upon you.” Amen.