Mark 1.21-28, Deuteronomy 18.15-20
Perhaps we come to church in a routine fashion week after week, tired, rushing because we have other duties to fulfil, troubles hanging heavily on our minds. When my children were younger I’ve been guilty of thinking I wonder what the score is so far and whether I’ll make it there for the second half. Are we sometimes distracted to the point that if Jesus Christ himself stood up to speak we might not recognise his divine authority?
It seems a bit like this at the Synagogue, the regulars turn up in their usual frame of mind and when the son of God starts teaching we heard that ‘he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.’
Yet apparently it is only the man described as having ‘an unclean spirit’ who recognises where the authority comes from, that it is direct authority, perhaps this evil which inhabits him has good reason to fear Jesus and his message, to recognise and shout out that he is the ‘Holy one of God’ when no one else does. Like the Israelites on Horeb he senses awe and fear.
The people in the synagogue at Capernaum were amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught. Mark doesn’t give us much detail to draw upon, no hint of what it was that gave Jesus such unquestionable authority. Don’t you wish you could have been there to work it out for yourself? I guess it was more than just the little ‘je ne sais quoi’, of the speaker that has that something you can’t put your finger on. Perhaps the authority was beyond description, clearly it went beyond words alone.
It should make us think carefully about who we really listen to and why.
I’m sure that I’m not alone in hearing a lot of poorly informed hate filled views among people I meet. It is for us to challenge such views and to show a positive different way which encourages tolerance at the least and respect and compassion at the best.
We live in a world crowded with voices keen to be heard and have to make choices about who we listen to. The lazy choice is simply to subscribe to the news sources that paint the world the way we think it should be, which interpret speech and actions to our bias, editing out the bits which might challenge our thinking.
We need to ask on what authority is this person putting this view or policy. Perhaps their authority is derived from quoting reliable facts, personal experience or learning. Maybe they acquire an authority in our eyes because of their passion, conviction or anger. Possibly we feel they have authority because they have the courage to try to achieve outcomes for good when others aren’t willing to take the risk.
Even in church, being a few feet above those listening doesn’t give any authority to be listened to, heard maybe but not listened to.
Let’s come back to the man with the unclean spirit, again Mark doesn’t give us any clues about who he was or where he came from. Was he a visitor from out of town or was he a regular worshipper, part of the congregation, on the equivalent of the PCC perhaps? You get the feeling that Mark’s gospel is deliberately leaving us to run some scenarios in our heads for the things he doesn’t say, to broaden our thinking bringing the events into current times as long as we don’t distort key elements.
It provokes the consideration that the unclean and evil is always among us and sometimes will be us. It’s too easy to label groups of people or political parties as good or bad when the more complicated truth is that we need to look at ourselves and each other as human beings first and foremost.
The setting for today’s gospel events was a synagogue, the focus for Jewish life. One could be found in most towns and they would have had an elevated platform for the speakers, benches for the important people and the commoners would sit on the floor. The synagogue was primarily a place of teaching with 3 elements at a gathering, prayer, reading of scripture and teaching. Although there were many synagogues there was only one Temple which is where the sacrifices took place.
A synagogue would not have had a permanent teacher or preacher and without any professional ministry it was for the Ruler of the synagogue to call upon a competent person to give the address. Mark does not indicate that Jesus was given any invitation to speak.
Hang on a minute mate I was up late preparing this you know, perhaps that would be my reaction if we had a visitor who pushed me aside this morning because he has something more important to say. Perhaps we’ll find a slot for you another time. Clearly this couldn’t wait. Would the synagogue Ruler have been happy about this? We don’t get to hear how Jesus steps up but clearly he has an authority such that the elders don’t tell him to sit back down and with good reason as he reinforces this by commanding the unclean spirit to leave the man.
Mark’s gospel is fast paced and direct. Events that take several chapters to describe in Matthew and Luke’s gospels are all covered in the first chapter of Mark. Some describe Mark’s style of writing as being like a lion bounding around with urgency and enthusiasm, the symbol for Mark’s gospel is, of course a winged lion. I haven’t even turned the page on Mark’s gospel and he’s already telling us of miracles.
So our readings give us two areas controversial for our modern era, prophets and miracles. Controversial because they can be misused and misinterpreted. Certainly I’m aware of one pastor claiming that he helped women otherwise unable to have children to do so who was later found to be smuggling babies into the country. Others claiming to have prophetic powers have manipulated vulnerable people in many ways for their own benefit.
Who do you think of when we mention prophets from the bible? Probably Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are among those that come to mind but of course they weren’t limited to the Old Testament nor were they all men. For example we are told in Luke’s gospel of Anna a lady of 84 who meets the young Jesus in the temple.
I started with reference to the fact that God promised the Israelites that he would raise up a prophet for them. After Moses died this was an urgent question for the people in our Deuteronomy reading but how would they know a true prophet from a fake?
Well there is biblical guidance beyond the obvious hint in our reading that we shouldn’t trust a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods. Assuming that false prophets are more cunning than that we need to look further and discover that it’s not something we might choose to be. After all Moses didn’t seem at all keen when God addressed him from a burning bush and Jeremiah protested saying ‘I am only a boy’.
Jesus tells us, ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:15-16). Guiding us to consider whether they are focussed on self benefit or truly serving others.
Perhaps if we look for modern day miracles we shouldn’t be obsessed with instantaneous results, we don’t have to follow the fast paced style of Mark’s gospel. When we stick to our beliefs and try our best to follow Christ slow miracles can happen, perhaps a bit like slow food it takes more effort and time but it’s worth it. Slow miracles are often built on a firm foundation and have lasting results. I have heard of several occasions where someone followed family members to Christ because of the authenticity of their faith over a long period. By living it people can see it makes a difference and may follow.
Of course it’s far more spectacular when someone has a ‘road to Damascus moment’ or is moved by a single event but the slow miracle is no less miraculous.
In fact when you think about it labels for outcomes really don’t matter at all if our focus is to discover the authority of Christ through his teaching and to make his love known through our actions.
It seems to me that our final focus should be on the symbolism of Jesus casting out an unclean spirit or evil spirit as another translation states it. In the few words we heard already it’s becoming clear what Jesus opposes, his powerful teaching message and his popularity with the crowds. At this time of Epiphany it’s wholly appropriate that Jesus reveals his true nature. Here at the beginning of Mark’s gospel there is no magic spell involved, the man is healed because he recognises Christ and through him understands that he has come to replace evil with good news and hope.
We know that we can’t avoid life’s struggles and heartbreaks but Jesus calls us to cling onto hope through a love that still has authority and power greater than these things.
28th January 2018