February 1, 2015 – 4th Sunday after Epiphany
Last Sunday in the sermon Mark Baridon preached we found Jesus by the sea of Galilee calling fishermen to follow him.
This morning, Jesus and his followers have moved off the sea and into the synagogue. It is the sabbath and if you are a Jew, that is where you would be found. And Jesus has been invited to be the guest teacher (or we might think, preacher) that morning.
Mark describes Jesus’ teaching as “having authority, and not as the scribes.” That made me wonder what the scribes’ teaching was like. We know that scribes were people who could write. Part of their work was writing or transcribing official documents. In the New Testament, a scribe was a lawyer; someone who was an expert in the requirements and meaning of the Jewish law. (That’s what the glossary of my bible says.) Scribes were trained in interpreting the scripture and cited their teachers in talking about their interpretation. I can imagine scribes being like Presbyterian preachers who cite their sources and examine what others have said about the text in question.
In that way, the synagogue is the “space of security and tradition,” as Professor of Theology Ofelia Ortega says, where the religious teachings are passed on from one generation to another.
In describing Jesus’ teaching as “having authority”—unlike the scribes’ teaching—the write of this gospel seems to be saying Jesus is not teaching from the tradition. He’s not citing the teachers whose teachings have been passed on to their students who then become teachers who pass the teaching on to their students who then become teachers who pass the teaching on to their students…and on and on.
I wonder if it’s like hearing a sermon where you know already what the preacher is going to say because that’s what all the preachers say. And then you hear someone who says something that you’ve never heard before. It’s like if you’ve grown up your whole life hearing the bible interpreted to say that women can’t become ministers and then you walk into a church where a woman is preaching. Or like hearing your whole life the world was created in seven days because that’s what Genesis says and then hearing someone say you can hold to the Big Bang theory and evolution and also take the biblical stories of creation seriously. Or hearing God referred to as “He” every time you go to church and then one day someone says “She.”
I wonder if it was like that.
Jesus has some other power.
And immediately a man with an unclean spirit was in the synagogue. The NRSV says mildly “just then there was in the synagogue” but the Greek word is the same as what has already been used in chapter 1 and will be heard throughout Mark’s gospel many times: Immediately.
We first hear “immediately” right after Jesus’ baptism. Jesus comes up out of the Jordan river, the heavens rip open, the Spirit descends on him and a voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The very next sentence says “And the Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.” (v12) Pheme Perkins, writing on the gospel of Mark, says ordinarily to go out into the desert by one’s self is “an indication of madness or demonic possession.” But Jesus is not mad nor demon possessed. He is met in the desert by Satan and prevails against the tempter. At the very beginning of his ministry, therefore, filled with the power of God, he has already shaken off the power of this demon. “Mark probably intends readers to assume that Jesus had already broken Satan’s power before his ministry began” writes Pheme Perkins.
So a little later, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue with some kind of new authority—some different kind of power than people have experienced before—and immediately there is a man in the synagogue who is possessed by a demon. And Jesus, filled with the Spirit of God, commands the demon to leave the man and the demon obeys.
From the beginning of his gospel, Mark is declaring that what is demon possessed will not survive in the face of the Spirit-possessed Son of God.
The people in this story all keep their distance from Jesus and talk among themselves about the authority Jesus demonstrates. Meanwhile the readers of Mark—you and me— “are invited to follow Jesus into a whole new world…Mark’s world,” says New Testament scholar Brian Blount, where Jesus is “walking around possessed by the power of the Spirit of God. In such a world you either go with the man and help him create the holy chaos he’s creating or you find a way to do everything you can to stop him so you can get your people back in line.”
So we are invited to go with Jesus into the holy chaos.
Into the holy chaos of being possessed by the life-giving Spirit of God that drives out the death-dealing demons.
The author Kathleen Norris tells a story from the tradition of the 3rd and 4th century desert monks. “A monk asked the eminently sane Abba Poemen, ‘How do the demons fight against me?’ Poemen replied that the demons do not fight us at all, as long as we are doing our own will. It is only when we begin to resist and question ourselves, seeking another, better way of life that the struggles being. ‘Our own wills become the demons, and it is these which attack us,’ Poemen says, a concept [Norris writes] that seems in concert with modern theories concerning addictive behavior and treatment.”
It’s when we begin to resist and question, seeking another, better way of life—God’s way of life—that the struggles begin. That’s both a personal truth and a collective truth. Our demons may be our addictions of all sorts. Our demons may be our collective actions and beliefs. Things like racism, poverty, sexism and heterosexism.
When we begin to resist and question, seeking another, better way of life—God’s way of life—that’s when the struggles begin. The struggles in ourselves to break the chains of addiction. The struggles in the cultures and systems that we live in that say, “Don’t rock the boat.” “Don’t you know that’s just how those people are?” That say, “This is just the way things are. You’re just banging your head against a wall trying to make it different.” “It’s not that big of a problem.”
I’ve heard a fair amount of criticism of the black lives matter movement when people in the movement disrupt traffic or shopping. Sentiments like “How dare those people inconvenience me!” “It’s fine to protest but don’t get in my way.” Or people say, “If you just obey the law and do what the police tell you to do, you won’t get in trouble.” That’s a reaction to the holy chaos that tries to get people back in line.
Holy chaos. It’s a little scary. Maybe a lot scary for those of us who like our lives ordered and predictable. Even though “decently and in order” has a lot of traction in the Presbyterian Church, that isn’t a dominant theme in the gospels and certainly not in Mark’s gospel where right from the outset Jesus is confronting the power of demons with the power of the Spirit.
What does it look like in your life to enter the holy chaos with Jesus?
What does it look like in our collective life as a congregation to enter the holy chaos with Jesus?
Maybe the holy chaos will be part of our New Beginning as we continue to ask what it is that God is calling us to do and be in this time and place.
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1. “Scribe” in the glossary of The Access Bible, Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 434.
2. Mark 1.22 n. The Access Bible, Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, eds., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 51.
3. Ofelia Ortega, “Theological Perspectives – Mark 1:21-28,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 310.
4. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VIII, (Nashville: Abindgon Press, 1995), 535.
5. Ibid., 536.
6. Gary W. Charles, “Homiletical Perspective – Mark 1:21-28,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 313.7. Quoted in Charles, 313.
8. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), 46.