A Follower—Not a Fan
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 25, 2018
2nd Sunday in Lent
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:31-38
Our gospel reading puts us in the middle of a story that begins in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They tell him, “John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets…” Then Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Messiah!” On the heels of this declaration, Jesus starts to prepare his disciples for his pending death, but Peter gets so upset he takes Jesus aside to rebuke him.
Although we might be surprised at Peter’s audacity, we likely sympathize with his confusion and alarm. After all, Jesus does openly and vividly share that he will endure great suffering; he will be rejected by the religious rulers and be killed, and after three days rise again. A little later, Jesus tells his disciples and those gathered around, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Jesus invites them—and us—to follow him; follow the path he takes—oh, but what a daunting path it is. Surely, we want to be obedient to our Lord, but who wants to suffer? Who wants to be rejected? Moreover, who will eagerly sign up to be killed—even if it is only for three days? Oh Jesus, yes, we want to follow you—but we want to stop a few steps shy of the cross!
In a moment of clarity, Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, but then, in the blink of an eye, he loses momentum because he’s unable to define “Messiah” in the way Jesus does. Seeing only with worldly eyes, Peter takes Jesus aside to scold him because Peter thinks he is in the driver’s seat. Peter thinks he is the guide on this tour, but the only guide Jesus is interested in is his Abba Father. Jesus is not looking for guides. Jesus is looking for followers.
Earlier in Mark we learn about the death of John the Baptist. You will recall that King Herod puts John in prison because he has spoken against Herod marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. And even though Herodias has a grudge against John and wants him killed, Herod fears John, and believes him to be a holy man. Turns out, Herod likes John’s preaching—he doesn’t understand him, but he is entertained by him, nonetheless. (Of course, that does not stop him from chopping off John’s head.) In the end, you might say that Herod is a fan. But Herod is not a follower.
There’s a difference between a fan and a follower. A fan is an enthusiastic admirer or a spectator while a follower is committed to serving or imitating another person. Regarding Jesus, are we followers or do we better fit the description of a fan? Do we come to church on any given Sunday not really expecting anything to happen except maybe to be entertained? Could it be that too many churches are filled with fans instead of communities of followers?
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Later he says, “Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed…” For the people of Israel, under Roman rule, dying by execution on a cross was a shameful affair. But today, what is there to be ashamed of? What’s scandalous about our watered down, domesticated version of Jesus?
A few years ago, or so the story goes, a large department store came up with the idea to sell dolls in the form of baby Jesus. The advertisements described it as being washable, cuddly, and unbreakable, and it was neatly packaged in straw, satin, and plastic. Appropriate biblical verses were thrown in for good measure. To the department store executives, it had all the markings of a sure-fire success, but they were wrong. It didn’t sell. All those baby Jesus’ laying around in straw and plastic. Desperate to be rid of the dolls, one store manager took drastic measures, putting a sign in the store window that read: “Jesus Christ; 50% off; get him while you can.”
Jesus says in no uncertain terms there will be a cost to following him: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel will save it.” What does our religion cost us in the “day in” and “day out” of our lives? Martin Luther said, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”
Jesus is in Caesarea Philippi, a very Roman place, and from this point in the Gospel of Mark, he will be heading south, south to Jerusalem, south to the cross. Jesus isn’t so interested in what people call him along the way: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets—or even the Messiah. Jesus isn’t interested in the size of the crowd—whether the meeting hall is in a small church in Valdosta or one with stadium seating. Jesus isn’t calling half-interested fans to join the throngs—no Jesus is interested in sold-out, committed followers.
Are we fans? Or are we followers? In the words of one preacher, “Fans are here today and gone tomorrow. Following takes commitment. Following takes sacrifice. Unfortunately, the church is filled with …people [who] are fans of the building they gather in…fans of the preacher or worship leader. There are those who are even fans of Jesus [who] have never made the transition to become a follower…”[i]
Jesus is on his way to cross and with every step he’s on the lookout for followers. Peter goes through the motions, says the right words, “You are the Messiah,” but it will take time for him to truly understand what that means. It will take time for him to set his mind on divine things. The Gospel of Matthew tells us when Simon Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah, he gets a new name, just like Abraham and Sarah before him, “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Jesus gives Simon a new name—Peter, Petros, Rock. One day, Peter grows into that name—no longer a fan—but a committed follower who will take up his cross and follow Jesus, who will end up on his own cross, crucified, tradition says, upside down.
We dare not domesticate the message Jesus proclaims. In every way, Jesus turns his disciples’ perceptions upside down, which should give us something to ponder: Aren’t we in the most danger when we think we have Jesus all figured out? If Jesus doesn’t get under our skin—make us uncomfortable—do we really know him?
Jesus wants all of us—body, mind and soul, sold out to God. Everything comes under his reign—the words we speak; what we post on social media; whether we forgive or hang onto a grudge; how we spend our time, talents, and money; whether we live with a sense of gratitude and wonder or with a chip on our shoulder certain the world owes us something. Our brokenness and shame, our hopes and dreams, all of it comes under the reign of our Lord AND all of it can be redeemed because of the price he paid on the cross.
Plain and simple, the way of Jesus is not the way of the world. A sacrifice—freely choosing for the sake of the Christ—is required. It’s one thing to go through the motions and say the words, “I will take up my cross and follow the way of Jesus,” but it’s another thing, to do it.
From Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, hear Jesus’ invitation once more:
Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for? If any of you are embarrassed over me and the way I’m leading you when you get around your fickle and unfocused friends, know that you’ll be an even greater embarrassment to the Son of Man when he arrives in all the splendor of God, his Father, with an army of the holy angels.
The Season of Lent is a time of preparation—a time of self-examination. Let us spend the coming days wisely. Let us take stock of our lives so we can honestly answer: Am I a follower of Jesus—or am I just a fan?
<AN AFFIRMATION OF FAITH>
<GLORY TO GOD>
<PRAYER OF THE PEOPLE>
Holy and Loving God, you blessed Abraham and Sarah and promised to make them ancestors of many nations. In Jesus Christ, you opened your covenant to everyone who lives by faith in you. O God, we give you thanks and praise. And now, hear our prayer, O Lord, that we may all live in peace and be a sign of your abiding love. We pray for all pastors and teachers—that they may lead the church by humble example, taking up their cross in faithful service, and living for the sake of the gospel. Sovereign God, we pray for peace among the nations and for integrity within governments. Ultimately, may your will be done upon the earth. Merciful God, you hear the cry of the poor, and you satisfy the hungry with good things. For the poor and the oppressed, that they may find deliverance, and for all who voluntarily take up the cross of self-denial to serve the poor and alleviate human misery, hear our prayer, O Lord. Now in a moment of silence, we lift before you those who have asked for our prayers, those we love, and the burdens we carry. (Silence) Grant these prayers, Holy God, by your grace. Stir up in us the will to seek your kingdom with dedication, humility, and love. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, who taught his disciples to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name; Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever. Amen.
<THE GIVING OF OFFERINGS>
Now, not because we must, but because we are grateful, let us return to God what is ours to share.
<PRAYER OF DEDICATION>
Almighty God, accept these our offerings along with the dedication of our lives, that we may be for the world a sign of your abiding love and a testament of your enduring promise. This is our fervent prayer. Amen.
Go boldly from this place of worship to follow Christ, our Lord, wherever he may lead.
May God the Father bless you;
May God the Son take care of you;
May God the Spirit encourage you;
Both now and forever more. Amen.
*Cover Art “Following the Flow” ©Jan Richardson Images; Subscription
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 18, 2018
1st Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
The paraments are purple, again. Did you notice? It seems like only yesterday they were the same liturgical color leading up to Christmas. Maybe you grew up in a tradition that followed the liturgical calendar. That was not the case for me. In fact, I learned about celebrating Advent and using an Advent wreath with candles of purple, pink, and white through my mother-in-law—a life-long Presbyterian.
Many years have passed, and I have celebrated the liturgical calendar from season to season with Kinney and our children and with our church family. Along the way, I have learned a few things—one of which is—there are people in every church who grew up celebrating the church calendar with all its color and rhythm and poetry. And there are those for whom such practices are still quite new. With this in mind, I want to take a few moments this morning to consider the use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons, which became a common practice in the Western church in about the 4th century. Although the colors varied somewhat at first, by the 12th century they were systematized by Pope Innocent III. It will not come as a surprise that the practice of using liturgical colors in worship was rejected by the Reformers after the Reformation. But by the 20th century, many ancient Christian practices—including this one—gained new life in Reformed Churches. I guess it finally dawned on us that we had thrown out the proverbial baby with the bath water; discarding too much of the poetry and heart of our faith story in the process.
The Presbyterian Planning Calendar explains that the liturgical colors of the Christian year are white, purple, red, and green. White is used for the special days or seasons in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, such as Christmas and Easter. Red is the color for Pentecost and is often used for ordination services. Green is used for Ordinary Time—periods that are not marked by a specific festival or season and Purple marks the seasons of penitence and preparation—Advent and Lent.
For most of us, Advent hardly seems like a time for penitence or preparation, though. Oh, we give a nod to the prophets of old and we listen to the yearning of the people of Israel for a Messiah. We even sing Advent hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” But we hardly wait to sing Christmas hymns until Christmas Day and the twelve days following. Rest assured, if I chose only Advent hymns for the Season of Advent, I would hear about it and so would every member of the Worship Committee.
Utilizing the church calendar, though, we recognize Advent and Christmas have come and gone—as has Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, and Transfiguration of the Lord. Now, by the mark of ashes on our foreheads, we have entered the Season of Lent—a penitential time of 40 days—a time set aside for us to follow the footsteps of Jesus as we journey toward Easter. The time is meant to be self-reflective in nature. We may feel led to give up something that will allow us more time to pray, fast, read Scripture, serve others, make amends…
Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, we gather in worship to hear a reading from one of the gospels about Jesus in the wilderness. The telling from the Gospel of Mark stands out for its brevity. As is his minimalist nature, Mark rushes us through the scene at break-neck speed, which is one reason why we should pay attention to every word because every word counts. So, let’s take a closer look at the intensity of Mark’s account. First, as Jesus comes up out of the water at his baptism, the heavens are torn apart. After the voice calls from the heavens, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. There, for 40 days, Jesus has some extraordinary company: Satan and wild beasts and angels. Only after the time of preparation is complete does Jesus set off to do his Abba Father’s business of proclaiming the good news.
If we want to know more about Jesus’ wilderness time, and of course, we always want to know more, we might look to other gospels to fill in some of the blanks. But maybe we have enough to ponder—even with Mark’s bare-bones story-telling style. For instance, we might consider the sky being torn asunder. Who’s doing the tearing? It appears that it is the Holy One who is doing the tearing—an act that will be repeated later in the gospel when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross. Yes, God is doing the tearing. God is doing a new thing through Jesus for us and our salvation. What wondrous love is this!
Pondering this text further, we might wonder why the Spirit is doing the driving—driving Jesus out into the wilderness. The Spirit does so for a purpose—a divine purpose. I daresay, if we examine our own lives we realize every wilderness brings with it lessons to be learned. In what desert place have we chosen to grow, lately? Well, you see, that’s just it. None of us voluntarily chooses to go to the wilderness. We aren’t eager to struggle. But struggle and temptation and darkness—well, they come to us all at some time or another. Do we trust God to be present in such times? Do we see that even though God does not cause our misery, God is at work in us and through us and around us—even in our darkest hour? What have we learned in the wilderness? What might we learn from Jesus’ time in the wilderness?
One biblical commentator notes that what’s most important in Mark’s telling of the wilderness event is how:
…Jesus is retracing the steps of Israel’s history in order to rewrite her story. Whereas Israel in the wilderness stumbled and wandered for forty years in sin, rebellion, and distrust, longing again for the chains of slavery, Jesus withstands Satan’s tests in the wilderness for forty days. [Then] he announces that the time has been made full, and God’s rule has come near. All of the old obligations to the priests, to the temple, to Herod, and to Rome have been canceled, not only for Jesus, but for all those who repent and follow him into God’s rule.[i]
All the old obligations have been canceled and, in the darkness—whether Jesus’ or ours—we learn we are merely dust. Truly, we need help and it is our Abba Father who comes to our aid. It is God who makes us new. It is God’s Spirit who journeys with us to show us the way and keep our enemies at bay.
What happens to Jesus in the wilderness? Jesus lets go of human things and fully embraces the will and way of his Abba Father. In the wilderness, he struggles physical and spiritually, but he comes forth from the darkness a new man—filled with the Spirit and equipped for the humble revolution he is about to lead.
The lectionary links today’s story with the story of the flood—a story that comes about because of the downfall of the order of things established at creation. The future now belongs to a small group of people, who live under the covenant of the rainbow cast in the sky by God’s own hand. Jesus, too, inaugurates a new day, a new covenant, a new structure. “The way things have always been” will be no more. A new empire is being built right before the eyes of Jesus and his disciples. Out on the horizon, we stand as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Christ. Through the waters of our baptism, we have a new identity and a new mission. We are free. We are filled with the Spirit. We are equipped to make a difference. Are we making a difference?
Lent offers an opportunity to take stock of our lives but, in the words of Rev. Sarah Dylan:
Lent often gets turned into a very domesticated kind of pious self-improvement; I give up something that most respectable people think is a good thing to give up, at least for a time—chocolate, beer, swearing, or some such—drop a few pounds and maybe look a little more like what our culture thinks of as “good,” and other than the purple on the altar Sunday mornings, hardly notice the difference. But if I want to experience this quest fully, I need to note for myself the ways in which the quest we’re on for these forty days is NOT tame or respectable. Jesus left his family and entered the desert with wild animals and angels…and we are striving to follow him.[ii]
Striving to follow Jesus, we have entered the desert of Lent on our own spiritual quest. How will we wander onward? Will we rush through the 40 days ahead as if there is nothing of value to be learned? Will we continue to turn our faces toward anything but God? Or will we tread upon the earth at a different pace…listening…watching…praying…obeying?
Jesus is not alone on his journey. Neither are we. Let us go forth boldly. Moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, let us be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. Then, when we gather here on Easter morning, with paraments of white marking the occasion of the resurrection of Christ, our Lord—we will have even more to celebrate!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Stanley P. Saunders, Feasting on the Word, 49.
[ii] Rev. Sarah Dylan @sarahlaughed.net, First Sunday in Lent, Year B.
Jesus on Tour
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 4, 2018
5th Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39
The ministry of Jesus is in full swing. After astounding the people in the synagogue with his teaching and healing the demon-possessed man, Jesus enters the home of Simon and Andrew. He learns of Simon’s mother-in-law’s fever and raises her up, restoring her to health. Notice, Jesus touches the woman—the Son of God touches the woman. The healing power of touch cannot be denied. Study after study has revealed how human touch and community affect the overall quality (and, often, quantity) of life. It was true in the days of Jesus and it is still true today. But isn’t that what incarnation is all about—Jesus entering the world taking on human flesh, to be among us, to be one of us. The kingdom of God is at hand.
Through the power of Jesus, Simon’s mother-in-law and is made whole. Although we don’t even learn her name, there are important lessons to be learned through her. For one thing, she represents our need for wholeness. In Bethlehem, in 400 A.D., Jerome preached on this very text saying:
O that he would come to our house and enter and heal the fever of our sins by his command. For each and every one of us suffers from fever. When I grow angry, I am feverish. So many vices, so many fevers. But let us ask the apostles to call upon Jesus to come to us and touch our hand; for if he touches our hand, at once the fever flees (Corpus Christianorum, LXXV, 468).[i]
While I may feel no obligation to ask the apostles to beseech Jesus on my behalf (since Jesus is our High Priest—that hardly seems necessary), still, I appreciate Jerome’s sentiment for don’t we all have fever? And when Jesus comes to us and touches us, aren’t we changed?
Another important lesson we can learn from Simon’s mother-in-law comes through her response to healing. The Gospel of Mark introduces her as the first deacon (diakoneo) of the New Testament. This word (diakoneo) is used earlier, after the Temptation in the wilderness, when the angels tend to or care for (diakoneo) Jesus. In our reading for today, it is Simon’s mother-in-law who responds to the healing touch of Jesus by rising from her sick bed and caring for others in service and love. Is there any better response?
Of course, the news of Jesus’ healing power spreads like wildfire. So many others, who are sick or possessed by demons, are brought to him that by sunset, the whole town is standing outside the door. So many people; so little time!
Imagine what would happen here in Valdosta if Jesus came into our midst, touched a few of us, and healed us, quick as a flash. Wouldn’t we all be dancing for joy? Wouldn’t we call our neighbors and friends? We would send the good news out via mass email, the Valdosta Daily Times, our church website and Facebook page, you name it! Jesus is touring Georgia and he has started here, at First Presbyterian Church! Now imagine this place next Sunday. Have no doubt; you would need to arrive early. Don’t even plan to sit in your favorite seat. In fact, if you don’t arrive at the break of dawn, bring a nice, warm jacket because you will be forced to stand outside and listen from a distance—all the while just hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus the Master Preacher and Healer.
In Capernaum, at the home of Simon and Peter, the people are pressing in on Jesus from every side. He heals, he casts out demons and then, and then, and then, it’s morning and he’s nowhere to be found. Jesus is so passionate and his ministry is just getting started, but wait a minute! Where did he go? In the early morning (it’s still dark outside) Jesus goes off to a deserted place to pray. Why do you think Jesus goes off to pray? When we think of Jesus praying, we might envision him kneeling, holy and still, in perfect peace, but maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe teaching and healing the people has drained him. As a pastor, I can bear witness that preaching can be exhausting. In fact, the responsibility of attempting to speak God’s word to God’s people can take every ounce of energy a person can muster.
Part of my doctoral work at Columbia included research about pastors and their preaching practices. Some of my research involved conducting interviews—one of which I will never forget. While interviewing a woman pastor serving in Holston Presbytery, I asked: “So, tell me, what do you enjoy most about preaching?” Without missing a beat, she answered “12:05.” Cracked me up! The honest truth is that for most of us, preaching is rewarding but it is also challenging. With that in mind, I can’t even fathom what it was like for Jesus who was preaching with a power and an affect never before seen on this old earth. 12:05, indeed!
Jesus looks around and there are people in need—everywhere. And like a new star in town overtaken by paparazzi, the only way he can find a moment of peace and quiet is to slip out of the house while everyone is asleep. Surely, he needs refreshment and renewal. Here and in other places in the gospels, in times of stress, temptation and decision, Jesus returns to God for guidance and strength. Time and time again, he shows us the need for balance in life: work, rest, prayer, and, yes, even play.
But his prayer time is cut short when Peter and his companions interrupt him. One scholar notes how most translators are gentle with Peter and his friends saying that they “hunted” or “searched for” or “went after” Jesus. But, in fact, the word used here implies hostility. In other words, Peter and his friends are astonished at Jesus’ behavior, and they’ve come to set him straight.[ii]
As I imagined this scene, in the happenings in the synagogue and in the home of Simon and Andrew, Jesus is the main attraction. However, Simon and Andrew are probably getting quite a bit of attention, too. Is it going to their heads? Are they toying with the idea of becoming Jesus’ managers? They seem to think they know what Jesus needs to be doing—and solitude and prayer—well, that’s not it. The tension between what the disciples think Jesus has come to do and what he has, in fact, come to do builds throughout the gospel. But Jesus will not be swayed. He will be the one to set the tone for his ministry. Instead of allowing the disciples or even the people to set his agenda, Jesus will follow the leading of his Abba Father. So, early in the morning, he goes off alone to be refreshed, renewed, and rekindled by Yahweh, so that he can go out and do ministry led by the Holy Spirit. The people’s ways will not be his ways. Not then and not now. “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do,” he tells them.
Jesus does not come to be the Savior of Capernaum, or the Savior of Galilee or the Savior of Jerusalem for that matter. Jesus comes to be the Savior of the world. Jesus comes in human flesh, to be among us, to be one of us. Jesus comes to cast out darkness, and to proclaim, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”
God’s ways are always grander than we can fathom. It’s something the prophet Isaiah knew well:
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. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.[iii]
In the person of Jesus, God enters the world to raise us up, to renew our strength. With the Spirit within us, we mount up with wings like eagles; we run and do not grow weary. The kingdom of God is at hand. This is the message of Jesus—the Bread of Life—who comes to heal and save the world. Like Simon’s mother-in-law, may he touch us, and may we rise as servants of our Lord! Amen.
[i] Ibid, 55.
[ii] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, Gary W. Charles, 337.
[iii] Isaiah 40:28-31.
*Cover Art “Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter’s Wife” by John Bridges, 1839; Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Let Healing Begin
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; January 28, 2018
4th Sunday after Epiphany
Psalm 111; Mark 1:21-28
The writer of the Gospel of Mark has a way of moving us rapidly through time, so much so, in the very first chapter we learn: John the Baptist prepares the way; Jesus is baptized; the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he’s tempted by Satan and cared for by the angels; John is arrested; Jesus comes to Galilee to preach the good news and, by the Sea of Galilee he calls out to four fishermen, “Come with me and I will teach you to fish for people.” Twenty verses of Scripture bring us to the synagogue on the Sabbath where Jesus is about to inaugurate his kingdom campaign.
One of Mark’s favorite words is “euthys” which is translated “immediately,” “at once,” or “right away.” Like a newspaper reporter, Mark rushes us from place to place to witness Gospel-making, life-changing history. Unfortunately, in many translations, the “immediacy” of Mark’s gospel is lost. However, Eugene Peterson does an excellent job capturing the essence of Mark. Here this short reading once more, from The Message:
Then they entered Capernaum. When the Sabbath arrived, Jesus lost no time in getting to the meeting place. He spent the day there teaching. They were surprised at his teaching—so forthright, so confident—not quibbling and quoting like the religion scholars. Suddenly, while still in the meeting place, he was interrupted by a man who was deeply disturbed and yelling out, “What business do you have here with us, Jesus? Nazarene! I know what you’re up to! You’re the Holy One of God, and you’ve come to destroy us!” Jesus shut him up: “Quiet! Get out of him!” The afflicting spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out. Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity. “What’s going on here? A new teaching that does what it says? He shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!” News of this traveled fast and was soon all over Galilee.
It’s no surprise news of this travels fast. Jesus speaks with authority AND he makes things happen! Truly, Jesus teaches in a way that astounds the people. At this point we might be tempted to give the teachers of the law (the scribes) a hard time. But before we go off on a tangent, let’s note that in this passage, while the scribes are mentioned, we are not sure if they are even present. Since people are gathered in the synagogue on this Sabbath, we assume scribes (biblical scholars of the time) are there—but we don’t know. Another thing to remember is that even later, when tension escalates between Jesus and the religious rulers, Jesus seems less concerned with what they teach and more concerned with how they live.
In today’s reading, what is crystal clear is Jesus’ teaching carries an authority unlike anything the people have ever heard. Keep in mind—Jesus doesn’t have to rely on “borrowed” authority. Moreover, Jesus does not just offer information. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers transformation. Now that is something both new and amazing!
You may have noticed the people are not alone in their amazement. In fact, the one who may see the situation more clearly than anyone else is the unclean spirit. Translations vary here—unclean spirit, evil spirit or demon. One scholar explains: “In biblical language, “impure” means, simply, contrary to the sacred. All that is against the sanctity of God is considered impure.”[i] So regardless of how we choose to think of it or name it, the important thing to recognize is that this presence is against the things of God. Still it is the unclean spirit that speaks the truth, interrupting Jesus like a heckler at a campaign rally.
It is safe to say everyone in the synagogue is riveted to the scene being played out before them. The unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The unclean spirit is disturbed, for good reason, because he recognizes Jesus for who he is. Evil has come face to face with the source of its ultimate demise. Two questions are put to Jesus. The first is “What have you to do with us, Jesus?” I like the way The New American Standard Bible and The Message translate this question: “What business do we have with each other, Jesus?” Business—yes, there is business to be done!
Then, lo and behold, the unclean spirit speaks an even greater truth: “Have you come to destroy us?” In a word—Yes! Yes, that’s exactly what Jesus has come to do. Jesus has come to destroy all that is broken in humanity. Jesus has come to restore all God’s people to whole and abundant lives. Jesus has come to shut down the powers of darkness and Jesus can—because he is exactly who the unclean spirit says he is—the Holy One of God.
Basically, Jesus responds to the evil spirit with something like, “Shut up!” A more literal translation is: “Put a muzzle on it!” Isn’t it ironic that Jesus, who is possessed by the Spirit of God, faces off with a man, who is possessed by a demon? [ii] Ultimately, Jesus’ authority is made known when what he speaks comes to fruition—word and action unite, and the evil spirit is silenced and cast out of the man. And in a moment, the healing ministry of Jesus begins. With at least 13 miracles of healing documented in the Gospel of Mark alone, there is no denying that for Jesus a strong relationship exists between faith, healing, and wholeness.
But returning to the man with the unclean spirit, don’t you wonder what he is doing in the synagogue in the first place? Wouldn’t that be the last place an evil presence should want to hang out? It makes me wonder, in the midst of being nearly overwhelmed by something evil and beyond his control, is there something that draws the man to a place where he might find a glimmer of hope? Is that how he happens to be among the people that day?
And while the brokenness of this man and his need for healing are so obvious, doesn’t he in some way represent all of humanity? Whether by anger, greed, selfishness, anxiety, hatred, pride; whether by discouragement, despair, depression; whether by obsessions, addictions, disease—aren’t we all broken in some form or fashion? But for the possessed man, and for all who meet the person of Jesus, a muzzle is offered for our brokenness. Through Jesus, there is hope for healing and wholeness.
Jesus comes to the synagogue and makes the gospel message real. It’s not the same old story about a prophet or a king or some people back in the day. No, Jesus brings transforming power into the room! And the news spreads like wild fire. As one scholar put it, from the very first chapter of Mark, we are put on notice: “the boundary-breaking, demon-dashing…Son of God has arrived in the person of Jesus, and he expects of his followers far more than amazement. [iii]
Bonnie Rackley is a friend of Sissy Almand’s who has become a regular at our First Friday Contemplative Service. Last month she shared a story that she has given me permission to share this morning. Bonnie’s sister’s first and only grandchild, Archie, is 6 months old. Late last year he started wheezing. After many tests the pediatricians discovered Archie had a cyst growing near his vocal chords. Surgery was scheduled the first Sunday in December. Bonnie said she thought it strange that surgery would be scheduled on a Sunday until she learned it was a Jewish hospital. On the Friday evening before the surgery, Bonnie came to our Contemplative Service and lit a candle and offered a prayer for her grand-nephew. Then Sunday, when the doctors took Archie in for surgery, much to their surprise, the cyst was gone. Bonnie’s sister called to give her the good news and Bonnie responded: “God answered my prayer. It was the votive candle I lit and the prayer I prayed. It was those Presbyterians!”
Jesus was in the business of healing. Still is! But do we believe it? Or are we like one of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who has gotten so used to doing the same old thing in the same old way with the same old result that the very idea of Jesus breaking into our lives and into the lives of others—well, it’s unfathomable?
Whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual—we are all in need of healing. We need transformation and Jesus has the authority and the desire to fix what ails us. Sometimes healing comes through spiritual practices like laying on of hands and different forms of prayer. Sometimes healing comes through the God-given wonders of modern medicine. Sometimes healing arrives through the blessing of a community of believers who surrounds us with love and light—even in our darkest hour. Sometimes—it happens through all the above. And sometimes healing may begin in this life only to be completed in the life to come. Yet, no matter the circumstances, for everyone who meets the person of Jesus, there is hope.
Richard Foster has penned the following prayer that, perhaps, speaks words of truth for each one of us:
Lord Jesus Christ, when I read the gospel stories I am touched by your healing power. You heal sick bodies to be sure, but you did so much more. You healed the spirit and the deep, inner mind. Most of all I am touched by your actions of acceptance that spoke healing into those who lived on the margins of life, shoved aside by the strong and the powerful. Speak your healing into me, Lord, body and mind and soul…Heal my heart, Jesus, heal my heart.[iv]
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Ibid. 310.
[ii] Feasting on the Word, Ofelia Ortega, 312.
[iii] Ibid., Gary W Charles, 313
[iv] The Westminster Collection of Christian Prayers, Richard Foster, 148-149.
*Cover Art by Elise Phelps of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta