Sermon for Williamstown
Epiphany 4, 1st of February, 2015
Mark’s gospel is in many ways the strangest of the four canonical gospels. It’s probably the earliest; it’s definitely the shortest. It starts without any sort of birth story for Jesus; and it ends without any post-resurrection appearance. The last words of the original ending of the gospel are: ‘So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’. (Mark 16:8) Where is the gospel, the good news, in this?
Everything in Mark happens ‘immediately’, or ‘at once’. Jesus, the disciples, and we readers race though the gospel, scarcely pausing for breath. Here we are, four weeks into ordinary time, still within the very first chapter, and already John has appeared in the wilderness baptising; Jesus has been baptised; then driven into the wilderness and tempted; has proclaimed the coming of the kingdom at Galilee; and has called his first disciples. All that in 20 verses. Now, in today’s reading, we get the beginning of what seems to be a typical, paradigmatic day of ministry for Jesus, a day of teaching and healing.
Professor Brendan Byrne describes the gospel according to Mark as the scariest of the four gospels, and in this snippet of Jesus’ ministry we can see why. Jesus goes to the synagogue at Capernaum and teaches, with authority. But in the very place of the worship of the people of God, Jesus is confronted by an unclean spirit. Mark’s world is filled with demons and hostile forces.
The people of Mark’s time spoke of demons as a way of describing things that were beyond human control; things by which they were imprisoned; things that alienated them from themselves, their community and from God. We don’t refer to these things as demons any more, but they’re still with us – illness, physical and mental, poverty, addictions, greed, violence. In Mark’s world, these are caused by spirits, beings that are neither human nor divine but that are definitely hostile to God. That’s what makes them unclean; their alienation from God. God is holy, and people and things connected to the holiness of God are themselves whole, complete. Those things alienated from God, like demons, are unclean, incomplete, limited. They’re in the wrong place, as this unclean spirit is in a man at the synagogue.
If we get caught up in questioning whether demons really existed then, or whether this particular man was instead suffering from something like schizophrenia, we miss the point of the story. The point is not that there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit. The point is that through his teaching and the exorcism, through his authority, Jesus shows that the time has come, that the Kingdom of God has come near.
It is on his authority that people comment, rather than the miracle of the exorcism: ‘They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ … ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’ The teaching is as important a sign of the kingdom as the exorcism; both are liberating. The scribes can only teach what they themselves have been taught; they are constrained by their scriptures and religious tradition. Jesus, on the other hand, as both the messenger and the message, can teach authoritatively about God and the kingdom that is coming. He doesn’t need to bolster his teaching with external support, scriptural or otherwise. His teaching is self-authenticating.
Then this teaching is put into action in the exorcism. Presumably that man with the unclean spirit had sat in the synagogue week-in and week-out, listening to the scribes expound Scripture and then going home unhealed. But in Jesus the unclean spirit is faced with the power and presence of God, and leaves the man with a loud cry.
(We will hear a similar loud cry on the cross, as Jesus dies. (Mark 15:37) The demonic forces will seem to have won, the land will be covered by darkness and the curtain in the temple will be torn in two. But that final victory of the demonic over God will be revealed to have been their greatest defeat.)
In contrast to the gospels according to Matthew and Luke, the gospel according to Mark shows us Jesus the teacher, but doesn’t give us his teachings. Matthew gives us the Sermon on the Mount; Luke the Sermon on the Plain and all the parables – Mark just tells us that Jesus teaches with authority and leaves us to imagine what the content might be. But Mark shows us the teaching in action. We can understand it through its impact – it sets people free from everything that binds them. It heals them. It challenges and defeats evil. No oppression can stand against this new teaching given with authority, which sets humanity and the world free from the forces of evil.
Mark presents Jesus as the one more powerful (Mark 1:7), the strong man (Mark 3:27), the one who can defeat all the hostile forces of the world. In Mark’s world view, these hostile forces were demons, and humanity was under demonic control until liberated by Jesus. Our worldview has no room for demons and demonic possession, except in horror films, but there are still forces stronger than individual humans that keep people imprisoned, forces from which Jesus can liberate us. There are still captivities – personal, social, economic – that dehumanise us and prevent us from living out our lives completely, and these are the captivities from which Jesus came to set us free.
I rejoiced that Rosie Batty was declared Australian of the Year for her work raising awareness of and working against domestic violence, and I grieved that the reason we know about her was the murder of her son, Luke, by his father. I believe domestic violence is definitely one of the forces stronger than individual humans from which the world needs to be liberated. The church has in the past played a role in perpetuating it by demanding that women and children obey the male head of the household – wives obey your husbands (Ephesians 5:22) – and that they forgive the men who abuse them. It is now up to the church to join with all the other institutions in society to challenge the dehumanisation of women and children in domestic violence. We can do that knowing that every dehumanising power has already been defeated by Jesus, the one whose authority even the unclean spirits have to obey.
Tomorrow I will conduct the funeral of a woman who died at the much too young age of 54, leaving behind two daughters. This week I prayed for one of my colleagues, Caro, minister at Myrtleford, as she conducted the funeral of a stillborn baby. At every funeral we are reminded that death is one of the powers that Jesus defeated. There is nothing good about the sudden, untimely death of a deeply-longed for baby or of a woman in her fifties. It wasn’t their time; they hadn’t lived long lives; God doesn’t need them more than their families did. None of the platitudes that some people use to comfort themselves help. All that might possibly help is the knowledge that on the cross Jesus defeated even death, and that no one who is mourning is doing it alone. God is with them. The funeral service reminds us that whenever we mourn someone we do so in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. We are able to have this hope because in Jesus the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. This is the gospel. Believe in this good news. Amen.