Sunday, February 22, 2015

First in Lent

Mark 1: 9-15

Good morning and grace and peace, in these first days of our annual Lenten journey toward Holy Week and the Cross.  Still a ways away, until winter moves on into spring, but will be here before we know it.  Helpful reminders that our Lenten disciplines, whatever they may be, are not about punishment, certainly not to try to match some special effort with the hope of earning a reward.  We have overhead always the Cross of Christ as a reminder that that bill has already been paid in full.  But that as we take in that message of a new reality we may, day by day, with thanksgiving, live transformed lives.  Refreshed in his love.  That we may be healed, corrected, and redirected in following him.  So with prayers that for each of us individually, for our families, our congregation, and of course through all the wider Christian family this would be a season of renewal in every way.

We spent all those Sundays in the later part of the season after the Epiphany reading from the first chapter of St. Mark as our appointed gospel readings.  Last week the seasonal lectionary moved us ahead through the story to hear the account of the Transfiguration—and now on this first Sunday in Lent here we are again, back by the Jordan in that first chapter, with John the Baptist, but with the intention this time not to focus on the baptism of Jesus and the great moment of the spirit with the voice, “this is my beloved Son,” but to move past that to what follows, traditionally called the “Temptation in the Wilderness.”  One of those meaningfully recurrent and resonant numbers in the Bible, emphasizing lines of connection from one part of the story to another—and here echoing the long 40 year sojourn of the Israelites in the Exodus between the giving of the 10 Commandments on Mt Sinai and the entrance and return to the Promised Land.  Under the guidance and leadership of Moses the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in that first story of life in the wilderness are shaped into a new people in a new relationship with God. 

And now in these 40 days Jesus, anointed by the Spirit prepares for the life and ministry that is ahead.  When he leaves this desert place he will learn that John the Baptist has been arrested and he will return to Galilee and call Peter and Andrew and James and John to join him.  But first there is this time of fasting and prayer, the inner wrestling with the Enemy.  As the older translations and our Collect this morning have it, Jesus is “tempted of Satan.”  A time of purification and intensification of focus.  In chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel and chapter 4 of Luke we read a bit more detail of what this was like, the fasting, prayer, wrestling, the specifics of the temptations.  In parliamentary terms we might say here that Mark simply reports the event by title—perhaps he assumes we’ve already heard the fuller story.  But we get a bit of narrative expansion at the end in this wonderful line: “he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.”  Evoking for me anyway the images perhaps of the Prophet Isaiah, “the wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox; and dust shall be the serpent’s food.” Jesus “with” the wild beasts.   And the mention of angels may take our mind at once to those the shepherds saw in that dark night in the hills outside Bethlehem—and to those who will meet the women at the tomb at dawn on that Sunday morning.  So at the very beginning of the story a hint of the end, the lines weaving in and out, back and forth, with connection and reconnection--the whole story coming together, of many stories, one story: a foreshadowing of the healing of creation and the triumph of God, the victory of the Cross.

We are of course every year invited ourselves into a kind of wilderness in Lent.  To practice at least enough restraint in some area or areas of our lives that we can experience at least a distant echo of what Jesus felt in that life and death confrontation.  The temptation on offer to give up the very thing that he was sent to accomplish.  For us dessert or a glass of wine or a recreational hour in front of the television or computer screen.  Giving up an evening here or there at home for the East End Lenten service, or for the Inquirers Class, or to come to church on Sundays a bit early for the Coffee and Conversation program.  To put down the morning paper a few minutes early before heading out to work or school and to read a few verses of the Bible and a page in the Lenten Devotional booklet. 

Whatever it would take so that we would find ourselves for a moment out in the desert, and to feel at least a twinge of temptation.  In some ways, it doesn’t matter what, so long as its enough to give us that twinge.  A place in our lives where we can ourselves with intentionality push back against the Enemy.  As he did.  So for just the briefest of moments, a spiritual gift through that--to identify with him at the beginning of this last leg of the journey.  In this small way to be closer to Jesus.  What should I give up this Lent?  Or what new discipline or devotion should I take on?  Whatever it takes, for that to happen. 

Six weeks is of course a long time, and some days we manage our intentions better than others.  And perhaps inevitability that sooner or later we will fail in the rigor of our Lenten discipline would call to mind for us the deeper message of our brokenness and sin.  Those powerful words we say week by week.  Exposing our own vulnerability.  A friend of mine commented on the smudge of ashes of Ash Wednesday, that it is a visible reminder that we are a mess.  No matter how thoroughly we spruce ourselves up on the outside, the smear on the forehead is like a quick glance into an open window.  What goes on inside.  “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts . . . we have left undone those things we ought to have done, we have done those things we ought not to have done.”  People tell me from time to time  that they have felt like crossing their fingers at moments when reciting a creed or prayer, touched at moments of their lives by some shade of doubt, not sure they can speak these affirmations with full integrity and conviction.  But I’d be surprised if anybody felt truly in their hearts with sincerity that they needed to cross their fingers here, even if sometimes out in the wide world we like to pretend we have everything together in our lives 24/7/365.  Done what we know we shouldn’t have done, left undone what we should have done.  “Followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”  I can say that anytime day or night without the slightest moment of hesitation.  One “miserable offender,” anyway.  Falling under the assault of the enemy.  Giving in to his soft invitation—which has been the story in my family anyway for a long time.  Ever since Eden.

So in any event-- if we can bring ourselves to the desert here, at least for a moment: first Sunday in Lent.  And perhaps in this moment as we take a deep breath, as we come forward to the Holy Table and then move on into this Lenten journey with him, as best we can, three steps forward and two steps back most of the time, and some days two steps forward and three steps back—perhaps we also may feel closer to him, which is what we want to feel and where we want to be—and may experience in our hearts and in our lives the encouragement and hope of those angels as they surround him and comfort him and embrace him and minister to him with their wings of love.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

I have for many years been haunted by the profound and complicated and often convicting poetry of T.S. Eliot’s  Ash Wednesday, centering in the fifth stanza of that poem:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;

And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.

And just to say again: “Where shall the word be found, where will the word resound?  Not here, there is not enough silence.”

If we think of all of our busyness of life as noise.  Our commitments and responsibilities, the appointment book, the e-mail in-box, the unceasing stream of television and radio and movies and sports and entertainments, the mystery novels and the meals in bustling restaurants and all our appetites as noise.  As noise.  “Where shall the word be found, where will the word resound.  Not here, there is not enough silence.”

The invitation to a holy lent we might think of simply as an opportunity to dial down the volume.  Psalm 62: For God alone my soul in silence waits.  From him comes my salvation.  What Jesus says when the disciples wake him up in the boat in the midst of the storm.  “Peace, be still.”

Where shall the word be found, where will the word resound?   We would each do this in our own way.  To look within, to look around.  To see if at this point along the journey from the manger to the cross we might pause to explore what it takes to listen for him.  To step back even just one step or two from the whirlwind.  To skip the seconds at dinner, to turn off the box for an hour, to trade our ordinary dessert for a better one, as in Psalm 19: “how sweet are your words to my taste!  They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and Quinquagesima

Mark 9

Grace and peace and good morning.  The word “Lent” comes from the older English lengten, the season when the days begin to lengthen and the nights grow noticeably shorter.  This the last Sunday in the season after the Epiphany, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent.  On the old calendar of the Pre-lenten season, Quinquagesima, 50 days more or less until Easter, 7 Sundays.  But even though pitchers and catchers report to Pirate City in Bradenton later this week, it still doesn’t feel too much like spring.  We still need to bundle up for a while. In the old Prayer Book lectionary the gospel reading appointed for this Sunday before Lent was Luke 18.  Jesus sits down with his disciples and tells them about the journey ahead.  “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished.”  The formal, intentional beginning of the last leg,  from the Manger to the Cross.

In our contemporary three-year lectionary cycle all three years bring us instead, as we are this morning in Mark chapter 9, up to Mount Tabor, the Mount of the Transfiguration. Jesus, with Peter and James and John.  And there at the top of the mountain Jesus is transfigured, that wonderful word, clothed in glorious shimmering white, “as no fuller on earth could bleach them,” in the words of the King James Version.  Transcendent.  Supernatural.  Our hymn this morning: O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair!  These two towering figures of the scripture, Moses and Elijah, standing beside him, the fulfillment of all the Law and the Prophets.  And the voice from heaven thundering the confirmation and blessing we first saw and heard at the very beginning of the gospel, at the scene of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, as the Holy Spirit descended upon him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”

Carol Henley, who was a part of our St. Andrew’s family for several years as priest associate, is going to lead a Coffee and Conversation program in our “Way of Lent” series on what is sometimes called “Celtic Christianity,” and particularly to talk about her pilgrimage to Lindisfarne and Iona.  One of the aspects that is so characteristic of the Celtic heritage is this sensitivity to the transcendent.  An aspect of reflective mysticism.  And one of the phrases that I’ve learned is that the teachers and writers and spiritual guides in that tradition would sometimes refer to “thin places.”  Sometimes a particular place of customary prayer, a tree, a spring, a hilltop--but really a “place” that has a very open kind of definition.  Depending on how things intersect with our “inner space.”  How at any time and in any place you or I might be walking in the neighborhood or on the beach or in the mountains, or even simply sitting in our own living room, and have a sense of a moment to catch a glimpse--as it were, “behind the curtain.”  Where the character and glory and beauty and richness of God’s eternal character and presence seems especially close.  Close enough to touch, taste, smell.   To catch a glimpse.  Not of course to worship or make some kind of idolatrous shrine out of a magical tree or spring, but to be gifted in a moment, as we might be gifted at all times and in all places, with an impression of his presence. 

It’s a “mountaintop experience,” as we might say this morning for Peter, James, and John.  The Transfiguration of Christ, at once fully present to them as they have known him day after day, eating with them, walking with them, laughing with them, and at the same time now revealed and made manifest in the fullness of his divine glory, from before time and forever.  Years later, the testimony of one of the witnesses, in the first chapter of the book of Second Peter: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.  And we have the prophetic word made more sure.” 

The confirmation of all that the scriptures have said, the experience of the “heilsgeschichte,” the Holy Story that God unfolds for us, and the story into which he incorporates us as well.  “You will do well to pay attention to this,” Peter continues, “as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”  I love that: “until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”  The fullness of God’s blessing.

Friends like our own Dean Byrom and many others have told me of the very meaningful and inspiring experience it is actually to visit the places in the Holy Land along the Biblical story, and I’m sure coming to the top of Mt. Tabor would be one of those inspiring places.  Perhaps it might even be a “thin place” for us, as it was for Peter and James and John.  A place to catch an inward glimpse.  But if we don’t have the frequent flyer miles to get all the way there, we would be reminded that the retreat house across the river at Mt. Alvernia, with our friends the Sisters of St. Francis, is named “Tabor House.”  To confirm that “mountain top experiences” can happen for us anywere.  Even Millvale . . . .  Or perhaps in this place, or where you walk the dog this afternoon . . . .

So Last Epiphany, Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  What will be announced to us, from the Prayer Book,  on this coming Wednesday, as we would come to one of the three services on that day here at St. Andrew’s—or sometimes folks find it convenient to attend the midday service downtown at the Cathedral, or in some other place near work or school.  “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”

In all that, an invitation to us to be on the lookout for these thin places.  Mountaintops.  What can be truly part of our inner landscape.  Thinking of the opportunities we might see even on display in our service leaflet this morning.  The Inquirers Group that Garrett and Dan will be leading.  Our Sunday morning series of Coffee and Conversation gatherings.  A collection of daily devotional readings, which we have had given to us as a gift this morning, and which we can pick up today in the narthex or in Brooks Hall,  or at our services on Ash Wednesday.  Perhaps a pattern of personal devotion, prayer, reading that we try to develop ourselves. 

St. Benedict in Chapter 49 of his Rule, speaking to his monks but perhaps for monk we can really pretty much substitute any Christian:  “The life of a monk ought be be a continuous lent,” that is, a time of prayer, of repentance, reflection, renewal.  “Since few, however, have the strength for this, we urge the entire community during these days of lent to keep its manner of life most pure, and to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.  This we can do in a fitting manner by refusing to indulge evil habits and by devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart, and to self-denial.  During these days therefore we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of our own will with the joy of the Hoy Spirit.  In other words, let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” Desserts, alcohol, between-meal snacks.   I’ve seen friends talk about a “Fast from Facebook,” or video games, or television.  No rules imposed from above, but to find a rule ourselves, an invitation to find just that food mix of prayer and reading and restraint that will make sense for us, as we would pause here on the mountaintop, on our way to Jerusalem.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, and Sexagesima

Mark 1: 29-39

Again, good morning and grace and peace.  As I mentioned at Evensong on Thursday: there is this symmetry, 40 days from Christmas to Candlemas, 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter, and in the interval a space of “Pre-lenten” transition.  Taking down the last of the holiday decorations while discussing what kind of disciplines we might want to take on in the season of penitential reflection ahead.  Giving up things like sweets or alcohol, adding a devotional book to the reading stack on the bedside table.  What would be meaningful and helpful this year?  The traditional title of this Sunday in our three-Sunday count-down transition from Epiphany to Lent, Sexagesima, reminds us that we’re about 60 days, eight Sundays before Easter.  In the grip of a cold winter, but before we blink twice it will be Holy Week.

In our lectionary this is the last Sunday that we’ll be settled here in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel.  Over the past few weeks we’ve been reading it section by section, with the addition of a brief side-trip into John’s gospel to amplify the story of the calling of the first disciples. 

We begin this Sunday right where we stopped last week.  Jesus with Peter and Andrew and James and John.  From that dramatic moment in the synagogue at Capernaum—the crowd stunned with the power and authority in the words and presence of Jesus, like nothing they’ve experienced before.  And the challenge and confrontation with the unclean spirit, as Jesus overwhelms the power of the dark one and defeats him, casts him out with a word of command.

Now this morning as we’ve heard in the next paragraphs Jesus and his friends leave the synagogue and go on to Peter and Andrew’s home, apparently nearby, where Peter’s wife’s mother is ill.  Jesus enters, takes her hand, and at once the fever miraculously leaves her.  Continuing and building on what has just happened in the synagogue.   In the coming hours crowds from the town and surrounding area who have heard about what has been happening at the synagogue and beyond come streaming in, and the wonders continue: healings and exorcisms.  It’s all high drama.  To borrow a word from Robert Schuller’s old Crystal Cathedral telecast, it is an “hour of power.”  An hour of power.  Again and again we would say, just as they said in the synagogue, “we’ve never seen anything like this before.”   This power, this “authority.”

Anticipated and foreshadowed even now, in these Sundays before Lent, out ahead in the far distance, the power of the Cross--making its presence known and felt, bursting forth in victory, from before time and forever.  Here in the very first chapter of Mark, the first sentences, before we’ve even turned to page two, the message of the whole story unfolds for us, the deep pattern of God’s presence and God’s purpose made manifest.  Exile and return, sin and redemption, death and resurrection.  The message of the whole “heilsgeschicte.”   Love that word.  The Sacred Story.  From the first chapter of Genesis through the twenty second chapter of the Revelation.   From the synagogue in Capernaum to 5801 Hampton Street, Highland Park.  The whole story—and we are both readers and characters.  For us and about us at the same time.

So here in the final paragraph this morning, the launching of the mission.  What we would say is Mark’s Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church.  Their commission and marching orders.  Our commission and marching orders.  It begins in prayer, in the heart of Jesus.  Which is where we still find him. Word and Sacrament.    After Jesus was baptized we remember just a few verses back that he went out into the wilderness for that great 40 day retreat.  Facing down the Adversary and preparing himself in heart, body, mind, and spirit for the work that now was before him.  Now again, before dawn, he goes again to the deserted place—in the quiet hour of the dark morning to commune with the Father. 

His disciples come searching for him with the exciting word that everybody now is searching for him. The whole world rushing in.  Eager.  Yearning.  They have caught a glimpse, and now they want to be a part of this story too.  This story of power, authority, hope, healing, forgiveness.  Now to know just what that name really means, and not just in theory.  “Immanuel,” God with us.  Everybody everywhere  is searching for him.  And of course he doesn’t turn away.  Not then, not now, not ever.  “Let us go to them.”  If they want him, they will have him.  Giving of himself.  Giving himself.  “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Again, the meaning of this time of Epiphany.  His manifestation.  God in Christ showing up and showing himself, revealing himself, sharing himself with us. Giving himself as a gift and offering and sacrifice.  “Let us go on,” Jesus says.  “This is what I came to do. This is what you and I together are going to be doing from now on.”

The great modern American writer Annie Dillard grew up not very far from here over in the Point Breeze neighborhood.  An old Pittsburgh family in the steel business.  She went to Ellis School and the Shadyside Presbyterian Church.  And in her autobiography “An American Childhood” she writes a wonderful reflection in the context as I remember it of the Shadyside Sunday School giving Bibles to the children of the Sunday School.  Looking back on the scene and recalling her memory of the children coming up to the front of the church to receive their Bibles,  she is astonished, she says, that anybody who knows anything about the Bible would give the book to children, and certainly to allow and encourage it to be read without adult supervision.  She then says:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ” 

And I think this is just right, exactly what Mark wants to do for us here in the first page or so of his gospel.   He’s saying, this is not a test of the emergency broadcast system.  Not a test.  Not a game.  Not a hobby.  This is the real deal.  If we want the power of God to be made manifest in our lives and our world—here he is.   Seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened.  The promise we are each one of us invited to hear this “pre-lent.”  To which each one of us may respond, in our minds and our hearts.

And if we do, if we will: fasten your seatbelts!   To take our hands off the steering wheel and to let him drive.  Power, authority.   The threshold of Lent, 60 days until Easter, and--  put on your crash helmets.  Let him into our lives, into our world, and things are going to change.  We are going to change.  That word in the Revelation to John not just hypothetical:  “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Expect some changes.  Bright light illuminating some of the corners we perhaps would just as soon have left in the shadows.  Healing, forgiving.  Ejecting the Father of Lies from the cozy home that he has made in the daily routine of our lives and our world.  Shaking things up good.  This is really happening, Mark says to us this morning.  This is really happening, like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth fall silent before him. 

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, and Septuagesima

Mark 1: 21-38

Good morning, and grace and peace.  February already, Super Bowl Sunday, the 39th Day of Christmas, tomorrow February 2nd traditionally known as Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple, the Purification of St. Mary the Virgin--which is the dedication of our Chapel and the subject of that lovely triptych altarpiece.  And of course, especially here in Western Pennsylvania, Groundhog Day!  Susy, Daniel, and I last evening followed our annual ritual of watching the Harold Ramis film, with Bill Murray and Andie McDowell.  Always fun, and always thought-provoking.  And just a little more than two weeks before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report in Bradenton for the beginning of spring training. 

On the older church calendar, Septuagesima, the beginning of what are sometimes called the three Sundays of “pre-Lent,” 9 Sundays, 70 days more or less, until Easter.  In any event, all of that together to say, as a way of picturing the rhythm of the church year, that we’re moving on down the road that stretches from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the music of the angels as they sing to the shepherds fading away, and the bustle of the City and of Holy Week and the cheers of Palm Sunday and the jeers and tears of Good Friday beginning to be heard up ahead in the far distance.   One way or the other, whether or not Punxatawney  Phil sees his shadow, the world keeps turning.

We are continuing in these weeks in "Year B" in our Sunday lectionary with our appointed sequence of readings from St. Mark’s gospel in the first chapter--where we have been now for several weeks.  Mark is not a leisurely story teller, for sure.  Cut to the chase.  Get right to the point.  We’ve hardly just opened the book and already we’ve had the Baptism of Jesus at the Jordan, with the visible acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit and the anointing word of the Father: already the 40 days of Testing in the Wilderness.  Already the recruitment and commissioning of the first disciples, as we heard last week—“come with me, and I will have you fishing for people.” 

And now this morning the emphatic and dramatic account of the beginning of the great “public ministry” of Jesus.  The five of them—Jesus with Andrew and Peter and James and John—leave James and John’s father Zebedee in the boat cleaning the fishing tackle and walk on a short distance into the nearby village of Capernaum.  It’s a bustling town.  Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth was really just a hamlet, population fewer than  500 or so in the first century, the archaeologists say, while Capernaum is  four or five times as large, a real town, a busy commercial center.  It’s not Jericho or Jerusalem, of course, but a bigger stage, a place to go to be noticed, to move out of the shadows and into wider view.

It is the Sabbath, and Jesus and his companions come to the synagogue.  Perhaps home town boys Andrew and Peter speak to the rabbi, because Jesus from down the road in Nazareth is invited to read from the scriptures and to teach.  Something of an honor, I would think.  And he makes a strong impression, as we can see this word in the response to those in attendance, that he taught as one having authority.  The Greek word exousia.  A word that will be associated with Jesus again and again.  An authority that makes his teaching and preaching different from the teaching and preaching of the rabbis and elders and scribes and Pharisees.  A compelling power, and a sense of authorship, we might say, to make a connection with the English that I think can also be found in the Greek.  A creative force.  Something was really happening when he spoke.  The words came alive. 

I remember back almost 20 years ago being introduced to the work of Pittsburgh poet Sam Hazo.  Some of you may be familiar with his work.  I had read some of his poems and thought that they were really good.  But then I remember attending an evening  program at the old Pittsburgh Poetry Forum, I think with Pam Johnson and Anne Barnes, probably  a few others, and to hear him read and perform and bring his poetry to life.  The words leaping off the page!  It’s one thing to read the words on the printed page.  Another thing altogether to hear those words chanted and sung and declaimed with authority, by the author himself!   We had him here in the church for a program not too long after.  An amazing experience.

So Jesus in the synagogue that Sabbath.  And perhaps echoing overhead in our thoughts, the words from the beginning of St. John’s Gospel:  “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  It must have been something like that.  “We’ve heard those holy words all our lives, but now, suddenly, they are fresh and new and powerful, leaping off the page and ringing through the world and our hearts and our minds surging with excitement.  We have never heard anything like this before.”

And then immediately following, the encounter with the Unclean Spirit.  The beginning of a ministry of exorcism, spiritual healing, that would become a centerpiece of the life of Jesus from this day forward, and the center of his commission to his disciples.   In just a few pages in chapter 6 Mark is going to tell us about the first time Jesus sent his disciples on ahead, at the 7th verse, “and he called unto him the twelve and began to send them forth two by two, and gave them authority – exousia!—gave them authority over unclean spirits.”  That is the specific kind of authority that was in Jesus and the first that he delegated to his disciples.  (Which makes me wonder just how we’re doing in that department these days, any of us individually, the church in general.  A topic for further discussion.)

The power of Jesus’s words, reading and proclaiming with authority, seems to be unbearable to this evil spirit, to the demonic presence that has hidden secretly in the deep inner life of the man in the synagogue.  That spirit can remain hidden no longer, but seems to screech in a kind of torment of distress and even agony, “What are you doing here, Jesus of Nazareth?”  And the cool words of Jesus in response.  Simply, “Be quiet, come out of him.”  Again, command, authority.  Giving light to them that live in darkness and in the shadow of death.   Cast out our sin and enter in.  Thou art the king of glory O Christ.  

There is what we might call a soft view of Jesus in the gospels which is genuine and important.  His gentleness and compassion, a tenderness.  Savior like a shepherd lead us, much we need thy tender care.   But we would here see him from the very first as the one who is in his tenderness a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things both in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey.  Flexing his muscles.  At the sound of his voice the forces of darkness fall into a panic, scatter and run, and the hearts of his faithful people fill with joy. 

I read this story of the sermon and exorcism at Capernaum and I can’t help hearing in my imagination the great roar of the lion Aslan across the wintry landscape of Narnia in the C.S. Lewis story.  “Is he a tame lion?” The children ask.  “No, not tame.  Not tame at all.  But good.”  And there is healing and forgiveness and new life.  In the power of his presence, his austere and muscular and irresistible holiness.  Not tame, but good.

That’s how the story begins, and the word begins to spread.  Through the whole region.  Village by village.  God doing something new, something big, something authoritative.

And I think Mark feels as though if we’ve just casually picked up his book while strolling through the aisles of the Barnes and Noble and have taken a moment to read these first few verses, the first couple of paragraphs—even if now we set the book down, he’s told us what he needs to tell us.   Planted the seed.  What we need to know about Jesus.  He’s held up a mirror, perhaps, for those of us who have met Jesus, so that we can see beyond the superficial externalities and understand what it is that is true for us in our lives as Christians.  He’s offered a glimpse to those who haven’t met Jesus yet, who are meeting him now for the first time in this moment, in the synagogue at Capernaum, as the words of the gospel leap off the page and into our eyes and ears and hearts and imagination.  Beating back the ancient enemy,  Satan.   Jesus triumphant, trampling down death by death and giving life to those dwelling in the tomb.  Jesus victorious.  The strife over, the labor done.   It’s all here.  The empty cross, the stone rolled away.   To see for ourselves what Mark means in the first words of this gospel testimony and witness, chapter 1 verse 1: here it begins: the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

That would be a great way to start every day.  Morning by morning, to renew ourselves by hearing this good news again with the ear of our heart.  Really Mark’s hope, I think.  To say it each one of us as a kind of a prayer, an offering, the offering of an intention as we walk out the door in the morning and off to work or school or all the affairs of our lives.  Jesus made the words of scripture come to life in that small synagogue, and as we are his Body that power and authority can happen right here with us too.  Maybe we could have it printed on a new set of St. Andrew’s tee-shirts as a reminder for us and a word to the world.  What is announced now in us and through us.   Chapter 1, verse 1: “Here it begins, let it begin here today, in me, in us, with him and for him: the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”