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.”

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