A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Mark 1:21-28
Other gospels want us to be awestruck by Jesus. I think the writer of the Gospel according to Mark wants that too, but first he wants to make sure he’s got your attention. So he tells his story at a breathless pace and he leaves you befuddled and off-balance with the crazy stuff in this first chapter.
The heavens get ripped open and God’s Spirit is no longer thought to be separated from humanity. Jesus is driven into the wilderness and tempted for 40 days and then comes back. He travels to Galilee and starts preaching. He walks up to total strangers and says “Follow me” and they follow. And now he strolls into a synagogue and totally sends their worship service sideways.
Your head should be reeling at all this!
It’s just astonishment after astonishment.
Jesus will render us awestruck soon enough – but for now we’re being run over with a steam roller!
At this point, the appropriate reaction is to be thunderstruck!
I’m going to have some fun with this passage and take it into some strange interpretive territory, but first I want to acknowledge its primary meaning. First we’ll think about what it would’ve meant for the first audience hearing the story – and no, I don’t mean the audience Jesus taught in that synagogue that fateful Saturday. I mean the audience hearing Mark’s gospel in the early 00-70s.
First let’s think about synagogues. Nowadays synagogues function much like this church does, as the gathering, spiritual teaching, and social justice ministry focal point for a community of faith. But in Jesus’ day the centre of their religious and cultural world was the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogues that Jesus goes into are more like prayer gatherings in someone’s house.
They would’ve had leadership but it wasn’t a Pharisee or a Priest (well, maybe in the bigger towns, but certainly not in tiny Capernaum). The leader was a scribe, which means a learned man, a village elder, someone with some religious training but not a formally authorized religious person. Today we might all them a Licenced Lay Worship Leader. This is because everything formal was focused on the Temple. All the sacrifices and pilgrimages and authorized teachings were at the Temple. Village synagogues were very low level compared to that.
And that’s important because it’s not like Jesus walked into a place like this with an organized denominational structure and a formally authorized trained ordained minister and just walked up, gave the scribe and elbow, and took over.
And this is why the people were thunderstruck at his teaching – because he didn’t teach like the scribe who was doing his best but didn’t have a whole whack of theological education behind him. (Then again, neither did Jesus!) Jesus taught with authority. Jesus taught with fresh insight and wisdom – more than they’d ever heard before.
Immediately, a man possessed by an evil spirit confronts Jesus.
In ancient times they didn’t have an understanding of psychology like we do, so while we don’t know exactly what they meant by an unclean spirit it’s most probable that it was some kind of mental illness. They just categorized all kinds of maladies as unclean spirits. The point is not what was troubling the man – the point is that this story shows us that when Jesus is confronted with something identified as evil the evil thing is utterly defeated and runs away. It’s really that simple. The more important part is what the spirit said!
Remember this is still just the first chapter of Mark and the original audiences would’ve heard it all as a unit and not broken down into little chunks like we’re doing and hearing over a number of weeks. They’d have got it all at once. Immediately!
So think about the impact on that audience.
Mark’s job is to convince them (and you) that Jesus is worth listening to.
He’s establishing Jesus’ authority. And he does it very cleverly. He has all sorts of characters tell you how special Jesus is.
The narrator at the start says “A voice in the wilderness says someone great is coming” – at Jesus’ baptism the voice of God says “You are my beloved son!” – and now the voice of an unclean spirit calls Jesus “the holy one of God”.
Notice it’s not mere humans saying these things – it’s a voice in the wilderness, the voice of God, and the voice of the spirit world.
Are you thunderstruck yet?
And the people in that synagogue – and presumably all of us in the listening/reading audience – begin this passage being astonished, as in shocked, dumbfounded, or being thunderstruck, and we end this passage being astonished in a different way (this time the word connotes being awestruck or wonderstruck). And Jesus’ authority is fully and firmly established in our hearts and minds.
Authority is an interesting thing. Basically it comes in two flavours – personal/internal authority and conferred/institutional authority.
When it’s just institutional and a leader lacks personal authority we tend to disrespect them. (I’ll leave it to your own imaginations to fill in modern day examples!)
And when authority is just personal we sometimes are leery about that person because as much as we may distrust institutions at times we distrust charismatic cults of personality more. Ideally a leader will have a measure of both personal and institutional authority.
Hopefully that describes me. The United Church ordained me and gave me authority over all sorts of things. I get to stand here because of that authority. Whether you give me an ear and take what the Spirit says through me to heart and wrestle with it kind of depends on whether you think I have some personal authority too.
But Jesus had absolutely no institutional authority. In fact, by the end of the story it’s the institutional authority that orchestrates his execution.
But if you read carefully he had something even better than a denominational stamp of approval. He had the approval of God!
He was given authority by all those voices that go beyond mere human institutions. What more convincing authority could there be than that given directly by God?!
It’s no wonder they were all thunderstruck! He doesn’t teach like the scribes. His teaching is new, fresh, wondrous, divinely inspired! And just like those disciples who immediately followed him these people who are taught by him immediately start to spread the news about this amazing new thing!
Ok, that’s a pretty classic interpretation of this text. Now let’s have some fun with it! Here’s a fanciful, alternative, wildly speculative rendering of the text!
One Sunday morning the newly called minister wandered into their church, went up to the front, and started to preach.
This preacher taught with great fresh insights. They offered decidedly different interpretations which felt revolutionary and the congregation marvelled at the audacity and passion and conviction of this preacher. They were gob-smacked. They were thunderstruck.
Then the cranky leader of the old guard of the church stood up and said, “What do you think you’re doing? Have you come to change everything? Who do you think you are? God?”
And the minister shot him a look and said, “Shush. That’ll be enough out of you!”
And the cranky man grumbled, and shouted, and complained oh so very loudly, and eventually left.
And the other church members were awestruck! And they said, “Wow! That was astonishing! That new way to look at things even shut up old whatshisname!”
And the gossip mill went into full force!
Now, that sounds like a lot of fun, and I guarantee you it’s the secret fantasy of many, many ministers! Not me of course!!!
But sadly it will likely remain a fantasy because of two key things.
The first is that even though that fictional minister came in with denominational authority it’s pretty unlikely that a congregation will easily give them the kind of authority they’d need to act that way.
Remember, the heavens parted and the voice of God came repeatedly to establish Jesus’ authority in Mark’s gospel.
That didn’t happen for me! I’ve managed to evoke a clap of thunder once during a sermon, but I suspect that was coincidence rather than some divine proclamation!
And the other reason is that nowadays we are not all that likely to allow ourselves to be thunderstruck. We’re generally too cynical, too cautious, too sceptical, demanding proof and data, and we’re just suspicious of overly passionate people because we think they’re selling something or trying to scam us. To be thunderstruck means to be shocked and wowed and dazzled and completely thrown off your guard – and that’s virtually impossible if your guard is way up and in full defense mode.
Have you ever experienced being spiritually thunderstruck?
Have there been occasions or kairos moments in your faith journey, your spiritual experience, your noticing of Presence that have left you astonished, amazed, awestruck, wonderstruck?
Have you ever had an epiphany as profound as the one those folks had in that synagogue that day way back when?
They certainly didn’t come expecting it. They just showed up for prayers like they usually did.
But something special happened.
God’s Presence was revealed in the most remarkable way they had ever experienced.
They came thirsty. They left thunderstruck!
That’s all great, but don’t stop there. We have to read the last verse.
We have to see what the result was.
Those church-goers didn’t just show up and have a heartwarming and mind-blowing spiritual encounter. That would be nice enough but then the experience just stays in the church.
Here’s the last verse – Mark 1:28
Immediately his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Immediately news about Jesus began to spread.
How did that happen?
Obviously, the people who had that profound spiritual experience, that epiphany, left their place of worship and went out and told people about it!
They didn’t wait for CNN to come in with a camera crew and broadcast this breaking news. They shared it themselves. Person to person.
“You’ll never guess what happened in worship today! It was amazing!”
And what was so amazing about it?
Expectations were shattered.
Assumptions were challenged.
The way you remembered it being was completely renewed.
The stereotype was obliterated.
The way we always did it was upended.
Did you notice that the content of Jesus’ teaching is not recorded here?
On the one hand we think it would’ve been pretty useful if we knew exactly what he said that was so authoritative and mind-blowing.
But on the other hand maybe it’s better that we don’t know.
Because if we knew then we’d go around trying to teach content to people when it’s crystal clear that everything in Mark so far has been about spiritual experience, about revealing God’s already here kingdom, about awakening to that kingdom and embracing it, and about how doing so will leave you thunderstruck!
Jesus doesn’t teach “stuff” he teaches “presence”.
The scribes teach the law, by the book.
Jesus wows your socks off by showing you that whatever you think is separating you from God – even the authoritative laws and teachings of the church – are ripped apart.
And in the face of such immediate spiritual offering the voice of the old guard who are invested in the machinations of institutional power rises up and complains bitterly. But they cannot stand in the face of such spiritual presence, and they are silenced.
And the people are thunderstruck.
And the people cannot help themselves but share the news of this renewed way to experience church and Spirit and God.
Are you so moved?
Are you thunderstruck, awestruck, wonderstruck?
Will you take that with you beyond this place?
Will you keep it to yourself?
With whom might you share this astounding, expectation shattering, assumption challenging, stereotype obliterating revelation of spiritual presence?
(But that’s scary, and we’ve never done it that way before.)