240128 – Did Okay

Yr B ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Mark 1:21-28

Mark’s gospel tells the Jesus story at a breathless pace, and he leaves us befuddled and off-balance with the wild 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 what appears to be 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, and we’re still in chapter 1. Jesus will render us awestruck soon enough – but for now we’re being run over with a steam roller!

Let’s start by thinking 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 village 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. 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 an elbow, and took over. Travelling, itinerant preachers would be afforded the opportunity to speak at these gatherings, and so the Scribe would yield the pulpit (which was actually a chair).

So, Jesus steps up, sits down, and blows their minds. The people were amazed at his teaching – in Greek the word for ‘teaching’ is didache (did-okay, get it?!) Unlike the Scribe, Jesus’ didache was electric. He taught with authority. He taught with fresh insight and wisdom – more than they’d ever heard before.

Immediately (Mark’s favourite word), a man possessed by an evil spirit confronts Jesus.
In ancient times they 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. I think it’s really that simple. The more important part is what the spirit said!

Ok, that’s a wild experience for those people in the year 00-30 or so. Now think for a moment about the people hearing Mark’s telling of the story in the 00-70s. Think about the impact on that audience, hearing about Jesus’ remarkable new teaching while the echoes of the destruction of the Temple are still reverberating. Mark’s job is to convince them (and you) that Jesus is worth listening to. He’s establishing Jesus’ authority in a time when they weren’t sure where authority resided anymore, with no Temple. 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.

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.

And the people in that synagogue – and presumably all of us in the listening/reading audience – begin this passage being astonished, as in shocked, or dumbfounded, 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, moving us from wonderstruck to thunderstruck, by teaching a new idea, with authority.

What is that idea? It’s that God is present, and God’s kingdom is everywhere and always, and that spirituality is more first-hand, transformational, and personal than it is about rules, and laws, and moralism. Lots of modern Christians still haven’t figured out that teaching!

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.

The United Church ordained me and gave me authority over certain 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 at the beginning of Mark’s gospel we learn that 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, because he’s different. 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! He really did okay! (lol)

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 astonished!

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 stupefying 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 CBC 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’ didache 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 astounding.

But on the other hand maybe it’s better that we don’t know.
Because if we knew then we’d probably go around trying to teach ‘content’ to people when it’s crystal clear that everything in Mark so far has been about personal spiritual experience, about revealing God’s already-here kingdom, about awakening to that kingdom and embracing it, and about how doing so will transform your life!

Jesus doesn’t teach content; he teaches transformational spirituality. The Scribes teach the law, by the book. Jesus knocks 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 – maybe in the form of an unclean spirit. But they cannot stand in the face of such spiritual presence, and they are silenced.

And the people are wonderstruck and 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 and wonderstruck by Jesus and his didache? 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?

Jesus was just getting started and he was able to tap into that Spirit and share it. Christianity has supposedly been following his lead for around 2000 years now, and somehow great swaths of the Church missed the part where we were supposed to strive to replicate his life and ministry – to be epiphanizers for the kingdom of God – to embrace and share this new perspective, this new teaching, with authority. Yes, the idea that spirituality is more first-hand, transformational, and personal than it is about rules, and laws, and moralism is still a new idea for some folks, even some church folks. But not for us! We’ve had that epiphany already.

None of us can be Jesus – but we can be like Jesus. We can be his followers, his imitators, his disciples. And when we live into it, and love into it with our whole selves, and God’s love is shared, and God’s kingdom is revealed, I bet Jesus would think to himself, “You know what? They did okay with my didache!”