TEXTS: Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39
Well folks, we are still crawling our way through the first chapter of the gospel of Mark. This is now the fifth Sunday that the Common Lectionary draws the gospel reading from chapter one of the gospel of Mark, and that’s not counting the one week that they crossed over for a brief excursion into the gospel of John. And we still have two Sundays coming up where the gospel lesson is again taken from Mark 1! I have said over and over that Mark is terse and to the point. What I may have neglected to mention is that that Mark also crams his terseness to brim with information.
The author of one of the commentaries that I read this past week noted that today’s passage of just eleven verses has within it three distinct sections that, in and of themselves could each support a sermon and that the pastor could also preach on the overall meaning of all the entire passage as a unit. That’s four possible sermon topics from just eleven verses! I gave some thought to writing four sermons and doing a preaching marathon where you could listen to all four in one sitting as you might binge watch several episodes of Downton Abbey; but I decided that I really wanted to keep my job here for at least a few weeks more.
A part of my work toward a Sunday sermon has always been to look for a word or phrase that seems to jump out at me. I believe that this is in part the work of God’s Holy Spirit, guiding me in a certain direction. The point that caught my eye and the point that I would like to center upon today comes toward the very end of the passage when Jesus is confronted by Simon Peter and his companions and is told that “everyone” is searching for him. Jesus’ answer to Simon and the others is clear and succinct, “Let us go on to neighboring towns so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” “For that is what I came out to do.”
Now it seems to me that the thing that was drawing the crowds, the thing that had caused people to search Jesus out was his ability to perform miraculous acts. Jesus could cast out demons; Jesus could heal people of any number of maladies. Jesus did things that people believed the average person just couldn’t do. But it seems that these miracles were not what Jesus came out to do. What Jesus came out to do was to proclaim a message of hope and salvation to the people, to let them know that the kingdom of God was near to them and to call upon the people to take on attitude that reflected this “at hand-ness” of God’s Kingdom.
Mark reinforces this point throughout gospel by noting that Jesus usually went to the synagogue when he entered a town. He didn’t hold court beside city gates or in the marketplace or some other very public place, but rather went instead to the one place in each community where people gathered to hear God’s word, to be taught and to teach each other.
As have noted though, while the people found Jesus’ teaching amazing, while they commented that no one before had taught with such authority, that didn’t seem to be why the people flocked to him. What people really wanted from Jesus was action. They wanted healings and exorcisms and, as time went on, feedings of thousands and other deeds of power. This was very much in keeping with what the people of Judah, the children of Abraham wanted of their expected Messiah in general, whether that Messiah be Jesus or someone else. The people wanted a doer. They wanted someone who would take action, someone who might even be able to take political or social or even military action, someone who could rule, rule them and maybe even rule the whole world! And you know, sometimes I wonder whether things have really changed all that much over the centuries and millennia. We say to ourselves, “Forget all that namby-pamby, lovey-dovey stuff. I want to see things happen.”
Now I’m going to throw in a little aside here; something that came up as I was studying for this sermon that I have to admit I never realized before in thirty-five plus years of ministry. This little bit seemed so odd to me that actually fact-checked it. And I never fact-check the work of theologians and Biblical scholars! So much is made throughout all four gospels about Jesus casting out demons and ridding people of unclean spirits. We’ve had two references here in the first chapter of Mark alone and one of them uses the word “many”. Do you know that demon possession, the idea of unclean spirits living within a person is never mentioned in the Old Testament? And if that’s not weird enough, demon possession is only mentioned a couple of times outside Gospels in the New Testament. And those are rather oblique references rather than direct statements or stories. In other words, the presence of an unclean spirit, the presence of a demon within a person’s being or psyche is a Gospel occurrence and largely limited to the Gospels alone. Yet the business is so prevalent in our four gospels, with so many references and so many detailed stories of what we might call possession (the intrusion by something inhuman into a person) that we could be led to believe that at the time of Jesus everyone on the face of the earth had at least a cousin who was possessed! I’m not sure what to do with that bit of trivia, but I definitely find it incredibly odd.
Anyway, back to preaching the good news of God’s salvation verses performing miracles; speaking verses acting or doing and how it seems that people who Jesus came engage and maybe even people to this day seem prefer actions over words. I sometimes wonder how much traction the message of Jesus would have gotten if it were not accompanied by miraculous actions. I wonder whether Jesus would have been considered anything more than a darn good preacher and teacher by the people of Israel if there had been no miracles. I can tell you one thing. Mark’s terse gospel certainly would be a heck of a lot terser if it contained no miracles! Matthew and Luke would fair some better and would have done relatively well with their teachings and parables. The entire premise of the gospel of John would probably have been lost altogether though, as John is all about Jesus offering “signs” that proved him to be the Son of God. Would the church have taken root without the miracles of Jesus? Would we even be worshipping here today without the healings and exorcisms, without the walking on water and the feeding of thousands?
To this day entire churches and followings have sprung up around perceived miracles performed by those who claim to have within them the power of God in Christ, or by events that don’t even have a person as a focal point. Do you want to draw a crowd today? Do you want millions of hits on YouTube or re-tweets on twitter? Then claim that the face of Jesus appeared suddenly on a piece of cinnamon toast and add that someone was healed when they looked at the image. We all love a spectacle, don’t we? Elixir peddlers in pioneer times in this nation knew that they would be heard much more clearly if they could master a few bits of slight of hand, if they could put forth some kind of entertaining song and dance to draw the people in.
But we’re not talking about slight of hand here, we’re not talking about a song and dance routine. We’re not talking about the face of Jesus appearing in a slice of cinnamon toast. We are talking about the presence and power of God Almighty breaking forth into the reality of our lives and of the lives of others; into the lives of a people of God some 2,000 years ago. We’re talking about our God proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah as the one who sits above the circle of the earth and looks down upon earth’s inhabitants as insects; the God who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and who brings great rulers to naught.
No, the miracles of Jesus were not a sideshow, but a revelation; a revelation of the power of God that can and will break into this world in ways that we can’t begin to imagine. And as such, the miracles of Jesus were and are then the visualization of the words of Jesus. Jesus proclaimed that God’s Kingdom was at hand. Jesus then showed the people just how close “at hand” could be, and how wonderful and awesome that Kingdom could appear to us.
Let us then celebrate and proclaim boldly the gospel message, that good news brought to us by Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, for that is what Jesus came out to do and that is what we, as followers of Jesus Christ, should be doing as well. Let us recognize the points at which God’s Kingdom breaks forth into our world in our time and in this place. And let us embrace with joy the good news as it is made manifest in our own lives, and celebrate the fact that we have found in Christ Jesus a savior who promises life abundant and life eternal. Amen