Sunday, February 01, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Epiphany

Mark 1
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

Imagine for a moment that your globetrotting friends are heading home once more and they ask you to pick them up at the airport. You head to Pearson and arrive at the appropriate terminal only to discover that their flight is delayed. What do you do?

For just this circumstance, I have developed a little game called Find the Spy at the Airport. Seems logical, right? It’s an international airport, and a major hub for people coming and going to Canada, so surely there will be a spy at the airport.

First off, don’t look for the most obvious ones. The guy in a tuxedo sipping a martini (shaken, not stirred) at the closest lounge is not the spy. The toddler in a trench coat, even though she looks suspicious, is not the spy. Anyone you see talking into a small electronic device—which is almost everyone—is not the spy.

You have to look more closely, and analyze a little more. Look for high-end watches that may double as any number of clever devices. Listen for posh English accents. Or see who moves when you page Natasha Fatale or Boris Badenav. This works every time.

And you don’t even need to go to the airport to try to see who’s undercover, you just need to read your Bible. Remember Pharaoh’s daughter, who finds a baby in the Nile and surreptitiously gives Moses back to his mother before adopting the lad and bringing him to Pharaoh’s court. Brilliant spy craft. Or that brilliant spymaster Rebekah, who coaches her son on how to steal Esau’s birthright, sets the plan in motion, cooks a savory meal, and even puts fake hair on her son’s arm and neck.

And then there is the undercover Jesus, revealed in Mark 1 and struggling to keep his true identity under wraps. Consider: Jesus is pretending to be just a wise teacher, speaking in the synagogue, amazing people with his insights, when the inevitable happens: the demons try to unmask him.

First he tells them to ‘keep quiet!’ In verse 34 of the same chapter it says “he wouldn’t permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” In Mark 7, he heals the man who cannot hear and cannot speak and then immediately tells the man not to speak about this miracle (34). In Mark 8, Peter and the other not-so-clever disciples finally figure out that Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus immediately says ‘about time’ and ‘tell no one.’ (30)

So why try to stay under cover? What is to be gained by insisting that disciples and friends tell no one? It seems rather counter-intuitive, when Jesus is trying to introduce God to the people once more, to seek to conceal who he is and what he can do. Something else is clearly going on, since everyone knows that secrets are hard to keep, and compelling secrets—like Christ appearing—are impossible to keep.

The first theory is that they are simply not ready. Looking back two weeks, remember poor Nathanael and the news that Jesus could read his heart? He just wasn’t ready, and so some plausible alternative reason was given, and the story continued to unfold. And this happened, no doubt, because you simply cannot reveal God’s arrival all at once—it has to be revealed gradually. Lest we run away.

Imagine for a moment that you are at a dinner party, and you meet someone lovely, and then the host takes you aside and says ‘Betty, who you just met, she will be your wife, and she will give you seven lovely children, and she will introduce you to macrame, and it will become your life’s passion, and one day, during the Superbowl, you will choke on a baby gherkin and she will save your life.’ What are you most likely to do with this information? Seek out Betty, or get your coat and run out the door? And suddenly you hear yourself say, ‘sorry, which bedroom has the coats?’

Here, at the very beginning of the Gospel, Jesus seems very careful to share information on a need-to-know basis. And this may be because every new bit of scary or threatening information is another reason people will fall away. And while we know the twelve were mostly constant, we also know that the rest of his followers waxed and waned, based—I expect—on the personal cost of following Jesus. So that is the first theory.

The second theory is based on how the story is told, and how we as believers enter the story. So the second theory is a literary theory, one based on becoming an insider early on. In this theory, Jesus may well have told people again and again ‘tell no one,’ but the real audience for this message was not the disciples or the people he healed, but the reader.

You see, if you let the reader in on a little secret, you create a conspiracy. When you create a conspiracy, you make the reader a confederate, and a participant in the unfolding of the story. And when you become an participant in the unfolding of a story, your investment in the story goes up.

So Mark adds a line like this: The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. (22) You the reader, already aware of Jesus and his identity, now say to yourself, ‘of course he taught with authority, he’s the Son of God.’ Right there in chapter one, Mark is already creating a bond between himself and the reader, letting the reader feel superior in the knowledge that they know Jesus when the others are just figuring this out.

And if you think Mark likes this literary device, you should re-read John’s Gospel, because he’s the master. Again and again John is flattering the reader, and like Mark he does it from the beginning: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” (11, 12)

So that’s the second theory why Jesus was trying to stay undercover, but what about the third (and final) theory? Well, this one’s a little less comfortable, a little less neat-and-tidy, a little less user friendly. The third theory is related to the first, but more rooted in human nature and our inability to accept God in our midst. Let me explain.

At every turn, the demons understand who Jesus is. Here are just three examples, all found in Mark. Listen as the demons make their profession of faith:

From this morning’s reading: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!" (1.24b)

Or the time he was healing from a boat, the crowds on land too great: Whenever the evil[a] spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God." (3.11)

Or the man with so many demons, that they began to call themselves Legion: “[The man] shouted at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5.7)

Time and time again the demons profess to know Jesus and understand his unique relationship to God, to understand the power he possesses and the ways he can transform lives. But the people do not see.

Now, you could argue that the demons had more to lose, that the threat to their existence was complete, that they possessed an other-worldly sight that the rest of the people did not, or you could conclude that the people didn’t really want to see in the first place.

For you see, it’s one thing to follow an itinerant preacher, gather up a few of his insights—maybe try to live a little differently—but it’s another thing altogether to be confronted by God. It’s easy to say ‘this guy has some solid thoughts, and some day we’ll quote him when we want to teach ethics,’ but it’s another thing altogether to meet God face-to-face.

For you see, when you meet God face-to-face, or ‘the visible image of an invisible God’ (Col 1.15) in the person of Jesus, then you need to bow down, or maybe fall down and worship. You need to drop everything and follow him. You need to extend to him the belief that in God all things are possible. Some wanted (and want) to reduce Jesus to a kind of spiritual fortune cookie, dispensing good advice or clever insights, when the demons know exactly who he is, and can’t help but proclaim it: “Holy One of God, Son of God, Son of the Most High God.” If the demons can see, surely we can see too.

May we find awe once more, and may we profess like-the-devil, as we meet God face-to-face once more. Amen.


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