January 22, 2012
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
During these weeks of January, we have been working our way through the first chapter of the Book of Mark: the baptism of Jesus, the calling of the disciples, and today, Jesus teaching in the synagogue of Capernaum. There is a pace to the action in Mark chapter 1 that may be unique in all the gospels. John the Baptist. Baptism of Jesus. Wilderness temptation. Call of the disciples. Teaching. Healing. Boom. Boom. Boom. I’ve sort of always thought of it as a table of contents, or maybe a preview full of snapshots,, an overture to the musical that includes strains of all the melodies that are about to be sung. But I have to tell you, after lingering here in the beginning of Mark for a few weeks, I’m reading it a bit differently: sensing some themes in what might otherwise have been disconnected scenes flashing on the screensaver of Mark chapter 1.
So, for those who weren’t here last week, allow me to backtrack just a bit. In last week’s sermon I did quite a bit of work on the word “immediately”. Those first disciples immediately left their nets and followed. Here’s a portion of what I said: “I’m just not convinced that immediate discipleship is about a span of time… I think the “immediatelys” that describe the call of the disciples must imply something more than right away, and at once, and at that very moment. In order for the “immediatelys” to be relevant, meaningful to our discipleship, there’s got to be something more qualitative about that moment, not just quantitative as in how quickly they jumped… Immediately. It has to be more than just a reference to a split second, more than the gospel writer’s verbal tick. If its going to mean anything to us, it must be more. Follow Jesus with the passion and freshness of a first love. ….Live out your faith with a persistence and a determination to press on and push through with something other than a care-less, mind-less, and heart-less commitment to the task that is a Christ-centered life…..Start each day with a keen awareness, an existential awakening to the power and joy of living for Christ, and for him alone. Immediately.”
I pointed out that among gospel writers, Mark leads the way when it comes to the use of the Greek word “immediately”. Upon further review this week, if Mark leads the way, then the first chapter is what puts him over the top. There are so many “immediatelys” in the first chapter that in the text I’m about to read to you, the translators actually ignore a few of them. At least two of them that I could count. Two more immediately in the text. As I offer this text for your hearing, I’m going to preserve the term as it appears in the Greek, so you can take it all in, immediately.
A man with an unclean spirit crying out to Jesus, “what have you to do with us?” A man with what the bible calls “an unclean spirit” calling out to Jesus by name, “Jesus of Nazareth?” A man described in the ancient world as having an unclean spirit shatters the ritual cleanliness of the synagogue, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” A firm exhortation comes from Jesus: “Be silent and come out of him!” With a loud voice and convulsions, the unclean spirit left him. And the observers were all amazed. The observers were amazed. The readers are drawn in. The mystics take note. The prayer warriors put on their armor. The filmmakers salivate. The scientists explain. The skeptics turn their head. The clinicians shake their heads. The overly pious point and say “see”. The post-moderns toss up their hands and wonder what we are do with that. The mysterious, ancient, completely foreign, pre-everything, strange old world of the bible description of a man being healed by Jesus of an unclean spirit….But, is it any stranger, any more foreign to us, a the fisherman dropping everything to go and follow, a fisherman’s immediate discipleship?
In Capernaum, on the Sabbath, Jesus went into the synagogue immediately and taught. They were astounded at his teaching and his authority. He didn’t teach like the scribes. This wasn’t primarily a working with texts, or transcribing, or nose in the book, kind of teaching moment. This striking authority, it wasn’t about teaching technique, or rhetorical ability, or even a particular powerful presence. What would have been new or different about that? But it was the authority issue that struck those Sabbath day synagogue gatherers that day in Capernaum. Twice the “authority” comes up, according to Mark. He taught as one having authority and after that healing they kept asking one another about this new teaching, this authority. But when it comes to “authority”, Mark the gospel writer, gives us nothing. No explanation. No other comparison other than that of the scribes. No unpacking at all. All Mark records, is that “immediately” there was an unclean man in THEIR synagogue.
This authoritative teaching moment is interrupted by that unclean man. No Sermon on the Mount here. No parable here. No interchange with a lawyer here. No riff on the Greatest Commandment here. No quoting from the prophets or the psalmist here. No reference to the kingdom of God has come, or the first being last, or the Son of Man suffering, dying, and rising on the third day here. This inaugural synagogue block scheduling of material from Jesus the Teacher is interrupted by the very definition of humanity’s brokenness, suffering, and ritual uncleanliness. Interrupted by THAT man in THEIR synagogue. Disgusting. And for goodness sake, that man was there “immediately!”
Of course, you know that according to Mark, there was no interrupting about it. The teaching moment WAS the unclean man. That’s why Mark gives no help on the authority of Jesus here. All Mark does is point to that man and his healing. The authority isn’t technique or classroom presence or even messianic persona. For Mark, the authority is in a life transformed, brokenness made whole, sins forgiven, suffering alleviated. The new teaching, this one with authority? It is in the presence of the Beloved Son of God and the power of the gospel to transform lives, immediately. It is in the presence of the Holy One of God and the power of the gospel to cut straight through the pomp of our own religiosity and illumine the darkest places of our lives. It is, in the words of the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and the power of his gospel to bring about the kingdom smack in the face of the world’s powers and all that works against the ways of God, and even, the darkest power of death itself. And to do it all, immediately.
Last summer when I was in the Holy Land, we stayed just down the road from Capernaum. Capernaum as it exists now is a couple of churches and some archeological sites. The spot includes the archeological remains of a few synagogues from different periods in history. It also boasts of having the remains of a fisherman’s house; of Peter’s house. A church has been built over the top of the archeological dig. It looks like a flying saucer hovering over the ancient remains. The center of the church has a glass floor so you can kneel at the altar and look down at Peter’s house. You can walk out and sit in the remains of that ancient synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus came to teach there in the region of Galilee.
The day we were there, it was brutally hot. Several tour buses brought a couple loads of people who were milling around. Our group read some texts about Jesus teaching in the synagogue and Peter and the rest of the disciples. Here was Peter’s house! During our free time I took my pocket New Testament and found a place to sit all by myself; a time to reflect, to pray, to take it all in. I was sure I would have a moment. A spiritual moment. And there in Capernaum, I experienced nothing. It was interesting. Like a museum is interesting. Don’t get me wrong, there were other places, other times on that trip where I was moved deep within my spirit. But then. Not there. It was as far removed from my faith and my encounter with Jesus as you could imagine. I found it irrelevant to my life, my faith. That’s the difference between an historic biblical site and the living Word of God. Relevance. Meaning.
All these “immediatelys” that Mark has woven into the beginning of his gospel with a needle and thread, I think they serve to connect this theme of urgency here; not an urgency as in “right away” but urgency as in “right now”, urgent as in relevant. “In order for the “immediatelys" to be relevant, meaningful to our discipleship, there’s got to be something more qualitative about that moment, not just quantitative in how quickly it all happened. The “immediatelys” serve not as verbal fence posts of timelessness, but rather, signals of “every time and place.” It’s like Mark sounding a bass note that is a plea for relevance. Immediately. Umph. Immediately. Umph. Immediately. Umph…that those gospel moments of Christ Jesus might have an urgent relevance in the life of the reader. Jesus teaching with a new authority there in the synagogue….urgent transformation. Immediate discipleship. Urgent transformation… a life transformed, brokenness made whole, sins forgiven, suffering alleviated.
In his provocative book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty and Thirty Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion, Princeton University sociologist Robert Wuthnow argues that part of the reason the mainline protestant church is seeing such a drop in the next generation of church goers is the delay in starting careers, getting married, starting families, and settling down. Wuthnow asks about the future of congregations like this one when whole generations of potential clientele are less attracted to the programming and practice that has been the bread and butter of the church: Sunday School for kids, weddings, baptisms. He ends the book with plea for us to figure it out; “We cannot hope to be a strong society if we invest resources in young people until they are 18 or 20 and then turn them out to find their way entirely on their own.” Wuthnow’s plea is for the church to adapt and to innovate and to reform…to figure out for the sake of the next generation, for the sake of the culture, for the sake of the church’s own future. Wuthnow’s plea is for the church to be relevant.
Every pastor I know is working on the sociologists challenge. Every congregation has to confront the truth telling of the sociologists’ data. But there’s a prior question, however that the sociologists don’t ask, can’t ask. There’s a prior question with which to wrestle; every preacher, every congregation, every parent, every observer who throws up the hand and asks “where are all the young people”, everyone who frets about the future relevance of mainline protestant church. Do you believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ can transform lives, heal brokenness, forgive sins, alleviate suffering, take on the powers and principalities, shatter the darkness and conquer death..immediately? Do you believe in the reality of the urgent transformation that comes with the gospel? The question of the relevance of the church is nothing compared to the question of the relevance of the gospel?
I’ve served to congregations now; one for 14 years, this one now 12 years running. I could tell you story after story of my professional and theological integrity being pushed to the limit in an attempt to serve those occasions that are intended to make the church relevant. And not doubt, I will continue to do that. I fully understand the role of the town parson in service to the religious duties and needs of the community. It may seem odd for my job security to tell you that the institutional relevance of the enterprise known as the mainline protestant church is far less important to me the teaching of Jesus; the teaching that comes with such authority, the new teaching that comes so immediately.
But I stand here before you, and it is important for you to know, that I believe in the deepest part of my being that the gospel of Jesus Christ still transforms lives, and will take on the darkest powers of this world, and will offer healing to all that is broken in your life and mine, that there is an urgent and immediate relevance to the gospel.
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