What is this? That is the question that confronts anyone who opens the New Testament at the Gospel of Mark and begins to read. What is this? For one thing the text comes at you like rapid gun-fire speech. Mark is like a boxer whose sentences are a left and then a right, first a jab followed by an uppercut and then a hard body blow. His Greek is the language of the streets. Rough around the edges. Not the refined cadences of the academy. It is “and this” followed by “and that”. It seems that every second sentence includes the word “immediately”. Mark writes as if he is out of breath with excitement at the news he has to share. Which, of course, he is. It is Mark who invents the genre of the “gospel”. This is not a biography of the life of Jesus nor is it a historical account of Jesus’ ministry. It is, says Mark, “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). The word for good news in Greek is “evangelium” from which we get “evangelical”. It is such new news that in English we invented a new word for it: “godspell”. Yes “gospel”. Mark comes rushing in the door, out of breath, with extraordinary good news that he can not wait to share. Imagine a church that sounds like Mark in our day and age - a church full of energy that cannot wait to share the message. Imagine a church so full of urgency that others wonder aloud: “What is this?”
John the Baptist’s preaching has led to his arrest and imprisonment. Exit John, stage left. Enter Jesus, stage right “proclaiming the good news of God” (Mk. 1:14). Yes, Jesus preaches the evangelium of God. Jesus is, can it be, evangelical. Which is to say that he brings good news. And notice where he brings the news. He brings it to Galilee of all places. We are so accustomed to this setting that we may not glimpse just how extraordinary this is. The announcement of God’s good news is not brought to Rome, to the emperor and senators and intelligentsia. Nor is God’s godspell carried to Jerusalem, to the Temple, to the priests and powers that be. No. The most important of all announcements is made in backwater, backwoods Galilee to illiterate, uneducated, impoverished commoners. And what is the content of the message? What is the good news exactly? Jesus preaches a one sentence sermon that he has learned from John. In fact it is precisely the sermon that lead to John’s imprisonment. Remember it? “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:15).
Wow. The time that we have longed for, the time when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done, the time when we knock on heaven’s door and it is opened - this time has arrived. Time, itself, has been fulfilled. The long waiting is over. Time has ripened. God’s promised future is so near that you can reach out and touch it. The kingdom of God is “at hand”. This is the most extraordinary news. God is not distant or far off. God is here and now. We have come to imagine the world as “profane” - literally, “outside of the temple”. But then Mark comes rushing in the door to tell us the incredible news that in Jesus even Galilee is not outside of God’s temple in time. And if Galilee is not outside God’s realm then, well, is there any region, any person beyond the reach of God’s kingdom? No. No time or place or person is beyond the outreaching kingdom of God. But who will tell them? How will they know? Mark is breathless in spreading the news.
It is life changing news - “Repent, and believe” (Mk. 1:15). God’s new future is here. Receive it. Open yourself to it. Turn around. Change your perspective. See what you have been blind to. That is what it means to repent. It means to be transformed, to be turned around, to be converted, changed. I know. We have been well schooled in shying away from the language of conversion. We have been taught that we shouldn’t dare to suggest that lives need changing. I suppose that is because we have lingering memories or fears that arms will be twisted and damage will be inflicted all in the name of the good news. Of course, if it really is wonderful news then it will never need to be inflicted on anyone. If conversion is simply another word for manipulation or domination then it is bad news, indeed. But imagine that you have received the news from your doctor that you have an incurable illness. For some us here it is not a difficult thing to imagine. Imagine that on the other side of this bad news you find yourself called to preach the good news of God. And imagine that you hear Jesus saying to you: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Imagine that all of a sudden the word “repent” has lost its negative connotations of shame and guilt. Imagine that now, for the first time, it is a word of hope. Now it is an invitation to enter into the time you have left before you as the fulfilment of your life. Now repentance is the moment to leave behind despair and anxiety and fear so that you can step into a world of hope and faith and love. It is a world in which God is close, not far. And all it takes is trust, trust in the good news that Jesus announces and that Mark cannot wait to share.
Don’t ask me how that trust happens. How does one come to believe that God is close, that life is sacred rather than profane? I don’t know. I just know that it does happen. People do come to trust that the good news of God’s kingdom come near is the gospel truth. And they entrust their lives to this news. And every time that they - that you - trust the good news it is a miraculous sign of the kingdom come near. How else can one explain the response of those first disciples by the sea? Jesus passes by and says to Simon and Andrew. James and John: “Follow me and I will make you fish for men and women” (Mk 1:17). That is the extent of his recruitment call. It is an invitation or is it an order? He doesn’t stop to chat. He is on the move. He is spreading the good news and he is calling a people to join him in announcing that the everything has changed. The four fishermen simply drop their nets and follow him “immediately” (Mk 1:18 & 20). What is this? Surely they take longer to decide. Surely there is conversation, discussion, a study group. But, no, the text says that he calls and they drop their nets and follow. Immediately. When Jesus shows up and you hear the message as if for the first time and you realize that you have been desperate for such good news, well, you’ve been waiting so long to hear it that you don’t hesitate. You drop everything. You follow. You want to stay close to the good news. You don’t want to lose touch now that you’ve finally been touched by the presence that has, until now, been only absence.
Following him closely you find yourself with the crowds who hear his teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath. He is an “astounding” teacher (Mk. 1:22). He doesn’t teach like the scribes, the text keepers. In other words Jesus doesn’t preach like a regular preacher. He teaches with authority. He speaks with power. He makes you want to say ‘yes’. When Jesus preaches your soul resonates, tears well up from deep within and you find yourself saying a loud ‘Amen’ much to your own chagrin. Jesus tells the truth about your situation, about your need and then he tells the truth about God’s power to heal your broken soul. That is why the unclean spirit cries out “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mk. 1:24). Jesus enters the fray. It is a real battle. There are more than a few unclean spirits at work in us, in our age. These demonic spirits feed on fears and grow in power (Mk 1:32). They hold sway over us more often than we care to admit. They keep us from reaching out to neighbour and stranger. There is a kind of “unclean spirituality” that is regularly masked as “common sense” or as “just the way things are”. It is not the spirit that gives life to our souls. It is a spirit that enslaves us and keeps us focussed inwards. Then along comes Jesus with the news that this unclean spirit does not have to hold sway over us any longer, that it is powerless in the face of God’s kingdom that is at hand. And, somehow, all it takes is the mystery of believing this to be true for the unclean spirit to leave.
Mark reports that when this takes place “They were all amazed and they kept asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching - with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mk. 1:27). Jesus causes amazement. He leaves us wondering “What is this?”. Too often the church reduces Jesus to something less than amazing. Too often we preachers act as if we have Jesus figured out. We are in the job of explaining Jesus and his teachings. And not only we preachers. Often lay people in the church say that they aren’t so sure about Paul and his theology nor are they really able to comprehend the resurrection. But, they say, “I prefer to follow the teachings of Jesus”. They say it in a rather matter of fact way. It is as if they imagine that the teachings of Jesus are relatively straight forward: love God, love your neighbour as yourself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, etc, etc. But, of course, the congregation gathered on the sabbath day in Capernaum to hear Jesus teach and preach already knows the great commandments and the golden rule. This isn’t news to them. No. There is something new in Jesus, something amazing, something beyond comprehension. He arrives with the news that the kingdom of God is here, now, within easy reach for those who will turn and live in this new reality. And he is convincing. The unclean spirits leave. The evidence is powerful. It is “a new teaching - with authority”.
“What is this?” A church worthy of the name Christian is always asking of Jesus: “What is this?” I sometimes wonder what the cumulative effect of years of listening to my preaching might be on a congregation. What might seventeen years of sermons here boil down to if you had to say what it is that I’ve been announcing Sunday by Sunday. There was a time when I thought that I had five or six basic sermons. But eventually I realized that I really only have one sermon. I am like a jazz player improvising week after week on the same melody. And I would like to think that the sermon I have been preaching for a good while now can be summarize in this three word question: “What is this?” What is this that we meet in Jesus Christ? What is this new teaching that has such power to make new? What is this gospel that turns everything around and carries us from our Good Friday endings through the long Holy Saturdays of our lives to the impossible possibility of Easter Sunday newness here, now? What is this? It is the good news of Jesus Christ. Good news in Galilee, then. Good news here, now.