what is this - part one

This coming Sunday we will read the gospel lessons set in the lectionary for three Sundays (Jan 22, 29 & Feb 5). Last Sunday we missed reading the gospel so that we could read all of Jonah. On February 5th I will be preaching from Isaiah 40:21-31 (such an awesome text). That leaves this Sunday to read all the way from Mark 1:14 to Mark 1:39. It will give us a chance to enter into the hectic pace of Jesus in Mark's gospel. We will hear Jesus preach his first sermon (a direct quote from John the Baptist now that John has been incarcerated for this same message); see Jesus begin to recruit/draft a movement of followers who will recruit/draft more followers; watch as he astounds the congregation on the synagogue with his powerful teaching that is accompanied by an extraordinary exorcism; then see as he heals and exorcises all manner of illness and demonic possession; seek him out with his disciples who find him away from the crowd in a deserted place in prayer; and then follow as he continues to travel throughout Galilee "proclaiming the message and casting out demons".

It is, in many ways, familiar turf for preacher and congregation. Jesus' call to "follow me" and his message that everything has changed because the kingdom of God is at hand is common ground for liberal and conservative Christian alike. This is the inaugural address of Jesus as Messiah/Christ/King of the long promised age of God's reign. It races along with hardly time to breathe. But, for all its familiarity, it is still foreign to us. How is it that the disciples hear Jesus' call to follow and "immediately" drop their nets, leave career and family? What is it about his teaching that is so different from other teachers and so astonishes the congregation in Capernaum? Apparently he is not simply repeating the commandment to love God with all your heart and mind and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself that they had all learned as children. There is something potently different about his message. And what are we to do with the reports of demons being exorcised and silenced while many diseases are cured? It is only after the congregation in Capernaum witnesses his conversation with - and victory over - a demon that it says together: "What is this? A new teaching - with authority!" Somehow his words and his power to overcome demons together make up his teaching. He practices what he preaches and preaches what he practices. The kingdom of God is heard in his words and seen in his power to liberate and make new. What does the connection of prayer in a deserted place have to do with all of this? Not to mention, how is a church like ours (that seems so shy about spreading the message lest it be portrayed as seeking conversions) to take Jesus' energy for taking the message on the road without apology?

Though I have preached many a sermon on this text over the years I find myself standing with the congregation in Capernaum and wondering aloud: "What is this?". It is a good place to begin the journey towards a sermon on Sunday. The Psalm that we will reading in worship (Psalm 111) concludes with the words: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding." Perhaps awe in the face of Jesus' power is the beginning of wisdom for a people who call themselves his followers and disciples. It is certainly the place that a sermon on this text needs to begin. Yet, to be honest, it is very tempting for me as a preacher to want to get to work teaching what I know about the text rather than to spend my energy hosting and announcing the strangeness and wonder and power of the text, of Jesus. I guess by posting this confession here I am inviting the congregation to help me avoid such a temptation! At this point what I know is that the sermon will have the title: "What is This?" and so, when I post it here on Sunday, that will make up part two of this entry.

In the meantime I was just reading the thoughts that Martin Cohen has on Psalm 111 in his translation and commentary on the Psalms entitled "Our Haven and Our Strength". He concludes his reflection on this verse by asking: "what does the poet's blithe tautology really signify? Is the human mind like an enormous sophisticated computer that, for all its theoretical power, still needs to be switched on, booted up, and made operative by an outside agent? And is the agent of wisdom, then, the deep respect in which God is held by the faithful? Can one be wise without God? The poet's answer is clear, but what will his reader's be?" (p. 363). This sounds like Martin alright! I wonder what your answer is?

Hey - just as I was posting this I noticed that my friend and colleague Janice Love has posted thoughts on this text on this week's Ekklesia Project lectionary blog. Thanks Janice!

(The icon of Jesus calling the disciples was found at the Daily Prayer Almanac)

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