With Christmas and the birth of Jesus, the biblical narrative has moved into the New Testament – specifically, into the first gospel written – that of Mark. The gospel of Mark is unsigned and undated, but it is believed by most scholars to have been written during or shortly after the Roman-Judean War of 66-70 AD – a revolt lead by Israel against Roman domination that resulted in the cataclysmic defeat of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, the demolition of the temple.
Mark is the shortest of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and death, and, maybe because of the political setting, has a compelling sense of urgency.
We’ll read big chunks of Mark between now and Easter – today is likely the biggest.
So let’s get started. (on the web we’re skipping the very beginning)
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried 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.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’ 38He answered, ‘Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Every thought in this chapter is connected by the word ‘and’ giving a breathless, rushed quality to the reading. It’s worse than that in Greek. They didn’t have punctuation, and the words were all in capital letters, effectively turning what Henrik and I just read into one intense sentence.
I hope you can feel the power of this narrative, the language that draws us into the story, that is bursting to tell God’s good news. The gospels, after all, do not simply offer information about past events and people of long ago… of what God did once. They are not written to be historical. The gospels promise to transform our present lives; to shape our future as people of faith, to show up in your week-old New Years resolutions or your 5-year plan. Our lives are to respond to the gospel. Mark places us in the center of what God is doing still, now, today, in and through us and others.
The kinetic energy of the gospel propels us along. Hardly has the good news been announced by the narrator quoting Isaiah, when John the Baptist appears gathering crowds awed by his prophetic preaching and the double edge of warning and promise that accompanies the forgiveness of sins. And as we’re observing the person of John in his odd attire and perhaps mentally considering the crunch and nutritional value of grasshoppers, the promised one jumps into the scene and into the river and is baptized as the heavens are torn apart and a voice announces God’s divine favor. As quickly as he appeared, Jesus is gone again – driven out into the desert where Satan and wild animals and angels dwell. In the next breath, we hear that John has been imprisoned. Jesus gathers his first four disciples – fishermen who suddenly, immediately, abandon their former lives, their families and their nets and follow him. And immediately, Jesus leads them into a synagogue where the crowds marvel at his teaching and his authoritative word that can overcome demons. And thus begins the ministry of Jesus. Whew!
As evening settles on that Sabbath day it might be tempting for Jesus to sit back with a good meal, a glass of wine, to bask in the successful exorcism, to hear the accolades of his teaching – to be pleased, satisfied, that his reputation is quickly spreading throughout all of Galilee. The kingdom of God has come.
But in this story, there is no time for resting on laurels. Immediacy is its essence. The story bursts through the synagogue doors and pushes towards the rest of Galilee — out of Sunday and into the rest of the week, out of the distant past and into the rest of our lives, into the places that this good and fearsome news of Jesus will take us.
This opening chapter of Mark announces that the story, the presence, of Jesus is always on the move, and will not allow any of us as hearers (and bearers) of the Word to remain who or where we are. It’s unnerving – and, of course, it’s intentional.
So, where are you? What do you hear in this chapter that moves you, or stumps you? As information, you’ve heard it before – many times – so what makes it the gospel, the good news of God come among us, for you?
Answering that question might bring the Enlightenment to the fore. Once we get into the New Testament we can’t avoid a culture clash – more so than in the Hebrew Bible, I think. Greek philosophy found its way into the scriptures of the New Testament. Perhaps most significantly, in the separation of body and spirit, creating a dichotomy where God created a unity of being.
In our western culture, the Enlightenment expanded the boundaries to a dichotomy between reason and faith, science and mysticism. That makes hearing the gospels difficult for many. Biblical healings are searched for a modern scientific footing. Evil spirits are outside the realm of most of our experiences, so therefore are not seen as credible and our eyes skim over the top. Supernatural occurrences belong in fiction and video games and the movie theater, you might think – not in my faith.
As you can tell from this first chapter, the dichotomy (I think the false dichotomy) of mystery and truth will need to be part of our consideration as we make our way through Mark.
23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried 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.’
Oh dear. Demons and unclean spirits. Talking, sentient demons and unclean spirits no less. We’re moving out of the comfort zone, right? Globally, we do still inhabit a world of competing spirits or powers. Eastern Ancestor worship and many native belief traditions have no problem with this part of the gospel, but it can sure trip us up. For children of the Enlightenment, it’s a bit strange to encounter evil spirits with voices. We’ve seen too many movies of aliens and such, and the best we can do is attribute it to mental illness.
But think about it for a minute. Are you sure you’re free of demons and unclean spirits?
We are all caught up by something – compelled, encumbered, addicted, obsessed, bound by something – probably many things, and they have tremendous power over us. You might picture the spirits in Medieval form as little red devils with pointy tails and tiny spikey spears poised on your shoulder, or they can take the form of any of the tempters that plague us.
How about guilt for some harm we have done, some secret we hold, shame we carry over something that has been done to us? How about resentment or anger or jealousy you can’t shake. How about the many flavors of addiction? How about mental illness, or cancer? Do these not hold power over you? Would you not like them to come bursting out of you and roll around, powerless on the floor?
AA deals with demons and healing from unclean spirits in the most honest, up-front way I can think of. They readily acknowledge that we can’t manage our own lives and they turn to a higher power for help. Something big has got hold of us. Something will drive us, something will co-opt and override our good will… will it be the spirit of God or of something else? What’s gotten hold of you from which you need to be set free?
In Mark, the demons are palpably real, actively alarming, and Jesus casts them out and will not let them speak. But their presence in the opening verses is a sobering reminder that demonic powers do not go quietly and they, too, form a premonition of what is to come in this story.
Beginning with the healing of a few individual persons, the numbers in the story tumble with staggering effect that no attempt to explain or discount them can undo. We are to be awed. People bring “all” who are sick to Jesus; the “whole city” is at his door. He heals “many” who are sick with “all sorts” of diseases and casts out “many” demons. The success seems unstoppable and overbearing, suffocating. People come from every quarter of the land, pressing in on him. God’s life-giving, creation-speaking word is clearly evident in Jesus. The healer of our every ill has come among us. And the need for healing is real.
In the morning Jesus is up early and out again in the wilderness, in prayer. They will move on – “It is for this reason that I came” he said – to preach and teach in the cities that lie ahead. Jesus’ words name the purpose and mission that is already part of the story. They breathe the power of forgiveness and healing that God has in store for all the world, in all times and places.
In just this way, Mark invites us into faith. Stumbling ahead, pathway unseen, perils unknown, fear and hope in equal, mixed-up measure. What if we were to be persuaded by this good news? What if our lives, from this day forward, were to be shaped by confidence in the One who invites us into healing and forgiveness and hope? This story is not only about a Palestinian community 2000 years ago. It is a story that bursts beyond its time and place, beyond Sunday worship, coming into our lives with its power to see the good news of God in a new way, to be inspired with a new vision for and of ourselves, to be healed in unexpected and mysterious ways. The gospel of Jesus is not what you expect. It’s much more than that. Open your heart and mind to take it in, and be changed.