Astounding Jesus

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | January 31, 2021

Mark 1: 21-28

Once upon a time I went to a church service where a church minister was “inducted” into his new congregation. These events come with high hopes for what lies ahead. Part of the event is that a minister will give what’s called the “charge.” This is supposed to be words of wisdom and encouragement. 

In this case the minister who gave the charge spoke at length about sin. He said that we as a church need to “reclaim our guilt as sinners.” He said the minister in the new charge should learn how to write well-constructed prayers of confession. He went on and on about how we have lost touch with the gravity of sin. More needs to be said about sin.

I suspect my colleague was fretting over how life as we know it isn’t what it used to be – i.e. back in the good old days when the pews in church were filled with sinners. Back when people “knew the difference between right and wrong.” Thinking perhaps if we could just get back to the good old days when a sin was a sin, then the church might be full up again. 

I tend to disagree. On an individual level I tend to think that our struggle is not about our lack of appreciation for the gravity of sin; I tend to believe that our struggle is more about how we unburden ourselves from the weight of shame. Much of what we traditionally define as sin is in reality laying on an unnecessary burden of shame. 

Sin is described as “separation from God.” We do things that are cause and effect of this separation. In our tradition we provide an opportunity in worship to “confess” our sins. The first prayer in our worship service is supposed to be a “prayer of confession.” 

When I write a prayer of confession, underneath it is my belief that God is love. If we can somehow touch upon love – in our prayers – then we touch upon what God has to give – what Jesus termed the “Kingdom of God.” 

The realm of individually and collectively living in the reality of God’s love – God’s grace – God’s mercy – all the empowering and hopeful sides of our human nature.

I recognize the power of sin – there is evil in this world. The history of humankind is a litany of evil. Usually when we look for examples of evil, we are faced with the glaring example of the Nazis. 

In 1961 when Adolf Eichmann was put on trial for crimes against humanity, the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote about it in the New Yorker magazine. She was the one who coined the term, “the banality of evil.” 

The idea behind the banality of evil is that there are a few examples of atrocious behaviour, but for the most part, evil is banal – that is lacking in originality, boring even. The boring evil that resulted in the holocaust was made possible by thousands if not millions of actions that in and of themselves were fairly routine. 

When the war criminals were put on trial, most of them could say, “I never personally harmed anyone.” 

Most of them said, “You need to remember how it was. I only did what I thought was best for my country.” 

Most of them said, “I was only following orders.” 

That kind of systemic evil did start with the holocaust nor end with the holocaust. So, in our prayer of “confession” my aim is not to lay on a burden of guilt and shame over our all too human actions. My aim is to put us in touch with the sense of “God have mercy,” because any of us could think of some mundane thing we did and connect it to the systemic web of actions that create the sense of the banality of evil in our world. 

The story of Jesus as told according to the version known as the Gospel of Mark is one that is told with a sense of urgency. It was the earliest of the gospels and it leaves out any details about the birth of Jesus. The important thing was to get right to the heart of it – The kingdom of God is at hand. 

According to Mark, Jesus is on the move. He always seems to be going somewhere and he acts with boldness. It is said that when this story was told and written down that people expected Jesus to return sometime soon. The urgency of the story reflected this belief because there wasn’t a lot of time to get the word out before he would come back.

Jesus spoke with authority. That seems like a fairly obvious statement to us, but in his time and place for someone to speak from their own sense of authority was a new thing. In those days the voice of authority in the religious tradition was based upon layers of scholarship. If a teacher were to teach on some point of truth, authorities would be cited, sources quoted and all the threads from history and tradition drawn together to say, “Therefore, this is what it means.” 

What was astounding to people was not just that he would speak from his own sense of authority, but that he made sense with what he said. He told a clear and clean truth that wasn’t muddled up with a lot of musty old quotes from people long dead and longer forgotten. 

One day Jesus was in a synagogue teaching. Telling stories, engaging people in conversation and unpacking the meaning of life. There was a man in the synagogue of whom it was said had an “unclean spirit.” 

Modern interpretation has gone on to say that people are possessed by all manner of unclean spirits. We can be possessed by greed or lust and we can be addicted to substances or unhealthy habits. 

Or modern interpretation has said that is how they viewed what we now recognize as mental illness. The guy wasn’t possessed, he was ill. I think that does a disservice to people who deal with mental health issues. 

If we listen to what the man said we gather some clues to his malady – “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.” 

If the story had included a part where Jesus spoke to the unclean spirit and demanded to know its name, the answer could have been, “They call me The Way Things Are.” 

What business is it of yours, Jesus? Are you trying to ruin everything we’ve built up? Are you trying to undo our traditions? Don’t you know we’ve always done it this way and what you suggest will never work? Who do you think you are? 

The fellow was not wild-eyed and foaming-at-the-mouth. He was probably dressed in his best Sabbath outfit; he was probably a respected elder of the synagogue and a pillar of the community. He was all very reasonable and when Mr. Very Reasonable cries out, then people sit up and listen.

Have you come to destroy us? Things are fine just the way they are, Jesus. Why don’t you just stick to what you know – talk about sin and forgiveness. Tell us about the lilies of field and leave matters of business and commerce to those who are the authorities in those fields. Leave our traditions alone. 

And when you think about it Jesus, your talk of empowerment is dangerous. You talk about setting the prisoners free, but who do you think runs the prisons? If the blind recover their sight, what will they see? If the deaf will hear, to whom will they listen? If the lame will walk, how will we control them? There are a lot of jobs that depend on this! 

What did Jesus do in response to the man who called him out? 

He didn’t suggest, “Let’s take a survey and see what the congregation thinks.”

He didn’t say, “Let’s form listening teams and find out what the community needs.” 

He didn’t say, “Let’s you and me sit down and share some dialogue on this subject.” 

He said, for all intents and purposes, “Shut up and go away!” Or “Be Still,” the same word used when he calmed the raging storm. 

There are times when truth has to be told. The powers and dominions by which systems of business, commerce politics and religion operate wish to maintain their hold. If you go along, you’ll be fine. If you are unwilling to make certain accommodations, then you will get into trouble. 

One challenge of following Jesus is to bring the liberating power of the gospel to bear so that we can become the people God created us to be. I believe that when the church speaks in the voice of Jesus, people will be astounded and amazed. 

Perhaps a suitable prayer of confession would be: Astound us, Jesus. Come into our midst and speak the words that bring life and liberation from all our fears. Amaze us with your power. Cast out the demons that hold us in their possession, so that we might be truly yours; so that your realm might be real in and through us. Amen.

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