Saturday, January 28, 2012

Choose Life

29 January 2012/Epiphany 4B – Mark 1: 21-28 – The Reverend Kirk A. Kubicek
Live Well With Others
One is immediately impressed with the economy and compactness of Mark. Like the short stories of Raymond Carver or Ernest Hemmingway, the narrative moves quickly and efficiently with short declarative sentences from one episode to the next. Very much like the region of Galilee itself – “The Sea” is really more of a small lake from which one can see the other side quite easily without instruments of magnification. And one can easily walk from the shoreline where we saw Jesus calling pairs of fishermen to follow him into the city of Capernaum in matter of minutes. Across the way one can see ancient healing springs – spas – where people flocked from all over the ancient world to find “healing.”

As you enter Capernaum today a sign on a chain-link fence announces, “Capernaum – The City of Jesus.” As I entered the gates I thought to myself, “That sounds rather hokey and touristy.” Yet, one does not have to spend much time in the excavated city of Capernaum to know deep inside that yes, Jesus walked these streets, taught in these synagogues, spent time in Peter’s Mother-in-law’s house, and spent much of his time there exorcising demons of all kinds.

This how Mark pitches the story: Jesus is presented as teacher and exorcist. We do not spend a lot of time these days thinking and speaking about Jesus the exorcist. Exorcism has largely been relegated to the world of Hollywood movie lots rather than core Christian reflection and discipleship. But this is the Jesus of Mark from beginning to end - Mark who is credited with originating the “gospel” genre of Biblical literature.

Unquestionably Mark borrows the word “gospel” from Second Isaiah, the source of hope and encouragement for Israel in Exile in Babylon: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!” (Is 52:7) Now applied to Jesus of Nazareth, Mark opens with the words, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Jesus is the very embodiment of this good news, which once upon a time meant freedom from captivity in Babylon, but by the time of Jesus was understood as captivity specifically to demonic control – whether in the form of demons of all kinds, or the demonic occupation by Rome. Mark asserts in no uncertain language that all first century citizens of Israel would understand, that a new reign of God was at hand to usurp and replace the enslaving regime of Satan and the demonic in general; that good news will be the work of an agent of God anointed (messiah) with the Spirit for the task; and that this liberation will entail repentance from Sin and reconciliation with God. Mark manages to say all this in chapter 1 verse 1 for those who are familiar with the Old Testament narrative and language.

Now we post-enlightenment, post-modern readers and hearers of the Word might tend to snicker at the very mention of Satan and demons, but we do so at our own peril. In our Baptism we renounce Satan, the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and all sinful desires that separate us from the Love of God – which of course is anything that separates us from one another. It is fundamental to admit that we not only believe in Satan and demons, but that whenever we snicker at such belief we are in fact doing the work of Satan!

Now what is breathtaking about Mark is that although we hear that people are astonished with Jesus’ teaching, there is no explication of what he taught. But in portraying the exorcism of the demon from the man who entered the synagogue with an unclean spirit, Mark announces once and for all who is in charge. As the gospel unfolds, Jesus is engaged in a battle for authority and control that dogs him to the very end. Hostility, betrayal and misunderstanding follow him wherever he goes, whatever he teaches, whatever he does.

Brendan Byrne suggests that both his authoritative teachings and the exorcisms that follow are “exercises of liberation: lives can be controlled by false images of God, by being anchored in hopes and fears belonging to an age that is passing. Jesus’ teaching is ‘new’ with the ‘newness of the Kingdom’ that will bring into being for the first time the Creator’s original intent for human beings and the world.” Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p 45.

This newness, by the way, is contrasted with the teaching of the religious experts, whose method of teaching relies principally on disputatious interpretation of scripture. Surely the man with the unclean spirit had heard much of this kind of teaching and remained unmoved until Jesus announces that the “time has come” for the reign or rule of God to begin.

Even the demons know the jig is up, their time of control is coming to an end. “What is there between us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” The demons make a last ditch effort to control Jesus by naming him. It does not work. The demons are dispatched; the man is free to go in Peace “according to your Word.” Notice is served in the synagogue of Capernaum where scribal teaching has failed to chip away at the rule of Satan that a new rule, a new era has dawned. The demon’s convulsing the man betrays the demons destructive intent – the loud cry both an acknowledgement of defeat and a protest that the regime of the demonic in human life, and the life of the community of God, is coming to an end. We shall hear a loud cry once again and see that destructiveness in a far more extreme degree as Jesus dies on the cross. We are those people who know, however, that the moment of apparent triumph of the demonic on the cross will be the moment of its defeat and the exorcism of the world.

So what we have before us is a text that offers a choice very much like the one Moses proclaims way back in Deuteronomy chapter 30, verses 15-20: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life that your descendants may live.”

Christians are called to be those people who understand all of this. As Paul writes, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something [like the scribes for instance] does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by Him.” 1 Corinthians 8: 1b-3

Joan Chittister in her exposition of the Rule of Benedict writes, “God is calling us to more than the material level of life and God is waiting to bring us to it. All we have to do is live well with others and live totally in God. All we have to do is learn to listen to the voice of God in life. And we have to do it heart, soul and body. The spiritual life demands all of us.” Joan Chittister, OSB, The Rule of Benedict, p 31

In this remarkable octave of our Annual Meeting, Meeting with the Bishop, to today’s lessons, the choice is still ours to make- we can choose life, choose to live well with others, choose to live totally in God. Or, not. We can remain anchored in the hopes and fears of the passing age, or anchored in the newness of the age to come, the age of Christ. The future of those who come after us depends on the choices we make. Amen.

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