More than words
A new preacher walked into town. Perhaps some people knew him from his childhood days in Nazareth, a little hamlet in the nearby mountains, but he’d been a wanderer of late, spending time further out in the wilderness.
He was a relative of the popular John the Baptist, whose arrest for speaking out against the adultery of Herod Antipas, the Jewish puppet king who had become more Roman than the Romans, was still the talk of the town. And some of John’s disciples were here in the small band of followers that had gathered around him.
Perhaps the people of Capernaum had heard something of the message he had been proclaiming, as he wandered through the region of Galilee. His proclamation, that the Kingdom of God had come near, and his call to repentance, had an appeal to a nation oppressed and occupied, a nation awaiting God’s chosen king, but a nation with a history of falling short of God’s ways.
He seemed to know his scriptures, the Hebrew Bible that we call the Old Testament. And so it was that on the Sabbath he was invited to speak in the Synagogue – a visiting speaker was a welcome opportunity for the Rabbi to take the day off (some things never change).
And there was something about his preaching that astounded those who heard him. Perhaps he had a level of conviction that was unusual, or a gift for a turn of phrase, or whether it was the content of his message that grabbed the attention. What is for certain is that he spoke with authority of his own. There was an accepted way for teachers to speak in the synagogue; they would quote famous scholars – Rabbi Tobin explained this passage thus, but Rabbi Kahn said thus – present different interpretations, offer a range of thoughts, and, perhaps, add their own contribution to the understanding of scripture.
It’s easy to mock this sort of thing – to imagine rabbis as ivory tower academics, far removed from the world, arguing about words. But we ought perhaps to see their approach as one of humility – no teacher, no rabbi, no scribe, was supposed to claim to know with certainty the way or will of God. Indeed, the penalties for claiming to be a prophet, claiming to speak for God, and being found wanting, were severe, even death.
So when Jesus spoke ‘with authority’ – with his own authority, as if he were speaking from first-hand knowledge, it’s no wonder people were astounded. Whatever they thought of his message of the Kingdom of God, his implicit claim to personally know the ways of God, of that Kingdom, made him a figure of interest.
But perhaps no more than that. Perhaps he was just the flavour of the moment; in a society before Facebook and TikTok, before Netflix, radio, newspapers, magazines, even books, a charismatic and potentially controversial travelling preacher was, if nothing else, a form of entertainment, a welcome distraction from the demands of daily life, something to spice up the Sabbath. A few people would follow this latest guru, at least while the excitement lasted, but most of his listeners went home little more than entertained, perhaps inspired to live a little better, perhaps encouraged to hope that God had not forgotten them, but in the end, this preacher looked like he would provide no more than a new topic of dinner table conversation.
There had been other preachers and prophets before Jesus. There would be others after him.
But then something happened to change that. At Capernaum, in the synagogue, on the Sabbath, a wild man, a man afflicted by evil so completely that he no longer had control over himself, confronted Jesus. Everyone, no doubt, listened to hear what Jesus would say, how he would respond as the man named Jesus the ‘Holy one of God’. What would he say? Would he accept the title? Would he have the man removed? Would he somehow turn this interruption into an opportunity to teach more?
But this man who had come as a teacher, this man who had gained attention through what he said, in a society that valued debate, oratory, preaching, spoke just two words: “Silence! Out!”.
And the man is set free.
Now let me just pause here for a moment to think about this language of a man “possessed by an unclean spirit”.
It’s a difficult image for those of us in this post-enlightenment, rationalistic and naturalistic age to work with – we’re not, generally speaking, comfortable with the idea of demons. Many hours have been spent arguing about exactly what an “unclean spirit” is – a personified force of evil, a mental illness, the expression of some complex subconscious state – or some strange combination of all of the above.
But it seems to me that that discussion is a good way of missing the point of the story. We know that the author of Mark’s gospel lived in an age in which spirits, good, evil, and ambiguous, were a standard part of the worldview, so the author simply uses the language and images of his day to explain events. This story isn’t here to teach us about demons; it’s here (like everything else that the gospel writer sets down) to tell us about Jesus.
The point of the narrative is not “hey, you need to believe (or not believe) in demons” but “this thing, this evil, this oppression, which distorts the image of God in a man God created and loves; this whatever-it-is is the very opposite of the Kingdom of God that Jesus has come to proclaim, and so the presence of Jesus precipitates a crisis: that which would oppose the gospel that declares the Kingdom is at hand cannot stand in the face of Jesus.”
So in this moment something critical about Jesus’ message has changed. He has been teaching them about the Kingdom of God – about the Kingdom which is ‘at hand’, close enough to touch, the kingdom in which God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, in which people are delivered from evil, saved in time of trial, forgiven, and reconciled, provided with all their physical, spiritual, and emotional needs – the kingdom in which things are made right again.
Now this kingdom that he spoke of is not just a thing of words. Its reality has been shown; evil has been cast out, a life delivered, a man restored. No longer just another teacher, another master of words, Jesus has shown that his claim to knowledge of the things of God has the power to change lives.
That the Kingdom of God makes a difference in the lives of those that it touches. That it actually sets people free.
And “at once his fame began to spread”.
Fast forward 2000 years.
We in the Church are really good at words. We have people trained to teach and to preach, to lead us in liturgy, to guide us in our acts of worship.
And we tell others what we think as well. We often try to speak with authority, as a voice representing the spiritual side of life, a voice representing God in the world. And perhaps once upon a time we were listened to as such. But today, when the Church speaks, people yawn, turn off the TV, turn the page, click through to the next story, perhaps leaving some scornful barb in the comments section.
We speak too of matters spiritual – we at least try to share the good news, the gospel of forgiveness and justice and love and reconciliation and eternal life. But it seems as if we might as well just be talking to ourselves.
In an age in which every survey shows our society is no less spiritual than ever, an age in which people seem willing to look everywhere and anywhere for ‘truth’, the sad truth is that we, in the Church, are not seen as a worth asking. We are not seen as a resource of spirituality. No one seems to think we have anything worth listening to.
And honestly – why should they?
It wasn’t Jesus’ message that started his fame spreading. Sure, it got people’s attention; his preaching style and content were something a bit out of the ordinary. But it was only when he started to change the lives of people around him that his fame spread, and his following grew – only then that people started to take his talk of the things of God seriously.
If we aren’t changing the lives of those around us – or even our own – changes which are visibly for the better, no one will listen to us, and in all honesty, why should they? Why would anyone come to our Churches on Sunday if all we have to offer is well thought out words? They can get that anywhere. If all we have to offer is worship of a God they don’t know if they believe in, of what interest is that? Even the sacraments of baptism or communion, of such value to us, are meaningless, ridiculous words to those who have not seen lives changed by the power of God, changed by the people of God.
We are the Body of Christ in this place – we bear the responsibility to continue the work of Jesus – to preserve and proclaim his teachings, the good news of the Kingdom of God – and at the same time, to continue his work of bringing the Kingdom of God to reality. As Mark’s gospel continues, we will see more and more what that kingdom work looks like. But let us resolve that as we do so, we will set our hearts and minds, led and empowered by the Spirit of God, to being the citizens of the kingdom, the people who make the good news more than just words for those around us.
For when lives are being changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we will be able to echo Nathanael’s words: “come and see for yourself”