The Reverend Kathleen Killian, Celebrant
Epiphany 2B 2021, Jan. 31, 2021
In the typical breathless fashion of St. Mark’s gospel, in but twenty short verses—Jesus has been baptized in the Jordan, the Holy Spirit has descended upon him, he has been tested in the desert for forty days, he has announced the good news, that the kingdom of God is close at hand, and he has called his first four disciples—after which Jesus and his disciples go to Capernaum as our gospel text begins this morning.
The last thing Mark wants is for his listeners to be left behind. It’s as if Mark says: let’s get on with it, and keep up for kingdom’s sake, because this is a story about a person—a history-making, world-changing, soul-saving person—around whom extraordinary things happen. Are you paying attention?
Yet in another way our gospel story is not so unique. On this first day of Jesus’s public ministry, we find him with his new disciples and fellow townsfolk gathered together for common worship, much as we are here in church. The synagogue service would have been relatively simple with some prayers and reading from scripture, after which someone would preach. Most any Jewish male might be invited to do so. But on this particular Sabbath day, as soon as Jesus opens his mouth, the people immediately feel that something is different—not like when the experts in Jewish law, the scribes, preached—and unlike anything they had previously heard.
St. Mark doesn’t tell us what scripture was read or what Jesus taught that day, or exactly why the congregation was so taken by his teaching. But he does tell us another story about the exorcism of an unclean spirit, which to our ears probably sounds a bit strange and foreign. But at that time, exorcists, miracle-workers, and healers were common and commonly called upon to perform their wonders and cures. Neither of these events—that of an unclean spirit being exorcised by Jesus or Jesus teaching in the synagogue—were particularly unusual. And yet those gathered on that day were astounded and amazed by Jesus, as was the unclean spirit who also immediately recognizes Jesus’ authority and asks: 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.
St. Mark leaves us in no doubt of the answer: Jesus comes to liberate that which is enslaved by sin and evil. Whatever spirit of darkness has hold of us, whatever we are possessed and corrupted by must come to an end, even if the “exit of our demons” causes us to cry aloud in a visceral, convulsing response to the light, as it did the man with the unclean spirit.
The question—what do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth—is at the crux of our gospel this morning. It is an agitated if not honest question posed by the unclean spirit; a curious perhaps hopeful question that must have been on the hearts of those in the synagogue as they witnessed Jesus’s liberating power; a problematic and thorny question that plagued the Pharisees and Romans, threatened as they were by Jesus’s autonomous authority; a question we would do well to ask of ourselves.
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?
Though in a way different from that of the man with an unclean spirit, each individual person is also an “us”—we house a multitude within—we are a multitude of experiences, memories, thoughts and feelings—uplifted by spirits of hope, generosity, enthusiasm, and love, or tormented by spirits of fear, greed, jealousy, and acedia. We are the abandoned child, the betrayed lover, the betrayer, the sinner and saint, the suffering, the sleepwalker, the idolatrous, the beloved of God.
How do we answer the question: What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Nothing? Something? A little bit? Or is the answer not nothing, not something, not a little bit, but everything—you have everything to do with us Jesus; everything in us, everything we are, every little thing in my life, every thought, feeling, and activity—is there ever a moment when God is not present with us? Most specially, Jesus has everything to do with us and body and soul when he feeds us with himself in the blessed Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
The Holy One of God has everything to do with us. He our Lord is to us everything, writes Julian of Norwich in her book of mystical devotions, The Showings of Divine Love. As she prays, may we so also: God, of your goodness, give me yourself . . . in you alone I have everything.
As Julian, St. Paul, and so many of the saints tell us: Nothing can separate us from this everything of God and God’s love. This “nothing” and “everything” is the fear or awe of the Lord, which is, as our psalmist extols, the beginning of wisdom and understanding, that God has everything to do with grace and compassion, with justice, truth, and equity, with faithfulness, redemption, and sustenance. As the Deuteronomist attests, prophetic authority has everything to do with God and God’s word. As St. Paul affirms, God has everything to do with love, and it is love, not knowledge, that builds up and heals as love is the authority of true change.
Though “authority” is commonly associated with enforced power, oppression, and control, it comes from the Latin verb, augere, which means to increase and to make grow. The congregation was astounded at Jesus’s teaching, for he taught them as one having authority; as one whose authority enabled their increase in understanding; as one whose authority empowered their growth in goodness and God; as one having the authority of love to heal; as one whose authority was prophetic; as one having the authority to make the unclean clean and the broken whole. Great are the deeds of the Lord.
During this season after the Epiphany, as our days are gaining in light little by little, so too the light of the Incarnation is revealed to us by degrees. Our eyes are being slowly opened to the light of Christ—lest we are blinded by the sudden intensity of radiance as was St. Paul on the road to Damascus. This gradual revelation of the divinity of Jesus that culminates in the Transfiguration is contrasted with the urgency of St. Mark’s gospel—a kind of hurry up and wait to be amazed and astounded—and may it be so! But as the body of Christ, we are also being prepared for the forty-day journey through the desert of Lent, when the glory wanes bit by bit, until we are humbled with Jesus on the cross.
In his book, Meeting God in Mark, Rowan Williams echoes what St. Mark would have us seize upon at the onset of his gospel—that we are about to encounter a reality alarmingly beyond human expectation and human capacity—and that through this encounter we should be changed bit by bit into the sort of person who can actually understand what is asked from us and what has been made possible for us in the life and death and rising of Jesus Christ. Amen.