A guest post by Chris Green
A sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 40:21–31; Psalm 147; 1 Corinthians 9:16–23; Mark 1:29–39
The Jesus of the Gospels is not the Jesus we’ve imagined. We’ve learned to picture him as nice and wholesome; approachable, never aloof; a marvellous wonder-worker and a simple – and, most importantly, politically-neutral – teacher of simple truths. But, in fact, the Jesus of the Gospels is a difficult, demanding figure, a troubled and troubling presence.
In Mark’s Gospel, especially, Jesus is mystifyingly odd and volatile; tense as a chord waiting to be struck. As Mark tells it, Jesus is usually met with one or another of three responses: the crowds are enthralled; the priests and Pharisees are upset (mostly by his influence over the crowds); and the disciples are devoted. But all these responses are rooted in profound confusion and misapprehension. The disciples are conflicted (impressed, like the crowds, but even more disturbed than the religious leaders). And Mark apparently believes that this conflictedness is precisely what Jesus intended for them – and for us – all along.
Mark’s was likely the first of the four Gospels to have been written (between thirty and forty years after Jesus was executed). It opens without a lengthy preface or genealogy. Instead, readers are given a terse, politically-charged title – ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ – , then presented with a montage of events from the first days of his ministry: Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by the wildly eccentric prophet, John, and driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he outwits and outlasts Satan. After John is arrested, he launches his ministry, coming to Galilee – not Jerusalem, not Jericho, Galilee – to declare his message: history has at last come full term, and the reign of God (another politically-charged term) is crowning, ready to be born. From that point, Jesus calls a band of disciples, beginning with four fishermen: Simon and Andrew, James and John. (Hilariously, when he calls, they immediately abandon their work – and their fellow-workers!) And in his first act, in Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus teaches in the synagogue and saves a man from an unclean spirit. The crowds are amazed. And Jesus’ fame begins to spread.
Today’s reading picks up with Jesus having left the synagogue and the adoring crowds, and following his disciples to Simon’s house. There, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law immediately, without prayer or ceremony. The news of his exploits again spreads quickly. By sunset, the house is thronged: ‘the whole city was gathered around the door’. Deep into the night, Jesus works to heal the sick and deliver the oppressed. In the morning, he escapes into the desert to pray. His disciples hunt him down, urging him to return with them: ‘Everyone is searching for you’. He ignores them. They have to leave Capernaum, he says, because his message must be shared with the neighbouring villages, as well.
Mark is an exceptional storyteller, a master of suggestive detail. Earlier in this opening chapter, he tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in a single thrilling sentence: ‘He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him’. The reference to the wilderness and the forty days draws up from the deeps of our memories the stories of Moses and Elijah. The detail about the wild beasts suggests Jesus is the Last Adam, the one who comes to heal the sick creation, ‘to make the blessing flow as far as the curse is found’. The reference to the ministering angels summons the story of Jacob’s vision of the ladder, revealing that Christ is the hidden site of God’s sudden inbreaking in the dark.
Given Mark’s skill, we should be careful not ignore the details in today’s passage, even the smallest ones. We’re told the people brought to Jesus everyone in the village who was ill or oppressed at sundown. This is a reference not to the end of the day, but to its beginning. Remember the liturgical refrain in the creation story: ‘the evening and the morning were the first day’. This reference also recalls the story of the Exodus: Israel goes out from Egypt at sundown, the beginning of the new day. We’re told that after Jesus healed many of them (but perhaps not all?), he left in the early morning, ‘while it was still very dark’, to pray in a ‘deserted place’. We’re told that his disciples had to hunt for him. All of these details anticipate the end of the Gospel, and the end of Jesus’s life. On the cross, he becomes the deserted place, dying alone under the thickest darkness, crying out after a Father he can no longer find. ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me’. Perhaps the most important detail in today’s passage, however, is his silencing of the evil spirits: ‘he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him’. Jesus, Mark wants us to know, is guarding a secret.
Again and again in the Gospel, Jesus forbids his disciples and the crowds, including those he has healed, from speaking about who he is and what he has done. But he is bizarrely inconsistent. For whatever reason, he sometimes does allow or even require the demons or those he has healed to speak. At the beginning of chapter 5, for example, he delivers the man who had been known as Legion – perhaps a former solider, a Roman legionnaire, now haunted by the horrors of war. Jesus allows the platoon of demons to speak, and even demands that they name themselves. Then, he commands the healed man to return home and to share his story with his friends. But at the end of the same chapter, on the opposite shore, Jesus returns to his usual pattern. He raises a synagogue ruler’s daughter from the dead, and then strictly forbids the few who have witnessed it from speaking about it to anyone. What is Jesus doing? Is there a method in his madness?
If we read uncarefully, it may seem Jesus did this because he wanted to keep ‘outsiders’ from knowing his identity and mission. But closer reading shows this cannot be his intention. Mark’s Gospel is split into two parts. The hinge is Peter’s confession (in chapter 8). In that exchange, after asking what the crowds are saying, Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ And Peter, the only one of the disciples to risk a response, answers, ‘You are the Messiah!’ In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus praises Peter for this answer. But in Mark, Jesus offers no praise. He simply orders Peter and the others not to breath a word to anyone. From this point, however, Jesus begins to speak openly about his mission, Mark tell us. And as soon as he does, Peter rebukes him, and takes him aside to correct him. So, Mark confronts us with a hard truth: those who know Jesus best are the first to deny him, to interfere with his mission. Insiders, not outsiders, are the ones who need to be saved – precisely because they think they understand the secret that has been shared with them, because they think that the secret is theirs to use.
The controversies about the various endings of Mark’s Gospel tell the same story. Originally, the Gospel almost certainly ended at 16:8: ‘So the women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’. But (unsurprisingly) the first readers were frightened by this ending, so scrupulous scribes added verses to bring the Gospel to a lighter, less disturbing end. Before we rush to judgment, however, we have to ask ourselves if we aren’t sometimes tempted to do the same. To tidy up what God has left messy. To touch up God’s unfinished work.
The Gospel won’t let us forget: God works in the dark. But we are afraid of the dark. And perhaps also afraid of God. So, we are desperate for light – even artificial light – if only it will clear away the shadows.
Rowan Williams argues that the Gospel of Mark was written ‘to reinforce a faith in the God who does not step down from heaven to solve problems but who is already in the heart of the world, holding the suffering and the pain in himself and transforming it by the sheer indestructible energy of his mercy’. And that, Williams believes, is why what Jesus says and does in the Gospel is so shocking and bewildering. Jesus works miracles, for sure. But he does so in ways that make clear miracles are decidedly beside the point. Jesus teaches. But he does so mostly so his hearers – especially his disciples – will not understand. Why? If we trust him, and if we trust Mark, we must assume there is no other way for us to learn the truths we need to learn.
Williams get this exactly right, I believe:
Jesus in Mark’s Gospel appears as someone wrestling with the difficulty of communicating to the disciples things that there are no proper words for – communicating that they have to think again about how God works, and to prepare themselves for greater and greater shocks in understanding this. I’m tempted to think that perhaps one reason why Mark’s Gospel has in it very little teaching of the sort we find in Matthew or Luke is that Mark not only wants to draw our attention away from miracles, he even wants to draw our attention away from conventional teaching. He wants to tell a story and present situations that bring us up short. He doesn’t want us to go away discussing the interesting ideas that Jesus has or the poignant stories he tells. He wants you to focus on the person of Jesus and on the relation you might have with him, knowing that only so does the radical change come about … So it makes some sense that this is a Gospel full of secrets, silences and even misunderstandings, a Gospel which on every page carries a very strongly worded health warning to the reader: Don’t think you’ve got it yet!
Perhaps this is where some of us have gone wrong? We’ve imagined that knowing Jesus is an easy affair. We’ve imagined that the truth is simple, and that the truer something is, the simpler it is. We’ve imagined that God’s work is always obvious. And we’ve imagined that we know the secrets of our own hearts, and that we can therefore always be trusted with the truth. But we need God to save us from what we’ve imagined. We need to be saved not so much from darkness, but from our fear of it, and our use of false lights.
The other readings today teach the same truth: Isaiah, in a familiar passage, declares ‘The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless’. But the prophet immediately insists ‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength’. God’s power is unlimited and his strength inexhaustible. And precisely for that reason, God does not do everything at once. And what he does do, he always only does in ways true to our creatureliness, never violating the integrity of our freedom, or our responsibility. We might be tempted to think that because God is all-powerful, we should not have to wait for his will to be done. But if Jesus’ life reveals anything it’s that God’s power is not at all the power we would’ve imagined for a God. It is not violent, but generative, working precisely in our waiting, in our powerlessness. As the Apostle Paul comes to learn late in his life, God’s strength is made perfect in our weaknesses.
The Psalm for the day, Psalm 147, celebrates God’s infinite power and perfect wisdom, but concludes with a song to God’s slow work: ‘He covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth; He makes grass to grow upon the mountains and green plants to serve mankind. He provides food for flocks and herds and for the young ravens when they cry’. Once again, then, we are reminded that God’s power is revealed not so much in the miraculous and extraordinary, but in the natural, the unremarkable. Grace, as a rule, comes not in dramatic interventions from above, but secretly, from deep within the dark recesses of our hearts. God creates in us an ‘inner creative fire’ that slowly lights up our lives from the inside, spreading out from us to our neighbours – without us intending it, or even being aware that it is happening. This is why, in today’s Epistle, Paul insists that ministry requires becoming ‘weak with the weak’ (rather than trying to make them strong). He is ‘free with respect to all’, freed with God’s own freedom. And for that very reason he can care for anyone in any way they need. His reward, he says, is not to have to make use of his ‘rights’.
This is good news, even if it does not seem like it at first. Jesus, Mark insists, is difficult. But his difficulty is good for us, essential to us becoming ourselves in time. God does not force this difficulty on us in order to humiliate us. Never that. Instead, God intends to free us from the fear of humiliation, which controls so much of what we do and fail to do. In Orwell’s famous short-story, a white police officer kills a Burmese elephant, even though he knows he should not do it. He kills it precisely because he cannot imagine who he is if he is not playing the part of the ‘strong white man’ before the crowds of so-called ‘natives’. He has a moment of almost-clarity, realizing that if he decided not to kill the elephant, ‘the crowd would laugh at me’. He admits to himself that his whole life in Burma, like the life of any colonizer, has been ‘one long struggle not to be laughed at’. And he realizes, or almost realizes, that he has been wearing a mask and that his face has grown to fit it. Jesus, Mark assures us, wants to strip our masks away so our faces can find their true shape.
Mark’s Gospel ends with the disciples paralyzed in fear. The women flee the empty tomb terrified and speechless. But we do not need to be afraid. Bonhoeffer taught his students that the aim of ministry is to make it possible for others to pray. And today’s reading shows us Jesus at prayer. Notice, he does not pray for the strength to work the miracles. He prays after that work is done. And he prays in secret, in a desolate place. And notice: we do not know what he prays about. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, we rarely do know what Jesus says to his Father. We are told many times that he prayed (always in solitude). But only at the end are we told anything about what he says in prayer. In the Garden, he prays for a change to come, a change he fears is impossible: ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’. On the cross, he prays a prayer of dereliction, raising his anguish to God: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Astonishingly, it is the Roman centurion who sees the way Jesus dies, hears his screams and death-rattle, who realizes at last what no one in the Gospel has fully realized: ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ Paradoxically, then, it is in the throes of prayer – in sorrow, fear, agony, and uncertainty – that Jesus finally becomes recognizable to others. Questioning God, Jesus is shown so unquestionably to be God.
This is the kind of prayer to which we’re called in Christ. In Mark, Jesus never teaches his disciples the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer. But in his last teaching before his arrest, Jesus warns them that the end is coming, and he directs them to ‘pray it does not come in winter’. In this strange suggestion, Jesus teaches his disciples how to know what to pray. Some things cannot be changed: God is coming; the truth will out. But there are things that can be changed, things we should want to see changed and should try to change. But only in prayer, only in praying not to Jesus but with him, can we learn the difference.
So, if we learn to turn toward God in our fear rather than away from him, settling into the darkness with Christ rather than trying to light it up artificially, we find ourselves sharing his mission. In that silence, in that secret, we begin to know that which passes knowledge, to understand truths too deep for words. Asking God to change what can be changed, we begin to see ever so dimly the difference between God and everything else, between the one who is unchangeable and everything that is changing and needs to be changed. And in that way, we learn – slowly but surely, in a series of shocks – that Jesus is not who we’ve imagined him to be. He’s better. Infinitely, immeasurably better. Good in ways we never could’ve dreamed. We learn not to be afraid of the dark.