Epiphany 4 B: First Things First

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I suspect there are days when you wonder if what you do makes much of a difference. Days when you worry about attendance, struggle to find a Sunday School teacher, look ahead to the prospect of an uninspiring committee meeting, or wonder if any of the kids in confirmation even want to be there. Days that drain the body, wear on the spirit, and cause you to question, not so much your vocation in general, but the usefulness of it in particular.

And then comes a passage like this one. A passage on an exorcism, of all things, using words like “rebuke” and “unclean spirit,” and you fear that if your people ever questioned whether the Bible has much relevance, after hearing this passage they’ll likely conclude it doesn’t. And then you wonder, once again, whether what you do makes any difference.

So please listen carefully. What you do matters…a lot. And what this passage has to say can still change lives.

To get at that, first recall with me for a moment that the evangelists are as much artists as they are historians, as interested – actually, more interested – in telling a good story than they are in getting the facts right. Which means that each and every time we read from their work we are invited to notice the details of their art in order to grasp the theological claim of their witness.

And the detail to notice here is simply that Mark begins his account of Jesus’ public ministry with a confrontation.

First events give insight into the larger themes and, particularly, a distinct understanding of Jesus’ mission and character in each of the Gospels. In Matthew, Jesus is a teacher and (new) lawgiver like Moses. In John, he creates unexpected and unimaginable abundance. In Luke, he is the one who releases those held captive, heals the ill and infirm, and proclaims good news to the poor and the Lord’s favor to all. And in Mark…he picks a fight with an unclean spirit.

Mark’s Gospel, that is, starts with a confrontation. Whatever dramatic value beginning with a fight scene might initially promise, however, there is little doubt of who will win this showdown. The spirit protests Jesus’ very presence, and Jesus casts him away with a command as authoritative as it is succinct. And because of Jesus’ bold teaching and power over this spirit of oppression, his fame spreads quickly.

Keeping in mind the importance of first events, we can read this scene as Mark’s signal that Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God desires for all of us. And that message matters because it is still the case: God wants the most for us from this life and stands in opposition to anything that robs us of the joy and community and purpose for which we were created.

We might run with that theme in two directions. Three years ago, I suggested that we might take this matter of “possession” more seriously and wonder what kinds of things possess us – anger, fear, workaholism, affluenza, substance abuse…. This isn’t to underplay some of the serious cultural and biological dimensions of these struggles or to suggest that with just the right prayer or healing touch they will all vanish. Rather, it is to promise that God does not want these things for us and that church, at its best, is a place where we gather in Christ’s name to support each other in escaping the hold these things have on us that we might grow as individuals and a community as people blessed to be a blessing.

A second possibility is to recognize that God – especially in Mark’s Gospel – regularly shows us where we least expect God to be. In authoritative teaching? Sure, but also in the plight of a man possessed by an unclean spirit. In the tearing open of the heavens we read about three weeks ago? Sounds pretty biblical, but also in the piercing cry of despair from Jesus on the cross when the only one that recognized God’s presence was the one who crucified him.

Our God is a God of the broken, and our church is a fellowship of the needy. That’s pretty much all it takes, as we’ll see during this year-long sojourn with Mark, to be a member of Jesus’ disciples then or now: recognition of your deep need and trust that Jesus has come to meet it.

And so we might invite folks this week to think of those places of brokenness or disappointment or fear in their lives and remind them that God does not stay away from them because of these challenges or shortcomings but rather draws nearest to us precisely in these moments. And then we might invite our folks to look outward at the brokenness we see in someone in our family or among our friends or at work or in the neighborhood and wonder if God might be choosing to work through us to draw that person to new life. God is still at work casting out the unclean spirits of the world, and God is using us to continue our Lord’s work.

Mark shares this story of confrontation and freedom first because it’s at the heart of the Gospel story he tells and Gospel story we are invited to live into and through.

Which is why your calling and proclamation matter so much, Dear Partner, because each and every week you get to open up these passages so that we hear in them God’s promise to be with us and for us always. And then you get to help us see through these passages how God continues to be at work in our lives and the world, sometimes even through us. Thank you for your good work, as this passage still has the capacity to set people free and God is using your words and witness to help do just that.

Yours in Christ,