24 February 2015

Sermon – “The Agony of Separation from God” (Mark 14:32-42)

This is a sermon I preached forty years ago, on 23 February 1975, when I was the assistant priest at the Church of St James the Apostle in Montreal. 
“By thine agony and bloody sweat  … good Lord, deliver us.” Such is the way in which the Prayer Book recalls for us the suffering which Jesus underwent in the Garden of Gethsemane as he anticipated his crucifixion. That Jesus’ mind was filled with fear that night there is no doubt. It is a hard thing for anyone to face death; and the usual Roman method of execution by means of the cross was crueler and more painful than most. The thought of execution must have been made harder for Jesus to bear by his knowledge of the fact that he had committed no crime: his death was to be the result of jealousy, treachery and deceit on the part of the religious and political authorities and even on the part of one of his own associates. A death like that, cruel and unjustified, would be a torture for anyone to face. Yet we are left with the impression that Jesus’ sorrow “even to death”, his agonized pleas to God the Father, and his sweat, which Luke describes as “like great drops of blood falling upon the ground” were caused, not by the anticipation of death, but by something which to Jesus was more terrifying than even death itself.
What was it that Jesus feared so greatly? Our answer to this question is found in his prayer to the Father, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” It was a cup which Jesus begged to have removed from him—and that cup was the cup, not of suffering and death, but of separation from the presence and favor of God. For one whose entire life had been lived in the most intimate communion with God, to be separated from God was a separation far worse than any of the separations which death necessitates. We fear death because it takes us away from the comforts of life, from the people and places and things we know and love. Jesus feared his death on the cross because there he was to take upon himself the alienation from God which all had known except him.
During his ministry, Jesus had spoken of his oneness with the Father, and the first chapter of John’s gospel describes him as “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father”. Such was the intimacy of the relationship which existed between Jesus and the Father. It was an intimacy which Jesus expressed in his temptation in the wilderness, when he said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” For Jesus, unity and communion with the Father truly were more important than food and health, far more important even than life itself. “My food,” he said to his disciples, “is to do the will of him who sent me.” That is the picture we have of Jesus—of a man whose entire life was sustained by his relationship with God, who depended totally on God for everything that he was and did. We can see, then, how the severing of that relationship could appear to Jesus as a terrible, frightening prospect—to be cut off from the one who literally was his life.
This was the cup which Jesus was to drink, the cup which he asked his Father to be removed from him—the cup of total separation from God, the Holy One, brought on by our sinful nature—by the sinfulness of mankind.
How do we feel when we’re separated from God? I think that there are many of us, myself included, who often prefer to be in that state. God can be a bit of a nuisance when he speaks to our conscience; when he tells us to love people we’d rather have nothing to do with; when he makes us give what we want to keep for ourselves; when he tells us not to impose what we regard as our “rights” on other people. At times like that God gets in the way, and we’d rather have nothing to do with him. Yet, ultimately, that’s not the way we’re supposed to be. “What is the chief end of man?” asks the Shorter Catechism. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Without God there can be no meaning in life, no joy, no peace, no hope in any final sense. Most of us never discover the truth of this fact because we spend so little time thinking about life—either because we can’t or because we’re afraid to (I’m not sure which).
“In every man,” wrote the French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, “there is a God-shaped vacuum.” Jesus was aware—intensely conscious—of the extent of that vacuum. It takes up the whole of life, for life can make real sense only as we allow God to enter and share it with us, and fill it with the rich colours of his pallet.
The prayer of agony in the garden, the cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” are the expressions of a man who knew, with the totality of his being, that life without God is not life at all. Jesus took that punishment upon himself, not because he deserved it, not because he had been out-manoeuvred by the stealth of his opponents, but because he chose to. Time and time again he had told his disciples about the suffering which awaited him in Jerusalem—not because it was unavoidable, but because he had come specifically “to give his life a ransom for many”.
As he hung on the cross, Jesus freely took upon himself not only a physical death he did not deserve, but also the alienation from God caused by sin—not his own sin, but the sins of the world, our sin. Jesus took upon himself what we justly deserve. St Paul, reflecting on this a generation later, was able to write, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God.” St Peter locked on it this way: “Christ … died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” What we know of Jesus’ own teachings and what we hear from his first followers all points to the conclusion that the death which he anticipated at the Garden of Gethsemane was no mere martyr’s death, but rather one in which he would take upon himself all that in human experience alienates and separates us from God—what we call sin—so that we might enjoy the communion which he had with the Father.
It was God’s will that Jesus should die, but also that we should live—live in fellowship and harmony with God. Jesus’ agony as he faced his cross comes now as a challenge to us to accept what he has done, to be reconciled to God, by faith to come to Christ and to let him by his power draw us into communion with the Father.
We pray, “By thine agony and bloody sweat … good Lord, deliver us.” And we ask that by what he has suffered for us, Jesus might deliver us from the sin which separates and alienates us from God and establish us forever in his life and love and power.

15 February 2015

Sermon – “Bathed in Glory” (Mark 9:2-9)

From the slopes of Mount Hermon you can look across and see all of Galilee, fifty miles away. Rising to an altitude of 9,100 feet above sea level, and crowned with snow the year round, locals speak of it as “the gray-haired mountain” or “the mountain of snow”. Throughout the year its temperatures hover in an alpine range. From its snowy peak the land slopes downwards in a rapid descent. Melt waters rush down its rugged slopes and the broken surface of its intervening valleys. They feed into springs at its southwestern foot that form the source of the River Jordan. Along the way they give nourishment to fertile plant life—lush vineyards, and pine, oak and poplar trees.[1]

This is the setting of this morning’s Gospel reading. Once again Jesus has taken his disciples with him to one of those lonely places where he was in the habit of devoting extended periods of time to teach them and to be with his heavenly Father. This time, however, it was to be no ordinary teaching.

So extraordinary were the events that took place on that mountainside, so utterly outside the realm of normal human experience, that many people since—Christians among them—have had difficulty accepting that it really happened. Some have theorized that what we have here is really a resurrection appearance of Jesus that has somehow been transposed into an earlier place in the gospel accounts. Others have suggested that what this passage relates is not an actual event, but a vision that was given to the three disciples. Still others have gone so far as to argue that there was never any such occurrence at all, that this was a story invented by the early church in attempt to visualize the glory and deity of Christ.

It seems to me (and to much better scholars than myself) that in the end none of these theories can really hold water. Morna Hooker, for example, who is the former Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, has written,

Although the story causes problems for the modern reader, it is unlikely that Mark was aware of them. In his God-filled universe, a heavenly confirmation of Jesus’ identity would have seemed no more out of place than the acknowledgement of his identity by the unclean spirits. The true nature of Jesus is a hidden mystery which breaks out from time to time, and for Mark these revelations do not require explanations.[2]

As we think about the transfiguration this morning, then, I believe that we have every reason to accept it as a literal event, and here are a couple of reasons why. For one thing, Mark is careful to place the transfiguration at a specific point in time, six days following Peter’s famous declaration of Jesus as the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi. Added to that, the inclusion of Peter’s almost comical response to what he witnessed gives further evidence of the genuineness of what we are being told. Altogether, it seems likely that, as they stood in Jesus’ presence that day, the three disciples were at one of those points where the barrier between heaven and earth becomes thin and eternal realities are glimpsed, even if only for an instant, for what they are.

The glory on the mountain

So let us take a few moments to look once again at what took place on the mountainside that day. Jesus has gone off with three of his disciples, Peter and the two brothers James and John—the ones often referred to as Jesus’ inner circle. There, high above the Galilean hills, they found themselves entirely alone. Notice how Mark emphasizes the point: he “led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves”. It is Luke who informs us that Jesus was praying. All the while, I can imagine the three disciples either taking in the magnificent view or perhaps foraging for food (a few berries, maybe) after the arduous climb.

When they looked at Jesus again, what they saw must have taken their breath away. Jesus had utterly changed. The verb in Greek is metamorphoo. You can recognize it in our word “metamorphosis”—when a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog. The transformation that the disciples saw in Jesus, on the other hand, was on an incomparably different level. It penetrated even his clothes to the point where they positively dazzled. (Here I love the quaintness of the King James Version: “such as no fuller on earth can white them”.) With Jesus were two other figures, whom the disciples were able to recognize as Moses and Elijah—perhaps representative of the Law and the Prophets.

Mark tells us that that the two were in conversation with Jesus—and I guess Peter was eager to get in on the discussion as well. “Rabbi,” he blurted out, “it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter’s words seem almost ludicrous, but I believe they expressed the genuine desire to prolong this unique experience. I think of the words of the old nineteenth-century hymn,

Father of Jesus, love’s reward!

what rapture it will be

prostrate before thy throne to lie,

and gaze and gaze on thee!

But that was not to happen. Hardly had the words gone out of Peter’s mouth than they were all overshadowed by a cloud. Here we can only think of the cloud of God’s shekinah glory, the cloud that hung over Mount Sinai as Moses received the Ten Commandments, the cloud that accompanied the people of Israel through the wilderness, the cloud that filled the Temple at its dedication under Solomon. And then from the cloud, more terrifying still, a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

It seems to me that there is a lesson in those words, a lesson that at times I find difficult to learn. It is that while I know God delights for us to come into his presence and to offer our prayers, how much more important it is that we learn to listen. I am convinced that some of the most valuable time that we can spend in prayer are those moments of silence, when we allow God’s word to sink deep into our minds and hearts, when, instead of speaking to God we give time for God to speak to us. I sometimes wonder if this isn’t part of the reason why it took forty days after Jesus’ ascension for the Holy Spirit to fall upon the disciples. They needed to run out of things to say and simply be silent before the Lord!

Whatever the case, no sooner had the words been spoken than all was silent and the disciples were alone with Jesus once more.

The glory of the cross

What are we to think about all of this? Tom Wright maintains that we cannot come to terms with what happened on this mountain until we think of what was to happen on another one. It is no coincidence that both before the transfiguration and after it, Jesus warned the disciples about his suffering and death. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31) And so between the transfiguration and the crucifixion we find some eerie parallels. To quote Bishop Wright,

Here, on a mountain, is Jesus revealed in glory; there on a hill outside Jerusalem, is Jesus, revealed in shame. Here his clothes are shining white; there, they have been stripped off, while beneath him soldiers gamble for them. Here he is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of Israel’s greatest heroes; there he is flanked by two brigands. Here, a bright cloud overshadows the scene; there, darkness comes upon the land. Here, Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; there, he is hiding in shame after denying he even knows Jesus. Here, a voice from God himself declares that this is his beloved Son; there, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and a pagan soldier declares, in surprise, that this really was God’s son.[3]

Could it be that this is the reason why, on the way down the mountain, Jesus ordered the disciples not to share with anyone what they had just witnessed until after he had risen from the dead? We all want the glory. But was Jesus saying that there can be no glory without suffering—and specifically without his suffering? “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” wrote the apostle Paul,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

“If we suffer with him, we will also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17b)

The glory that awaits us

Before we leave the transfiguration, there is another thing we ought to note. Apart from what we read in the gospels, the word “transfigure” occurs in only two other places in the whole of the New Testament. One them is 2 Corinthians 3:18 and it reads thus:

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transfigured into the same image from one degree of glory to another…

What does this teach us? I believe that when Peter and James and John looked on with awe at Jesus that day on the mountain, they were also looking at themselves—not as they were, but as they would one day be. As John himself was later to write, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)

This is a truly astounding truth and it carries with it astounding implications. C.S. Lewis spoke about them in his famous sermon entitled “The Weight of Glory”.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit… And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses…

All of this brings us to the one other place in the Bible where we find the word “transfigured”. It is in Paul’s great exhortation in Romans 12 to “be transfigured (that is what the word is literally) by the renewing of your minds”. And so, if we take Lewis’ words seriously, the transfiguration stands as a challenge to you and to me to see ourselves and those around us in the same way that God sees us in Christ—in other words to love with that same self-giving love with which he loves us.

I’d like us to pray using the words of Charles Wesley.

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

[1]     Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible
[2]     The Gospel According to Saint Mark, 214
[3]     See Matthew for Everyone, Part 2, 14, 15 (slightly altered)

08 February 2015

Sermon – “Our Merciful and Faithful High Priest” (Mark 1:29-39)

There is no book in the New Testament that presents a more exalted view of Christ than the Letter to the Hebrews. Its opening verses, read every year at Christmas, present a stirring portrait of Jesus in all his divine majesty.
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Hebrews 1:3-4)
Yet alongside this picture of Jesus in his glory is the paradoxical recognition that threads its way through the whole of the Bible: that this same Son of God, who shares fully in all the inexpressible splendor of the Father, must also suffer. That message hits us full force this morning, in our reading from the second chapter of the same letter: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” The author goes on to tell us how the eternal Son of God “had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.”
The Letter to the Hebrews introduces us to Jesus in terms of high theology. Complementing that is the earthy account of Jesus that Mark gives us in his gospel. It is in Mark’s and the other evangelists’ accounts that we discover that all the doctrines about Jesus that the church has distilled through the centuries are based on concrete realities. There the dogmas that we reaffirm week by week in the creeds take on actual flesh and blood. There we see, in practical terms, what it meant for the Son of God to have become a human being like ourselves.

Jesus’ Compassion

In this morning’s New Testament reading Hebrews describes Jesus as our merciful and faithful high priest. In the Gospel reading we see how that profound theological truth worked itself out in the context of ordinary, practical, everyday life. There Mark takes us into a simple Galilean home, the house of the two fisherman brothers, Andrew and Peter. We enter to find that Peter’s mother-in-law is in bed, suffering from a fever. Mark doesn’t tell us any more, whether it was a high fever or a low one, whether it had been going on for days or just begun. What we do know is that Peter and Andrew told Jesus about it, and he comes to her bedside. There he takes her hand, helps her up, and the next thing we know is that she is well again—well enough to have the energy to prepare and serve a meal to four hungry fishermen and their friend.
Even without Facebook or Twitter, it did not take long for news to spread around the community about the young teacher who had expelled an unclean spirit in the synagogue and healed an elderly woman of her fever. Before the sun had set, Andrew and Peter’s doorway was jammed with people suffering from every imaginable kind of complaint, all clamoring to see Jesus—and Mark tells us that there were many who went away cured. And while Mark doesn’t use the word, I believe that what we have here is a first glimpse of the compassion that moved within and constantly overflowed from the heart of Jesus.
In fact, just two verses after this morning’s passage, Mark uses exactly that word. Defying all the strict regulations that required him to keep his distance, a leper comes right up to Jesus, falls at his feet and pleads with him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Then Mark tells us, “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” “Moved with compassion”—we find those words being used of Jesus at numerous points in the gospel records. A widow is following her only son’s casket through the town of Nain, and Jesus, moved with compassion, calls the procession to stop and raises him to life (Luke 7:11-14). Jesus gets out of a boat on the shore of Lake Galilee to see that a great crowd has followed him from the nearby towns, and Matthew tells us that he had compassion on them and cured their sick (Matthew 14:13,14). Just outside Jericho, two blind men find out about Jesus and start shouting to gain his attention. Moved with compassion, Jesus touches their eyes and immediately they regain their sight (Matthew 20:29-34). In John’s gospel we encounter the scene of Jesus standing with Mary and Martha outside the sealed tomb of their brother Lazarus. John tells us that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). And we find that same compassion as in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prepares to confront all the evil that afflicts and enslaves us. “In his anguish” Luke tells us, “he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Atlanta preacher and homiletician Thomas Long comments,
When the gaze of the eternal Son of God encompasses a criminal on death row, when the glorified Son sees a homeless woman crawling into a cardboard box to keep from freezing in the night, when the Lord of all sees a man robbed of dignity and purpose by schizophrenia, when the divine heir of all things sees a mother weeping over the death of her child or a man battling the last savage assault of cancer or the swollen body of a child slowly starving to death, he does not see a charity case, a pitiful victim, or a hopeless cause. He sees a brother, he sees a sister, and he is not ashamed to call us his “brothers and sisters”. The Son of God does not wag his head at misery and cluck, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Instead he says, “There because of the grace of God I am.”[1]

Jesus’ Priorities

Jesus: the man of compassion. There is another picture of Jesus that Mark gives us this morning, however: not the public Jesus preaching in the synagogue and healing the sick. This time we meet the private Jesus, who while the sun has not yet stretched its rays over the eastern horizon, gets up, withdraws to a secluded spot where nobody is likely to be, and there he prays. Some time later, after the feeding of the five thousand, Mark again shows Jesus removing himself from his disciples and going off to a mountainside to pray (Mark 6:46).
It is in Luke’s gospel, however, that we are given the most complete account of Jesus’ life of prayer. There we find Jesus in prayer at almost every major event in his ministry. Jesus prays at his baptism. He prays before appointing the twelve apostles. He prays before asking the disciples the pivotal question, “Who do people say I am?” He is in prayer when he is transfigured before the disciples. He prays for Peter, that his faith will not fail. And he prays in Gethsemane the night before he is crucified. Indeed Luke tells us that it was Jesus’ habit to withdraw to deserted places and pray (Luke 5:16).
Jesus not only spent a great deal of time in prayer himself; he also taught his followers to pray: to pray in faith, to pray with simplicity, to pray with persistence, to pray with humility. If we are to take both the teaching and the example of Jesus seriously, then we know that our own spiritual lives must be built, like his, on the foundation of prayer—and (Warning: guilt alert!) as I say what I am about to say, it is with the painful awareness of how short my own prayer life falls from what God desires of me. It is that prayer—true prayer—takes time and it takes effort. William Wilberforce, the man who virtually single-handedly stopped the West African slave trade in Britain, once remarked, “The shortening of private devotions starves the soul. It grows lean and faint.” Nineteenth-century Methodist preacher E.M. Bounds wrote,
Spiritual work is taxing work, and men are loath to do it. Praying, true praying, costs an outlay of serious attention and of time, which flesh and blood do not relish. Few persons are made of such strong fiber that they will make a costly outlay when surface work will pass as well in the market. We can habituate ourselves to our beggarly praying until it looks well to us, at least it keeps up a decent form and quiets conscience—the deadliest of opiates! We can slight our praying, and not realize the peril till the foundations are gone. Hurried devotions make weak faith, feeble convictions, questionable piety. To be little with God is to be little for God. To cut short the praying makes the whole religious character short, scrimp, niggardly, and slovenly.[2]

Jesus’ Mission

Aside from being president, Dwight Eisenhower is famous for making the very wise distinction between what is urgent and what is important. The idea is that what seems urgent is not necessarily important—and conversely the important things are not always urgent. Since then his principle has been turned into what is known as the Eisenhower Matrix. Picture a box containing four smaller boxes. In the upper left are tasks that are both urgent and important, things like finding a job, attending to your sick child, putting out the fire on the kitchen stove. In the lower right box are things that are neither urgent nor important. Here you might want to place distractions such as video games, Facebook or watching TV. Above it, in the upper right, are tasks that are urgent but may not be all that important. Think of things like the incessant ringing of the telephone or the emails that many of us are barraged with every day. Finally there are things that are important but don’t scream out at us as urgent—thoughtful planning, exercise, rest, family time, and not least, prayer. So often these are the things that receive the least attention in our lives. Yet Stephen Covey has observed in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that the people most likely to get things done, who actually accomplish something in life, are those who give more attention and spend more time in that fourth quadrant.
Jesus had his priorities right. He knew that he had to withdraw in order to engage. The time he spent in prayer did not remove him from the action; it prepared him for action. And so in the last little vignette that Mark gives us in the Gospel reading, what do we find Jesus doing? Moving forward vigorously to fulfill the mission that God had given him.
More years ago than I care to remember, I was involved in an evangelistic outreach on our university campus. I recall a large number of us gathering for prayer a day or so beforehand with our speaker, the Rev. David MacInnes. One of the things that I clearly remember him saying and that has stuck with me ever since is that whenever we pray, we need to be prepared to be part of God’s answer to that prayer.
The next step after prayer is to move ahead in faith and obedience. Yet I confess that more often than not, no sooner have I gotten up from my prayers than they have vanished from my consciousness. Maybe this is one reason why our prayer lives are so feeble. We fail to put the rubber to the road. We neglect to take that final but all-important step, to take our life of prayer into our lives in the world. I suspect that if we dared to live more like that, we would also find our prayer becoming deeper, more vibrant, more related to the realities of life. We would find ourselves truly engaged in the mission of Jesus.

[1]     Hebrews, Interpretation Commentary, 42
[2]     Power Through Prayer, page unknown

01 February 2015

Sermon – “He taught with authority” (Mark 1:21-28)

I am told that some years ago at a meeting of bishops from around the world an Irish bishop and a Mexican bishop got into conversation. “Tell me,” the Mexican bishop said to the Irish bishop. “Does the Irish language have any equivalent of our word mañana?” The Irish bishop looked down and stroked his chin for a moment. Then he looked up and said, “No, I can’t think of any Irish word that would confer quite the same sense of urgency.”
Translating from one language into another is often a complex and tricky business. Our Karen interpreters face it every week when they bravely take on the challenge of translating my sermons. Whether we are aware of it or not, many of the words we use have subtle shades of meaning for which there is no precise equivalent in another language. This was very much the case a couple of generations ago when missionaries first began to translate the Bible into Inuktitut, the language of the Eskimos living in the eastern Arctic regions of Canada. How do you translate, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” for a people who lived in igloos with no doors? Or, “I am the good shepherd,” in a land where there are no sheep and there is no tradition of herding, only hunting?
At a more critical level a huge debate rages today over translating the Bible into Arabic. Should the word “Allah”, for example, be used to translate “God”? A considerably more heated controversy has arisen over the question of how to render “Son of God” into Arabic with reference to Jesus, as there are many Muslims who assume that this must mean “procreated Son of God”.

A Sensation: The Authority of Jesus

Less controversially, there are two words in this morning’s Gospel reading that to my mind defy translation into English. In our pew Bibles they are the words “astounded” in verse 22 and “amazed” in verse 27. I have looked up this passage in several different translations and most of them are about the same. Eugene Peterson in The Message colorfully renders verse 27, “Everyone there was incredulous, buzzing with curiosity.” But my own impression is that what we are witnessing here is something far more profound than curiosity. The New Living Bible comes closer with, “Amazement gripped the audience.” Yet even that, I believe, falls short of the mark.
So let’s just take a moment to recreate the scene in our minds. It’s Saturday morning and the good folk of Capernaum (population 1500) have assembled in the synagogue. A new young rabbi has come to town from neighboring Nazareth. I don’t believe that it was because he was a great orator (although he may have been) or because he was especially scholarly (although that may have been true as well) but there was something about his teaching that resonated with their hearts in a way that no other rabbi had ever done before. It spawned in them a yearning to hear more, to plumb deeper. We see that reflected in Peter’s words in John’s gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life;” or in the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our hearts burn within us … as he opened the Scriptures to us?”
I can only imagine that their attention was so utterly focused on Jesus and on what he was saying to them that the sudden shrieks from the man with the unclean spirit must have caused their hearts to leap. “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.” Yet without breaking step for a moment, and with a combination of total calm and intense concentration Jesus turned to him and said, “Be silenced (literally, ‘be muzzled’) and come out of him.” The man immediately went into convulsions and inarticulate screams, and then, as quickly as it had begun, all was silent. Then the room began to fill with amazed voices exclaiming, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
The words that contemporary Bible translations use to describe the congregation are “amazed”, “astonished”, “astounded”. But I don’t think that any of those words comes near to what was going on inside the hearts of the crowd on that day. I was tempted to think that “blown away” might bring us closer to what they were feeling. Yet even that seems woefully inadequate. “Overwhelmed” might be better. One of the verbs that Mark uses in this passage has at its root the idea of being struck, indeed being struck by lightning. The other is often coupled with trembling with fear. So do you see the direction in which we are heading? It is like Peter’s reaction after the miraculous catch of fish, falling at Jesus’ knees and protesting, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man;” or the people of Gerasa after the demons had caused their herd of swine to hurtle down the hillside and drown in the sea. Their utter bewilderment at what they had witnessed was such that they begged Jesus to leave the area.
Both in his teachings and in his actions Jesus demonstrated an authority not seen in anyone else. He simply did not fit into any category. And that, I believe, is something that ought to make anyone profoundly uncomfortable. “What kind of man is this?” the disciples asked themselves when Jesus calmed the storm. “Even the wind and sea obey him!”

A Confrontation: The Reality of Evil

At this point we need to stop for just a moment to wind back and ask ourselves, what was it exactly that was taking place in the synagogue that morning? It is not just Jesus who doesn’t fit readily into our twenty-first century categories. What about the unclean spirit? What are we to say, what are we to think, about that? Our three-and-a-half-century heritage of rationalism and reductionistic thought has succeeded in pretty well eradicating any sense of the supernatural from our worldview. We prefer to explain what an earlier generation saw as spirit possession in terms of disease or psychosis or something else that fits more neatly into an understanding of life composed entirely of the physical.
Charles Cranfield, one of the leading New Testament scholars of the twentieth century, commented on this passage,
Here we are up against something that presents many difficulties to the modern mind, which is apt to dismiss the whole subject as outgrown superstition. It is important to approach it with as open a mind as possible. To suggest that there may be more truth here in the New Testament picture than has sometimes been allowed is not to wish to turn the clock back on scientific progress or to open the floodgates of obscurantism. The question whether the confident spread of the demons’ non-existence has not been their greatest triumph gets tragic urgency from such twentieth-century features as Nazism, McCarthyism, and Apartheid. And lest we should be prejudiced by the memory of such horrors as the burning of witches, it must be said that they were due, not to taking the New Testament too seriously, but to failing to take it seriously enough.[1]
So how do we take what the Bible says seriously? C.S. Lewis perhaps put it best in his brief preface to The Screwtape Letters, when he wrote,
There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors…[2]
The New Testament clearly recognizes the reality of personal evil. In a few weeks’ time as we enter the season of Lent we will be reading about Jesus’ threefold confrontation with the devil. He taught us to pray, “Deliver us from the evil one.” (That is the literal translation of the Lord’s Prayer.) The apostle Paul teaches that we are engaged in a struggle “against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And numerous times in the New Testament we see both Jesus himself and later the apostles engaging in direct conflict with the occult forces of evil in the world.
Yet we need also to be aware that, while the Bible speaks about the reality of the devil and his legions, it is speaking about a conquered enemy. What we see in this morning’s passage is a power confrontation. The unclean spirit shrieked out, “I know who you are…” It somehow reasoned that by knowing who Jesus was, it could exert some kind of power over him. Yet its words were clearly the product of desperation because in fact the opposite was true. What we witness in the New Testament and in our own struggles with evil are the final skirmishes of a battle that has been won. In Revelation we read,
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our brothers and sisters has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…” (Revelation 12:10,11)
Notice how the victory has been won: by the blood of the Lamb. The ultimate confrontation with evil took place at Calvary, as the spotless Son of God bore the full brunt of evil’s power and rendered it powerless. The devil and his legions are a defeated foe. Yet like a wounded bear they rage and flail, and we do ourselves a disfavor when we ignore their ability to damage and to destroy. Like those brave saints in Revelation, however, our victory is assured through the blood of the Lamb.

An Invitation: A Relationship with Jesus

One final note on this morning’s passage: The unclean spirit thought that it could somehow fend off Jesus’ power because it knew who he was. Elsewhere James tells us that even the demons believe (2:19). And so implicit in what we have read this morning and indeed throughout the Bible is that knowing about Jesus, even believing about Jesus, is not enough, not what God is looking for. And that is where our other reading this morning, from 1 Corinthians, comes in. There Paul tells us, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
Early in my Christian life I remember my rector once saying (and I think very wisely), “Isn’t it great that we’re not going to be judged on the basis of the correctness of our doctrine!” Now I am not suggesting that we all go out and embrace heresy. Nor am I saying that doctrine is not important, or that we should not have a thirst to know more and more about Jesus. The problem with the unclean spirit in this morning’s Gospel, however, was that, while it knew about Jesus, it had no desire actually to know him, to yield to him, to enter into a relationship with him.
By contrast, Jesus’ prayer for his followers—and by extension for us—was that they might truly know him (John 17:3). Paul’s single desire was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). And so I guess my prayer is that we should go away from this morning’s Gospel passage, not simply amazed or bowled over or blown away by Jesus’ power, but that that should lead us to bow to him personally, to let his presence permeate our lives—and in the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim for ourselves, “Jesus is Lord.”

[1]     The Gospel According to St Mark, 75
[2]     page 9