Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany

Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV)
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "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." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching -- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Beginnings, part I

Each Gospel starts in its own way. Analogies I have heard used to explain the benefits of there being four Gospels have included: it is like 3-D movies - one account is good but having all 4 together gives a picture with depth; it is like a multiple speaker stereo system - you can hear the notes with just one but it isn't really magical until you get all the speakers going; it is like a symphony - each instrument is needed to combine to result in glorious music.

Matthew starts with a genealogy (Matthew 1:1-17) that would mean something to the likely Jewish readers of the Gospel when it was first circulated. Mark jumps right in (Mark 1:1) and is direct and to the point throughout. Luke gives the stories of Elizabeth and Mary (Luke 1:1-55) that reflects Luke's careful compilation of Jesus deed and words and a particular interest in people who would be deemed "outsiders." John (John 1:1-5) goes big with an ode to Genesis to highlight the majesty of the incarnation God of the universe dwelt among us in flesh and the new creation made possible by that incarnation.

Beginnings, part II

But how does each gospel describe the beginning of Jesus' public life in terms of a detailed story about his words and deed? In light of an episode widely seen beyond the inner core of early followers?

John in chapter one had episodes of personal invitations to follow him. But it isn't until John 2 that there is the highly public event of Jesus turning the water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11). This miracle is in line with the creation theme. God who brought the heavens and the earth - all the stuff of the visible world into existence - would have no difficulty turning water into wine. Additional themes one can draw from the water to wine episode was the abundance of the wine (v. 6) and its high quality (v. 10). This is the God who has come to dwell among us! One who gives good gifts and in abundance!

But one wonders how many people knew he was responsible for it? The servants who filled the jars with water as instructed by Jesus would have known (vv. 5-8). I would image they probably would have told people and word would have gotten out! Certainly, the disciples were moved toward belief (v. 11) from this event.

Luke says generally in 2:14-15, "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone." But it isn't until the reading of the Isaiah scroll in the Nazareth synagogue (vv. 16-21) that we hear the voice of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke:
He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus intends to touch the lives of the "outsider" (the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed)!  What Jesus had done up to that point in Luke and what he will do in the following chapters is the fulfillment of Jesus' vocation as described in the Isaiah scroll.

Matthew recounted Jesus baptism in chapter 3 and his temptation in the wilderness in chapter 4. We quickly find out that Jesus began to proclaim the Kingdom (4:17), to teach and heal (4:23-25). It is in chapter 5-7 that we get Jesus in longer form. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus demonstrates himself to be the true interpreter of the Law. Again, consistent with Matthew's objectives to place Jesus as the continuation and fulfillment of God's narrative arc through the Jews.

Let's go back to the lectionary Gospel reading again.

Mark 1:21-28 (NRSV)
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, "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." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching -- with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
In this healing, Jesus displays authority over unclean spirits that tormented the man. In the next healing, Jesus cures a fever in Peter's mother-in-law (1:29-31). Word spread quickly and "all who were sick or possessed with demons" were brought to him for healing. Jesus has authority over both types of conditions: physical and spiritual sickness. Mark would continue to highlight Jesus authority as shown through healing of a leper (1:40-45), a sickness with a high social outcast dimension. Then, Mark shows Jesus taking a gigantic step by using healing of the paralytic (2:1-12) as an opportunity to highlight that he as authority to forgive sins which is the ultimate problem we have.

In addition to the physical healing, notice that "They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority." Certainly, people who got healed would see that Jesus had authority. And certainly, healthy people seeing others getting healed would see the authority of Jesus. But there was something powerful in his teaching. His message was changing the direction of people's lives. One could imagine that people were turning away from sin and self and fixing their eyes and hearts toward God. People would find themselves leaving despair and be buoyed by hope. Is it not also a miracle when we get transformed from dead religious ritual to a living and active love of others? Is not forgiveness of our sins before a holy God a truly powerful and magnificent thing?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ (1:1, 14, 15) is powerful! It changes the status quo of our lives!

Knowledge isn't enough

Another striking part about the reading is the response of the unclean spirit, "I know who you are, the Holy One of God." Sounds like correct high Christology!

And indeed, as we sit here in the 21st Century, it isn't enough to "get the theology" right. Rather, what we need is a willingness to follow where Christ is going and participate in what he is doing for the Kingdom of God is on the move already and we are to join in. We get the honor of participation. It is not up to us to "make it happen." Rather, we are to follow the Spirit's leading and in obedience be available to be with people that God is reaching. And as a result of God's power, the status quo of people's lives get changed and we all rejoice together.

Check out 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, "What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building." Amen!

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