Sunday, January 29, 2012

What is Happening? A Sermon


Mark 1:21-28

Jesus walks into the synagogue at Capernaum, immediately heads to the pulpit, and without so much as asking for permission from the synagogue leaders,  starts preaching.  After that, the place falls into chaos.  

That’s because, no sooner had Jesus started preaching, when suddenly, a man stood up in the sanctuary, and started shouting Jesus.  The man, whom Mark says was possessed by an evil spirit, screamed at Jesus, demanding to know what Jesus would do with “us?”    Are you going to destroy us?  After all, “I know who you are.”  Yes, “you are the holy one of God.”

   Picture yourself in such a congregation.  How would you have responded to all of this commotion?  Would you have been amazed and shaken, as Mark suggests was the case for this congregation?  I expect that like us, this congregation liked things to be done “decently and in order.”  What would you make of both the preacher and the respondent to this preacher?  Would you call the police?

As Mark tells the story, the congregation was first amazed at Jesus’ authoritative teaching, contrasting his teaching with that of the religious leaders.  In hearing this story we must be careful not to read into it an anti-Jewish bias, while recognizing in Jesus a message that is both prophetic and challenging to our own religious and cultural sensibilities.  

There is in this story, a question posed to us – who is this person and how should I respond?    

Although they were amazed at the teaching, they were also shaken by the encounter with the man possessed with evil spirits.  They watch breathlessly, as Jesus demonstrates his authority over the demon by “harshly” demanding that the spirits be silent and then to come out of the man.  We’re told that at that moment, the evil spirit shook the host and with a scream left the man’s body. 

As the people in this congregation, people like you and like me, tried to make sense of the scene, they asked a question: “What’s this?”  What’s happening here?   Surely, we would be asking the same kinds of questions!

Then Mark writes: “Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.”  Even without Facebook and Twitter, news spread quickly about this new teacher.    

The question of the hour wasn’t just:  What happened here?   A more important question was: Who is this person who has turned everything upside down?   How would you have responded to him and the chaos that he stirred up in that congregation?   What would you be thinking?

We might not be the most formal congregation in the world, but we like things done decently and in order.  That’s why we have a bulletin that lays out the service so that everyone knows where they need to be and do at the appropriate moment.  There’s a time for prayer and a time for song, a time for preaching and a time to gather at the table.  Just so everyone knows their place, the names of the person doing each job is noted.   Sometimes we make adjustments, but there is still a sense of order to our responses to the needs of the moment.  We’re not used to the kind of commotion Jesus caused in that congregation.  

What would happen here if some somebody walked in off the street and headed to the front, took the microphone – probably from the preacher – and starting talking – without permission?   I know I’d be a bit concerned, and I expect the Elders might be  concerned as well.  But then to complicate things, what if someone got into a frenzy, stood up, and started arguing with this strange preacher?   Wouldn’t we also ask the question: “What’s this?”  

I expect that this story could raise a deeper question in our hearts and minds.  As we ask the question: Who is Jesus?  We also ask a related question: What does this Jesus who always seems to be disturbing the status quo want from me?   

Albert Schweitzer, a famous doctor, missionary, organist, and bible scholar, wrote a book more than a century ago about the “search for the historical Jesus.”  He concluded that at the end of the search, the people seeking after the historical Jesus end up looking down into a well and seeing their own reflection.  When they asked who Jesus was, they ended up with a person who looked just like them and thought just like them.  In the end this “historical Jesus” served to validate their own ideas and ideologies.  

So, is Jesus nothing more than a reflection of our own imaginations?   

Last Sunday a group of us went to the DIA and took in the “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” exhibit.  Although the exhibit focused on Rembrandt’s paintings of Jesus, the exhibit placed his perspectives in the context of other artistic creations.   

What stood out for me was the revelation that Rembrandt used a young Sephardic Jew living in Amsterdam as his model for Jesus.  This made him unique, because most artists of that day portrayed Jesus as a good northern European man.  This Euro-centric vision of Jesus can be seen in the picture on our bulletin this morning.  For most  Europeans then, and probably most European and American Christians today, Jesus looks like  a good blue-eyed blonde European male – with long hair and a beard!  Rembrandt, however, turned things upside-down by trying to portray Jesus in a way that reflected his Jewish humanity.  

So, who is the real Jesus?  How does he affect the way you live and think?  Does he make you uncomfortable, as he made the attendees of this synagogue?   Does he challenge your sense of identity?  How do you experience his call to discipleship?  Would you be willing to drop everything, like Andrew and Simon, James and John, and follow him on a journey that often is uncomfortable and challenging?

In an earlier presidential election cycle, a candidate said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher.  Unfortunately, no one asked him why Jesus was his favorite teacher of wisdom.  What was it about Jesus that informed his world view?   What difference would the teachings of Jesus make in the way he would lead the nation?  

Many of us have a rather domesticated view of Jesus.  He’s our savior and our friend, but not much more.  We tend to ignore what Peter Gomes,  the late chaplain at Harvard, called “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus.”  We know that the gospel must have been scandalous to some, because it upset enough people, that Jesus ended up dying on a cross.     But, what is it about the gospel that can be truly scandalous? 

In Mark, the scandal begins here, in the synagogue at Capernaum, where Jesus’ teaching and actions amaze and shakes up the people.   In Luke’s gospel, Jesus preaches in his home congregation, and causes such a stir that they the people not only chase him out of the synagogue, but they also try to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-30).  

So, who is this Jesus, who causes such a scandal? 

Many years ago, back when I was but a youth, The Doobie Brothers had a hit song.   Maybe you remember it – “Jesus is Just alright with me.”  Is Jesus just all right?  Is he nothing more than a domesticated savior whom I turn to when I need him, but who I ignore the rest of the time?  Is he nothing more than a religious symbol that is useful in supporting an agenda?  Or is his message of God’s realm, a message that is expressed in his words and in his actions, something that changes the way we look at life and live our lives in this world?

     Yes, who is this Jesus?  And when he steps into our midst, what happens to us and to our world?   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2012

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