And so it begins – spectacularly! The fledgling messianic community – Jesus, Simon and Andrew, James and John – go to the synagogue at Capernaum. Jesus enters and begins to teach. No time wasted here!
Introduction to some major themes (Mark 1: 21-28)
Look at the themes in this pericope which will become so important as Mark develops his gospel further:
1. Jesus teaches with authority, which is contrasted with that of the scribes. Jesus is operating outside the dominant religious tradition with its established authorities. He doesn’t proclaim his own authority – it is evident to everyone. Its evidence is defined by its contrast with the Temple figures. Note that it is not defined by learning, nor is there a suggestion that Jesus is some sort of teacher of apocalyptic mysteries, with insight into obscure texts and secret meanings. The whole tenor of the account is of openness. This is public. Its effect is emphasised by the reaction of the hearers in vv 27ff – amazement, authority, and spiritual power. This is Jesus, ministering in the power of the Spirit. It is prophetic. The reaction of the hearers is the reaction of people who know that they are in the presence of a man of God.
2. He is teaching in the synagogues. These were the communal places where people gathered in their own communities. The contrast Mark draws is not between the Temple and a wilderness teacher, but between the Temple and a teacher who operates in a different strand of the religion – among the ordinary people, who gather week by week in the places in which they live to hear the scriptures expounded and to worship. There is a sense in which the synagogues (as opposed to the Temple) symbolise the earliest religious traditions that centre around the Ark – ie the God who journeys with the people, rather than the centralised cult in the Jerusalem temple. This is God among the people – Mark’s version of Matthew’s “Emmanuel – God with us”.
3. Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom draws immediate fire from the demons. This is the opening, public round between Jesus and the Strong Man. Just as the people sense the obvious conflict between Jesus and the Temple tradition, the demons are well aware of the immediate threat to the kingdom of the Strong Man. It is not Jesus who is actively seeking a confrontation; rather, the message of the kingdom provokes opposition because it proclaims another reality – another world. The world as it is cannot remain the same if his message is true.
4. Jesus is a powerful and successful exorcist. Exorcisms and travelling exorcists were common in Jesus’ time. Exorcisms were drawn-out affairs, surrounded in drama, mumbo-jumbo, mystical acts and incantations, the use of symbols and religious artefacts, and the summoning of the higher power by whose authority the demon was to be cast out. By contrast, Jesus invokes no higher power or other name. He acts entirely on his own authority. He commands, and the unclean spirits obey. This is why his fame begins to spread at once. He is famed not only as a successful exorcist, but (and this is the truly amazing bit of news that has everyone agog) he does it in his own power! The implication is clear: only God was supposed to have that sort of power! Even a prophet, acting in the name of Yahweh, would need to summon Yahweh’s power by name. This is part of Mark’s Christology: Jesus incarnates God’s power and presence in the midst of the people.
5. “Be silent!” Jesus’ command to the spirit operates on two levels. Firstly, as an exorcistic technique, Jesus characteristically refuses to let the demon speak. Unlike his contemporaries, Jesus does not engage in lengthy disputes with the spirits, or let them “do their stuff”. In effect, he muzzles them. He will not allow them to display their power, because he is the one who has authority over them. Secondly, this is also part of Mark’s theme of the Messianic Secret. The demons know who Jesus is (v24), and when they declare his identity, Jesus silences them, as he will silence demons and people who identify him as the Messiah. The point is that Jesus will not allow his messiahship to be defined and understood by his authority over demons and illness, however important that is. Rather, his messiahship will be defined by the cross – by his humility rather than by his power.
“The prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18: 15-20)
Moses tells the people that God will raise up prophets like him in the coming years to guide the people. The “likeness” doesn’t have to do with personality, but with the fact that there will always be prophets who will be able to speak with the authority of God and guided the people. Prophetic authority is vested in the immediacy of access to the counsel of God. Unlike the priests, who operate primarily in an interpretive tradition, the prophet speaks what he hears directly from God. Whereas the priest speaks what he has come to understand after wrestling faithfully with the Scriptures, the prophet acts as God’s mouthpiece, speaking only what God has commanded. Hence the chilling sentence of death Moses passes on prophets who announce their own thoughts as though they were God’s words (v20).
By linking this text with today’s gospel reading, the Lectionary invites us to consider the authority of Jesus further. Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition (as opposed to the scribal tradition). He speaks the words of God directly in the power of the Spirit – something immediately recognisable. This is a direct Word that confronts and contradicts even the most faithful grapplings with God through the Law and the Prophets (the scribes and Pharisees). Jesus is a prophet like Moses – but, as Mark will show us, “one greater than Moses is here”. And who could have greater access to the mind of God than Moses? Only someone who is God incarnate!
The power and reality of idols (1 Corinthians 8: 1-13)
We live in an age and culture that is extremely sceptical about spiritual realities and spiritual power. Or, at least, modernity (rather than postmodernity) has been. These are things that are widely assumed to do with primitive, pre-rationalist pre-Enlightenment. They belong to humanity’s cultural, religious and intellectual “infancy. So we may read Paul’s discussion about idols as affirming the fact that the realm of the spirits – as with idols – is actually the realm of unreality, to be treated with amused tolerance and condescension.
That is not what Paul is saying. He is not saying that idols have no power – only that they are not divine. There is no god but God. Idols are false gods. They are not “real” in the sense that they are gods, worthy of worship. They do, however, have a different sort of reality. They have power because they are used by their followers to justify particular uses and abuses of power. Idols give power to those who can claim to be acting in God’s name, rob their opponents of power and justify oppression and mistreatment. To that extent, they are very real and powerful indeed!
An idol may be a statue – a golden calf or a semi-human figure. It may also be the god proclaimed and worshipped as Christian, but have very little to do with the God revealed by Jesus Christ and whom he called “Father”. Apartheid was justified as an expression of God’s will for South Africa. This god was worshipped by devout Christians. The point made in the Kairos Document (which emerged from the townships in the 1980s) was that this god was, in fact, an idol. God is not like that! There is only one true God, says Paul to the Corinthians, and that is the One whom Jesus knows and proclaims as Father (v6). An idol is not defined by a false name, but by imputing the wrong character to God. Paul would agree with Bishop David Jenkins: “God is. He is as he is in Jesus!” All other notions of God – whomever we call God – are false. It is only when we know God through Jesus that we can be sure we know what an idol is – and then we can say it has no reality.
The works of God (Psalm 111)
Jesus attracts attention, authority and astonishment because he does the works of God. The people experience him, his teachings, his exorcisms and his healings and conclude that this is God at work in him. Of course, his opponents will be blind to this: what they see, instead is someone whose source of power can only be explained as demonic.
We need to remember that there is an ambiguity surrounding Jesus. It is not unambiguously clear that Jesus is a good man – or, rather, the fact of his goodness and godliness is visible to “those who have eyes to see”. He operates on the margins, and is opposed by the established religious authorities of his day. How, then, could those who encountered him be sure that he was “safe” (in the sense of being “of God”)?
Look at Psalm 111. It is a psalm in praise of Yahweh’s wonderful works. It is a psalm that might be said in response to the reading of the old stories of Yahweh’s redemption. It appears to be written by a student of the Torah (v2); nonetheless, it certainly belongs in the context of communal worship (v1). It belongs in the context of the worship of the community that exists because of Yahweh’s redemption(cf esp v6).
Note, though, that the psalmist presupposes knowledge of these stories, rather than making them explicit. This is a psalm of theological reflection on who Yahweh is – the God who is the subject of well-known works. In other words, this is psalm for a community steeped in the Law and the Prophets. It is the covenant community (v5).
Jesus is a prophet. Prophets were required because of the sense in which Yahweh is “the God of Surprises”. How Yahweh acts and behaves at one particular juncture does not bind Yahweh to acting similarly or predictably in the future. The God of the Exodus and the Davidic covenant is not prevented also from being the God of the Exile. Yet it requires the prophetic (rather than priestly) word to make the connections between the new and the old. That is always a dicey job! It is why prophecy was such a high-risk calling. The prophet had to make connections between his present situation and Yahweh’s works of old. And the prophet lived or died by the faithfulness of those connections!
This, perhaps, gives us a clue into the mindset of the evangelists. Each evangelist take pains to assure his readers that, however outrageous or unlikely it may seem, the new thing that God is doing in Jesus is fully in line with all that God has done in the past. Jesus is not some sort of absurd hiccup in the divine task of redemption: he is its pinnacle. But that requires attentive, faithful remembering of the old stories and embracing the new story of God in Jesus.
His fame began to spread …
What story is being told about us? Is our living and preaching and ministering recognisably powerful – not necessarily in the sense of being spectacular, but as being enlivened by the Spirit? To what extent do people experience God in our services and through us?
One thing that the Epiphany texts invite us to do is to explore the reality and work of the Holy Spirit. There is a deep reality to spiritual things that we easily miss or shy away from. Those of us instinctively sceptical or uneasy about “charismatic” type experiences of the Spirit are readily confirmed in that by emphases on novelty, the spectacular, or personal “thrill”. And of course, once we go down the route of suggesting that “real” Christians or “spirit-filled” Christians ought to have a particular experience of the Spirit, we are in bad, wrong-headed territory.
That is not what the work and experience of the Spirit is about. The Spirit empowers us to live the life of the cross in a world which is not yet the kingdom and which still kills messiahs. Yet we are also (thankfully!) becoming far more aware of the reality of spiritual powers (thanks to the work, for example, of Walter Wink). We are also learning how much we have been imprisoned by the confines of ultra-rationalist modernity and shut off from the reality of deep, sometimes shocking and disturbing, but real and vital experiences of the Spirit. To take seriously Mark’s gospel is to confront these questions – not with a view to refining our theology, or ensuring that we don’t miss out on some spectacular experience – but in order to become more faithful and effective disciples of Jesus Christ.