“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!” That (1:14) is the message that Jesus is proclaiming in Capernaum. It is the message that he wants to preach throughout the Galilee (vv 38-39). The Good News is that the time of waiting is over and that the Kingdom has begum to take shape among them.
“It’s all going down right now!” (Mark 1: 29-39)
That is the message, and what Mark the dramatist gives us in last week’s text and this week is the effect is has! It’s important to keep that firmly in mind, otherwise the section appears to read like a choppy series of unrelated incidents that leaves the preacher wondering what on earth to say! While it is true that Mark showed us last week Jesus’ power as an exorcist, and this week as a healer, he isn’t trying to tell us, “Hey, this guy Jesus is a great preacher … and exorcist … and healer!” He’s telling us about the Good News in this opening summary – the gospel of the Kingdom. Jesus, he tells us, is not only the bearer and herald of the Good News of the Kingdom; he is himself the Good News of the Kingdom. Where Jesus is, the kingdom has drawn near.
A Word with power
The point is that this is a message with power. It is not simply a word, but a Word – the sort of Word that God utters in creation. The message causes things to happen. It is not meant primarily to be heard, but to be experienced. It is an event. It changes things. The message that God is acting to transform this world into the Kingdom of God is not just an announcement, but God in action! That is why there is the immediate confrontation with the man in the synagogue. And now – “as soon as they had left the synagogue” – Mark drags us in Jesus’ wake some 200 metres to the house of Peter’s sick mother-in-law. There isn’t time to draw breath – he arrives, they tell him immediately that she is ill, he goes into the room, takes her by the hand and, without a word, lifts her to her feet – healed! Only then do the men sit down to a meal, with mum-in-law serving. That’s an interesting reaction to the healing, that, isn’t it? Peter doesn’t say, “Mum, you’ve not been well – come and put your feet up!” It’s straight to the kitchen for her in this man’s world of Jesus’ time.
Verse 32 sums up the day. It’s been eventful – Jesus’ first day (significantly, a Sabbath) out in his ministry – and already, by evening, they’re bringing him the sick and the demon-possessed. What is going on here? Jesus waits until the Sabbath has ended before beginning his public healing ministry – a sign that the Sabbath is going to become a major bone of contention. Mark is telling us about the Good News. The coming of the Kingdom that Jesus announces means that a new power – the power of the Spirit – is loose. It is the power of liberation, because it breaks the hold of those things that imprison people: evil spirits and illness. Mark is telling us about a conquest that has begun. Jesus is claiming territory from the Strong Man in the name of God. And the response of the people who crowd in to receive their liberation, or seek it on behalf of others, is what Jesus means when he says, “Repent and believe in the Good News”.
Do we think of this sort of response by the people as “repentance”? Repentance surely has more to do with the reaction of the people to John’s preaching: coming down to the river to be baptised, or heading for the temple to offer a sacrifice. The point is that Jesus does not announce God’s displeasure, or condemnation, or threatening judgment. Jesus doesn’t announce Bad News. He announces Good News. In effect, what he does is simply to offer a no-strings-attached invitation in his message. “Repentance” is the appropriate response to God. And in the face of the Good News of the Kingdom, it is to respond with joy – to reach out and grasp the gift.
It’s sobering to wonder what our message is, how we understand the gospel, and to ask why we are not being similarly mobbed by needy people who hear and experience the preaching of the Kingdom as the Best Possible News. Of course, the answers to that question have as much to do with complex social processes as anything else, but I suspect they also have to do with the fact that our gospel is frequently other-worldly, individualistic Bad News that is little more than a thin guise for persuading people to get their bums on to our pews.
Healing and restoration
There is one other important consideration here, and it concerns the sociological significance of Jesus’ healings and exorcisms. Both possession and illness did more than mess up the lives of the sufferers. The fundamental point is that they excluded the sufferers from participation in family, social and religious life. It is not that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill and feeling poorly that is at stake, so much as that she is excluded from all that is happening – particularly from the Sabbath meal. We will see how Jesus’ healings and exorcisms have this constant emphasis: restoration to the community. In other words, the message of liberation that Jesus preaches and enacts is not focused on making individuals feel better in themselves (for the sake of it), but about restoring and creating a genuine community for those excluded by the purity system. Where genuine community is created for the outcasts, the kingdom takes on present reality.
Illness or disability alone does not hinder people from living a full life. There is no sense in the gospels that a sick person cannot be a whole person. It is not the illness per se from which people need Jesus’ liberation, but the prison of social exclusion. Individual life has meaning within the wider network of communal relationships, and it is this exclusion that Jesus overcomes. Note how Jesus concentrates on the meaning of the illnesses rather than the illnesses themselves. He pays almost no attention to the symptoms, but rather focuses on the effects of the illness. Jesus is a healer – someone who creates wholeness – rather than a curer. It is when we grasp this significance that we break out of the sterile debates between the demythologisers, on whom the whole significance of the healings and exorcisms is lost, and the conservatives, whose only concern is whether or not we can believe that Jesus can do “magic”.
Power (Isaiah 40: 21-31)
Like the gospel reading, both of the Old Testament readings deal with the theme of power. Look at the refrain “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (Isaiah 40: 21), which is repeated in verse 28. It is a question about Yahweh’s power. Verses 21-26 are a statement about Yahweh’s incomparable power as creator. This is awesome power. There is no one to equal or question Yahweh. Yahweh is above question, comment or criticism.
Such almighty power is threatening because it is potentially annihilative. If Yahweh is so powerful, what is the status of human beings? Are we not pawns – and potential victims – in the hands of such a God? And if we are, to whom might we appeal, if there is no higher authority? Why should Yahweh be mindful of us at all, let alone attend to our needs? That resignation and despair is the cry echoed in verse 27: “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God!” This is the cry of the exiles: “Yahweh doesn’t care! I am invisible to God and my suffering means nothing to the Lord!”
Then comes the second “Have you not seen? Have you not heard?” This time, the prophet reminds the people of Yahweh’s compassion and intimate care for the people. Yahweh is the God of the Exodus – the God who hears the groans of the slaves under the whip. “Yahweh does not grow faint or weary (ie of listening for and caring for the people). He gives power to the faint and strength to the powerless.” When human resistance and the ability to bear oppression and pain run out, Yahweh will give strength so that the faint and the powerless will be renewed and soar like eagles!” This is the power to the powerless expressed in the famous picture of the Laughing Christ, from Brazil.
Compassion for the neediest (Psalm 147: 1-11, 20c)
It is this astonishing, gracious compassion of Yahweh, expressed in God’s care for the least and neediest, that gives rise to the psalm of praise in Psalm 147. The psalm echoes the twin themes of Yahweh’s power seen in creation, and that power expressed in compassion for the neediest. The new community that Yahweh is building in Jerusalem (v2) is a community made up of the gathered outcasts, the broken-hearted and the wounded. It is a community where the downtrodden are lifted up and given life (v6). As a result, Yahweh’s power as creator becomes the subject of the song of praise (vv 7-11) because the creator is the one who uses this awesome power to sustain and give life to creation.
Both these passages echo the theme of Mark’s gospel. God’s power is awesome and astounding. There is nothing like it in all of reality. So what sort of God is Yahweh who has such power? What the prophet and psalmist affirm is something that is made unmistakably and finally clear in Jesus: God is a compassionate God, a God of Life, who wills life for all of creation. All of creation! That means that God has a special care for the excluded and the marginalised. This is why the new community that God builds – the Kingdom – is always and necessarily a community where the least come first. This reversal shows that it is of God and from God, because it is so unexpected in its graciousness and invitation. It is no-strings-attached Good News of fulfilled time and the drawing near of the Kingdom.
The medium is the message (1 Corinthians 9: 16-23)
Small wonder, then, that Paul is so motivated, excited and passionate about the gospel! This is the best news ever! It is something that he cannot keep to himself. He is determined to do everything to ensure that everyone hears the Good News. But “hearing” is not just about an auditory experience! Paul is well aware of the factors that can either hinder or help people to “hear” in such a way that they encounter the Good News as something that converts and changes lives. He knows that the messenger is often the single greatest barrier to a good message! And so he sets himself the task of being, as far as possible, “all things to all people”.
This is not some sort of cynical sales pitch, or marketing ploy. It is about genuine contextualisation of the message and, more importantly, radical identification with his audience. It is incarnational ministry. Just as Jesus became a human being to identify with the hearers of the message, so Paul seeks to be in solidarity with his hearers. It means foregoing all of the privileges of his birth, nationality and status as a Pharisee. The Good News takes him to places and people he would never have dreamed of going. More importantly, it changes him. To identify with the Gentiles – the outcasts of his Jewish world – transforms Paul. That he did this effectively and sincerely is evidenced by the Christian communities that he founds – churches where the most impossibly different people manage to live together in genuine community. And none more so than in Corinth!
The reality of this community-in-difference is clear from the problems that are created! But in this passage, the focus is on Paul’s conviction that Christian communities ought to reflect God’s passionate concern for all, starting with the least first. His churches weren’t the collections of like-minded people from similar social, ethnic and national backgrounds that our churches often are. The recurring image that Paul falls back on is of a body – different, but equal, and each with as vital a part as the others in building up the body as a whole. Paul’s concern is not only to emphasise the importance of each, but to remind his readers that those parts of the body which we traditionally neglect or “despise” are of equal importance as the head and eyes and limbs – the more “seemly” members. Paul’s understanding leaves no room for middle-class churches made up of exclusive cliques. Church is not about holy huddles of close friends – it is about a genuinely inclusive community that contains such radical difference that it can only be the result of the Holy Spirit’s activity! It is the new community that springs from the announcement of the Good News of what God is doing in Jesus – news that we cannot possibly keep to ourselves.