Epiphany 4 - ‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.’ By Mother Jo Winn-Smith
Mark 1:21-28 21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.’ 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26 And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
‘It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.’ so sang Bananarama and Fun Boy Three, if you’re from my generation, or perhaps you remember the original, as sung by Ella Fitzgerald. That certainly seems the case with Mark’s Jesus. We hear very little of Jesus’ actual teaching in Mark’s gospel – perhaps the community to whom he was writing had that in a separate document or oral traditions or even memories of some of its members – but what Mark wants us to hear is how Jesus taught.
He taught with authority. Mark is at great pains to tell us how Jesus isn’t like the other rabbis, relying on precedents or quoting the glorious utterances of the big names of yore. No, Jesus teaches with his own authority. He wouldn’t get very high marks in a theology essay, not using quotations from primary or secondary sources! But rather, the implication here is that that wouldn’t matter. The way Jesus speaks is so jaw-droppingly authoritative, that you can’t help but be captivated and amazed and have your mind blown by the clarity and power and authority with which he speaks.
And you have to remember the context of all this. This is the very start of Mark’s gospel, and this is the very start of Jesus’ ministry. He’s been prophesized – so placed in the context of God’s eternal plan – he’s been baptised, tempted, started gathering his co-workers – and then the first proper foray into ministry that we are given a glimpse of sets the tone and framing and clarity of purpose that Mark wants us to understand for the rest of his gospel. Jesus has authority, so much so that the truth of people is revealed (and the demons flee), and who he is, is revealed in all this – and that is ‘the holy one of God’.
This witness, placed right at the very start of the ministry of Jesus, makes just one simple, clear point. Jesus speaks the about the ultimate reality of things, which has such power and authority, and knowledge, and clarity, that it reveals in us too who we are. Evil, seen in the unholy spirit, knows it, and flees from him, it cannot bear his presence, and cannot be where he is. And everyone else is left with their jaws on the floor.
In all the mess and uncertainty and fear and worry and loneliness, and boredom and relentlessness, and restriction of lockdown and the pandemic, can you let the fog clear and know deep down in your soul who Jesus is, what is the ultimate reality, and what is the heart of the universe? Fear and sorrow can overwhelm us, make our own minds cloudy, but Jesus’ voice of love and forgiveness, mercy and hope, is a clarion call that cuts through the mist, piercing its uncertainty.
On Tuesday, during Candlemas, with Simeon and Anna, we will be invited to acknowledge the Saviour that Jesus is, and in so doing, let our hearts rest and be at peace and be willing and able to know that should we not wake, we will have known the ultimate reality and truth, and can let go.
At times, the fear and uncertainty of being in a pandemic can feel overwhelming, and yet if we sit still and pause for a moment, and breathe, opening our hearts, the reality of death and our experience of Jesus has the opportunity to coalesce and come together in giving us clear and certain knowledge. What is that knowledge? What is that teaching?
God loves us. God is there for us. In the good times and the bad, God longs for us to turn to him. God forgives us and has mercy on us. Our task is to acknowledge the reality of who he is, and let him change us, turn our lives around. That’s what repentance involves and means.
There’s almost a strange honesty in the unclean spirit. Encountering Jesus, he knows the truth and ultimate reality is revealed in him. He names it, but then takes the alternative response. When Jesus asserts his authority, the demon flees.
‘Be silent!’ he instructs. ‘Come out of him!’ he orders. What is going on here? How is this love and forgiveness, mercy and hope?
Let’s unpack it. Firstly, Jesus loves this man – he wants him healed and cured. He wants his life to be transformed. His love and compassion for the man is not a soft, ineffectual feeling, it’s demonstrated in clear, decisive action. Love is not a feeling. Love is demonstrated in behaviour and deeds.
Why does he say, ‘be silent’? – surely, he is the Holy One of God? It’s important not to forget who is saying that. A demon, an unclean spirit, a spirit who knows it is antithetical to, and in opposition to, all that Jesus is. Naming someone is a way of identifying them, and in ancient times reflected authority, having power of the other, of controlling and defining them. Jesus is not going to let this spirit keep control of the conversation, he’s not even going to let it continue. ‘Silence!’ shows his power; ‘leave him!’ shows his authority.
But it’s more than that. ‘Holy one of God’ is literally the one set apart by God. Behind this is something Jesus does elsewhere in the gospels. He both denies and affirms it but in ways we can’t anticipate. He redefines what those words mean. Why yes, he is set apart, of course he is – he couldn’t be holier. But also, he is not at all. He is, as we now know and affirm, fully God and fully human. He is not apart, to the extent that he comes alongside us, he is very necessarily human, and he is in utter solidarity with us.
As we sit here reading (listening), whether feeling lonely or sad, sick or depressed, hurting or raging at the state of the world, despairing and incredulous at the numbers of death in our country, angry and glowering over economic exploitation in our world. When we remember the squandered PPE contracts, the companies sacking and rehiring staff on worse conditions, the restructurings of organisations that penalise the poorest and protect those who toe the party line, the conglomerates that capture the market yet fail to pay tax by registering offshore.
Jesus comes alongside you in solidarity, in all your pain and confusion, and speaks the truth and demonstrates his authority, and silences the evil and the parasitical.
Don’t succumb to the domesticated safe Jesus, meek and mild with porcelain skin, flowing gold locks, and beatific smile. Jesus raises a glass with those on the edge of society, Jesus knocks over the tables of those who would exploit or defile, Jesus calls out the sophistry of the proud, the puffed-up and the self-congratulatory, and Jesus heals, makes whole and gives life to those who are suffering, touching and loving them, showing compassion and justice, demonstrating his love and divine authority.
As CS Lewis put it in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, ‘Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’
He’s the King. He’s our king. He’s the one on whom we feed on him in our hearts with thanks at the Eucharist; the one of whom we say at the end of our service, go in peace, to love and serve the Lord.
Loving and serving the Lord, means being like him. Ask the spirit to make you holy – pray for God’s guidance, for a desire to worship him, meditate on the scriptures, be formed into his likeness. Then love as Jesus did – with compassion, particularly focussing on those who are suffering or maligned or discriminated against. Stand up for justice, reject othering, discrimination, judgmentalism, and exploitation. Don’t buy clothes made in sweatshops, don’t eat food produced from animals farmed in factory conditions, don’t feast your eyes on newspapers and social media that spew hatred and racism and homophobia and sexism. It’s remembering to buy extra for the foodbank, it’s gently and openly sharing your faith, it’s thoughtfulness, care, and generosity of our time, and to the degree we can, with money. It’s bothering with the kind word, the affirmative word, the encouraging word. It’s praying for those who we find difficult, who have been unkind to us, and those we disagree with. Some of this is hard, some of it gets easier, but by God’s grace, and led by the spirit, it’s what we’re called to do, and enabled to do, and do because that’s who we are.
Jesus spoke with authority. He came with compassion and forgiveness. Those who hear him, can’t help but respond. Even, and maybe even more so, in this time of lockdown and pandemic, we need to go and do likewise. Amen.