January 31, 2021 “What Do You Want With Us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

“What Do You Want With Us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

Mark 1:21-28

It was Will Rogers that first coined the phrase, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” and this has proved to be true over and over again. I can’t help but think of the young doctor who was just setting up his first office when his secretary told him there was a man to see him. The doctor wanted to make a good first impression by having the man think he was successful and very busy. He told his secretary to show the man in. At that moment, the doctor picked up the telephone and pretended to be having a conversation with a patient. The man waited until the “conversation” was over. Then, the doctor put the telephone down and asked in the most doctor-like voice he could muster “So, how can I help you?” To which the man replied, “Ah, yes – I’m just here to connect your telephone.”

First impressions. In today’s gospel message, Mark tells us of the first time Jesus preached in the temple. This is the launch of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s gospel where he casts out demons and is received as “one who speaks with authority.” I think we all know that “first things” tend to set the tone for much of what is to come. David Lose tells us, “Little wonder, then, that interpreters have noted how the first scenes of each of the Gospels offer a preview of the [gospel writer’s] insight into Jesus. In Matthew, Jesus climbs a mountain to teach and interpret the law, like Moses. In Luke, Jesus announces that the Lord has sent him to proclaim good news, release, and healing, a message that exemplifies, [that stands for, that represents,] his ministry even as it is met with rejection. And in John the first thing Jesus does is multiply the wine and blessing at Cana, living into the ‘grace upon grace’ promised in the (beginning of John’s gospel.)“ In a way, all four of the gospels offer us a first impression depending on the person who wrote that particular gospel. So what is Mark meaning to show us here? If this is the start of Christ’s ministry in Mark’s gospel, what sort of ministry are we expected to find?

As much as I would like to dodge that question, I simply can’t. You see, I’ll admit to a certain reverence for the Gospel of Mark. It seems to be stripped bare of all the traditions and legalities of Matthew; it is free of so much of the speculation and history of Luke, and lacks the poetry of John. But Mark is the real deal – short and sweet and straight to the point. So when we look to gain a first impression of Christ’s ministry according to Mark’s story here today, I’d have to say two things: first, that Jesus of Nazareth spoke with authority because he was the ultimate authority. “I know who you are – you are the Holy One of God,” I believe is how it was said. And then 2nd, he came to oppose the forces of evil. That’s it, in a nutshell.

We who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ are not going to have an issue with the divinity of Christ; that his authority comes from God alone. That just goes without saying. Our belief and understanding that Christ is the son of the living God is the crux of our faith. Likewise, we’re OK with the idea that Jesus came to oppose the forces of evil in this world – whatever that is supposed to mean.

Now I don’t mean to be a wise guy here, but it seems to me that we’re not going to get anywhere here until we can come to some sort of agreement about evil in this world. When Jesus was interrupted by “a man with an unclean spirit,” how are we supposed to understand this? Is he truly possessed or just mad at the world? Is he on drugs, or maybe just having a really bad day? If we read the text, Mark is clear that this heckler is under the control – under the power – of something that means to do him harm. If I were to ask 20 people to put a name to that dark power, I would undoubtedly get 20 different answers. But here’s the thing: while all the people in the synagogue were scratching their heads trying to figure what this Jesus was all about, there was one singular crazy man who had no doubt. (vs 24)  “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Are you here to destroy us? I know who you are—you are God’s holy messenger!”

Jesus wastes no time in calling the spirit out of the man and restoring him back to normal. The thing that was causing him harm; the power that was robbing him of life was expelled. By today’s standards, it’s a weird story – I’ll give you that. But for the life of me, as I read on this and thought on this and prayed on this, that one singular question kept rattling around in my head: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” But no, that’s not quite right. What I kept hearing over and over was “What do you want from me, Jesus?” In those moments when my love of the gospel takes a back seat to the evils of this world: “What do you want from me, Jesus?” When I find myself gloating over another’s pain – another’s loss: “What do you want from me, Jesus?” When I’m besieged by a constant barrage of distractions and half-truths and half-baked conspiracies that mean to rob me of life everlasting; yet they still tickle my ears: “What do you want from me, Jesus? Do you mean to destroy me? Do you mean to take away my little guilty pleasures of judgement, of privilege, of giving a pass to the evils of this world?” And the answer is always the same: “I want you whole.” And to that other me that I keep to myself, he says, “Be quiet and come out of this man.”

We who live in the shadow of the cross ought to know all there is to know about grace and mercy and forgiveness. So why do we cling to the evils that continue to rob us of life; life everlasting? I imagine I’d need a psychology degree to touch that one, but we can give thanks that ours is a God whose love is greater than our stubbornness; whose compassion is greater than our indifference. Ours is a God who is not stingy with forgiveness. Ours is a God who knows our hearts. Ours is a God who loves us without condition.

David Bednar tells us that, “Knowing that the Gospel is true is the essence of a testimony. Consistently being true to the Gospel is the essence of conversion.” The months ahead will be trying. We’ll be pushed to take sides and we’ll be asked to bear witness to the “unclean spirits” that surround us every day. Might it be possible that one prayer might stay on our lips: “What do you want from me, Jesus of Nazareth? I am listening.”

Amen & Shalom

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