A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany (31/01/21): Not What He Does But Who He Is

Not What He Does But Who He Is 

Mark 1:21-28
“They were all amazed and kept asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with  authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” 
There is a profound irony in preaching. As a preacher I find my self doing the very thing Jesus doesn’t do. The thing which makes Jesus’ preaching distinctive is the thing that mine and every other preacher’s does not possess. We all preach, in the title of a famous book about preaching, “As One Without Authority.” Which is the very opposite of the way which Jesus preached. We all preach in a way that is the very opposite of what made his preaching so amazing to those heard it. Uncomfortably I find I have more in common with the scribes than I have with Jesus. I, all preachers, and indeed the whole of the church preaches with a borrowed authority. We “preach” with an authority that is not our own. The authority of our words and the testimony of our lives comes from somewhere other than  ourselves. I preach with the Bible open on the lectern in front of me. The authority of my speech depends on the Bible.  What I say commands attention only to the extent to which it witnesses  faithfully to what is there, in the Bible.  The authority of my preaching depends entirely on the authority we afford to this book. 
But there is more than that. It is not just anyone we permit to stand an speak, even with the Bible open in front of them. The authority of the preacher further depends on the authority the Church has given. This authority in conferred through accreditation or ordination. And such accreditation depends on testing and training. The authority of my words depend, in part, on the skills that I have acquired as a theologian, as a biblical scholar, as a composer of sermons and as a public speaker. All this in truth makes me and all other preachers little different from the scribes. Their authority depended on exactly the same sort of network of training testing, permission, and text. 
“What would Jesus do?” has been a popular question, but it is somewhat moot. In truth we cannot do what Jesus does. Because as individuals we are not Jesus. 
Over the last couple of weeks, if we have been following the lectionary, we have had stories in which Jesus at the beginning of his ministry has been displayed. Two weeks ago there was the story of Philipp and Nathaneal (which as it happens I didn’t read and preach on). In that story Philipp takes the news of an amazing encounter that he has had with Jesus to Nathanael. Nathaneal expresses profound scepticism that anything good could from such a  benighted location as Nazareth. Yet nonetheless Nathanael left the shade and comfort of the fig tree he was sitting under and followed Jesus. And again last week the story of the fishermen. One minute Simon and Andrew, James and John are at work in their family businesses, the next they have left the world they have known and followed Jesus at a word. But there is something missing from the Bible’s account. What neither of those stories can convey is just what it was about Jesus that made them follow. 
And now Jesus stands in the synagogue in Capernaum and speaks. And everyone who hears him is amazed. Again there is something missing from the Bible. Again the story cannot convey just what it is that is amazing about Jesus. It can only report that he has something that others don’t. It can only tell us that when he speaks his words have authority, they demand attention and they demand a response. And it can only tell us that this authority is not borrowed or acquired from somewhere else. The authority which Jesus has, he possesses on his own account.
We cannot do what Jesus does, because we are not Jesus. We do not possess whatever it was that makes him so remarkable. So the task of preaching, indeed the task of the church, is not necessarily to do what Jesus does, but rather to point what Jesus is doing. And more especially the task of preaching and of the church is to point to the authority that Jesus possesses to do what he does. 
That question of what authority Jesus has, how he does what he does, is quickly answered in the synagogue at Capernaum that day. Jesus performs an exorcism on a man possessed by a demon. Which for us probably creates more problem than it solves. Straight away we are plunged into a world that is not our own. We find ourselves in a world in which evil is real and personal, and waiting to seize hold of the unwary and the unfortunate. It is a world of spiritual forces and spiritual warfare. It is a world that seems very distant from our own. It is a world which we might think is hopelessly mythological, out of date and perhaps out of touch with reality. And faced with such a world, and faced with Jesus’ claim to authority made in it, we attempt to explain. 
We are tempted explain that the man’s condition was in reality a mental illness. Or say that the story which Mark tells is merely metaphorical, that it is meant to illustrate the kind of power Jesus possesses. We do what Jesus doesn’t do. We make his authority dependent on something else. We make it dependent on our ability fit Jesus and what he does into the way we already think the world is. And as it happens that is a world in which we think evil isn’t personal and demonic and in which, of course, miracles don’t happen. 
Except the man’s illness isn’t really a mental one. And Jesus’ cure doesn’t fit any picture of  therapy or recovery that we could recognise in the world which we’re trying fit Jesus into. And that is just the point. Jesus’ hearers in that synagogue are amazed. They are amazed because Jesus doesn’t fit their preconceived understanding of the world either. Jesus shatters their and our notions of how the world is. He brings something new and something different. We should be amazed by him rather than try and fit him into what we already know! 
 
Interestingly Mark hardly reports what Jesus says. On this occasion there is not a word about what Jesus preaches. The point Mark is perhaps trying to make is that it is not what Jesus says that is so  remarkable. It is not really his words that make the difference. 
Again something we try to do with Jesus, to fill in the gap we perceive and to lend him some authority. So we are tempted to claim that his teaching is qualitatively different from all other spiritual  teaching. Yet what Mark has told us so far in his Gospel is that Jesus’ teaching is essentially a continuation of John the Baptist’s. And what Mark shows us is that John and Jesus have much the same message as the prophets. Indeed there is little that is truly unique or stunningly original about what Jesus says. The point which Mark is trying to make is that what is different about Jesus is not what he says, but rather how he says it, which is to say, what is different is who he is. 
The demon knows before anybody: “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?” it asks. Part of evil’s power is to recognise that which is not evil.  It recognises what threatens it most. Here evil sees and recognises pure, unambiguous goodness, the very presence of God. “I know who you are” says the demon, “the Holy one of God.” The demon knows, whereas the congregation only dimly perceive, that there is a profound and intimate connection between Jesus and God. When Jesus speaks he speaks with his own authority, an authority that he possesses as his own, but that authority is the authority of God. Evil is powerless before him. It cannot remain in his presence. With a word it is dispatched and leaves with a great cry. 
The task of preaching, indeed the task of the church, is not to explain Jesus. But rather it is to convey who he is. It is not to explain Jesus, or to account for what he does, or justify his authority by fitting him into what we already think is real. The point of the church, curiously, is not to persuade, but rather to portray and embody who Jesus is. The task of the church is to know and convey the disruptive power that is present in him. We are to show that Jesus is who he is and that he has the authority to set us free from the power of evil. 
There is a difference between ourselves and the scribes. There is difference between them and our lives and our preaching. That difference is at the other end of Jesus’ story. It is in his resurrection and it is in the coming of the Holy Spirit. We may not be able to do what Jesus does. But the Church is what Jesus is. The amazing presence of God’s speech and God’s authority in the world. 
Amen. 
Not What He Does But Who He Is by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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