A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

In the first letter to the Corinthians appointed for today, Paul tells the people of Corinth, Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
(I Corinthians 8:2-3)

Knowledge puffs up, LOVE builds up.

Today’s Gospel is from Mark. There are two things about reading Mark’s Gospel that for me stand out right away.

First, the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, is written with urgency. In today’s reading we are only 21 verses into the whole Gospel and Jesus is a full-grown man who has already been born, baptized by John, spent 40 days in the wilderness and gone out and gathered up disciples. In the other synoptic Gospels, it takes Matthew three chapters and Luke four entire chapters to get to this point.

And second, I find it is easy to identify in Mark with the disciples Jesus gathers along the way. Because I know about Jesus. I get it. And I can get might “judgy” about the people in Mark’s gospel who do not know Jesus; like the people who are encountering Jesus for the first time, like the people in Capernaum from today’s story.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

New Testament scholar Luke T. Johnson beautifully sets the stage for how one can approach reading the Gospel of Mark…

If you think you are an insider, you may not be, if you think you understand the mystery of the kingdom and even control it, watch out; it remains alive and fearful beyond your comprehension. If you think discipleship consists in power because of the presence of God, beware, you are called to follow the one who suffered and died. Your discipleship is defined by HIS MESSIAHSHIP in terms of obedience and service.
(Luke T. Johnson, Writings of the New Testament, page 158. Published in 1946)

Johnson goes on to say that it does little good to try to figure out who the bad guys are in Mark’s narrative, who Mark is taking aim at. He’s talking to us. We are the ones in need of the Holy One who has come to make God’s presence in our very midst known.

In this very first public action of his ministry as told in Mark, Jesus sets about both teaching and healing at once. Although the text does not share what Jesus taught. Only that he did so with an authority, with a power that was new to the hearers.

This story is not one I love trying to tell children.

Why don’t I love retelling this to children? Well, demons. If anyone is particularly excited about broaching this subject with children, they probably ought not to be around children. There is no doubt in my mind that children have an understanding of evil, but when you name it as a demon it gets tricky. For them and for us adults, too.

The original hearers of this Gospel would not have had the same backstory you and I bring to hearing about an exorcism, no images from horror movies flashing in their heads. Talking about demons was not out of the ordinary. It was a common way of naming that which was not of God.

And in today’s gospel “that which is NOT of GOD” knew good and well who had the power in the room when encountering Jesus. “Have you come to destroy us?” he asks. And all Jesus has to say is BE SILENT. And “that which was not of God” left the man restored to be fully the beloved child of God he was made to be. Jesus possessed, possesses, the power, the authority to call out what is not of God and send it off. This is what got people talking.

The urgency with which Mark speaks is apocalyptic, not that Mark is describing the end of the world in a fiery ball, but that Mark is revealing to the world the power of Jesus. And that power looks markedly different from what we often associate with authority.

Jesus is not puffing up himself with his authority, he is building up the world, revealing the nature of God’s love. Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel tries to keep the talk about him to a minimum, avoiding the limelight, telling his disciples to zip it and not talk too much about him.

Jesus, whose life and ministry leads to the cross, is clear about where His authority comes from. FROM THE LOVE OF GOD. And as theologian Elizabeth Schlusser Fiorenza says, he does so with “steadfast resistance” to anything – any demonic force, any political or religious construct, anything at all – that would seek to do anything else but BUILD UP all of God’s people. Jesus moves through Mark’s Gospel story in “steadfast resistance” straight to the cross. Straight to sacrificial love. To the cross where we learn what power and authority look like in the Kingdom of God.

Our Tuesday book group has just finished reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It is a beautiful book and I highly recommend it. The story follows a family of four girls, their mother, and their missionary preacher father as they travel into Congo. The father, Nathaniel, is hell bent on saving the residents of the village, determined to get them all down into the crocodile-invested river to baptize them. He feels he has the knowledge about Jesus that these villagers need, hollering through sermon after sermon AT them. And he is incredulous as to why they won’t accept his heavy-handed invitation for a baptism in the river and a chance to be taken under by a crocodile.

Nathaniel throughout his time in Africa sought to overcome others with his knowledge of the authority of Jesus, rather than demonstrating Jesus’ “steadfast resistance,” Jesus’ transformative, restorative love.

His time there was not spent walking toward the cross like Christ, serving in love. Instead, Nathaniel seemed to be standing at the foot of the cross screaming about the authority that he knew about, but they did not. His insistence on his knowledge kept him from building anything. In fact, he destroyed his family, the village, and himself in the process of trying to prove himself right.

In thinking about who I might hold up as someone who has lived their life in “steadfast resistance” to that which keeps us away from the love of God, I came up with a several people, well known for resisting hatred and violence in this world. And thank God for them. But it seemed more important to me to think about people whose “steadfast resistance” goes largely unnoticed.

Are there people you know whose lives have been built on love, sacrificial love? I believe there are many known to us. People who day in and day out quietly serve those in need and in doing so are quietly walking the way of the cross. People who without fanfare or fuss do something to bring God’s love into this world no matter the cost to themselves. People who know what it feels like to be possessed by a demon, to be held captive by that which is not of God – hatred, greed, self-harm, self-loathing – who have been freed through God’s love, restored like the man today. And they take that freedom and offer it to others in humility, not on authority.

The world is filled with people like this. We are surrounded by them, known and unknown.

As we hear the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark throughout this season and this lectionary-year cycle, I want to listen with humility, like I am an outsider, one ready to live in “steadfast resistance” to anything that is not of God.

I pray that we hear THE GOOD NEWS in Mark as Jesus’ power and authority are revealed on his way to the cross and build up this world in love.

Amelia McDaniel