Words that work miracles! (A sermon on Mark 1: 21-28)

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And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. 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.” (Mark 1:21-25)

I don’t know how many of you have been privy to the book that Bob and John are working on – a definitive history of the parish of Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill – but I can tell you that, having read some of the drafts of the early chapters, it promises to be a very entertaining publication!

I know I am often depicted as one of the more flamboyant and colourful characters of the ecclesiastical scene in Sydney but I can assure you that I pale in comparison to some of the clergy who were associated with this congregation in days gone by – men like James Clarke and George Chambers and Digges la Touche!

You’ll see these men’s faces in portraits near the front door of the church building as you enter, and there’s a stained-glass window dedicated to Digges who, despite his French name, was a fiery Protestant Irishman, a gifted preacher and theologian and who was, interestingly, referred to in his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘The Fighting Padre’ (January 22, 1916)!

The title was associated with Digges’ action in the First World War. For those who don’t know, Digges felt determined irresistibly drawn to fight in the ‘Great War’ – even to the extent that, having been refused a position as a chaplain, he enlisted as a private and as shipped off immediately to Gallipoli.

Apparently Digges had a premonition that he would not survive the war – giving away his entire theological library before he left – but I doubt if even he knew how quickly that would happen. Apparently no sooner had he disembarked than he was thrown into an assault, and apparently he barely got his head above the trenches before it was shot off!

I was reminded of Digges by today’s Gospel reading – primarily on account of the speed at which everything seems to descend into chaos. Once the Sabbath arrives, ‘immediately’, we are told, Jesus enters a synagogue and starts teaching and ‘immediately’ a screaming, crazy man comes stands up and starts heckling and harassing Jesus!

This sort of immediacy is characteristic of Mark’s Gospel, and it reflects the Gospel-writer’s impression that once Jesus entered the fray, the violence started to escalate very quickly (as it did for poor old Digges). Form the very moment Jesus arrived on the scene He was stirring up trouble! That should not surprise us. And it should not surprise us either that the trouble begins in the middle of a worship service.

Jesus was preaching in the synagogue, we are told, and it seems indeed that the disturbed man begins his tirade during Jesus’ sermon! We are not used to that sort of thing here, and I’m sure that’s a bad sign.

I’ve been here almost 25 years and I am yet to be heckled during a sermon. People are generally very quiet during the sermons here. We did have one dear old soul, of course, who was completely deaf and she used to make a racket at times by talking to herself, particularly if the sermon went on a bit too long, but I’d hardly call that heckling, and she certainly wasn’t standing up and screaming at the preacher as this guy was.

It’s a bad sign that it doesn’t happen here though, and I don’t mean by that that I’m looking for people to stand up and start heckling, but surely the fact that the sick and the mentally and spiritually unwell gravitated towards Jesus and couldn’t but feel conflicted in His presence reflects the fact that Jesus ‘had authority’, as Mark puts it, and they knew that wherever Jesus was preaching, that was the place where their issues could be resolved!

The showdown, as depicted in Mark’s Gospel, is as brief as it is spectacular:

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. (Mark 1:25-26)

It’s a bit like watching a showdown between Clint Eastwood and some nameless gun-slinging punk who has been hired to take him out. We know who is going to win this battle long before the pistols are drawn. In a standoff between Jesus and a demon, the synagogue ain’t gonna be big enough for the two of them, and we know which one is going to have to leave!

The whole scene goes pretty much as expected, right up to the point where we hear the reaction of the crowd. Mark says “they were all amazed” (which doesn’t amaze us) but then he goes on to say, “so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!”

‘What is this? A new teaching?’ (Matthew 11:27) That is not what we would have said, is it? It’s a bit lame in fact, isn’t it?

  • “This is amazing”, we would have said, adding whatever expletives grabbed our imagination at the time!
  • “This is spiritual authority in action.”
  • “This is more like it!”
  • “This is the guy we’ve been waiting for!”

All of the above, perhaps, but “a new teaching!” … I don’t think so! Surely there’s more going on here than some fresh teaching!

I know I’m biased at this point because the very word ‘teaching’ in this context is a sort of trigger-word for me that reminds me of everything I like least about my church tradition.

Anyone who has been a part of the Sydney Anglican church for any length of time knows that we (as a whole) take pride in our tradition of ‘good teaching’.

If you’ve ever been to gatherings of Sydney Anglicans you’ll know that this is how individual parishes are assessed in our tradition. “What is the teaching like in your parish?” people will ask, in order gauge whether your parish should be taken seriously.

This bothers me enormously, as no one ever asks “what’s your parish doing to stop the war?” or “are the poor and needy benefiting much from the work of your parish?”

You’ll remember when John the Baptist sent his people to Jesus to assess His godliness – “are you the one who is to come or do we wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3) – Jesus replied “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good new preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4-5). If John’s delegation were made up of Sydney Anglicans this would not have satisfied them. They would have replied “but is your teaching any good?”

Perhaps the congregation at Capernaum, at any rate, were Sydney Anglicans (or the proto-Sydney-Anglicans, at any rate) because their interest does seem to have been in Jesus’ teaching, and lest you think that their response – “What is this – a new teaching?” – might simply be a poor translation of some ambiguous Greek or Aramaic words, check out the earlier translation featured in the King James Version: “What is this? A new doctrine?”

‘Doctrine’ is the sort of thing that doctors of theology work on as they try to put together creeds that distinguish the two natures of Christ or the triune nature of God – all very useful, of course, but hardly hands-on ministry! And so we don’t ask doctors of theology how many sick or possessed people they expect to heal through their work, just as we don’t ask someone who has performed some miraculous healing what doctrine they had been working on when they were interrupted!

Doctrine and healing, theory and praxis, are normally at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, aren’t they? We have teachers and academics at one end, doing their important (but inevitably boring) work of analyzing the minutiae of Scripture and tradition, while healers, deliverers, freedom-fighters and pulpit-pounding preachers are at the other, more dynamic, end of the spectrum. And yet you get the feeling here that in the mind of those who saw Jesus at work, this distinction didn’t really exist.

‘What is this? A new teaching?’ At the very least we would have to say that this question reflects the fact that however else Jesus’ contemporaries perceived Him – as a social activist, a trouble-maker, as a spiritual guru or as a miracle-worker – they also saw Him as a teacher. And indeed, if you look at the many titles attributed to Jesus and the many ways in which people refer to Him in the New Testament, the most common title He was given was in fact ‘Rabbi’, which means ‘teacher’.

“What is this – a new teaching?” That is the great question that is posed in this first chapter of this earliest of the Gospels. And the truth is that it was a new teaching. It was indeed!

I’m not wanting to exaggerate the gap between our Old and New Testaments, as I’m not wanting to suggest that the message and preaching of Jesus was disconnected from the teachings of the priests and prophets who went before Him. Even so, there was something entirely fresh and different and unmistakably new in the teaching of Jesus, and that was immediately obvious to everybody who encountered Him!

What was that new teaching of Jesus? Personally, I think that Jesus’ new teaching can be summed up in three words: you are loved!

This is the new teaching that supplements the old teaching that ‘all good children go to Heaven’. You’ll forgive me if I’m over-simplifying things but I don’t think there’s any need to over-complicate them either.

The new teaching – that we are loved – replaces the old, or at least it supplements the old teaching that all good children go to Heaven but assuring us that God has a place for us bad children as well!

This is the new teaching of Jesus and, as simple as it is, it has power! This new teaching has power to heal! It has power to drive out demons! It has power to cure shattered minds, to mend broken hearts, to stop wars and to bring true comfort and peace to individuals and to communities and to nations, if only we have the ears to hear it!

There was a poignant statement made by the great play write, Arthur Miller, as he reflected on the latter part of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He was fearing for her life, as he watched their estrangement and her growing paranoia and dependence on barbiturates. He said, “I found myself straining to imagine miracles. What if she were to wake and I were able to say, ‘God loves you, darling,’ and she were able to believe it! How I wish I still had my religion and she hers.”

Good doctrine can be a powerful healing force. I love that saying that is regularly attributed to St Francis – “preach the Gospel at all times, and if you have to, use words” – and yet I’m conscious of the fact too that Jesus did use words, and that His words work miracles!

I mentioned earlier the book on the history of this parish that John and Bob are working on. Another thing that I learned from their drafts is that the walls of our church have indeed been no stranger to persons battling their own demons. Indeed, the very first rector of this parish, James Clarke, struggled enormously and was apparently arrested in 1893 was when he was found running naked through a paddock, shouting and gesticulating! He was another ‘fighting padre’, I think. He didn’t win all his battles either.

In truth, we don’t win every battle. We struggle, we fight, we rise and we fall, but the word of God and the great truth of the new teaching of Christ remain.

 

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 1st of February, 2014.

Click here for the video.

Click here for the audio.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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