I know I say this a lot, but today’s gospel reading (Mark 1.21-28) isn’t a straightforward one for me. As a well meaning liberal, you can imagine how much I love the idea of writing about demonic possession. But the story omes so near the start of Mark’s gospel that it must be seriously significant in introducing who Jesus is, and what he’s about. Much as I’d like to, I don’t think we can ignore it. So, what does it tell us?
First, it more than hints that Jesus is more than just another Rabbi with powers of healing. Miraculous healings and teachers were not, in fact, unheard of at the time of Jesus. But this story hints also at the pre-existant Christ, the Word of God, the one present at creation, whose ‘Let there be light’ lit the fuse on the big bang, whose words breathed life into the universe. In this passage, words and actions tell the same story, demonstrate and prove the same divine power and identity. This story puts some flesh on the promise of the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: this is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. And it more than hints towards the second affirmation from heaven at the transfiguration, where the voice adds, ‘Listen to him’!
And this is what people had been waiting for: someone with the kind of authority that can only come from the Author himself, the Author of life, someone whose words and actions were equally of God.
The people in the time of the book Deuteronomy were also waiting for the same thing: today’s Old Testament Reading (Deuteronomy 18.15-20) is full of expectation, and yet full of warning that prophets will come whose words sound impressive, but are not proved by the action of God – it is only when word and reality match that the people can know for certain that the words are truly the Lord’s.
I sometimes wonder if we also wait for the same thing. We may despise hypocrisy – when people say one thing, and then their actions tell another story – but equally we may grow frustrated when politicians talk of reform and change, but solutions to economic and social crises continue to prove elusive.
The ancient world of Jesus’ time was beset by powers they could not control, frightening demons posessing friends and relatives, that science would probably now call epilepsy or schizophrenia, but which are still no less frightening than they were. And they were held in the grip of political powers they could not control, either: oppression by one foreign power, and then another.
How much has really changed? We may understand more, now, but I think in some ways, we all have moments of feeling helpless, either when faced with the complexity of our own lives, and feelings that there are things that we cannot control, or with the complexity of the world around us, and the very real fears about the direction that our civilisation is headed. We may not fear demons (or, perhaps we do?) but we do fear social problems spiralling out of control, we fear economic collapse, we fear the illnesses that so often seem to be the flip side of longer lives.
Maybe we too long for someone to come whose words are truly words of power, whose talk of solutions genuinely leads to change, who not only are congruent in their words and deeds, but who seem to be able to speak into the very chaotic systems and processes that frighten us, brinigng order and progress and healing to people, to nations, to the world.
That’s why the calling of the church, and of us as individuals, is to more than just living a good life, where our words and deeds match each other, and we are free from hypocrisy. Certainly, it helps if what we say about ourselves, and what we actually do, match, but what God asks of us is far more:
What characterised the prophets, and what characterised Christ uniquely, wasn’t that they, and he, were good people, who didn’t break promises, and who lived with integrity. It was that they were completely alligned with the will and purposes of God. So much so that their words of prophecy and promises of healing relied not on their own resources to be fulfilled, but on the loving power of God. Everything they did and said pointed towards what God was planning for the world.
If we are to be a prophetic church, and if we are to be a Christ-shaped church, then we have to be alligned with the purposes of God, with the will of God. This sort of intergity goes beyond congruence between our own words and actions, and demands that we are also at one with the character of God, and with what God’s love is already doing in the world, that what we say and do can point people to that. It was never about what the church can do on its own, or what we can do in our own power, it was never about finding our own words, making our own way. It was always about trying to hear and speak the words of God, trying to discern the action of God, and pointing people towards God by what we do and say ourselves.
We may still not know how to conquer the chaotic forces of the world – whether we name them literally as poverty, corruption, oppression, or whether we label them as demons, forces of evil. But we can be part of the way that God seeks to heal and change and reform. Finding out how is your task and mine, our joint project of discerning how God wants to use this place, and each of us, in his project of renewing the world.
Somewhere in here is a balance between ‘we must save ourselves’ and ‘we must wait for God to save us’. Somewhere in here there is a third option: ‘we must offer ourselves to God to that he can use us to save others’.
I’m reminded of two stories, the first is silly, the second, not so much.
Here’s the first:
A man was trapped on his roof by floodwater, and prayed to God to be rescued. Shortly after, a lifeboat came past, but the man shook his head, saying, ‘No, God is going to save me’. Then, a helicopter hovered overhead dangling a winchline and harness. ‘No thankyou, said the man, God is going to save me.’ Finally, as the flood waters reached this toes, the man saw one of his neighbours with a home made raft. ‘Quick, get on, friend!’ said his neighbour, but the man refused. ‘No, I am waiting for God to save me.’ When the man finally drowned, and met God face to face, he asked the Lord,’why did you not save me?’ And God replied, ‘I sent you a lifeboat, a helicopter, and a raft, what more did you want?’
Here’s the serious one.
I’m sure you all remember watching news reports and hearing and reading about the terrible Zebrugge ferry disaster. One of the stories from that event which emerged later, told of a man – not a member of the crew – who had taken charge of the panicking passengers, reassuring them, speaking with authority, and guiding them to the lifeboats, saving countless lives that would otherwise have been lost to panic. It was, apparently, the same man, who then went down to the hold, in which many people were still trapped, and became a human bridge, holding on to a ladder with one hand, and with the other to part of the ship that was almost submerged, allowing still more people to climb to safety. When the nightmare was over, that man was found to have drowned, having offered his words of authority, his actions, and finally his life, for the salvation of others.