Weekly Preaching: January 31, 2021

January 27th, 2021

Two thoughts I stumbled upon preparing for this week’s lections: Joel Marcus’s clever way of framing his insight that the demons in Mark’s Gospel “seem to experience a fatal attraction to Jesus,” and St. John Chrysostom’s familiar but compelling appeal on how to win over skeptics: “Let us astound them by our way of life.” But first, a quick glance at two other texts.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 bears the curious promise that God will raise up a prophet like Moses. But 16 chapters later, Deuteronomy says no prophet like Moses has ever shown up. Christians wink and say Not yet, haha… but rushing to Jesus from Moses is a bit bland, doesn’t let Moses just be Moses, and also has a tinge of anti-Semitism hidden in there. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 is Paul’s intriguing counsel on what you can and can’t eat —  and why — as a young Christian in a Greco-Roman city. He sounds like Socrates at first (“Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge”), and then warns against the gnostic tendency to get “puffed up” (what a lovely, vivid image). You could craft a pretty good, if a bit moralistic, sermon around how one’s liberty causes others to stumble. But I’m going Gospel this week.

Mark 1:21-28. Tourists flock (or they did pre-COVID!) to the synagogue in Capernaum. Photogenic as it is, what we see is a later synagogue of gleaming white limestone built right on top of the floor of the black basalt synagogue of New Testament times. What a great image: the preacher guides the people in looking beneath the surface of things, and it’s a little bit darker, but more real under there. Jesus is a young man in a hurry in Mark. Everything happens “immediately.” It’s urgent – although in this case, to say Jesus “immediately” entered the synagogue is simple fact. Archaeologists discovered Peter’s house, where Jesus stayed, and it’s literally about a dozen steps from the house to the synagogue!

They were “astounded” by his teaching. Not “they nodded in agreement,” but they were astounded. I’ve never astounded people much. If I try to be astounding, they wag a finger in my face and tell me I’m mixing politics and religion – which is easily decipherable code for You said something that doesn’t suit my political ideology! At the Festival of Homiletics a couple of years ago, I preached a sermon on this text – for clergy. I mentioned that Annie Dillard said that, if we thought about the Gospel, we should wear crash helmets at church. People nod – but their heads are uncovered. I called it “How to be amazing in the pulpit” – although it’s about us being amazed, as if we’re amazed, astonished, astounded, onlookers might be too. If we aren’t, they won’t be.

Hugh Anderson wisely reminds us that “Mark wanted to show that when Jesus taught, things did not stay as they were, but God himself was on the move against all evil forces of the world.” The reason can only be that talk uncovers the hidden reality of spiritual forces, good vs. evil, God vs. the devil. There are ways to speak of this today without implying the devil is a red guy with a pitchfork breathing fire. People are puzzled by politics and society and other people; can’t we see this through the biblical lens that it’s not just one bad decision and then another, or stupidity, but actual vile forces that would undo us all. I used to worry people would think I was crazy if I mention evil forces; but nowadays people nod. It’s really the only thing that makes sense – and gives us hope, since God is steadfastly laboring against those forces, and they surely will be defeated.

Almost comically (and Mark is poking gentle fun at the demons), the demons in the guy recognize Jesus – when the pious can’t figure it out! Joel Marcus cleverly points out that it would be smart for the demons to keep a low profile. But they have that “fatal attraction” to Jesus. Jesus must have been attractive, for why else would the fishermen simply drop everything and traipse off after a near total stranger? The demons too find him alluring.

Jesus, never as sweet and gentle as we fantasize him being, says to those invisible forces of evil, “Hush!” The Greek, phimotheti, is slang, coarse, sort of cursing, more like “Shut up!” or as Marcus suggests, “Shut your trap!” God always wants silence, right? Be still and know that I am God (Psalm 46), Jesus stilling the storm, the quiet Elijah heard after the storm on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19). The racket of the world is racket. The noisy rancor of political ideology, the clamor of marketers to get you to buy something, anything. The hollering in your head that you’re no good. Name plenty of loud evil spirits, and in your sermon, embody Jesus saying to them phimotheti! Hugh! Shut the hell up! Maybe omit hell.

I have no real clue how to be an amazing preacher like Jesus. I am amazed by Jesus. And I do wonder how we might be an amazing church. If Jesus was amazing, maybe Jesus now, the body of Christ, Jesus on earth in ecclesiastical form (his only form now), can be amazing, astounding – which is where Chrysostom comes in. Instead of a church where nice people do nice things, or we drop off a few canned goods, which even the pagans do, maybe we astound them. Unsure how that would happen or what it would look like where you are. But raising the question might be astounding enough to open the window. Here’s Chrysostom’s full quote: “Let us astound them by our way of life. This is the unanswerable argument. Though we give 10,000 precepts in words, if we do not exhibit a far better life, we gain nothing. Let us win them by our life.”

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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