Here we are, halfway through this Epiphany season. In perusing through some of the Revised Common lectionary texts I noticed for the first time that we, the church, spend nearly this entire seven week season of Epiphany in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel. For a gospel that is very much about being on the move – forty times in sixteen chapters the Greek word for immediately/at once/then occurs – this seems counterintuitive.
It is not, though, if we consider that Epiphany is the season for the church to try and get its head and heart and life around just who Jesus is and what is the good news he heralds and (spoiler alert!) is. It’s all there in the first chapter of Mark, so it is here we sit and ponder for a while.
Halfway through Chapter One, we’ve already seen John’s prophetic preaching, Jesus’ baptism, Jesus’ temptation in the desert, John’s arrest, the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the announcement on which everything turns, and the calling of the fishermen disciples, Simon (Peter), Andrew, James and John. Now, be prepared to be amazed and astounded. Not in the ways that parlour tricks elicit but in the “Holy crap!” evoked by an encounter with the living God at Horeb (Deut.18:16, Exodus 20:18-19).
Now the voice of the LORD and that great fire are distilled into Jesus whom we can barely bear, striding amongst us. With his as yet incomplete band of disciples, Jesus goes to the town of Capernaum, teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The people are astounded by the authority with which he teaches. The living embodiment of the Word has no need to reference earthly authorities: he is the Authoritative Source. People take note, heads are turned, a man with an unclean spirit cries out…
Unclean spirit: 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.
Jesus: Be silent [a.k.a. “Shut up”] and come out of him!
And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
All are amazed. At once his fame began to spread, a fame he will race to stay ahead of, so he can accomplish what he came to do before it destroys him (though, as we know, it doesn’t end there).
The unclean spirit immediately I.D.s Jesus. If we were watching this as a movie (an action one of course, given we are in Mark), we would move in slow motion through the last words spoken by the unclean spirit: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
“I know who you are…” This is where the North American church is called to linger, because to know who Jesus is is to know the good news that he himself announces. Jesus is the Holy One of God, speaking the Truth to the whole world that it might be free. Later, in Jesus’ Resurrection, comes the resounding answer to the unclean spirit’s question, “Have you come to destroy us?”…YES! – and the power of death too while he is at it.
This is a knowledge the church is called to steward and live by in the love and humility that Paul advocates in I Corinthians 8. It is intriguing – and hopeful – that in the gospel of Mark, it is the unclean spirits and people who immediately identify who Jesus is and what that means. The disciples don’t get it, possibly even in the end (if you go with 16:8 as the end of Mark) and yet, the church exists. When we lose our way – The Way – there are those who can help us find it again. God has promised to never leave us alone, for the sake of the world God so loves.
In the Pacific Northwest – the most secular part of North America – in Canada, I have participated in the life of a congregation, facing impending death, which took as its theme song Psalm 111: “…to give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.” Having dwindled to only a small gathering in a cavernous sanctuary built for so many more, the congregation decided to return to its roots. They sold their building and began, as they still do, to rent worship space out of the seminary from which it had been born. Then they decided to focus what energies and resources they did still have on the worship and praise of the God revealed to us in Jesus the Christ.
This might not be surprising for a Roman Catholic or Anglican congregation but was, you must understand, a radical move for a congregation of a denomination that prides itself on its work in social justice and who once easily had the ear of the national political leaders (so much so that it is called the United Church of Canada rather than, say, “in Canada”). In focusing on worship, University Hill congregation had gone back, not to the roots of its former recent glory, but to its roots in the psalms, in the praise and worship of God and God’s great saving acts. There are children there now and the promise of a future. With them, the congregation is seeking to learn who and whose it is through the stories of our shared faith. It is discovering its true life, living in the recognition of who Jesus is – the Holy One of God – and may yet proclaim the good news to the very seminary that hosts it, which now faces a state of financial exigency.