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“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.” The anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark, puts these words into the mouth of Jesus, and now we have to deal with them; or do we? I’ve been struggling all week with today’s assigned gospel reading. I was sorely tempted to change the reading. I usually only put our Contemporary readings in the service bulletins. But, let me confess, the only reason I put the full text of today’s reading in the bulletin, was to ensure that I didn’t cop out and change the readings. If it’s in the bulletin for everyone to see, we have to use it and I can’t just ignore it.
I remember, a few years ago, running into an old friend from high school, who was surprised to discover that I had become a pastor. He said to me something like, “you always seemed to have your head screwed on back in the day. How can you stand all that hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo?” His words have haunted me as I’ve struggled to figure out what to do with this text.
Hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo indeed! The dictionary defines hocus pocus as “meaningless talk or activity, often designed to draw attention away from and disguise what is actually happening. Hocus pocus actually came into usage in English from a Latin phrase that would have been familiar to everyone who has ever heard the Mass in Latin: Hoc est corpus meum which means “This is my body.”
According to the dictionary, mumbo jumbo is defined as: “language or ritual causing or intended to cause confusion or bewilderment.” Or: “words or activities that are unnecessarily complicated or mysterious and seem meaningless”
The anonymous gospel-storyteller’s tale of Jesus preforming what sounds very much like an exorcism certainly seem meaningless to our 21st century minds. Last week, after I we did a bible study instead of a sermon, one of you commented that they never see any of the stuff I pointed out, when they read the bible by themselves, that’s why they don’t read the bible anymore. “It’s too complicated! I don’t know the history, so it just confuses me.” So, when I started preparing today’s sermon, I thought here we go again, more complicate and misleading words. What hocus pocus must I preform to reveal the body of Christ to the body of Christ? What am I supposed to do with this unclean spirit? I was so tempted to just exorcise this demon from our worship. Sure, I could find all sorts of commentaries and sermons that went on and on explaining away this unclean spirit as some sort of victim of “mental illness.” Which when you think about, this is one way to deal with the reality that most of us, dare I say all of us, don’t really believe in demonic possession and don’t want to have anything much to do with someone who goes around the country preforming exorcisms. Twenty-first century, Canadian followers of Jesus tend to ignore the first century stories about demons and exorcisms.
As tempting as it is to explain the demon in this exorcism away as a suffer of mental illness, I’m not convinced that that helps us any. Because if the “unclean spirit” is mentally ill, then, the story asks us to believe that Jesus had the power to heal the mentally ill simply by commanding the illness to “Be silent and come out.” OK, we all know that that can’t happen, right?
So, in the spirit of the great New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, “why did the writer of this text tell this story the way he told this story.” What was the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Mark trying to say to his first century audience? We all know by now that there’s usually lots going on between the lines of the gospel texts. The stuff between the lines is what keeps people like me employed. It is after all my job to read between the lines. So, let’s move beyond the words on the page and venture beyond the literal to see what we can discover in the more-than-literal interpretation of this text.
Jesus and a few of his disciples travelled to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath arrived, Jesus strides into the temple and taught. Jesus, a wandering itinerate preacher waltzes up to the pulpit. Now if you look closely at the printed word, you will note that “They were astounded at Jesus’ teaching.” Now look farther into the word astounded and you will discover the Greek behind the translation which is more accurately translated as, they were amazed and in a state of panic. Peering between the lines, I have to ask, what could Jesus possibly have taught them that sent them into a panic? Try as I might, I’ve never been able to send any of you into a panic with my teaching and I’ve never been sent into a panic by any of my teachers, no matter how astounding their teaching may have been. What’s going on here, beyond the words on the page? In their panicked state these folks managed to recognize that Jesus taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. The scribes were the religious authorities of the day. Somehow, Jesus has managed to teach something that rang so true that his listeners were prepared to recognize Jesus as an authority even as they rejected the established religious authorities, and this sent them into a panic. I want to know what Jesus knew! Why doesn’t the gospel story-teller tell us what it was that sent this congregation into a panic? Is the anonymous gospel story-teller that we call Mark setting his audience up? And if so, what is he setting them up for?
“Just then 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.” Remember we have moved beyond the literal to the more than literal. In this realm beyond the literal, could it be that the unclean spirit is us? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” For just a moment, let the unclean spirit’s questions resonate in your being.
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.” What does a first century itinerate preacher have to do with us? We’ve all read his teachings. We pretty much know that our way of life is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus, right? I mean really, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is one thing, but loving our enemies? Right? If someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt also? Right? Non-violent resistance in the face of violent oppression? Right? The realm of God is at hand; the first shall be last and the last shall be first? Right?
I mean, Jesus the sacrificial victim who is sent on a cosmic mission to die for our sins, this Jesus turns our focus toward the after-life and pretty much allows us to continue on business as usual, because after all this Jesus is God and we are not God, so let’s just stick with the scribes the religious types who are more concerned with life in heaven than they are with life on earth. If we seriously look to the teachings of Jesus, life as we know it changes radically, now there’s something to panic about. Jesus’ teachings, if we listen and take heed, why our whole way of life will be destroyed. If we really know who Jesus is, if we really believe that Jesus is a holy man, and we have the courage to take his teachings seriously, then we ought to panic. Radical LOVE, the kind of LOVE that Jesus talked about is not the sweetness and light that we desire. Radical LOVE is astounding, terrifying, panic inducing stuff.
According to the anonymous gospel-storyteller Jesus responds to our panic in a far from comforting manner, Jesus rebukes us: “Shut up!” The Greek is clear…”be silent” just doesn’t capture the mood. “Shut up!”
Shut up and come out of yourself. Come out of your selfishness, your obsessive fixation on your own needs. Come out of the madness that threatens the planet. Come out of your hate filled insistence upon violence as the only answer. Come out of your endless greedy obsessions that perpetrate injustice. Shut up! Come out of your insanity.
Jesus’ harshness in the face of our response to his teaching cuts us to the quick and if we are not convulsing and crying loudly, then perhaps we haven’t heard Jesus. We ought to be panicking and asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Aye, there’s the rub. You’ve got to hand it to that anonymous gospel story-tell, that guy we call Mark, he sure set us up. Jesus commands even us, and we obey him. Well some of us maybe. Not so many of us really.
Have I gone too far? Maybe. Have I gone far enough? Maybe not. If you’re not astounded, if you’re not in a panic, then we haven’t yet made it beyond the page. “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.” What have you to do with us? Indeed? Are we simply willing to be entertained by your exorcisms or are we prepared to be exorcised? I wonder?
What will it take for us to come out of ourselves? Jesus managed it. Jesus loved so greatly and taught so clearly and courageously that he was able to set people free. In Jesus we have seen a glimpse of what is possible. Jesus was LOVE in the world.
What has Jesus to do with us? Everything! Everything, if we only have the courage to come out of ourselves; to come out of ourselves to become LOVE in the world. LOVE in the name of the ONE who is our LOVER BELOVED and LOVE ITSELF!