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Preaching Mark 1:21-28

 

Hear the Word of God. Please! Hear the Word of God. The most critical first step I take in preparing to preach from a passage of scripture is to read it aloud. Our tendency is to rush to meaning. My plea is that we linger to hear.
When we read to ourselves in our heads, that is, silently, even if we think we are hearing the passage, even if we think we are hearing the passage in the sound of our own voices, we tend to move sequentially through the action in a narrative. This happens, then this happens, and then this. There is not the impulse to pause for effect or to let the astonishment, grief, joy, shock, or confusion take root in the heart or resonate in the consciousness. When we read to ourselves in our heads, we tend not to read in different voices, from different points of view. Especially when reading the gospels, stories we have read and heard countless times before, when we read in our heads we are inclined more to remind ourselves what is being said than to hear the passage again as if for the first time. It is impossible for any of us to recover our first naiveté with regard to these passages; we cannot go back and pretend we have not heard them before. We can, however, give the passage a chance to speak again in a fresh way.
The tried and true interpretations of this passage have to do with the authority with which Jesus teaches and the corresponding object lesson when Jesus casts out the unclean spirit. The hearers of Jesus’ teaching are astounded that he teaches with authority, and then an object lesson immediately presents itself in the presence of the man with an unclean spirit. Jesus demonstrates his authority.
Reading it aloud, I seek to emphasize a place that does not assume the tried and true interpretations. Jesus enters Capernaum with his newly called disciples. This is the first episode in Mark in which Jesus enters a synagogue on the Sabbath and starts teaching. Jesus teaches. Jesus teaches. The disciples do not yet realize who he is. They might expect to enter the synagogue and worship together, or listen, or learn from the town rabbis or scribes. But no. Jesus enters the synagogue, and he teaches. We might ask, even before the unclean spirits ask, “Who is this man?” We might ask, even before being astounded by his authority, “Who is this man that he enters the synagogue and begins teaching without so much as a single letter of reference or credential?”
According to Mark, Jesus calls his disciples, and then the first thing he does is go to worship on the Sabbath and teach. What is our first instinct in ministry? What tends to be the first priority in our churches? When people come to faith or first come to our churches, do we invest in their spiritual and faith education? When we gather the church leadership together for board meetings and annual and corporate meetings, what is the first thing we do? Do we teach? When working towards a mission statement or strategic plan, where is the emphasis? Is it in teaching the people of God about who God is in Christ?
We must concern ourselves with programs, membership, attendance, and budgets, of course. Authority, however, does not lie in these dimensions of the life of the Church. The unclean spirits do not become alarmed at programs or budgets. The unclean spirits become alarmed at this new person, this new teaching, the authority manifest in the person and presence, the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus did not claim authority. Authority is found in the truth, and the truth is in Jesus. The truth is Jesus.
Sermon ideas flow from this simple practice of reading aloud and emphasizing an atypical place. Jesus teaches. Jesus teaches. I imagine sermons that focus on such themes as the surprise of Jesus, the surprise of his authority; the teaching of Jesus as complete life re-orientation; finding the true authoritative teaching amid all the would-be authorities (a preacher can have an illustrative field day with easy and easily accessible would-be authorities!); learning to be a discerning people not because we are “spiritual” but because we are learned in the teachings of Jesus.
The other lectionary texts for the day support these potential sermons themes. Deuteronomy 18:15-20 tells of a new prophet, like unto Moses, who will speak the word of God. Many prophets came and went, but Jesus is the true prophet of God, the one who teaches and preaches only and entirely the truth, the one God honors with absolute trust, and the one towards whom deafness leads to death. The epistle reading, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, supports the claim that there is a difference between knowledge and knowing the things of God. One may know all the rules and regulations, such as dietary restrictions according to ancient Jewish law, but without knowing God, one does not know love.  If one does not know love, one does not know God, and if one does not know God, one knows nothing at all. “Knowledge” outside the truth of Jesus drives us and our world. Yet “knowledge” outside the truth of Jesus is useless. Even Psalm 111 converges with these themes. The psalm praises God for the wonderful deeds of the Lord that manifest the true nature of God. God’s word and God’s deeds are linked, each one demonstrating the truth of the other. “The works of God’s hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy” (v. 11). God’s teachings are trustworthy; God’s deeds are faithful and just. Jesus’ teaching is trustworthy; Jesus’ deeds bear that out.   

Nancy Lammers Gross
Arthur Sarell Rudd Associate Professor of Speech Communication in Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary
Princeton, NJ

                   

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