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4 Epiphany: A reflection on Mark 1:21-28
To pick up on the theme of story-telling
from last week,
whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark
understood that every good story
crackles with tension.
A story without tension will put us to sleep.
By the way, Mark,
who is the featured gospel editor this year,
is by far the best story-teller
of the four Gospels.
Today I will point to one literary feature
Mark employs that the other editors did not,
but he also is more immediate and thrifty
with his story-telling.
And not by coincidence,
his is the earliest and shortest gospel.
So the tension in a story,
which is critical to its telling,
may be suspense
but whatever the tension
it keeps the audience guessing
or somehow wondering
what will happen.
Mark has a narrative feature
someone, somewhere labeled, the “Messianic Secret.”
Here is how it works in Mark’s narration.
The bad guys know who Jesus is
but the good guys don’t.
right from the beginning
which we see in today’s story,
recognize Jesus right away
and so do his persecutors –
like Pontus Pilate and the centurion.
But those people who should recognize
who and what Jesus is
Jesus’ own family does not recognize him.
In fact, in chapter three,
Mark includes an incident
in which his mother
sends his brothers and sisters to get him
and bring him home
because they think he is “possessed.”
As in possessed by a demon.
If that does not resonate with your understanding
of the relationship between
Jesus and his mother,
then you haven’t read Mark closely.
In Mark, there is no idyllic
and the family dysfunction is hanging out
for the entire world to see.
It is part of the editorial tension
and causing the reader
to remember our own family issues.
Another example, is that Jesus besties and bros
don’t recognize him either.
We would think his students and close friends
would be all over it, but not so much.
Jesus’ disciples, including Martha and Mary
and the other Mary (not his mom),
continually misunderstand him.
They do not get the meaning of his pointed parables.
They stand by, right next to him,
as the bad guys and demons say stuff
that should be a clue – but they remain clueless.
All of this is part of the tension.
It makes us curious and then impatient
to find out when they are going to ‘get it’
or if they will ever get it?
And if they don’t come to see, why not?
it is the same with the religious leaders
and wise ones
who don’t get Jesus either.
It seems like they should.
As they earnestly inquire,
make hostile challenges,
and openly condemn Jesus,
Mark’s audience is asking,
”why can’t they see what we see about Jesus?”
It is part of the tension
putting us up against Jesus’ detractors
and wondering what would happen to us,
and would we perceive Jesus
if we didn’t have Mark to tell us the story first?
From the very first sentence of Mark’s Gospel
we are told that Jesus is the Messiah,
and all through the story
the bad guys know it
and the good guys
either come to it slowly
or fight it tooth and nail all the way.
That is the tension.
So today’s story
captures the Messianic Secret perfectly.
Everybody is wowed by Jesus
who, it says,
speaks as one who has authority;
meaning his voice –
what he says and where it comes from within him –
is powerful and compelling.
But this is confusing to the hometown crowd
because they know him.
Capernaum is where Jesus has his house
and where he works,
and he has been among his neighbors
in their little synagogue
hundreds of times.
Now he speaks?
Now, all of a sudden, he has something to say?
Now he is going to preach to us?
They know this guy
but have never heard him talk like this before.
They know him – bought pomegranates and figs
from him yesterday.
NOW he talks like this?
They might even had thought he sounded good;
made sense even.
In fact, it’s that he was incredibly compelling
that raises their antenna.
They aren’t quite sure he should be teaching them.
Where is he get all that stuff anyway?
Who died and made him King?
You and I know this tension
that Mark is evoking here,
because we have felt it ourselves.
Sometime or another,
listening to someone speak from the pulpit
or reading them in journals
or newspapers or books.
When someone we are listening to
or reading sounds good,
has a resonant voice
that seems to arise from a place of knowing,
and yet, it is telling us something
we disagree with
or maybe that we suspect is true
but don’t really want to hear it.
When that happens, we get confused
and conflicted –
it’s when our knowing and unknowing
attack one another.
are taking hits from unexpected people and places
it makes us teeter a little bit
and we don’t like it.
That is what is going on
in the audience at the synagogue
as Mark describes it.
Then suddenly the demon appears.
“Get back Jack!
Don’t hurt us, Jesus.
We’re outta here, just leave us alone.”
Now with the appearance of a demon
there are two little things to notice in the exchange
between good guy and bad guy.
First, it is plural – more than one demon.
We are not left to guess about how powerful Jesus is
because he has just taken on a company of demons
and lived to brag about it.
Mark is reminding his readers
even as those around him are confused.
Then Jesus says to the flock of demons,
“Shhh! Don’t tell anybody.”
That is the “secret” part of the “Messianic Secret.”
Mark leaves little doubt
that Jesus doesn’t want people to know
who he is or what he is.
That is another tension.
We want to know why the secret?
Why wouldn’t you want people to know
who you are, Jesus?
Isn’t that why you came in the first place?
Hey, enjoy the celebrity while you’ve got it?
What’s wrong with a little fame?
Don’t hide your light under a bushel, dude.
That tension goes to the grave with Jesus.
Mark never resolves it for us
nor does he tell us why Jesus wants it a mystery.
We are left to guess
as if we know when we don’t really know.
So there this a disturbing
yet wonderfully compelling idea
embedded in the gospel.
It also offers us an unexpected turn
if we are brave enough to take it.
If we think of the demons
as that part of ourselves we are afraid of,
then what might we learn
if we got curious to know
what our demons afraid of?
It is a bit like a double negative:
If we identify what our demons fear
will it lead us to something good?
I tested it out on myself.
One of my demons
is the voice of the “Critical Parent.”
The Critical Parent
and never satisfied.
It’s the voice that rains on the parade
when someone offers positive feedback.
“Thanks,” we say, but immediately
say to ourselves, “Yeah, but he or she didn’t see
what I missed or what I could have accomplished
if I had done it right in the first place.”
I suspect you know the voice I’m talking about,
even if it is only a solo voice for you
rather than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
inside my head.
But what if we asked
what the Critical Parent afraid of?
What does he or she fear?
This hyper-critical voice inside
operates from a rigid world-view
with a prescription
for how to do things.
fears its own undoing.
To accept that one is loved and affirmed
with all our imperfections
is to melt the brittle mold
of right and wrong
good and bad
perfect and incomplete.
What this critical demon fears
is the loss of control and security
glued in place
by its own prescriptions.
Very likely, prescriptions it inherited
from previous generations of critical parents.
For us to listen to what our demons fear
gives us a hint
of where we might need to walk.
If our demons fear the light
then perhaps that is where we need to go.
If our demons demand we stand in the light
perhaps they fear the darkness
and we would do well to explore the shadows.
In the story of Mark,
it is the demons and bad guys
that guide us
to discover who Jesus is
and what he came for.
Low and behold,
in an odd and sneaky way,
that may be true for us as well:
perhaps being curious about own demons
and what they fear,
can lead us to know ourselves
and what we are here for.
Like Jesus’ audience in Mark,
when we come to these stories with our own ideas
about what it means
and what it should say
and how it should end,
we might be blinding ourselves
to what it actually says.
Our pre-set ideas,
inherited from the voices
of many angels and demons in our past,
may cause us to miss the voice of Jesus
as it speaks to us
from its dance
between the text and our own lives.
Our pre-set ideas
can cause us to resist the voice of authority
when it speaks to us
because it does not sound like we expected it to.
It doesn’t say things we thought it should say,
or it stirs confusion in us
with the tension between what we expected to hear
and what we are actually hearing.
When that happens, perhaps what we need to do
is look around for our demons
and listen to them.
The demons that chatter within us,
and those that squawk in the world around us –
what are they afraid of?
Perhaps we should get curious about their fear
and see if maybe,
there is some wisdom hiding in there
with our names written on it.