Sunday, January 29, 2006

4 Epiphany B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1b-13; Mark 1:21-28

“Don’t use words too big for the subject,” C.S. Lewis once warned. “Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

Perhaps had Lewis ever taught A.P. English, it would have been something like the class I was in my senior year of high school. “Don’t use words too big or too broad or too vague for the subject,” I can hear my teacher, Mr. Pell, warning. “Don’t say ‘the poem is great’ when you really mean ‘it’s as though the poem were written just for me’.” In fact, we weren’t allowed to use the word ‘great’ in class at all. Mr. Pell challenged us to say precisely and creatively what we meant, instead of ‘how’s your day? great…’ or ‘what did you think of the poem? great…’ He actually charged us twenty-five cents every time we said the word….well, you know, and on the last day of school he emptied the jar of change and went out and bought a new thesaurus for the classroom.

Words are so very significant. It’s amazing, don’t you think, that this jumble of shapes in black and white, this stream of sounds shaped by breath and lips, these words carry meaning across the space between people, whether on paper or through the air. Words carry meaning across that space allowing us to participate in one another’s lives and in the life of the world.

It’s easy to take for granted the meaning of words in our own language, until we come across a word we don’t know, or a new meaning of a word we thought we knew, or are forced to substitute words by English teachers. How very measurable that space between us feels, though, when we are surrounded by people speaking a language we do not know. And how very startled we are to learn meanings of words in different languages that seem to convey so much more than our own words do. For example, in Hebrew the word dabar means both ‘word’ and ‘deed’, such that to say something really is to do something. It was used especially to signify the creative word of God: Let there be light, and there was light.

Words are so very significant. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures, the Greek word logos is used in place of dabar. Logos also means both ‘word’ and ‘event’, and in Greek philosophy it signified the principle of coherence undergirding all of creation. In the gospel of John, Jesus is called logos, the Word of God. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

This morning’s gospel reading is from Mark, and although he does not use the word logos, he does show us in this first story of Jesus’ public ministry that Jesus’ words and action speak for God because Jesus is God.

The reading begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue, speaking with such authority that the people were astounded. But Mark doesn’t record a single word of that teaching; instead, he records the Word in action. Jesus rebukes a man with an unclean spirit, speaking with such authority that the unclean spirit leaves the man and the people were amazed. What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. To say something really is to do something.

This gospel reading is not about Jesus’ ability to astonish and amaze crowds. It is not about his knowledge of or insight into holy scriptures, which is what was taught in the synagogue. It is not about exorcism. This reading is about who Jesus is, this light that has come into the world and who, in the season of Epiphany, we are taught to see more and more clearly.

Mark chooses his words carefully. The people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching, for he spoke as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Scribes in the synagogue were not mere copyists – they were biblical scholars, charged with reading and interpreting scripture. Their authority was derived from their lifelong study of God’s holy word, as read and interpreted by the generations of scribes that came before them, and the generations before them.

But by the time of Jesus, the teaching of the scribes had become in many places rigid, binding, highly protective of the identity of the Hebrew people as God’s chosen people. They were in the promised land, but so were the Greeks, whose government and gods ruled the day. Out of….fear? Forgetfulness? Self-preservation? A need for control? the religious establishment put their trust in the word of God to define who they were (and who was not one of them).

But that’s not what the Word of God is for. In Jesus Christ, the Word of God was revealed to be not a ‘what’, locked up in parchments and memories, but rather a ‘who’, a living and breathing Word with a face like ours but a power beyond even our imagination. Nothing about Jesus was bound by any word, any knowledge, any establishment – in this very passage he’s healing someone of an unclean spirit on the Sabbath! Jesus is not bound by any word.

In Jesus Christ, the Word of God was revealed to be more than just a tradition, an ancient story of God speaking in the lives of a chosen people. Jesus was the Living Word, moving with us through time and space and skin and bones. Jesus was the Living Word, through whom God spoke love and lived love. To say something is to do something.

Mark does not make clear whether the man with an unclean spirit was possessed by demons or by that same fear or forgetfulness or sense of self-preservation that possessed the scribes. In either case, the distance between the man and the Word of God was measurable – they weren’t speaking the same language. Jesus’ casting out of that unclean spirit is considered by many to supply the meaning behind every miracle of healing he will perform. To make the blind to see or the lame to walk is great, but to heal our rigidity, our fear….to cast out the things that bind us, that keep us from hearing the Word afresh….to make us ask again and again in wonder, What is this? A new teaching, a new life, a new creation, a new spirit….that is astounding, it is amazing.

So how do we tell the world of the meaning of this Word in our lives, the Word spoken through the prophets, the Word made flesh? We can be so like the scribes, bound tightly to the stories we’ve always been told (or have always told ourselves), rigidly defining who we are and who we aren’t, who others are and who they aren’t, desperately reaching for what little control of life we can have. We can be so like the man with the unclean spirit, possessed by fear and a multitude of other things that separate us from God and from others.

But we are also the Body of Christ, part of a new story along that ancient trajectory of the love of an almighty and everlasting and creative God. The pattern of death has been broken, the boundaries of salvation have opened wide the gates, the distance between heaven and earth has been crossed, and we are united one to another as living members of that Body, of that Word.

Another of my favorite writers, Madeleine L’Engle, tells the meaning of the Word in her life like this. She suggests that we are like our mother earth, in constant revolution, always moving or we will die. If the earth were not in revolution, there would be no days or nights, no new mornings, and we would suffocate as the very air we breathe and everything else not firmly attached to the ground would drift away. But the revolution that sustains us is not reckless – it does not fling us into unknown space – because we are also on a trajectory around the sun, a path that does not falter around a source that does not waver. Madeleine writes, “As I understand the beauty of the earth’s dance around the sun, so do I understand the constant revolution of the community of the Son.”

What is this? A new teaching – with authority! In Jesus, the Word of God is as new as a baby who is both God and human, and as ancient as the first day of creation. The authority with which he speaks is that of one who is made of flesh and blood and of almighty and everlasting, with no measurable space in between. The healing he offers is that of driving out those things in us that refuse to hear the Word of love spoken since let there be light.

In the words of our own Saint Paul, let us now give glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to God from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever. Amen.

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