The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
Readings: Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Psalm 111; Revelation 12.1-5; Mark 1.21-28 (view all)
At school, there were always two kinds of teachers: those who carried themselves with authority and those who, sadly, just didn’t.
I remember particularly a married couple who both taught history across the hall from one another at my secondary school. They were both very different, the one classroom being silent unless you were answering a question, and the other always full of joyful chatter, sometimes even with the radio on in the background. Both teachers had the respect of their classes, and both carried significant authority, but in very different ways.
In this morning’s gospel reading, we’re told that Jesus ‘taught as one having authority’. I wonder, how did Jesus use this authority, and what can we learn from him to apply to our own lives, and our world, today?
A couple of our readings today are quite challenging, and the practical details of our gospel reading in particular provoke a lot of questions: What exactly was wrong with this troubled man? Was he really demon-possessed, or did he have epilepsy, or mental illness? Are spirits or demons real? And how should Christians understand the nature of evil?
These are all great questions to discuss together over your Sunday roast! I could very easily attempt to use this time to address the problems that our own modern ways of thinking bring to the scriptures. But if I did, we would miss the real point of this gospel passage.
The real subject, and what Mark wants to reveal to us, is Jesus’ authority, and its significance.
Through his teaching in the synagogue, Jesus is establishing himself as the one God spoke about to Moses in our Old Testament reading, ‘I will raise up… a prophet like you from among your own people; I will put my words [in his mouth], who shall speak to them everything that I command.’
But Jesus isn’t just presented as a great teacher — his words are followed up by his actions. He doesn’t just speak with authority, but also acts with authority and compassion when he encounters the troubled man. He rebukes and casts out the unclean spirit, setting free a man in desperate need of liberation.
It is this combination of words and action, which the crowds around Jesus find so astounding: ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey…’
Through the story of Jesus’ confrontation with evil in Capernaum, Mark wants us to see the role that, as his ministry continues, Jesus will play in the story of the entire universe, and the age-old battle between good and evil on a cosmic scale.
It is this cosmic vantage point that John offers us in the graphic imagery he uses in what is a very complex passage from the book of Revelation. He offers us the image of a woman in the birth pangs of labour, symbolising the long painful waiting of God’s people for liberation, all the while hounded by the dragon, which represents the malicious and insidious influence of evil.
But as they complete their works, both the Revelation of St John, and Mark’s gospel, present us with Jesus, the ‘Holy One of God’, who time and time again demonstrates his authority over the powers of darkness, and, through his death and resurrection, has defeated them once and for all.
So, I wonder this morning: Will we place our trust in Jesus, entrusting ourselves and our whole lives into his hands? Will we, as his Church, not just speak but also act with authority, and compassion, to bring freedom from injustice and evil wherever we see it taking root?
How can we, together, live as a prophetic witness, and be a sign of hope in the communities of our ministry area, and in our city, the nation’s capital?
Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day, when we commemorate with great sadness the atrocities committed against the Jewish people by the Nazi regime. Sadly, the Church’s response to the evil of Hitler’s government was mixed, with some choosing to appease the government in the hope of garnering favour and protection.
However, among those who both spoke and acted against this horrific regime, was the great Pastor and Theologican, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who later paid the ultimate price dying in a Nazi concentration camp. He famously wrote,
Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act..
Through word and action, Jesus demonstrated his authority over all the powers of evil. May we join him, hearing his call to bring hope and justice to our world, so often full of darkness.
who in the beginning
commanded the light to shine out of darkness:
we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ
may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,
shine into the hearts of all your people,
and reveal the knowledge of your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.