Sermon for Epiphany 4B, preached on January 29, 2012.
Mark opens with John insisting Jesus has it all wrong – John knew how it should be and he should be baptized by Jesus – not the other way around. It continues with fishermen who drop everything to follow a Jesus about whom they know little (and even though they were with Him three years they continued to define Jesus according to their own ideas instead of listening to Him). Now we find a crowd shocked because of Jesus’ teaching with authority and His cleansing of a demoniac. In the end, the crowd was left with but one question: Who is this Jesus?
It is still our very great temptation to define Jesus for Him instead of listening to Him. We shave off His rough edges and try to make Him palatable, reasonable, and winsome. Today we are more likely to make Him into a good buddy, a BFF, a Facebook friend as near or distant as we want Him to be. But Jesus refuses such characterizations and such attempts to manage Him.
We want a sage, a wisdom teacher to answer our questions or, perhaps, a moral leader to show us what is important about life. We may look at Him as an example of what we should be if we ever grew up. But Jesus refuses all of these characterizations or stereotypes.
We may also try to make Jesus into a Santa Clause who can help us to have it all – successful life, great family, lots of personal time, and the ability to set high and lofty goals and reach them. But Jesus will not conform to our expectations or our definitions. He refuses the trivial ways we try to explain Him or make Him more reasonable or manageable. The Jesus of the Gospels is and should be as astonishing today as He was in that synagogue we heard about in the Gospel reading for today. In the end our stereotypical characterizations of Jesus add no clarity and lots of confusion – distorting the picture Jesus Himself gives us of who He is and what He has come to accomplish. We cannot know Jesus at all unless we know Him as He has revealed Himself.
He is the Divine Word that spoke forth in creation to bring all things into being and yet He is this Word in flesh and blood. Jesus is the Lord of life and of death who manifests His power and authority over the kingdom of darkness as well as the kingdom of light. Jesus is the Lord with authority to speak, to teach, and to act. Even His friends and followers are confounded by who Jesus is, what He has come to do, and how He has displayed His power and authority. Jesus is His own interpreter, He defines Himself.
He comes not for fame but to for faith. He comes not to be served but to serve. He comes as Lord of all and yet He makes Himself known in humility and compassion for the individual. Jesus has authority over all things and yet He uses that authority to serve us unworthy and undeserving. He is God of all and yet He is the Lord over each individual person. The people of old found Him hard to predict and unlike anyone who had come before Him. Do we?
We meet Jesus not where we expect to find Him but where He has revealed Himself. “He comes to us as one unknown,” says the hymnwriter, yet He makes Himself known to us through His gracious Word and His grace filled works. The demons knew Him but His own people knew Him not. His Word surprises us with unexpected authority and power we did not expect. His preaching is not clichéd slogans like we are accustomed to hearing but the living voice of one who does not know the Word but IS that Word. This Word can shut up and demon and cleanse the person from its power.
Dear friends in Christ, we cannot afford to handle Jesus as if He needed someone who manage Him. We cannot afford to box Him in and weaken His power by limiting His authority. We cannot simply label Him or define Him – we need to listen to Him and follow Him. He has His own voice and He is His own best interpreter. He reveals Himself on His own terms. It is vital that we realize this early in faith lest we spend the whole rest of our lives trying to find Jesus where He cannot or will not be found.
We meet Him on the sacred ground He has chosen – the living voice of His Word and the living food of His sacraments. If we are willing to let Jesus define Himself, we will see that He is a mighty and determined God. Hidden in weakness is strength, hidden in gracious favor the rebirth of our lost hope.
Jesus is astonishing not because He is smooth or interesting or crafty or winsome. He is astonishing because His Word does what it says. That is His authority. He does not speak about forgiveness as if to give us hints for success but His Word takes the filthy rags of our sins and makes us clean. He does not speak evil as if you can make peace with it or live with it. He calls forth the evil and rebukes the lord of darkness and all his works and all his ways. Jesus does not talk about life as if it were a matter of finding the right path, He forges through life clearing for us a path that leads right through death to life everlasting.
You notice that the response of the people was not applause or accolades but the question: Who is this Jesus? And what kind of authority does He wield? If we listen to His Word and do not find it shocking and astonishing, perhaps we have not heard Him at all. He calls forth what is unclean and evil and commands it, cleansing us from its claim in baptism. My biggest fear is that we hear the Gospel and yawn when we should be as shocked and astonished as the people of old. For what Jesus came to do, He still does – He forgives sin, He delivers from evil, He bestows the Spirit to bring forth faith, He clothes with righteousness, He gives new birth and eternal life. What a tragedy that the demon knew who Jesus was while the people were caught up in surprise! What a tragedy that we hear His voice speaking through His Word and miss His revelation, power, and authority!
Jesus will not be tamed or domesticated. He will not be defined or pidgeonholed. You meet Him on His terms, where He reveals Himself. If there is any sadness for us as people of God, it is that we have worked so hard to declaw Jesus that He no longer surprises us or amazes us or astonishes us. When that happens, we no longer know Jesus at all and are far, so far, from His kingdom. Amen.