Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sermon Sunday 22 July 2012, Isaiah 6:1-10, Mark:1-20, The Soil and the Seeds, Bruce

Mark’s first example of Jesus’ teaching – the parable of the sower. But not even his disciples understand and he has to explain.

Welcome to the seventh in a series of sermons exploring the first eight chapters of Mark’s stories about Jesus.  We have seen that the crucial question is “Who is Jesus?” and after that, how will we respond to him?  While we were told in the first verse of the first chapter that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, this is not widely known, and puzzlingly Jesus does not seem in a hurry to reveal who he is.

There is currently a programme on ITV inviting us to vote for the Jesus we want ... the soulful Jesus, the acting Jesus, the rock-star Jesus.  We saw last week that Jesus, as he really was, upset his family, who thought that he was mad, and the teachers of the law, who thought that he was in league with the devil.

We saw also last week that Jesus recruited twelve of his followers to be with him, and then to go out preaching the kingdom and to drive out demons.  They were to continue and expand his work of preaching the kingdom and summoning people to obedience.  Anyone who obeys the will of God is a family member - his “brother, sister or mother”.

And then he tells the parable of the soils.  A casual reading of the parable would suggest that Jesus is telling us to be careful to avoid being shallow soil or weedy soil.  Instead we are to be good soil and bear fruit.  You know the sort of thing: buck up your ideas and pay attention, or Satan will whisk my words from your minds.  Well, if you are expecting a lecture this morning, then you can relax, as I suspect that Jesus is doing something different here.

Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, has just appointed his twelve apostles, and he is here alerting them (and us) to the fact that it will not all be plain sailing.  Jesus himself has experienced great success in preaching, healing and delivering folk from the power of Satan, but he has also encountered unbelief, disobedience as the people he healed refused to keep quiet, as uncontrollable crowds have mobbed him, and as his family and the religious authorities have rejected him.  

So Jesus tells a story about a familiar scene - a sower and his seed.  This matters to his hearers because if there is no harvest, there will be nothing to eat.  The seed is the word of the kingdom.  This is problematical to his first century hearers, almost politically incorrect.  Surely a kingdom is brought in by might or political power?  This is precisely the route that Jesus rejected in his confrontation with the devil.  The sowing of seed appears weak and vulnerable, but actually there is great power in the growing thing.  Plants can break up concrete and transform landscapes.  So the word, proclaiming that God is King and announcing that we must fall into line with this and obey (believe and repent), is the way that Jesus will transform the world.

This parable is a parable about parables.  You will observe that in many reading schemes the middle section is missed out:

Mark 4:11-13

11 He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables 12 so that,
“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,  and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”
13 Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?

Jesus has obviously been reading Isaiah 6,

Isaiah 6:9-10

9 He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
10 Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

We love to sing of the grandeur and holiness of God: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes”.  There is a mystery that God will not overrule us or force us to believe.  If we are determined not to believe, then he reserves the right almost to cooperate with us in allowing us to reject him.  To those on the outside (remember last week?), God’s ways look mysterious and forbidding.  To any who are seeking after good, he reveals himself and welcomes us in.  Some people would like to select a different Jesus who makes no demands and is a gentle comforting presence.  The parable suggests that we come to Jesus as Lord, master, boss, ready to it in with his will.

The reality is that we do not understand God, but that we know that he is good.  The reality is that God is in charge, but we do not always see it now.  The reality is that Jesus ached to see his Father’s will done here on earth as it is in heaven, and gave his life to achieve that.  The reality is that we encounter many setbacks and disappointments but we are confident that there is good soil and God will reap his harvest.

  • And so it is true that we share God’s love with some folk and they appear totally oblivious.  
  • It is true that if we are determined to live linked to Jesus we can expect to be ridiculed or treated badly (but we do not face the depth of persecution endured in some cultures, and we also should not go out of our way to provoke trouble).  
  • It is undoubtedly true that as soon as anyone starts to follow Christ, all sorts of distractions come in the shape of a new demanding and rewarding job (or perversely the loss of our job), in a new relationship (or the break up or lack of an existing one), in hobbies and pastimes that are good in themselves but take our time, energy and money, forcing Jesus into second or third place.  People we thought were our friends (even within the church) seem to act in ways we find hurtful and we are smothered by our feelings of resentment.

Who here is good soil?  I do not know.  Most of the time not me, as I struggle with all the temptations and distractions that are common to us all.  The good news is that these problems seem designed to help us to develop perseverance, and this leads us to develop a character like Jesus, and this gives us hope, and this does not disappoint because God has taken the initiative to pour his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit.  (Romans 5)  If you want to be good soil, then you can be, and will be as you allow him to work in you.  It is not a matter of you choosing Jesus but allowing him to choose you and make you special.

Discussion Starters
  1. What do you receive as the primary meaning of the parable of the soils?
  2. If asked “Who is Jesus for you?”, what response would you give?
  3. When facing problems and difficulties, does it make easier o more difficult to follow Jesus?
  4. How does this drive our prayer lives?

Sermon for Sunday 15 July 2012 Mark 3:13-35, REJECTION AND VICTORY, Bruce

Mark names 12 ‘Apostles’ appointed by Jesus, and makes their function clear. They are to be his close companions, and his ‘missionaries’. Jesus has now attracted such publicity that his own family has become involved. They are as dumb-founded as everyone else and conclude that he is ‘out of his mind’. The religious experts attempt to brand him as an agent of Satan, but are conclusively rebutted. Jesus has bound Satan (the ‘strong man’).

Are you in or are you out?  In this passage Jesus has contact with five groups of people - the crowds, those he calls as his apostles, his family, the teachers of the law, and us.

We have seen in previous weeks that Jesus has become famous far and wide for proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near and that we should repent.  He has demonstrated the power of God’s in-breaking kingdom by healing the sick, cleansing lepers and driving out demons.  In a society where there is no medical understanding as we would be familiar with it, crowds of people flock to be with Jesus and be blessed by him.

He chooses twelve - a significant number.  We today are not so caught up with the meaning and importance of numbers, but choosing twelve was almost a political statement that Jesus was restoring the wholeness, the completeness of the ancient nation of Israel.

And who were these twelve?  Peter, the leader, went on to betray him.  James and John are firebrands - warm-hearted people who always seem to be starting fights.  Matthew (if he is the same person as Levi) is a tax collector working for the Roman regime while Simon is an anti-Roman revolutionary.  And Judas ….

The twelve are far from ideal specimens, and any competent selection process today would filter them out.  Yet these are the people Jesus chooses to help him bring in the kingdom.. They are chosen to do two things.  They are to be WITH him.  They will live, walk, talk, sleep, breath with Jesus for the next three years.  And they are to be SENT OUT by him to preach and drive out demons.

After making his selection, Jesus hits a familiar problem.  A crowd hears that he is in town and mobs him and his disciples to such an extent that they cannot even get a meal.  To his family it must have seemed that religious zeal and devotion had tipped over into hysteria and delusion.  What was strange and wonderful when Jesus was a boy of twelve now seemed dangerous and embarrassing.  For his own protection they needed to take charge of him.  Have we come to terms yet with the fact that Jesus is not just a polite, gentle teacher who will do a little to make this world a little bit better?  Jesus is in fact a revolutionary, come to announce a new world order, where God is in charge.  He is not a comfortable person to have around.  All of our actions, our habits, our attitudes, are held up for examination and challenge.  If Jesus is in our lives, if we are encountering him and growing in him, then we cannot just carry on as before in the same comfortable way.  That is why some people would like to cordon Jesus off into a safe, manageable place where he is a teacher or a good moral example.

Others, of course, would like to reject him entirely.  The teachers of the law cannot deny that Jesus is performing powerful works of deliverance and exorcism.  As they cannot admit that his power has come from God, they are forced to postulate that Jesus instead is motivated by the power of the chief of the demons.  Jesus demolishes this first with common sense - if Satan is fighting Satan, then God’s kingdom must indeed be coming.  But second Jesus was proclaimed in chapter one by John the Baptist as the more powerful one who was to come, and revealed in the wilderness as the strong man who overcame the devil and his temptations; faced with the vanquishing of Satan, the only correct conclusion to draw is that Jesus the strong man has arrived.

Verse 28 is important.  We can be forgiven all our sins, and every slander we utter.  There is no limit to God’s forgiving grace, except in one case.  Those who see God’s forgiving grace and call it evil miss it.  They are in the position of one who will not receive a life-giving operation from the most gifted surgeon because they are self-deluded that the surgeon is a cold hearted killer.  They have placed themselves outside the circle of God’s grace.

Also outside are Jesus’ family who have now arrived at the house.  They send a messenger in to summon Jesus, who is seated inside with a circle of people around him.  Time for another shock.  In a society where loyalty to family is one of the highest ideals, Jesus cuts his family completely, saying that those who do his Father’s will are his true family.

Robert spoke last week about openness to God’s ways, and the implications that this has for the renewal of our building.  This week we see that underlying that, is the call to be with Jesus and share his life, and to be sent by him to preach and share his power with those around us.  We are to encounter him and grow in him.  We are to be a growing community of faith, open for all.  We are to live and breath his kingdom come, his will being done, on earth and in us, as it is in heaven.  The only response to the news that the kingly rule of God has arrived is to want to fall into line with it.

Discussion Starters

1. Who do we feel most sympathy for in this story - fallible disciples, sceptical and embarrassed family members or scandalised religious traditionalists?
2. What are some of the ways that we can experience being WITH Jesus?  Discuss how we can experience this today.
3. What does it mean to you to be SENT BY Jesus?  Discuss how this might work out in your circle of friends and acquaintances.
4. Do you submit to Christ as Lord?  Where do these words come from, and how do you respond to them?

Friday, 6 July 2012

SERMON 8 JULY 2012. THE SPIRIT OF THE LAW NOT THE LETTER. Exodus 20 : 1 – 17 Mark 2 : 23 – 3: 6 Robert.

This summer we are preaching a series of sermons on the first half of Mark’s Gospel, and this is the 5th in the series. It features a clash between Jesus and a sinister combination of religious and political leaders, which ends with them making the first moves in a plot to kill him which will eventually culminate in the crucifixion.      Word has reached the religious establishment in Jerusalem that, up in Galilee, there is a totally unauthorised teacher and healer, in the style of the prophets of old, who is behaving as if he has been specially anointed by God to bring in God’s sovereign rule on earth, and is attracting to himself vast crowds and enormous popularity. This is deeply offensive to the established religious leaders from whom he has no mandate, and politically dangerous as it could threaten the delicate balance that preserves a finely drawn line of semi-independence from Rome.

It seems that they send a delegation up to Galilee to see what is happening and put a stop to it. We are beginning to see them challenging Jesus’ authority and actions at every turn, and when their challenges fail to stop him in his tracks, they begin to consider more drastic ways to get rid of him.

From our point of view as readers, it’s interesting that Mark has several times drawn our attention to the authority of Jesus’ teaching, but for the moment we mostly learn about his teaching – not in records of his preaching – but in pithy replies to the challenges of his opponents.

The two incidents we are looking at today both concern Sabbath observance. In our first reading from Exodus 20 we heard the familiar recital of the ten commandments. There we learn that the Sabbath (Saturday) must be a day of rest for the Jewish people, and therefore they must refrain from ‘work’. So the obvious question arises ‘What constitutes work?’.

Over the years the Pharisees had progressively drawn up more and more complicated and intricate rules about what you could and could not do on the Sabbath. The rules ran to at least 39 regulations which were very restrictive indeed. Their purpose, of course, was to try and interpret God’s will for the Sabbath, so that God would be pleased to see his people observing the Sabbath correctly.  To their eyes, Jesus and his disciples could be seen flouting some of the finer points of their complicated rules, and the question Jesus is effectively posing is: have they lost sight of the spirit and intention of God’s Law in the mass of practical, detailed rules and traditions? Were they failing to see the wood for the trees?

This, of course, has implications for us. But before we get to that, we need to note that it had very practical implications for the early Christian church members for whom Mark was writing.

The early church had mixed congregations of Jews and Gentiles. The ordinary Gentile had never observed the Sabbath. The Romans and Greeks normally worked to a seven day week, interspersed with various holidays in honour of their many gods. Christian slaves had no holidays at all. So the Jewish Sabbath ceased to be observed by the new Christian church at a very early date. They met for worship whenever it was possible on Sundays, because this was the day of the Lord’s resurrection. Often worshippers could find time to meet for worship either early in the morning or in the evening. But there remained for some years groups of Christian Jews who wanted to insist that, for the Christian, there remained under the new covenant an obligation to observe the Sabbath. Paul writes about this very strongly in Romans 14, where he argues effectively that there is absolutely no obligation on the Christian to observe the Sabbath. But as it remained a point of contention at the time Mark was writing this Gospel, Jesus’ words and actions will have re-assured Gentile Christians.

But over the centuries of course, the kind of restrictions that applied to the Jewish Saturday Sabbath now applied to Sundays. Some periods of Christian history have tried to apply very strict rules indeed, and over time the argument has swung to and fro, the latest being over the question of Sunday trading. But whereas there is much to be said for a day of refreshment, re-creation and rest on one day in every seven, - a family day -  there is nothing in the New Testament to say that this is in any way obligatory. So passages like these which deal with Sabbath observance have continued to have relevance. Perhaps two points remain open to debate:

1. The first goes back to the creation story, and suggests that life at its best has a natural rhythm, and that six working days followed by a day of rest (whatever day that is) fits best with our life’s rhythm and contributes to our health and well-being.

2. The second is that traditionally the Christian Church has met for worship on Sundays, and that a State which claims a Christian heritage should try and make it possible for as many Christians as possible to be free to attend worship at some time on that day.

But we must now go on to consider more generally the main points of principle which arise from the two incidents in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is effectively saying : Can you not see that – in me – God is opening up a new era, a new covenant, the kingdom of God, and that the old rules and traditions must not be allowed to get in the way.

It’s easy for us to be critical of the Pharisees for attacking Jesus with their rigid traditional regulations. But is it not true that, over centuries, the Christian Church has also built up great rafts of rules and traditions about how things should be done, and  how easily these can also inhibit the work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit?

Even I can remember the time when it seemed almost mandatory that Church services should be held at certain set times, and should be done in precisely the way the Prayer Book dictates. People sat in their traditional seats and wore clothes deemed proper and fashionable for church.  If children were allowed at all, it was only under strict rules of behaviour and noise. And this would be defended by what the New Testament calls the ‘traditions of the elders’. ‘When I was young .....!’ By definition, this would exclude many people, and arguably still does. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit,  these traditions and rules have gradually loosened. The wind of the Holy Spirit – the wind of change – has blown through the churches, and the fresh air that we see Jesus insisting upon in these Gospel stories, has allowed many new forms of worship and freedom of expression.

When we consider the proposals for the renewal of this church building, the first essential is to rid ourselves of traditional ideas about what a church building should look like. We believe that God wants to do something new. It mustn’t be dictated by the ‘traditions of the Pharisees and the elders..’ The church building and complex must serve the needs of those in Camberley now, and be a place which is attractive, welcoming and fit for purpose. A church building is no more than a space for worship and fellowship. It can be in almost any conceivable shape and format. There are no rules in the New Testament or the teaching of Jesus!

What that shape and format should be are proper matters for debate and decision. But if we start by making assumptions based on tradition – or even preference based on tradition – we are trying to restrict the work of Jesus in the Spirit in just the way the Pharisees are in these stories.

This month the General Synod of the Church of England will be debating whether women can be consecrated as bishops. The fact is that – over many years now – we have seen the manifest work of the Holy Spirit calling women to ordained ministry. Who would oppose this manifest work of the Holy Spirit, clear for all to see? Surely only those whose theology of priesthood is rooted in tradition, or those whose theology of the church is rooted in tradition, or those who fear the implications of change from the accepted norm. We need to take great care that we are not found to be opposing the work of the Holy Spirit, for Jesus calls that blasphemy.

Many more examples come to mind but the principles at work in these two stories are clear enough. The Pharisees sincerely believed they were pleasing God by adhering strictly to the commandments as they had received and interpreted them. But Jesus is Lord over all these rules and regulations. The wind of the Holy Spirit must be allowed to blow through the church, and we must pray for discernment to know what is of the Holy Spirit, and what is no more than the latest human fashion.

Our situation is not the same as that described in today’s Gospel but the principles are. Discernment is stated by St Paul to be one of the principal gifts of the Holy Spirit. We need to pray deeply and often for that gift. But the starting point is the fresh and open mind that is not ruled by the past, but open and expectant that our God will do a new thing in our lives, and in our church.

1. Discuss how your own ideas about ‘Sunday Observance’ have changed (or not) over the years. What do you think are the most important principles at stake?
2. When considering proposals about re-ordering the interior of St Michael’s and the building of a new hall, how far do you think traditional layouts and uses are important? What do you think are the essentials which need to be preserved?
3. It’s easy to confuse the latest fashion or idea with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. How do we seek to tell the difference?

Sermon for Sunday 1st July 2012 – Isaiah 42:1-9 and Mark 2: 1-17 – Jesus brings us forgiveness of sin.

Question: Are we Sinful Enough to need Jesus? Mark 2:17says “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."  So is sin like a disease? Well we know that if we lie, one or two things will happen. We will either get found out right at the beginning or we will follow it with another, then another, then it becomes a headache remembering all the others lies that in the end you become overwhelmed and stressed out that it can lead to all sorts of sickness.  It begins to consume our every waking hour. And as we know stress can lead to problems with the heart for instance.  We also know that if we do something unhelpful or wrong, we can seek forgiveness. If we wish to be forgiven, we must first recognise our need of forgiveness and believe that Jesus can and will forgive.  One could leave the sermon at that. Or not.

But If we look at the passage, we see that although Jesus has be given the power, the authority to forgive sins, and indeed was doing so, it provoked an outcry from the teachers of the law, the Pharisees so much that a delegation of religious experts was sent up from Jerusalem to find out what this travelling preacher and miracle worker was up to. The teachers of law pointedly questioned what Jesus was doing, even saying Jesus was blaspheming. ‘Who can forgive but God alone’. They were not happy and as we continue to read Mark’s gospel , we will encounter other times when Jesus annoyed the teachers of the law just for doing what the Father had asked. Despite their complaining Jesus not only healed people but Jesus also forgave people of their sins, because God has given Jesus the right to do this. Mark tells us that everyone is ‘amazed’ or ‘astonished’. This probably upset the teachers of law more than anything else because the people were showing ‘faith’ in Him. 
Because we know the whole story about Jesus on how his obedience led Him to His death on the cross, It is easy when reading verses like these about the scribes and Pharisees to shake our heads and tut in disapproval at their misguided attitudes, yet to do that is to make the same mistake they did: to find fault. How often are we guilty of just that – swift to see the worst, slow to see the best; eager to criticise, reluctant to praise? We ignore a thousand good things and focus instead on one bad point, we destroy and undermine rather than build up and encourage, yet so often the faults we dwell on are trivial compared to our own.
Perhaps more disturbing still is that this response came from the overtly religious, those who believed themselves to be right with God. In similar fashion, the church across the years has frequently been associated with narrow and nit-picking, attitudes rather than a joyful celebration of all that is good. We should not let such a carping and negative spirit find a place in our lives , for not only does it causes pain to other; ultimately it makes us the biggest losers, blinding us not only to one another but, above all, to God himself.
To seek forgiveness requires faith (1-5). The paralytic and his 4 friends showed Jesus their faith. They made the effort to bring their friend to Jesus and not only that in seeing that the crowds were blocking them from the house, they doubled their efforts, going through the roof. The friends demonstrated their love of a friend and they had faith enough to not just carry their friend but to go the extra mile.
Verses 6 and 7 tell us that Forgiveness comes from God alone. God is the one our sins offend, and only he can declare us forgiven. The scribes are right in their theology, but wrong in their application; Jesus is not blaspheming because God has given him the authority to forgive sins. They had not remembered the Isaiah  passage where we read; ‘Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations’.

Forgiveness is more important than physical healing (8-12). Forgiving sins is a hard thing to do. When we annoyed or angry, it’s the last thing we want to do is blow the other person up. We end up blowing ourselves up.  Mark points us to the authority of Jesus' healing of the paralytic and to his authority to forgive sins. Jesus' forgiveness of sins points to the future healing of all believers and while healing, is miraculous, it’s actually less a miracle than forgiveness.
One of the most important qualities for a doctor is empathy – the ability to identify with someone else’s feelings. For example, if a paralysed man was brought to you, would you know if his deepest need was God’s forgiveness? If you saw a crowd of well-known ‘sinners’, would you be able to tell whether they were really seeking God or not? Clearly, the ‘teachers of the law’ (really, experts in religion) did not. When Jesus acted in empathy, they thought that they heard blasphemy. When they heard his words of forgiveness, they thought that only God could speak such words. Ironically, they were right – these were God’s words.

Mark points out that Jesus has the desire to forgive those who know they are sinners (13-17). For Jesus calls people who are disliked to follow him (13-14). Levi works a toll-booth for Herod at the border town of Capernaum. He is an important tax collector – not well liked then because tax men made a living by going over their quota of taxes; they turned over the quota to the king, and kept whatever else they could make. The tax profession was seen as greedy, traitorous, and dishonest. But Jesus knew this man was in need of a doctor, one who could forgive him and be seen to as his friend. The teachers of the law had no empathy with the crowd of tax-collectors either. The teachers of the law considered the tax-collectors greedy, money-making, and unscrupulous. And perhaps they were right. But as Jesus told them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.’

Jesus offers his friendship and forgiveness to sinners of all kinds (15-17). Jesus is "the friend of sinners", which he shows by eating with them and letting them follow him. The scribes see themselves as different from these sinners, and question Jesus' decision to associate with them. Jesus came to heal the sick and to forgive sinners.  This implies that the scribes simply don't recognise their own sin, and remain unforgiven. Again those with ‘orthodox’ religious views criticised Him.

So who do we identify with most in these stories?  The paralytic and his friends, who would dig through a roof to get to Jesus?  Levi, who would leave behind his lucrative dishonest career and invite his outcast friends to Jesus?  Or the scribes, who constantly question the motives of people who reach out to sinners and extend God's forgiveness?

Jesus said I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Amen.

So who do we identify with most in these stories?  The paralytic and his friends, who would dig through a roof to get to Jesus?  Levi, who would leave behind his lucrative dishonest career and invite his outcast friends to Jesus?  Or the scribes, who constantly question the motives of people who reach out to sinners and extend God's forgiveness?

What stops us from forgiving others?

If sin can causes us harm – why do we feel the need to carry it around for a while before giving it to God and asking for forgiveness?

SERMON. 24 JUNE 2012. FROM THE ISOLATION WARD TO THE EMBRACE OF THE FAMILY. Isaiah 29 : 13 – 24 Mark 1 : 35 – 45 Robert

Today we come to the third in our important summer series of sermons on Mark’s Gospel. In the first, Mark told us that the day God had long promised had arrived in the person of Jesus. In our first reading today from Isaiah 29, we hear God promise that ‘once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder’ and that it will be a time of amazing spiritual fertility, the deaf will hear God’s word, the blind will see his coming, the humble will be honoured and the needy will rejoice. That long awaited day had arrived with the coming of Jesus, anointed with God’s Holy Spirit, and with the authority to overcome all the sin, disease and chaos that Satan had wrought upon God’s creation.

In the second passage last week, we saw Jesus begin to demonstrate this new age of God’s kingly rule, as he exercises supreme authority in his teaching, in driving out unclean spirits, and in healing the sick. All this had taken place in Capernaum, on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, which seems to have been his home base – the teaching, exorcism and healing taking place in the synagogue and in and around Simon Peter’s home.  Today we see his ministry extended as he travels throughout the region of Galilee, and today’s Gospel ends with his fame being so widespread that he can no longer enter a town openly, and even as he stays outside the towns, people flock to him from everywhere.

So we have seen Jesus bringing in God’s rule on earth, and confronting Satan and his power, in three ways: he teaches the Good News that God’s sovereign reign has now begun; he drives out unclean spirits; and he heals the sick. And in every area that he ministers, what comes through in particular is his total authority.

But at the centre of today’s passage is his encounter with a leper, and although this may – at first glance – look very similar to previous healing miracles, there is an extra, highly important factor at work here, which is why Mark records it at length and in detail.

To introduce this, I want to draw your attention to one word in particular in verse 41. The version you have in front of you reads: “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man...”   But let me read it to you in a newer version,  ‘The Revised English Version’ – ‘Jesus was moved to anger; he stretched out his hand, touched him and said; ‘I will, be clean’. Similarly, if you look in the New English Bible, which was supposed to be become the official C of E replacement for the Authorised King James Version, we read: “In warm indignation, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘Indeed I will, be clean again.’

So, was Jesus filled with compassion at the sight of the leper, or was he filled with indignation/ anger? Well, some manuscripts read ‘compassion’ and some read ‘anger’ and the translators have to choose which they think is the correct reading. There are some criteria which experts apply in such cases, for example in a case like this, you reckon that the more difficult reading is probably the original. And clearly the more difficult reading on the surface here, at least, is ‘anger’. It is easy for us to imagine Jesus being filled with compassion at the sight of a suffering leper, and hard for us to imagine it making him angry.

Personally, I don’t doubt for a moment that Jesus was compassionate, but I feel totally convinced that – faced with this poor leper - Jesus was angry, and his anger made him all the more determined to heal this man’s condition, and that this anger on God’s behalf is the key to understanding why this man’s leprosy is in a very different category from (say) the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.

To understand this, we have to try to get to grips with a very different culture from our familiar western society. Leprosy was not just a disease, it was a life sentence that impinged on every aspect of that poor man’s life. For Jesus, healing the disease was (so to speak) the easy bit. Restoring the man to an honourable place in his family and in society would be much more difficult. For a start, leprosy was believed to be contagious, so no-one would go anywhere near him to tend his symptoms, or even to talk to him. So it was a sentence to solitary confinement, unless he could be officially pronounced cured.  But on top of that, it also made him ritually unclean, so he was completely excluded from Israel’s worshipping community, the very bedrock of society. And there was more even than that. That society had – and still has – an immensely deeply rooted culture of honour and shame, which we find very difficult to understand. It remains at the heart of that culture to this day. There was nothing more deadly that could happen to a man or woman than that they should be deemed to have brought dishonour and shame upon a family. And there were few things which brought more shame upon a man than having leprosy.

So the man was a total outcast. No-one would go anywhere near him. No-one would talk to him or tend his sores. He had live in total isolation and exclusion from every aspect of normal social life. And he had to live with the deadly shame society heaped upon him. For Jesus to see a man suffering from a disease would certainly evoke Jesus’ compassion. To see a man rendered virtually inhuman – an outcast in the dust, cut off from society in every form – that made him angry. (Just by the way, he would not have met a leper in Capernaum, because a leper would never have been allowed anywhere near. We find him here in some isolated place that reflects the man’s own condition).

So Jesus’ mission was much more than just to heal the man’s leprosy. It was to restore him to his family and kinsfolk, his friends, his synagogue, his profession (whatever it was), to give him back everything that made him human. And, above all, to take him from a place of shame, and restore his honour in society.

So Jesus is moved to anger that a human being, made in God’s image, can be reduced to such a state, shunned by everyone. He reaches out and touches him – an action which must have completely astonished those who saw it, and not least the man himself. An action which would have made Jesus himself ritually unclean. And his healing touch  and word not only took away the leprosy, but restored him to his community. No wonder this healing caused a sensation!

So Mark is taking us through various types of healing – from exorcism, to sockness, to exclusion from society. And next week we shall see Jesus healing a man with the forgiveness of sins, and the calling of a man from an occupation that brought a different kind of shameful exclusion – a tax collector. These, he says, are the people he came to heal and restore. This exemplifies the Good News.

What can we learn from this powerful story? First, we see that, in the coming of God’s Kingdom in Jesus, there is the power to restore all those who – for whatever reason – experience isolation and loneliness. People can feel excluded from our community for many reasons. It may be because they are of a different colour or race, or have difficulty with our language or culture. It may be because someone has committed an offence which we find repugnant. It may be because we cannot accept a person’s sexuality. It may be because they come from a different class of society, or for some reason are just different and we don’t feel comfortable with them. It may be because they are depressed and we don’t know how to engage with them, or simply bereaved and we don’t know what to say. We like people who are like us. There can be dozens of reasons why we tend to exclude people from our society, and cross the road and pass by on the other side.

The leper experienced disease, effective imprisonment and total exclusion. Jesus came to bring healing, liberation and inclusion. These are hallmarks of the Kingdom of God, and must be characteristic of the Church and the Christian. We say of St Michael’s that we are ‘open for all’. We must make sure that it’s true in deed as well as in word.

Finally, there is another reason why Mark tells us of this encounter. He is beginning to point us forward to the crucifixion. If the Romans had wanted to put a person to death with the utmost cruelty, they could have devised all kinds of tortures much more cruel and prolonged. The point about crucifixion was that it brought the very ultimate in public shame. You were taken to a prominent place, usually a hill, where everyone could see you, shamefully stripped and hung up to die. You were totally helpless, totally abandoned, utterly shamed. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul quotes the Old Testament Law when he writes that ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’ but ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us’. (Gal. 3:13).  When Jesus was crucified, he was stripped of all honour, all power, all authority – isolated, outcast, abandoned.  And he went to that fate of his own free will because, in that act of submission, a cosmic event took place of eternal power and significance.

It often seems as if the Gospels are in two separate parts. The first describes the life and ministry of Jesus, and the second (quite distinctly) the cross and resurrection. But that’s a fundamental misunderstanding. The Gospels are all of a piece, and we shall learn and understand more about the Kingdom of God and he mission of Jesus as we continue to explore through Mark’s Gospel. The shadow of the cross is there from the beginning.
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But for today, if you feel on the outside looking in – somewhat lonely and isolated -  then today’s Good News from the Gospel is that Jesus wants to invite you to the party, to share in the fellowship of the Gospel, to free you from that invisible prison, heal your wounds, and embrace you into his kingdom. And – if you are enjoying the Gospel party already – look out for those who seem to be on their own, out in the dark, or lingering on the edge of the magic circle. Jesus reached out and touched the man, and he was both healed and embraced. As Isaiah had foretold, the day had come when ‘out of the gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind will see.. the humble will rejoice in the Lord; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. The ruthless will vanish and those who mock or scorn will disappear...’ Praise God that Christ is risen from the dead and his Kingdom is in the midst of us today.


1. Do you sometimes feel ‘excluded’ or on the edge of a community – church, family, society? How does this make you feel? Are there things you might do to make you feel more ‘included’? What sort of things might these be?

2. What can we all do to be more aware of those around us who are on the margins, and reach out to them? What are the barriers and how can be overcome them? How far is it true to say that St Michael’s is ‘Open for all’.

3. Has our western society lost all sense of ‘shame’? How far is this a good or bad thing?

Sermon for Sunday 17 June 2012 – Liquid Worship – Mark 1: 21-34 – Jesus brings us Freedom and Healing

We start this week’s part of the series in Capernaum. This is probably because most of the disciples stayed there. Verse 29 says that Simon and Andrew had a house there, yet I suspect that there is another reason why Jesus took them there. They had to witness for Jesus among those they knew before they moved on to work for him elsewhere. So here we see that Jesus begins his teaching ministry.  He taught in the synagogue. He healed people. Then he cast out evil spirits. There was no show or ceremony. There was no prescribed ritual by which Jesus gained power over the spirits. He just spoke to them with an authority they had to heed. He spoke. Things happened.  He has the authority to overcome Satan and sickness.

The people believed in demons, evil spirits, and such, so Jesus just went along with them pandering to their misunderstandings. In truth, we would likely say he was healing their psychological disorders, their personality maladjustments. For Mark, it was a question of authority. Whatever the definition of reality we want to stick with, Jesus' words had impact. They accomplished their mission. They spoke to the issues people faced and brought them to wholeness.

Mark tells us that this man who was unclean in spirit cries out to Jesus. At that point in his words, this could have just been some disgruntled, sourpuss, mean-spirited sort of a person, just as we would describe them. “Impure in spirit” is his way of putting it. There was something wrong with him. It is only when Jesus speaks however, that Mark gives us a definite understanding of what is going on. Jesus speaks not to the man, but to the reality behind him. As the unclean spirit leaves, there is transformation. It is in this transformation—the visible results of Jesus' authority—that we find what has truly transpired. Jesus chose not to speak to the man. He spoke to what was within him. He spoke to the origin of his words and actions, to the source of the problem and the greater reality we might wish to ignore or overlook. There was no incantation or magical ritual to be followed or prescribed.  Rather, there was authority to address the invisible reality.

Before the man confronted Jesus, his life was open to interpretation. He may have had psychological problems, may have been under the influence of some evil spirit—one of the demons or gods of the nations around. They came to accept that the world was indeed inhabited by some spiritual entities that might be those so-called gods worship by others or some lesser spiritual beings. They could be good or evil, angels or demons in our terminology. They could at times influence people by promoting illness or directing their actions. BUT we must remember that not all evil in the world, sickness or suffering was and is attributed to the demonic. Problems were also understood as the result of sin—one's choices and actions falling short of God's will. There were not any clear cut answers in every case as to what occasioned illness, mean-spiritedness, or insanity. What was clear in this case came as a result of Jesus' words and dealings with the man.

It is authority which claimed Mark's attention. It was authority that claimed the attention of the crowd. It was an authority that even the impure spirit obeyed. There was no question of being right, being wrong, getting one's way, or self-righteousness. The question was how to respond to the authority of this Jesus. Deuteronomy pointed to the coming prophet from God we must heed. This is what Mark heard in the story: Here is the One we have awaited. His authority is God's. If even the unclean spirits heed Jesus' authority, how should we respond in our living?

Jesus could do this because he was divine and he was always able to speak on any subject. Such a response would not be very helpful to disciples who were going to imitate him as fishers of men. Instead we need to consider the preparation Jesus would have made as a man. For many years, Jesus had filled his mind with the teachings of the Old Testament and he was able, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to speak at a moment’s notice. Later on he assured his followers that the same Spirit would give them words to speak even in difficult situations.  

His teaching created astonishment. Jesus spoke with authority, which describes the effect his message had on his listeners. The obvious implication of this statement is that the ones who imagined they spoke with authority – the scribes – did not have any.  Their general approach was to review and repeat the traditions of the elders, much of which had nothing whatsoever do with the Old Testament. Much of what they presented would be above the heads of those in front of them. In contrast, Jesus spoke with simplicity and with freshness as he interpreted the Old Testament accurately. We have samples of his teaching throughout the Gospels and we can see from them that he used illustrations to help his listeners appreciate what he said. He also refuted the distortions the scribes had made concerning the character of God. His disciples should have observed that this is the way to catch men. But they would have also noticed that Jesus’ method included direct application – the audience realised they were not watching a performance as much as listening to a challenge as to their relationship with God.

Opposition was aroused in the outburst of the demon-possessed man. The issue that brought his secret to the surface was the presence of Jesus. It is not possible for evil to dominate a situation in which Jesus was involved. The demon had to face up to the fact that his realm was under attack. Something similar happens whenever the gospel is preached with authority. A person senses his or her sin and becomes defensive. They sense conviction and realise they are being rebuked; therefore they respond with various ways of self-protection. The man here tried to minimise his lifestyle by suggesting judgement should not happen. There was also a willingness to give Jesus a certain place, although what the words reveal is that all the man had was head knowledge of who Jesus was. But even the truth about Jesus has to be admitted even by those who detest him. The presence of light reveals the hidden things of darkness.

The incident shows us that no-one is too bad for Jesus to deal with. The man even tells Jesus to go away. He was spurning the aid of the only One who could help him. It was good for that man that Jesus did not listen to him, but instead showed mercy towards him and delivered him from his spiritual bondage.

Those who observed all this could not keep it to themselves. By word of mouth, the news of the arrival of Jesus was spread throughout Galilee. They now had something good to speak about – they had seen evil defeated before their eyes and they had to share it with others.
Jesus goes with the disciples to Simon and Andrew home and on entering the house, the residents told Jesus about Simon’s mother-in-law.  Merely telling is not a sign of weak faith; instead it is evidence that they had already submitted to the Lordship of Jesus. They may not have known what to ask for, but they knew that Jesus would know what to do. Intercessory prayer is often telling Jesus about those for whom we are burdened. ‘If we have committed our way unto the Lord in prayer, and meekly told him of our crisis it will be our wisdom to be still, and watch till God the Lord shall speak. He cannot be either unjust or unkind, therefore should we say, “Let him do what seemeth him good”’ (Spurgeon).

Jesus responded gently and lovingly.  Jesus’ actions told his disciples to have time for people, to interact with others according to their weakness. I’m sure the woman eventually forgot the intensity of her fever, but she would never forget the touch of Jesus’ hand. Often what is remembered is not what we did, but how we did it.  The only appropriate response of someone whom Jesus has helped – she served him in her capacity. Gratitude was written all over her actions. Service according to what Jesus expects is the best, indeed the only proper way to express gratitude.

·         Do you find it easy to come under authority? If not why?
·         Paul says it is in living out our love for Christ Jesus that we are united with God. Are we as prepared as this evil spirit to submit our lives to the authority of Christ Jesus, laying aside our own will?
·         Are we prepared to be a servant of the Servant and share in this wonderful work – leading people to freedom and healing?  
·         Are we able to follow Jesus’ example of spending time with and listening to people who are ‘strange’ to us – may have mental health issues or a depilating illness or have disabilities.  Who do you shun and why?