5 EPIPHANY — 5 February 2012
St. Paul’s, Durant – 9:00 am
Isaiah 40:21-31 | Psalm 147:1-12,21c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23 | Mark 1:29-39
And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
Don’t you just love TV commercials? And this afternoon on the Super Bowl we will get a whole new assortment of them! In some years the commercials are more interesting than the football game!
I think my favorite commercials (yes, I’m being sarcastic here!) are the ones from the pharmaceutical companies. Did you ever notice that many of these are full 60-second spots? Can you imagine what it costs to place a 60-second ad on national network television? Anyway, the first nine seconds are all about how if you take our medication your life will be healthy and happy and prosperous and your 401(k) portfolio will double in value! The remaining fifty-one seconds are all about how oh by the way you do need to watch out for side effects that may cause heart attacks or strokes or blindness or the heartbreak of psoriasis or gingivitis or even recurrent death, and incidentally this medication is contraindicated for 87% of the population anyway. So consult your doctor. (Good advice! She or he will probably say, “What? No! Not for you!”) And if you cannot afford your medication, our pharmaceutical company may be able to help. (Yeah, and if they weren’t spending so much money on TV ads they could probably help even more!)
In the Gospel today, we see Jesus in the healing business, if we may so call it, but we notice that he doesn’t place TV commercials about it. On the contrary, Jesus apparently tries to keep a low profile, at least in these early stages of his ministry. “He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.” You may recall from last Sunday, when the Gospel reading was the passage from St. Mark immediately before today’s reading, one of the unclean spirits cried out, “I know you! You’re God’s Holy One!” And Jesus shouted back, “Shut up, and get out!” [Mark 1:24-25]
“Don’t tell who I am” — that’s a common theme in the Gospels, especially in Mark. Jesus heals a leper, and tells him, “Don’t tell anyone about this.” [Mark 1:44] He raises from death the daughter of Jairus, and “he insisted that nobody should know about this.” [Mark 5:43] He heals a deaf-mute, “and he ordered them, ‘Tell no one’.” [Mark 7:36] He gives sight to a blind man outside Bethsaida, and then said “’Go straight home without going through the village.’” [Mark 8:26] He heals other people who are possessed by demons (whatever that may mean): and “whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he sternly ordered them not to make him known.” [Mark 3:11-12]
So much for pharmaceutical advertising!
On the other hand, Jesus does go around advertising! It’s just that he doesn’t advertise himself. We are traditionally accustomed to translating what Jesus does as “preaching the Gospel,” but the plain ol’ ordinary meaning of the Greek text is that Jesus was “running a commercial for God’s kingship – advertising the rule of God.” And Jesus’ commercial said, “The world is God’s and not Caesar’s,” and this ad is good news! (Although as it turned out, Pontius Pilate didn’t like Jesus’ ad very much!)
Jesus started out by keeping a low profile. He did not begin his ministry with a media blitz. He did not have a campaign manager. In the wilderness, you recall, the devil had tempted Jesus to use (first of all) magic, or else “public relations” ads, or else political or military power, as a way to try to convert humankind to the reign of God — and Jesus rejected all these, since none of them would really lead to God’s world –in fact they all lead to the world of Caesar, of the many Caesars of human history past and present.
So Jesus does not blackmail us into believing in him (“Look here, I’m the Messiah, so you better believe in me or else you’ll go to hell!” Some Christians have subsequently said things like that, but Jesus never said that). Jesus simply does the work of the Kingdom of God, Jesus announces (or advertises) the Good News of the Reign of God, Jesus fulfills the prophecies concerning the coming of the fulfillment of God’s world — he heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, life to the dead — and he asks people to recognize for themselves through his words and his deeds who he is and whose Kingdom he bears.
And then at the end of the first phase of his ministry Jesus finally puts it to his followers: “So, now – who do you say that I am?” And Peter responds, “You are the Messiah” — the Christ, God’s Anointed One. (And even there, still, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone [else] about him.”) But from that point Jesus can take his followers to the mountain of the Transfiguration, where they will see him in glory (we’ll hear about that in the Gospel in two more weeks, just before Lent). And thereafter Jesus will begin to teach his followers more explicitly about who he is and what he must do and how he must suffer.
I think all of this says some things about God and our relationship with God. It shows that God does not compel us. God does not sell us into buying a relationship. God created us free, and God will not compromise that freedom — whatever the cost, to us or to God. (And our freedom is very costly, to us and to God.) God invites us, God calls us, God woos us, God draws us, God even challenges us, but God does not drag us. Love and faith cannot be compelled.
And that means we cannot expect to have all the answers beforehand. The certainty of faith comes afterward, not before. It is not the certainty we have when everything is clearly set out for us in advance, the certainty of logic, the certainty of mathematics. It’s not the kind of convincing that an effective ad campaign aims for. It is the certainty we have in a personal relationship, the certainty of love. Even Jesus will not give us this certainty, so long as all we do is just stand and watch him and wait to be “sold” on it. Jesus gives certainty only when we will recognize him, only when we will struggle through the uncertainties and the ambiguities and the many things unknown to us and even fearful to us, and then will open our hearts to him, to let him fill us with the aweful, awesome love of the Reign of God.