That was when Jesus came. He arrived from Nazareth and John dunked him in the Jordan River. As he emerged from the water he saw the universe as it really is, and he felt it resonate to his core: that he was God’s precious child, and God was joy.
But as soon as this had happened, the vision cast Jesus into a desert of uncertainty, where for 40 days he wrestled with the Resistance, where he came face to face with fear, and still the divine vision endured. Then, when John was arrested, Jesus returned to Galilee where he started working toward the goal. “It starts now,” he said. “The goal is close. Turn your life around! It’s going to be awesome.”
In the context of the first Sunday in Lent, the first two of the comments above will be the most immediately relevant, and especially the second. Also, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art
ought to be required reading for sermon preparation this Sunday. If you want an abbreviated version, read Pressfield’s own Cliffs Notes version: Do the Work.
This passage begins with the moment Jesus knows clearly who he is and what he is called to do. Immediately, he is also confronted with every reason why he should forget everything he knows and just go back to being an ordinary guy from nowheresville. These two experiences go hand in hand. It’s the human condition that you never know one without the other. Jesus was no exception. You and I are no exception. Your little church (or your big church) is no exception. The moment you know most clearly who you are and what God/the world/your soul requires of you is the moment when you will encounter the Resistance to doing it. It’s this simultaneous knowing and resisting the move from knowing to being which introduces the theme for Year B Lent.
For Jesus, the entire ministry – everything from here to the cross – is born (and borne) out of this tension between Vocation and Resistance. Against the Resistance, may your Lenten journey be one in which the divine vision endures. Turn your life around. It’s going to be awesome!
Right away, he made his students get back onto the boat and across to Fishermans Wharf, on the other side, while he remained there to send the crowds back home. After saying good-bye to the people, he went up to pray on the mountain.
Meanwhile, as evening came, and Jesus was still on land, the boat was out at sea. Jesus could see his students rowing hard against the wind. In the early morning he came walking across the sea to them, and was intending to go on ahead of them. When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost, and scared out of their wits, they screamed.
Jesus said to them, “Calm down. It’s me. Don’t worry.” Then, he got into the boat with them, the wind died down. They were incredulous. Their hearts remained unmoved, and they didn’t understand the bread and the fish.
This is Mark’s second story of a dangerous sea crossing. This time, though, Jesus is not in the boat. The disciples are on their own. The reason for their failure to make headway against the wind: their hearts remained unmoved, and they didn’t understand about the bread and the fish.
What Jesus had done with the disciples, Jesus now wants the disciples to do on their own. From the beginning of this passage, it’s something they don’t want to do. Jesus has to make them get into the boat and go. Again, the winds against them are symbolic of the disciples own Resistance to going where they know they must go and doing what they know they must do. It’s the same Resistance that Jesus had to deal with as he began his work.
We encounter the same resistance every day. It’s much easier click around on Facebook than to do whatever work you know you really should be doing. Check your email again. Take another break to check on what’s happening at the water cooler. Channel surf. Before you know it, the time is gone, and you’re not any closer to where you know you really want to be. The winds are against you. Moreover, the more important the work, the stronger the winds.
If you understand about the bread and the fish, you know that there are people – lots of people – who are depending on you. The command of Jesus is still ringing through this passage, “You give them something to eat.” If it were just a matter of finding your own self-fulfillment, that would be serious enough. Jesus wants you to open your heart to the reality that it’s not just about you. It’s about them. It’s about us all. We need you to go and do what Jesus is asking you to do. You’re needed on the other side. We need you on the other side of your fear.
On they went to Capernaum where, on the holy day, they went to church. And he started teaching. People were captivated with what he had to say because he had real conviction about it, rather than just droning on like the clergy. Right away, though, a person with an evil spirit started yelling: “You’ve got nothing to do with us, Jesus of Nowheresville. You’ve come here to wreck our church, haven’t you, you holier-than-thou-think-you’re-a-big-shot!”
But Jesus said, “Shut up and get out of here!” And the evil one left, shaking his fists and screaming obscenities all the way out the door.
Everyone was unsettled, whispering among themselves, saying, “How’d he do that? That took cojones! He even tells the s-o-bs where to get off – and they do!” And so he began to be famous around the region.
We don’t like to think about evil much. In this day and age, we like to say evil is such an old-fashioned idea. People aren’t evil. They’re just “troubled,” or “insensitive,” or perhaps even, “selfish,” “boorish,” or “annoying.” Maybe we say they just “need to be educated.” And besides, “there’s good and bad in everyone, right?”
We especially don’t like to think about people with evil spirits in churches. After all, aren’t churches supposed to be where you can go to get away from evil. Aren’t they supposed to be full of good people? Churches especially (and I’d guess that Christian churches aren’t the only communities so afflicted), though tend to attract people with evil spirits.
But here it is, “a person with an evil spirit.” Granted, Mark doesn’t say “an evil person.” There’s no way of getting around it. Mark doesn’t say “a person who was having a bad day,” or “a person who needed educated.” Mark says an evil spirit. Here is a congregation with evil in their midst. When Jesus arrives on the scene, it has to be dealt with before anything else can happen.
There’s a reason the evil is couched in terms of possession. The man with the evil spirit is not objecting to any specific teaching of Jesus. It’s not a doctrinal dispute. It’s about Jesus’ presence threatening to remove the congregation from his possession. “You’ve got nothing to do with us. You’ve come to wreck our church.” The church is already a wreck, but at least it’s his wreck to have and to hold. So long as it is possessed by and belongs to him, so long as he is in control, it really doesn’t matter what gets taught. So long as the clergy drone on and on without moving the people to act any differently, everything’s ok. When people start to be captivated by someone or something else, when the possessors lose their grip on their possessions, that’s when all hell breaks loose.
What is particularly evil, at least as evil is encountered here, is when people (and worse, entire congregations of people) are considered something to be possessed. Churches, and all kinds of communities, can weather all kinds of differences of opinion and live with members holding contradicting doctrinal, and political, positions. What destroys them is one person (or a group – but such groups tend to resolve to only one or two persons) pulls all the strings.
For all the talk about harmony that churches use to cover up and get along with that kind of evil, Jesus won’t tolerate it. The evil has got to go. Otherwise they soon find that, at best they can’t do what they’re called to do, and at worst congregational life becomes a living hell.
[Bonus: One might ask where Jesus got the ability to evict the evil spirit. Answer: by moving the people with a greater captivating vision first.]
[A word of caution: Pastors looking at these remarks with an eye to preaching a sermon on this passage this week may be tempted to picture a certain person or persons in the congregation as the man (or woman) possessed, who is blocking some congregational agenda the pastor has in mind. There are two alternative possibilities to consider before “going there.” First, is that as much as it may feel like a control issue, it may be a real (legitimate) difference of convictions around an issue. Indicator: Is this person resisting on this particular issue, or is he or she resisting on everything no matter who proposes it, unless it’s his or her idea? The second possibility is that it’s the pastor who has the need to be in control. Imagine Jesus coming into your congregation on Sunday, without any notice, and when the time came he gets up and says, “Excuse me, I’m preaching today.” When you’re honestly ready to let him do it, then you’re ready to “go there.”]