Sunday, 1 February 2009

Avoiding the distractions

Readings: Mark 1 v 21-28

Last Monday was Chinese New Year – celebrating the beginning of the year of the ox.
One of the things we did to celebrate at Guides, was to share some fortune cookies.
You know, those crunchy biscuits with mottoes in them.
The girls enjoyed reading the fortunes predicted on the little scraps of paper and, indeed some of them seemed to sum up the girl’s characters fairly well.

When Jesus appeared to begin his ministry, people saw straight away that he had authority.
We’re told in our gospel reading this morning that that was what caught people’s attention – that he spoke with authority.
So there must have been something quite different about Jesus.
The people were used to all sorts of teachers but they recognised Jesus as one who spoke with authority.
They were also used to a whole line of prophets, preaching the ways of God.
And it was in that long line of prophets that they placed Jesus.
A prophet, a teacher, who spoke with authority.
But prophetic ministry is not about future predictions, not about fortune cookie forecasts.
Prophetic ministry spoke and speaks into the lives of the listeners in their everyday.
Prophetic words call us not so much to look to the future but to look at the present – to examine ourselves today, to look closely at the changes we might make in the present that will affect the future for the better.
Prophets don’t sell fortune cookies – they sell mirrors, mirrors by which we can examine ourselves, look clearly into even the dark places of our lives and shine some light.
Jesus stepped into that long line of prophets.
He brought authority.
He brought authenticity.
And he brought light by which we can examine our lives.
But that authority and authenticity and light might make us squirm.
Might make us grapple to divert the light onto someone or something else because its just too much for us to handle.

This morning, I want to reframe the gospel, put it into the kind of perspective that might make sense for us today:

Imagine, if you will, that it is summer and a young preacher is taking the service while the regular minister is away on holiday.
People are impressed with his preaching.
He speaks clearly and well and sprinkles his sermon with bits of humor.
They like that.
And they nod knowingly, thinking that the young preacher will soon be in one of the prestigious pulpits in one of the large towns.
But all of a sudden, they forget about all that because a dirty, old, disheveled man in the back row starts yelling and screaming and causing a rumpus. "You can’t fool us!” he yells, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are! You are the Holy One of God."
A few of the stronger men in the church move toward the noisy stranger.
They will do the appropriate thing.
They will escort him gently into the vestibule, out of sight and sound so that the church service can go on.
They will give him a sandwich and a cup of coffee while they decide which of the social agencies in town could meet his needs.
Except that the young preacher doesn’t let that happen. He strides down the aisle to the back of the church and crouches down in front of the man from the streets.
The poor man’s hands are trembling.
He is breathing deeply and hard.
There is firmness, gentleness and passionate intensity in the way the young preacher holds the old man’s hands and the way he looks into the confused and tired eyes.
The preacher has been well-educated in one of the best theological faculties.
His training included a lot of psychology.
So he knows what is going on and could easily use professional language to impress the bystanders.
But instead, the preacher uses language the man will understand.
“Shhhhh!” the preacher whispered.
Then he leans over, his face almost touching the face of the man from the streets – “It’s going to be OK. You’ve got something bad stuck in your head and it needs to come out.”
Then in a huge voice the preacher shouts, “Evil spirit! Stop hurting this man! Come out!”
The man breathes deeply.
You could hear a pin drop in the church.
“We’re going to sing a song now,” the young preacher said to the old man very quietly. “Then we’ll get you some lunch. After that we can sit down together over a coffee and find out what else you need.”
As they stand around with their coffee cups after the service, the folks talk about only one thing – the way the preacher had handled a potentially embarrassing situation.
He’d averted a very awkward moment.
None of them remembered a thing he had said in the sermon.
The young preacher stood off to one side.
He shook his head in sadness and wonder.
What the people had missed most of all, was that this dirty, disturbed, disheveled man from the streets was the only one who recognized him, the only one who saw the Holy one of God.

Its amazing how quickly we get distracted, how quickly we lose sight of the important things and get fixed on trivia.
Its so much easier to talk about whether we should use fairtrade coffee at church functions or which group left the hall untidy than to get to grips with who Jesus is and what Jesus wants of us.
Church meetings can go round and round in circles and rarely even touch on the real stuff of the kingdom.
Distraction comes all too easily.
Its much safer to deal with the things we know, the things we can control than to let ourselves get caught up in things we can’t understand and don’t particularly want to confront.

Jesus, in the temple, speaks with authority.
The people are amazed.
They begin to wonder where this authority comes from.
But then that embarrassing incident occurred.
And, in their relief that Jesus managed to deal with it.
In their amazement at the trick he pulled off – exorcising the demons – they lose the significance of what the demons had said.
Only the man with the unclean spirit recognized who Jesus was.
The other worshippers were too distracted by the goings on and missed out on the essence.
Maybe that was safer.
They could leave the synagogue and go talk about what had happened, how disaster had been narrowly averted, how amazingly well the new preacher had handled things.
Totally unaware that they had just encountered the Holy One of God.

How often does that happen to us in church?
We get sidetracked by externals.
By the antics of those around us.
By that last hymn that we didn’t particularly like.
We go off at tangents when we hear the gospel because we suddenly remember something we have to do.
And we don’t encounter Jesus of Nazareth who is the Holy One of God and who came to confront our way of life, our way of just sidling along.
Who came to challenge us and to equip us to live life to the full.
Who came to open our eyes to the ways of the world so that we might better serve that world in the name of God.
All we can see are the demons in those around us.
Its not for us but Oh yes, there are plenty around us who could do with some of that healing from Jesus.
So why do we get so sidetracked.
Why do we become so distracted.
Probably one of the reasons is that if we focus on other people’s problems then we won’t have to face our own.
If we can see the challenge that Jesus presents for others then we won’t personally have to engage with that challenge.
“What have you to do with us , Jesus of Nazareth?”, the spirits asked him.
“What have you to do with us?”
A question for us today.
What has Jesus to do with us in the midst of our daily lives, in the midst of the joys we celebrate AND the tortures we endure everyday?
Sometimes it takes the most unlikely people or the most unlikely situations to reveal Jesus’ presence to us.
Can we see Jesus in church this morning?
Can we see his authority?
What seemed to grab the attention of the folk who heard Jesus preach was his authority.
But then Jesus went right ahead and backed up his teaching with his action.
And that’s important for us to grasp.
It doesn’t matter what we say – or how well we say it.
If our words are not backed by action, then who will take them seriously?
And what about the unclean spirits in all of us?
The bits that make us want to focus on others’ need for healing and distract ourselves with all the trivia of the day – anything to save us from having to look at our own demons.
The past couple of weeks, our gospel readings have affirmed God’s love for us.
God loving us whatever.
Its in the knowledge of that love that we are encouraged to look at the demons that afflict us.
The things that hold us back.
The things that stop us fully engaging with Jesus.
The things that make us want to run and hide.
Except that we can’t hide from Jesus.
Because Jesus wants to make us whole.
So this morning will we continue to be distracted by the unimportant or are we prepared to take a good long look in the mirror that Jesus hold up for us.
A mirror that lights up all those dark and hidden corners of our lives.
Not to judge us but to change us.
To change us into folk who can speak with authority, who can live authentically and folk who back up their words with action.
Jesus of Nazareth “What have you to do with us?”
May we grapple with that question seriously this week:
Jesus of Nazareth “What have you to do with us?”
And as we grapple with it, may we feel Jesus bringing healing for us right where we need it most.
For the glory of God
Amen

1 comment:

Jaci Struwe said...

Beautiful. Just beautiful.