5th Sunday after the Epiphany
What is this frenzy of busyness in the first chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel? The opening verse is hardly written and “immediately” Jesus is there in the water being baptized by John. And “immediately” He is driven out into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Then “immediately” He’s calling Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow Him. And “immediately” they’re all in Capernaum, where He casts out a demon. And “immediately” they all stumble into Peter’s home, only to find Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever.
What is all of this “immediately”? A case of “so much to do, so little time”? Perhaps. But it also smacks of…desperation!
The Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas, has written a little poem called “Word.” A pen appeared, and God said: / ‘Write what it is to be / man.’ And my hand hovered / long over the bare page, / until there, like footprints / of the lost traveller, letters / took shape on the page’s / blankness, and I spelled out / the word ‘lonely’. And my hand moved / to erase it; but the voices / of all those waiting at life’s / window cried out loud: ‘It is true.’ Like so much of Thomas’ poetry, this one too seems bleak in its outlook…and yet, sunlight bursts in around the edges of his words.
There is a kind of desperation, born of cosmic loneliness, in the opening verses of St. Mark’s Gospel. Like the desperation that is not difficult at all to sense in our own present, lonely time. And who is more desperate these days than the Church?
Over the last 50 years or so there’s been a steady stream of “new and improved” ways of being and doing Church! Announced with breathless anticipation, touted with spectacular initial statistics…and then after a few years…poof!…the “best thing ever to happen to the Church” just kind of fizzles and goes away…leaving no lasting, positive impact. Desperately we jump onto bandwagons that inevitably grind to a halt.
In recent years various parts of the Church have desperately fallen all over each other trying to define a new morality. Where once, for nearly all her centuries, the Church was devoted to repentance and forgiveness, now…well…in desperation we try to say that up is down and down is up, that yes is no and no is yes.
And if we can’t do it theologically, we’ll do it politically and socially, desperately trying to catch a train that has already left the station…where once upon a time the Church wouldn’t even have tried to catch such a train going nowhere! Pure desperation.
But it’s not just the Church. There’s a note of desperation in so many of the sound bytes among the political candidates. It was there permeating the rhetoric of the demonstrations in Madison. Why, you can even hear it in the traditionally bedrock institutions of education and science, this creeping tone of isolated desperation. But is there any sunlight to burst in around the edges?
Indeed, there is! The whole setting for this chapter of frenzied busyness in Mark’s Gospel was announced back at verse 14: “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God.”
That’s what is going on here. Jesus is proclaiming the Gospel of God. But that’s not merely the verbal thing we take it to be. Jesus is not merely going around and talking. In fact, there is very, very little talking in Mark, chapter 1. There’s the simple “Follow Me” to Peter and Andrew. No sermon about creating a missional, emerging, authentic expression of faith, just the inviting command, “Follow Me.” There’s the little, “Be silent,” which He says to the demon at Capernaum. No sermon about loving and embracing your inner demon, just the command, “Get out.”
Yet while Jesus says so very little in this chapter, He does so very much. St. Mark writes, “He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” And how does Jesus describe this work? “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also.” He calls it “preaching.” Everything that Jesus does here in Mark 1, He calls “preaching.”
For Jesus, preaching is a sacramental act. It’s not just saying words. With Jesus His words are doing what He says. He says, “The kingdom is at hand.” And with those words it is. With those words disciples follow, demons take a hike, fevers get banished, and diseases and sicknesses get healed. With those words heaven is breaking in upon earth. He speaks and it happens. The happening is His preaching. Tangible. Physical. Sacramental.
So…what’s this got to do with our desperation…a desperation born out of our deep cosmic sense of loneliness?
In the beginning we read, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” But Adam was alone in anticipation of the creation of Eve. We are alone because we push people away from us. So Adam was alone in hope…but we are alone in hopelessness.
Our sicknesses and our demons isolate us and push others to arm’s length and further. And it is when we are sick, when our demons of ego and pride possess us, it is then that we desperately need the company of another. But so bleak is our lot, that when we are most desperate, we push away…more strongly still.
But you cannot command human fellowship from a pulpit. You cannot program a congregation for human empathy. Entertainment cannot banish cosmic loneliness. In the words of our Welsh poet, I am left alone on the surface / of a turning planet. What / to do but, like Michelangelo’s / Adam, put my hand / out into unknown space, / hoping for the reciprocating touch?And that reciprocating touch does indeed come…although not, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel mural, from a God who is beyond us! The reciprocating touch comes from another Adam, from Jesus. He who is alone in the fullness of deity wrapped up in human flesh. He who is alone at the cross, where as the embodiment of every human sickness, every human demon, every thing is pushed away from Him…everything…even God.
And yet…like the first Adam…the crucified Christ is alone in hope, in anticipation of the other who will be drawn to Him by His cross, “bone of My bones and flesh of My flesh.” We are that other. We lonely, we desperate…so very alone, so very desperate that we think this is all there is.
This Jesus, this second Adam, comes proclaiming the Gospel of God. Yes, that means He speaks…but more so, it means that when He speaks the thing happens. Jesus speaks through this preacher, and His gifts happen…they are yours, because He speaks them to you—gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, as tangible as the sound of my voice in your ears. And with His Word-spoken gifts, He touches you, and you are no longer alone.
Jesus comes with healing, laying His medicine of immortality upon your tongue, pouring you a draught of life everlasting from His cup; immortal healing as tangible as the taste of bread and wine in your mouth. He touches you; you are no longer alone.
In R.S. Thomas’ poem, the poet wanted to erase the word “lonely,” because it was too hard to bear. But Jesus, The Poet, goes to the window of life, opens it and comes to touch lonely us.
And He does. And we, here, now, have heard His sacramental Word in our own ears. We, here, now, will taste His sacramental Word with our own tongues. Which means that we, here and now…if we dare believe it…are touched by Him, no longer alone.
But…not all have heard. Not all have tasted. And not all who hear and taste, have believed. So this remains, as it has for 2000 years—this remains the mission of the Church: the sacramental preaching of Christ, who takes on flesh in us, opening life’s window that He may come, and, through us, touch and heal this lonely, desperate world.