Charles Qualls: What Is This?


What do you believe are some of the turning points of history? Was it the season of conquest by the Church states? The industrial revolution? Hitler's romp toward power and a Holocaust that threatened to extinguish a people? Some would point to the emergence of an information-based economy. Surely a World War might have been a turning point. All these are but a few of the moments we can look to and suggest that the world has not been the same since. In fact, the responses would vary as much as the people we might ask this question.

Would you count among those, then, the season in which Jesus walked along the shore enlisting disciples, and then began his teaching ministry? Probably not. But, esteemed New Testament professor Jaroslav Pelikan would. In his book, Jesus Through the Centuries, chapter two begins with exactly these narratives from Mark 1. The chapter is entitled, "The Turning Point of History." For Jesus' ministry of healing, his demonstrative senses of ethic and justice, his teachings on the coming Kingdom of Heaven - they all formed a faith that has driven the Church in its best moments all the way up until today.

In this section of Mark's gospel, we hear a bold assessment: that in Jesus' arrival the time had been fulfilled for God to bring the kingdom of heaven near. In fact, our Lord said as much in his teachings during these early days.

Our story begins by noting that Jesus quickly formed a custom by going to the synagogue on Sabbaths to teach. The newly chosen disciples accompanied him there, and were listening intently, it seems. They were astonished at his teaching. His authority stood out in comparison to the apparently bland offering the people were used to. Have we become so casual in our faith, so used to hearing the Gospel, that we are rarely astonished at anything we hear these days?

Tom Long reminds us that Mark's gospel is particularly attuned to the less fortunate in Jesus' time. He says that this is what the gospel sounds like when you have nothing. In fact, Mark might give us the impression that so deep was their long for something new, something better in which they could place their hope, that God simply ripped the heavens apart and showed us Jesus. This one who walked among people who were disadvantaged and discouraged was a response. Jesus just came walking along and chose as his disciples those who might not have been chosen in a more conventional system.

So, it seems his gospel teaching carried an urgency that especially caught the ear of a troubled man in the synagogue one day. This one the Bible describes as having an unclean spirit cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." The question ("What have you to do with us?") in the Greek seems to be "What do you have in common with us?" or, "Why are you here?"

Remarkable to us, and to them then, seemed to be that Jesus could command the spirit to come out of the man. Perhaps what should leap out at us, instead, is the irony that one of the very first in any of the gospels to name exactly who and what Jesus was, was an unclean spirit. In calling Jesus first by his local place name and then by branding him "the Holy One of God," this unclean spirit got it right!

In any event, the happening in the synagogue that day couples with what Mark has been showing us so far in his brief chapter. Jesus is God the Son. God has noticed the plight of oppressive life and has sent the Christ to be among us. The distance between the Almighty and a yearning people has been done away with. Immediately, they began to question just what kind of teacher they had here!

We don't want to make light of Mark's portrayal that Jesus could subdue this so-called "unclean spirit." But what seems to be an even larger picture is that this meant Jesus was so much more than simply the next teacher, preacher or even prophet. When we join this happening along with stories like Jesus turning unclean water into wine, or later walking on top of water, the reminders keep coming that God's presence is without the commonly assumed boundaries. God's reign over the universe is complete and overwhelming to the eye!

This is not meant to dazzle us, and certainly not meant to entertain us. Stories like these were signs of God's presence. They were meant to teach us more about God and to form our faith in a God who has responded in such a resounding way!

Let's be sure to pay attention to the clues Mark leaves for us. His writing is noticeably simple compared with other gospels. He does not waste words. And there is an urgency built into his writing as he moves us from scene to scene. It's important, then, to catch the reaction of those who witnessed this. They were said to be astonished, and on balance they proclaimed this to be a new teaching, coming as it were from one who had such power.

So, Mark points us here, not to the neat cosmic parlor trick and not to the presence of the unclean spirit itself, mysterious and transfixing though he might seem, but instead toward Jesus as a revolutionary. A teacher of unprecedented power and message.

Try as he would for a time to keep his divine identity a relative secret, Mark notes that Jesus' fame began to spread "at once," everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

We know that soon there were two opposing responses to Jesus' message and fame. One was from the old, existing scribes and Pharisees who detected his departure from the accepted. No matter what good might come from his presence, he had to be stopped! He had to be countered. But others opened their hearts and their minds, their souls and spirits to the hope they found in Jesus' words. They seemed to have immediately pondered aloud, "What is this?"

Questions like that seem universal for us, too. Adult learners in most settings, including worship and Bible study, appear to arrive with three questions scrolling through their minds. They are, "Why does this matter?" In other words, why should I pay attention to what you are about to teach? Second, they wonder what they should do with what they are hearing? In other words, a question of application. How will I take this into my own life? Third, "How will this help me to cope?" Like the people of Mark's gospel, we all are carrying some load. We all manage a set of burdens or puzzles from life. These are not cynical questions at all. They are real life issues that inform how and what we hear.

N.T. Wright believes this story connects with us at the point of our greatest need. He, too, picks up on the statement Mark makes about the "tie being fulfilled" and believes it is significant. It would be easy to mistake Jesus' habit or custom of going to the synagogue, which set up today's episode that happened there, as simply being repetitious, but the real story is not one of mere habit or of rote custom. Instead, he believes the Sabbath was always a sign-post pointing to God's promised future. And, if that be the case, then today's story was Jesus ...announcing that the future to which the signpost had been pointing had now arrived in the present. (NT Wright, Simply Jesus, p. 137)

None of our lives would be the same. The herald had been sounded. The presence and promise was walking along us. What was this? For Mark, this was the announcement of Jesus' authority - but not the way we think of authority. For the Greek users of this word, the notion was the power of God. Jesus was teaching with the power of God. God had broken through all the sameness of human life and was bringing about a new kingdom.

Those who yearned for a sign of hope - any sign would do - were getting an unmistakable one this day. Mark leads us to believe that this is why the word of what Christ was doing spread so quickly. Still today, many of us yearn for a sign of hope - we who have known the quiet of loneliness, the intimidation of those with evil at their hearts - we who have seen the seeds of division spread by the hateful and who have tasted the dread of our worst fears.

In the Fall of this past year, October 1 ended up being a day of great pain. Concert-goers in Las Vegas were attacked by a lone shooter. In what would be proclaimed the worst mass shooting in our nation's history, nearly 60 people were killed and 500 injured. We watched the news coverage in horror and each were challenged to our core.

Times like that cause us to lean in and listen for a word for God. We wonder where God is. The people of Mark's day had lived through their own pains, their own discouragement. And they witnessed an answer from God that continues to speak today. The Son of God walked into their lives and spoke words of peace, guidance and hope.

"What is this?", they asked. It is God come near. Bringing a glimpse of grace to life with an all-powerful love and concern. This is our prayer. This is our need. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray.

Our God, since Jesus' time we have continued to be people of need. So much of life can make us feel small. So much of life can seem as though we have no control. And so, we place our faith in you. And so, we look for our hope in you. Continue to breathe into us life and meaning and hope. We pray these things in Jesus' name. Amen.