Who is he?

A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Psalm 111

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

It’s been said many times that Mark’s is an action gospel. After beginning with a strong bold statement, it certainly moves at a cracking pace: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” No long family tree to establish credentials – as both Matthew and Luke do. No long philosophical introduction about the Word being with God and becoming human – as in John. No comforting Christmas story with angels and shepherds; no disturbing slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Just straight in – “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” By the time we get to today’s Gospel reading, after only twenty verses, Mark has already given us a quote from Isaiah, John the Baptist with leather belt and diet of locusts and honey, the forty-day wilderness experience complete with wild beasts and ministrations from angels, the first sermon (in just a handful of words) and the call of the first four disciples.

Whew! But before we can draw breath and process all that, we find ourselves in Capernaum. It’s the Sabbath, the synagogue and teaching time. He quite blows them all away. But this is no ordinary teaching. This is not the teaching of the local leader of the synagogue, that of the Scribes or the Pharisees who prided themselves on their knowledge of the scriptures. Unlike all the teachers they knew, Jesus did not follow the conventions of backing up his statements by quoting some learned person who, in turn, quoted some other learned person. Not at all. Jesus taught as one with authority!

And then there is an interruption in the story – something Mark does time and again. A man with an unclean spirit arrives and proceeds to disrupt the proceedings with his interjections. Jesus will have none of this and rebukes the unclean spirit, “Be silent, and come out of him.” The spirit obeys! And then the questions begin again. “What is this?” Not only authoritative teaching but teaching backed up by deeds. That surely leads to another, as yet unasked, question: Who is this?

Of course, we, the listeners, the readers, know. Mark has already told us. Remember the very first verse? “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” According to Mark, Jesus is the Son of God. John the Baptist gives a hint, and, seemingly without any witnesses other than John, there is the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” We hold that in our minds as we read further into the Gospel.

One of the unique features of Mark is that the disciples never really get who Jesus is. Yes, there is that flash of inspiration for Peter half-way through when, in answer to Jesus’s direct question, he blurts out, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) But apart from that moment, the disciples and those closest to Jesus appear to be blind to his true identity.

There are plenty of clues, and plenty of others who seek to identify Jesus. The unclean spirit has first go in the Gospel. “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And it’s the spirits in chapter 3 who continue this theme actually echoing the opening words of the Gospel and thereby revealing the true identity of Jesus. “You are the Son of God.” (Mark 3: 11) Jesus orders the spirits not to make him known – prompting scholars to refer to the ‘hidden messiahship’ in the Gospel. A few verses further into chapter 3 and we get the bizarre accusation that Jesus is himself possessed – an accusation prompted by the concern of his own family. The scribes suggest that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul – the ruler of the demons. That gives them a satisfactory explanation of how Jesus casts out demons. Is the other possibility so difficult to entertain? Are they so sure of their own position, their own understanding, that they are blind to the possibility of Jesus being the Son of God?

It’s well worth reading through Mark’s Gospel noticing the reactions of people, of the demons, the disciples, the scribes, the authorities. There are hints, and more than hints, throughout Mark as to Jesus’s identity. Yet, to the very end, the disciples and those closest to Jesus never really get it. Mark does not have any tidy resolution – there is no sending out of the disciples on the Great Commission as in Matthew; no revealing of his identity as he breaks bread on the Emmaus road as in Luke; and no restoration of Peter’s three-fold denial with the thrice asked question, “Simon do you love me?” found in John. Mark ends his story with the women, who had gone to the tomb to anoint the body, fleeing in terror and saying nothing to anyone! (Mark 16:8) That most unsatisfactory ending has prompted a number of other endings to be tacked on clumsily.

So what is going on in Mark? Why this hidden messiahship? There are plenty of clues as to Jesus’s true identity if we know what to look for and where to look for them. Apart from the opening verse and the voice at his baptism, there are the words of the spirits. There are the subtle uses of language which Jesus uses. We have already heard one of them this morning. To the spirit inhabiting the man in the synagogue, about whom we hear little detail, Jesus says, “Be silent.” A few chapters later, with Jesus asleep in the boat, the disciples cry out in terror as the waves threaten to swamp them. “Peace. Be still.” (Mark 4:39) Two chapters later Jesus again speaks to the raging storm – and to the disciples. He brings calm to the storm and a deep sense of peace to the terror of the disciples. (Mark 6:50) In each case the authority and power of Jesus is demonstrated – over the powerful natural forces and the equally powerful supernatural forces. Think scribes, pharisees, disciples. Who has authority like that? What is in that great creation hymn about the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of chaos, drawing out of it land and sky, and everything beautiful and good that we see around us? What about that other creation myth where the serpent is chastised for leading the man and woman astray?

Herod doesn’t get it. He thinks Jesus is John the Baptist raised to life. Even when Peter does blurt out his insight about Jesus being the Messiah he spoils it by rebuking Jesus. In turn Peter is rebuked with harsh words: “Get behind me, Satan! You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33) The clues are there. The identity of Jesus is offered the disciples on a plate when they gather on the mountain top. Flanked by Moses and Elijah – the great symbols of the God-story which they know so well – God’s voice speaks directly to them: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” (Mark 9:7)

And so they journey on, moving inexorably towards Jerusalem – city of peace, place of execution. Jesus’s teaching intensifies, they argue about who will be the greatest. The crowds bring their sick, their children, the blind and the lame. They may not be able to name precisely who Jesus is – but they sure get something of his identity. Great crowds greet his entry into the holy city – do they really know what they are doing? Are these the same people, in a different crowd, who change their cry from ‘Hosanna’ to ‘Crucify’? The theological question from the high priest – are you the Messiah? The political question from the Roman governor – are you the King of the Jews? Who is this? Who is he? Where does his authority come from?

And then, at the very end, at the point of death, as Jesus, with a loud cry, breathes his last, the centurion knows. “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39)

There – it is out at last. They know. We know.

There remains just one question. What will they do with this knowledge? What will we, who read and hear Mark’s Gospel, do with this knowledge?

That is the question.