"A Funny Thing Happened at Church This Morning" - Epiphany 4B
Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
January 28, 2018 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Mark 1:21-28

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: January 28, 2017 – Epiphany 4B

Mark 1:21-28


A Funny Thing Happened at Church this Morning


            Everything in worship seemed to be going so well up to that point. Liturgy at Christ the Mediator, a small Lutheran congregation on the South Side of Chicago, was rich. The blind black man at the front of the church sang the Kyrie from setting two in the green book flawlessly. The pastor gave a fine sermon, I’m sure – though I have forgotten everything he said. Indeed, I forgot nearly everything about that particular worship service when the man next to me at the communion rail suddenly collapsed.


            “Oh dear. Call an ambulance,” the pastor said. And while his wife ran to call and other parishioners checked on the fallen man, the pastor did what I suppose was the best thing under the circumstances: he continued to serve communion. Several minutes later, the ambulance arrived and treated that poor man.


            We found out after worship, much to our relief, that he hadn’t suffered a heart attack or a stroke. A diabetic, his sugars had plummeted, causing him to collapse. After the administration of some orange juice, he was recovering in the fellowship hall with a blanket when we came down for coffee hour.


            One eventful thing can tear our attention away from what we intended to hear. God forbid we should have to call the ambulance for any of you while at worship, though we are more prepared now in case that should be necessary. (I’ve seen it happen three times; I hope to never see it again.) Of course, other things can tear our attention away from what we came to hear. Maybe Pastor goes on a rant about a particular politician, which would delight some of you and offend many others. Maybe someone begins to suddenly speak in tongues. Either of those would create interesting lunch-time conversation.


            Or something else funny happens, in church or elsewhere, like the events that transpired in the Capernaum synagogue that day. It’s the first time Mark mentions Jesus preaching in a public house of worship, but we know he’s been preaching for some time already. His message, as reported in Mark 1:15, is crystal-clear: the Kingdom of God is near – repent and believe in the good news. But there is something about how he tells it that is electrifying, and perhaps unfortunately, moves the focus from the message to the messenger.


            Of course, we know in hindsight that Jesus is both message and messenger; that in him the Kingdom of God has come. But for those in the synagogue that day, I suspect that the message of the Kingdom was overwhelmed by Jesus’ charisma. The people were utterly transfixed. He commanded an authority unlike any other preacher they had heard. The exorcism of the evil spirit was simply the icing on the cake. Jesus came, at least initially, to preach the good news of the Kingdom, not to point to himself as the Messiah. Notice that Jesus commands the spirit to be silent. Also notice that throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus constantly commands everyone around him to be silent about who he is. He silences the demons. He asks those he heals to keep their healing a secret (which fails miserably). And perhaps most notably, he sternly commands his disciples to keep his identity a secret. Of course, the secret eventually gets out – we wouldn’t be here today. But why would Jesus want to keep his messiahship a secret?


            We all know the power of charisma in our own culture. It’s abundantly clear that the most charismatic presidential candidate tends to win our elections. It helps if they have a soundbite message, like, “Hope and Change” or “Make America Great Again”. We are attracted to charismatic people. The problem is that we also tend to create personality cults around these people. This happens in churches all the time as well. A founding pastor of congregation, for instance, leaves and the membership shrinks by half. Why? Because “it just isn’t the same without Pastor Steve”.  


            I think that a personality cult, ironically enough, was what Jesus was trying to avoid at the beginning of his ministry. While our faith is rightly centered around him, we need to also remember that in the beginning, his message was what was most important. Not how he preached it. Everything else he did – healings and miracles – were designed to point to that message of the nearness of God’s Kingdom.  Jesus knows all too well the dangers of a personality cult. Though he is the Messiah, he knew that the peoples’ expectations of that role were not in line with what he had come to do. The people wanted a conquering messiah-king, not a crucified one.


            And yet, only the crucified Messiah can save. Only the Messiah that totally empties himself of his rightful power and authority can carry the weight of the world’s sin. Only he can usher in God’s Kingdom, with its overturning of the normal human orders of hierarchy and meritocracy. And only he could inspire a movement that continues to the present day, which continues to point out the presence of God’s Kingdom among us now.


            Despite our attraction to the charismatic, it isn’t the only gift that matters. There are so many other gifts out there in this congregation that God has given us – gifts of mercy, gifts of love, gifts of service, gifts of giving. Thank God that Jesus reminds us that charisma is not the only thing, not only by his example, but by the examples of those he chose. He didn’t choose the wisest or best educated men. He chose fisherman, rough around the edges, to be his students. Jesus chooses people who have rough spots – people like us – to be messengers of the nearness of God’s Kingdom, whatever our gifts or our weaknesses. That’s our good news. Someone may totally captivate us with their voice, their charisma, their personality. But we know from Jesus that that’s not the only thing that matters. He – and his followers – are the proof.


© 2018, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.