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Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, sermon by Revd Ian Woodward

Posted By : Ian Woodward Sunday 1st February 2015

A sermon by the Reverend Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close on Sunday, 1 February 2015  

Revelation 12: 1-5a;  Mark 1: 21-28

Today is almost a  ‘Last Day’ – for tomorrow marks the end of our season of expectations and celebrations that started way back on Advent Sunday and took us on through Christmas and Epiphany with the ‘Promise of God’s Glory’.  Today, we can imagine the Magi are packing their camel’s saddle bags ready to depart eastwards ‘by another way’.  And now, tomorrow is Candlemas, when traditionally the candles for use in the medieval church were blessed for the ensuing year and when we celebrate the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.  But more importantly it is the time when we leave behind the warmth and glow of the manger and the hope and expectations of the revelation of Prince of Peace and turn ourselves around and set out in preparation for the challenges of Lent and Holy Week until finally we share the joy of Easter – because we are an Easter People.   

Our Crib, with its distinctive characters who have become familiar friends over the past weeks will go back into their special storeroom with the angels until just before next Christmas.  Now, we reset our minds on the next stage of our spiritual and liturgical journey.  The contrast can be a shock to the spiritual system.  Suddenly the cosiness is gone and the reality of Jesus’ ministry re-enters our consciousness as we seek to follow Christ in the ministry that we all share.   And this new reality, this new consciousness of what God is about and why he came, is what is happening in our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus is seriously busy and active and very clear about what he is doing in his Father’s name.                                

I love the economy of Mark’s writing – in just eight short verses he paints a scene of great drama and contrasts.  Mark interposes these contrasting characters; there’s Jesus who must have been invited to teach on the Sabbath in the synagogue and the man who had an unclean spirit, a sort of intermittent madness; perhaps some sort of dual personality, and this ‘unclean spirit’ would, from time to time, take over this man’s behaviour.  And yet in spite of this he knew who Jesus was and where he came from – indeed he proclaimed him as ‘the Holy one of God.’  How did he know this and have such conviction?  Jesus’ reputation had gone before him all the way to Capernaum.  On the face of it we could hardly find two more different characters as Jesus and the man with the unclean spirit.  And yet they do have something in common – they are both on the margins of their society.  They were both despised and rejected or about to be.   

I think this story tells us about the inclusive outreach of Jesus.  In this week in which we had a moving Evensong marking the Holocaust and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland where in that one camp and its satellite, more than one million prisoners, mainly Jewish people, were murdered because they were Jewish, or Gypsies or homosexuals – all on the margins of society so far as the Nazi regime was concerned.                   

Reading today’s gospel there is always that temptation of subtle anti-Semitism – criticism of the seeming blindness and arrogance of the Scribes and Pharisees in public life at the time.  And yet, here we have a seemingly mad man in the temple congregation – and it sounds as if they had pretty tolerant church wardens or temple stewards in the synagogue in Capernaum.  What was he doing there?  What would we do here if he was in the Cathedral here this morning?  He knew more than the scribes and the Pharisees about whom Jesus was.  He, the supposed mad man, was more seeing and more perceptive than anyone else there listening to Jesus; and to their loss, much more than the synagogue leaders.                         

There is that telling phrase in Mark’s story of the congregation’s reaction: ‘What is this?  A new teaching (and) with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him’.  It could be an indictment to preachers today and a reminder about where authority really comes from.    

I think it’s somewhat frustrating that we don’t know what happened to the man Jesus healed.  Did he become a disciple, did he do something about his belief; did he share his faith; what happened to him?                        

In the cold light of day, this morning’s gospel reading is a story of exorcism but without all the Hollywood style exaggerations.  It has been said that the essential Jesus was known primarily for his feeding people and healing them but today’s miracle is unlike others that come in early chapters of Mark and are less about Jesus’ compassion and more about his authority and so we have both the contrast and the commonality of the ‘Man’ and ‘Jesus’.  Vulnerability and authority.  But the context of this healing miracle by Jesus isn’t so much about power but about seeing justice served.  The man is ill and in need of help, and Jesus decides to do something about it.              

Our Epistle reading today from the Revelation to John – is typically veiled writing, and it makes great demands on those who read it and hear it.  The imagery it presents us with today points us, I suggest, to the conflict between good and evil and the threat to the vulnerable, and the marginalised.  The image is of a pregnant mother of the ‘Ruler of the Nations’ standing before a dragon awaiting to devour her imminent child – it’s seemingly preposterous.  It reminds me of a discussion long ago with my New Testament tutor who asked us if we thought Revelation should have been included in the Biblical canon.  That may be a discussion for another time, but the highly vivid imagery seriously challenges us and we should not dismiss it as too off the wall.  It points us, I believe, to the awesome power of God and the awful cost and consequences of being distanced from God.  Do we, as the allegedly mad man in the synagogue in Capernaum did, recognise God and his Son for whom they really are?    

And this is where we move on from the warmth and cosiness and familiarity of the Christmas story and take on the adult ministry that Christ came to do, fulfilling God’s will.  Mark reminds us that this is a ministry of boundary breaking, demo -dashing, law-transcending by the Son of God in person as Jesus the Messiah, and he expects his followers to be more than simply amazed, but to do something about it, and this is our challenge; so how will we respond?

As a final thought– we shouldn’t entirely leave behind this past Christmas and Epiphany – for it is only through the vision of the incarnated Christ that we can set out with him to embrace the kingdom of God in this place and the world that he wants us to build with him – a kingdom of love and peace and justice and mercy for everyone.