29 Jan 2012
“All were amazed and asked one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority!’” (Mark 1:27) In the name …
My dog Wilbur doesn’t like other dogs, but he loves people, which can be a bit of a problem when the rectory doorbell rings. If Sharon, Amanda or I walk into the house, we’re lucky to get a wag of the tail. But when the doorbell rings, well, that’s a bigger treat thank a Milk Bone. Wilbur bolts up, starts barking and rushes over toward the door. For people who don’t know Wilbur, or for people who are afraid of dogs, I can easily imagine that Wilbur rushing toward them and barking can be a some-what uncomfortable welcome to the church rectory. There’s no chance of Wilbur biting someone, but my first job when the doorbell rings is to get the dog locked away in the kitchen behind a gate because people can still be afraid. But my dog, who isn’t the brightest beast, has finally figured out that he can make his way into my office and to the new people by going through the dining and living rooms. He’s really friendly and determined, which makes my job of keeping him away that much harder.
Now let’s go back to this morning’s first reading. Reverence was equated with the fear of the Lord. God was a fearful presence; one better to be avoided than embraced. That’s the sentiment behind the words of the people of Israel that we just heard: “‘Let us not again hear the voice of the Lord, our God, nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.’” (Dt. 18:16 // Ex. 20:19) It was much safer, they felt, to have Moses stand before God on their behalf, to act not only as an intermediary, but as a buffer between the Almighty and the ordinary. And these words are placed in the context of Moses’ farewell address. Deuteronomy is a recapitulation of the books of Moses. Its premise is that Moses’ life is coming to an end and that he wants to make sure Israel is prepared for life without him, thus all of the various and intricate religious laws that Deuteronomy lists for page after page. These laws are to make sure that the holiness of God is not offended. There are prescribed ways in which, not only to worship, but to live, to eat, to wash; every ordinary thing was regulated by these laws of holiness because for God to come into contact with the ordinary was to invite judgment and worse..
And right about in the middle of all these laws, as we read, is Yahweh’s promise that He “will raise up for [Israel] a prophet like [Moses] from among your own people. You shall heed such a prophet.” (Dt. 18:15) From the moment these words were written down, Israel hoped in that promised prophet like Moses, the one who would someday come and define their relationship with God, the one who would someday come and actually be their living connection to the Holy One, the prophet whom they could someday listen to and be safe in the presence of God, because the holiness of God was a fearful reality.
Then one especially blessed sabbath day, Jesus of Nazareth walks into the neighbouring town of Capernaum’s synagogue with His four fishermen friends. We’re not privileged to know what Jesus actually says to them that day, but He definitely makes an impression. From here, Jesus’ reputation begins to spread throughout Galilee. For sure Jesus performed a miracle there, but the people in that synagogue focused on something else, something even greater. “‘What is this?’ they say amongst themselves, ‘A new teaching [and] with authority.’” (Mk 1:27) The miracle impressed, doubtless to say, but the first words out of their mouths are about Jesus’ “new teaching – with authority!” A new teaching, a new law? A new law-giver? And with authority. Authority like that of Moses? Could Jesus be the “prophet like Moses” that God would raise up? But He’s the carpenter from Nazareth. His companions are fishermen. All of the contradictions were plain to see, but there was still that presence of Jesus that gave His words, His new teachings, an unmistakable authority.
We can only surmise what He said that day, but it must have stunned the worshippers. They were a people accustomed to speaking of God and fear in the same sentence. Their experience of God was from a respectful distance. And yet here was Jesus among them, and in His person they felt the nearness of God. This new teaching and with authority was the revelation that God was not to be defined any longer by fear. Remember that it is only the man of a disturbed mind in that Capernaum synagogue who sees the presence of God in Jesus and puts holy and fear together: “‘Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’” (Mk. 1:24) The man speaking these words is first-person-singular: “I know,” so the “come to destroy us” is everybody in that synagogue, not just him. This is the old idea that God is to be feared. Jesus’ new teaching with authority is that God has had enough of being symbolically locked away in the kitchen every time someone rings the doorbell. He may seem fearful, but God reveals in Jesus that He is anything but, and in Jesus He will find His way around the gate, and through the other rooms, and He will be with people.
The church must be faithful to this example of Christ. We must exemplify this revelation of a God who wants to be with us, of a God who has grown tired of being scary. It’s easier to preach of fear and punishment for every transgression, but when the deranged man shouts out that old message, Jesus commands, “Be silent!” When Jesus comes with His fishermen friends and sits among the congregation in Capernaum, and lets them know of the nearness of God, that’s the “new teaching” that changed the face of God. He may first appear as scary as big ol’ Wilbur running and barking toward you at the door, but it’s well past the time that we should finally accept the revelation of Jesus’ person that God can smile, and that God doesn’t only want to be feared and revered, He wants to be included. That’s the message that spread out from the Capernaum synagogue, throughout Galilee, and even to us here today. That we may bring God into our lives, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo