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Sermon: Jesus The Alarm Call

It’s been two or three weeks since I’ve posted a sermon. This weekend I’m not at one of my churches, and I’ve been asked to preach from the Lectionary. My study of this passage led me to what I found to be a surprising twist on the meaning I had always thought it had. See whether this sheds new light on a familiar story for you, too.

Mark 1:21-28

[Sermon begins with sound effect of an alarm clock.]

It’s OK, I’m not trying to wake you up before the sermon sends you to sleep. (Although I hope it won’t.) Were it not for copyright laws, I would have played you the beginning of the song ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd from ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’, which begins with a cacophony of alarm clocks.

But if I gave you an unwelcome foretaste of Monday morning, it was for a reason. You heard an alarm clock. And I want to suggest to you that in the synagogue at Capernaum, Jesus’ listeners heard a first century alarm clock – ringing in their hearts and minds.

How so? Robin read, ‘They were astounded at his teaching’ (verse 22). When we read passages like this one in the Gospels, we get a sense that the people are amazed and impressed by Jesus. Indeed, that’s how we tend to interpret the statement at the other end of the story in verse 27, ‘They were all amazed’.

And if the alarm clock makes me think of Pink Floyd, the sense of amazement takes me to Kate Bush and her old song ‘Wow’, with its chorus, ‘Wow, wow, wow, wow, unbelievable!’ That’s what we think the people are saying about Jesus: ‘Wow!’ ‘Unbelievable!’

But the bad news, is that here we side with Pink Floyd rather than Kate Bush. It’s alarm, not wow. Mark has six different words he uses for this sense of amazement, and the one he uses here means not ‘wonder’ and ‘amazement’ but ‘alarm’[1]. Strictly speaking, we should translate verse 22 as ‘The people were alarmed at his teaching’.

Why should the synagogue congregation be alarmed at Jesus’ teaching? We don’t know what Jesus taught on this occasion, but we do know from earlier verses in Mark 1 what the general tenor of his teaching at this time was. Take verses 14-15:

Now when John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Most of this should not cause alarm to his hearers. Good Jews were waiting for the time to be fulfilled. They longed for the kingdom of God. They wanted good news. They were being ruled over by Rome, whose emperor (‘king’) claimed to be the Son of God, and who claimed that the rule of Rome was good news. The announcement of a new emperor was called a ‘gospel’. The Jews don’t like this. Here is someone whom Mark calls in the first verse of his Gospel ‘the Son of God’, rather than Caesar. He is proclaiming that God, not Caesar, is King. Can you not imagine the cheering? This is good news to believe in!
But … there is one word hidden in the midst of all this that will alarm them. ‘Repent.’ God’s people weren’t meant to repent. It was pagan, Gentile sinners who were supposed to recognise their sin and change. God’s people were the oppressed. They were the ones who were going to be vindicated.

Yet no. Jesus comes and addresses them with the word ‘repent.’ “What? Us? You’re kidding! How dare you!” Sound the alarm. There’s good news, but to receive it you need to change. They didn’t expect that.

And maybe as a community that is a decreasing minority in a society that no longer understands us, a culture that is far less sympathetic to us, maybe we in the Western church want Jesus to ride into town with an angelic cavalry and vindicate us, too. However, what if he did show up here this morning and he made all sorts of gospel promises to us, but they are the bread around the filling of repentance?

Don’t get me wrong. I am sure God is concerned about the decline of the western church, just as I am convinced he cared about Israel suffering oppression. But his main concern may not be to come to us and say, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” He may need to challenge us.

The other day the BBC and various newspapers carried coverage of a report from the University of Essex which plotted the decline in honesty and integrity in our society over the last ten years. To take just one statistic from among many, a decade ago 70% of people agreed that extra-marital affairs were always wrong. Now, only 50% agree with that. In the comments that readers contributed on the BBC website about this story, one person asked, ‘Where is the church in this?’ An avalanche of replies said that the church had little credibility in the honesty stakes, given the way she had covered up child abuse by priests. Now I know that some people use the child abuse scandal as a stick with which to beat the church, and I also know that the vast majority of churchgoers are not culpable, but the fact remains that our claims to integrity are tarnished in the world and it therefore may well be that Jesus comes to us with a message of repentance.
If you remember the comedy series ‘Are You Being Served?’ you may recall the scenes where the elderly and doddery owner of Grace Brothers Department Store, the so-called Young Mr Grace, would turn up on the shop floor on the arms of his beautiful young nurse and tell the staff, “You’ve all done very well.” Sometimes I wonder whether that is the only message we are willing to hear from Christ, when he may have reason with us, like ancient Israel, to slip the word ‘repent’ in amidst all the good news.

We may hear the alarm call to repent, to change our minds about the way we are living, to do a u-turn in our direction. However much we would like to see churches growing numerically again and with a greater proportion of younger generations, one thing is sure: it is not going to happen while we keep on doing the same thing. Albert Einstein had a famous definition of insanity. For Einstein, insanity was to keep on doing the same things while expecting a different result. As someone else has said, what got us here is not what is going to get us out of here. It is going to require change. That won’t just be about techniques, methods and strategies: it will probably involve repentance as well.

If these are some of the implications of the initial observation that the people ‘were astounded’ [alarmed] at his teaching’ (verse 22), then we need secondly to think about the time they repeat their amazement after Jesus expels the demon from the afflicted man:

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Verse 27)

Take those words – which I said we normally interpret as meaning, wow, what an amazing guy! He’s fantastic, so much better than the regular guys – and think about it again. If they were not so much impressed as alarmed, you see it in a new light. What if they were alarmed that Jesus taught with authority, and that even unclean spirits obey him? Let me illuminate it by sharing with you a strange pet theory I have.

It’s this: I think that secretly, a significant number of churchgoers actually prefer boring preachers. I know we hear plenty of complaints about boring sermons, a good deal of it with justification, but I think there is a group of people in many congregations who are clandestine supporters of the tedious preachers whose sermons lack considerable lustre.

Why? Not just so they can catch up on sleep after Saturday night. Not merely so they can get a good blood pressure reading at the doctor’s on Monday morning. No: if the preacher is mind-numbing, then they aren’t challenged. They don’t want to be confronted with the need to change, which a lively preacher might do, and so they can keep on with their own sweet way of life. Repentance and other ugly things that are really for those who are altogether too enthusiastic about religion can be side-stepped.

These people will be alarmed at a preacher who has authority, to whom people respond with changed lives (and even unclean spirits have to get up and leave the building). It gets a bit too close for comfort.
This manifests itself in other ways, too. Tom Wright has pointed out in his recent book ‘Simply Jesus’ that scepticism about the miraculous can be used by people precisely to avoid the challenge of Jesus. He says this:

In Jesus’ own day, there were plenty of people who didn’t want to believe his message, because it would have challenged their own power or influence. It would have upset their own agenda. For the last two hundred years that’s been the mood in Western society too. By all means, people think, let Jesus be a soul doctor, making people feel better inside. Let him be a rescuer, snatching people away from this world to “heaven.” But don’t let him tell us about a God who actually does things in the world. We might have to take that God seriously, just when we’re discovering how to run the world our way. Skepticism is no more “neutral” or “objective” than faith. It has thrived in the post-Enlightenment world, which didn’t want God (or, in many cases, anyone else either) to be king. (Pages 58-59)

The Jesus who teaches with authority is an alarm call. The Jesus whose authoritative teaching leads people to change their attitudes and actions is a subversive, if not a revolutionary. He unsettles the status quo.

The thing is, it’s not enough to tick all the boxes, follow the rules of the church culture, sing the right hymns and say the creeds. In our story, the unclean spirit knew who Jesus was. He is the Holy One of God, who has come to destroy evil (verse 24). But was that sufficient? Not in the slightest. Unless encounter with Jesus leads to the response of a changed life, it is worthless.

You see, Jesus’ fame spreads around Galilee after this incident (verse 28), but what do you do with the fame? You can offer adulation to a famous person, but big deal: look at the vacuous nature of celebrity culture in our day. But what practical, positive and healthy difference does celebrity worship make in the life of the fan? Little or none, I would suggest. You can become a Jesus fan, but still not be changed, and so not be aligned with the revolutionary project of his kingdom. You can’t around the alarm of having to follow Jesus by substituting the shallow veneration of a fan.

Ultimately, no manoeuvres are possible. We come face to face with Jesus, and we have to do something. We need to make a choice. Sitting on a fence is painful. Going down the middle of the road only gets you run over. It has to be one side or another. Either we stay with our alarm and our fear, and we end up joining the opponents of Jesus (and the opposition in Mark’s Gospel begins in the very next chapter). Or we recognise that the Jesus who claims to be the true king and Son of God rather than Caesar is one who claims our allegiance. His reign as king will turn upside-down the values of human empires. The poor, not the rich, will be blessed, and so on.

And as he turns human values upside-down (or right way up), so he will upend our lives. When we meet Jesus, the only constructive response is to repent.

Let us make no mistake. Let us not be imprisoned by the fear of our alarm that he calls us to repent as part of his good news.

Jesus is worth a complete change of mind.

[1] William L Lane, The Gospel of Mark, p72 n110.

Another Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service

One of the most popular posts on this blog over the last year was A Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service. I preached it at our annual All Souls service at the end of October last year, and it has regularly been one of the posts found on Google searches. It seems to be something people need.

This weekend is the All Souls service for this year, and here I am posting tonight’s sermon. I hope people find this helpful, too.

Psalm 23

‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ (Verse 4)

Tonight, we gather as people who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. Indeed, we are still walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We have lost loved ones dear to us – some after a good, long life, some to cruel diseases and some far too young.

In walking through this darkest of valleys, we sometimes expect that at the time of bereavement we shall plunge into the darkness, but then we shall slowly climb out, bit by bit. The remarks of friends and acquaintances who naïvely expect us to have recovered after a length of time betray this unrealistic idea. I often remark that the experience of grief and bereavement is more like ‘three steps forward, two steps back’.

And it often starts before the death. Those of you who have been alongside a family member or a dear friend who received the news that the doctors could do no more know that your grief started early. Something similar is true for those of you who witnessed someone descend into Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia. You have a double bereavement: first, you lose the person, and later, you lose the body.

There is a number of emotions that we can go through in these seasons of our lives. One is denial. It can’t really be happening. I don’t want to believe this is happening. Or, it doesn’t feel real. Wake me up from this nightmare. This is just a TV show, right?
Or when we realise it is real, we turn to bargaining. Maybe we can strike a bargain with God. ‘Lord, if you’ll heal my loved one, then I’ll do things for you.’ It makes me remember the old Kate Bush song ‘Running Up That Hill’

in which she sings,

‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’

And maybe when God doesn’t sign up to the bargain we offer him, we move into anger. Anger with God. Anger with doctors. Anger with our loved one, if they did something foolish. Reading recently how Steve Jobs refused potentially life-saving surgery for his pancreatic cancer at an early stage, I wonder how his wife and children have felt.

Finally, we get through to some form of acceptance. We know our loved one is going to die, or we accept that yes, they have died. We start to rebuild our lives, knowing they will never take the same shape again, because the one who has gone has left a hole no-one else can fill. It was uniquely their shape.

Given that these are typically the kinds of experiences we are having, how can I recognise Psalm 23’s affirmation that ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me’?
I mean, how is God with us? We tend to assume he is remote, in heaven and far away from us. That leads us to think he doesn’t care. However, if he were with us, wouldn’t things be a bit different? The Psalmist didn’t know God physically with him, but he did have a sense of God’s presence in life, that he described as being like a Palestinian shepherd, with his rod and staff. The rod was a club that was used to fend off wild beasts and the staff was the shepherd’s crook, used to guide and control the sheep.[1]

For Christians, admittedly centuries after the Psalmist wrote, the answers to these questions come into sharp focus in Jesus. In Jesus, God did not stay remote from us. It is not simply true, as the song says, that ‘God is watching us from a distance.’ In Jesus, he came up close. He lived in poverty and powerlessness. He died young. And it was an unjust death.

And Jesus, the ‘Good Shepherd’, as he called himself, has a rod and a staff. A rod to beat away our enemies, and a staff to guide us.

It may seem absurd to claim that Jesus beats away our enemies when we are in the presence of what the Bible calls ‘the last enemy’, that is, death itself. The Christian hope is in Jesus not only having swallowed the bitter pill of death as we do and on our behalf, it is also that he was raised from the dead. And while that seems an absurd claim to many today, it is one we back up with strong historical evidence. From it, we hold the hope that Jesus’ resurrection is the sign that we shall all be raised from the dead one day, at the end of history as we know it. Because of that hope, even this worst of all enemies cannot have the final word. Death may win a battle and cause us immense suffering and pain, but it cannot in the end win the war. Through our tears, we have this hope, and in that sense the rod of Jesus beats away the enemy of death in the final analysis.

We also get to experience his staff, his shepherd’s crook, guiding us. Jesus, from his involvement in creation to his bringing in of a new creation in his resurrection, is the one who guides us in hope through the tragedies of death and suffering. He becomes our example of how to live in the face of the certainty of death and the hope of resurrection. How? Let me go back to that Kate Bush lyric:

‘And if only I could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places’

We may not be able to make a deal with God, but ‘to swap our places’ – that actually is more realistic, strange as it may seem. The Christian hope is about the Son of God who chose not to stay in the glory of heaven but take on human flesh in poverty and suffering. It is about the One who on the Cross ‘swapped places’ with us so that death might be defeated and we might be forgiven our sins. Handing our lives over to the One who brings us forgiveness, defeats death and shows us how truly to live is to find him whose staff guides and comforts us throughout life.

So wherever we are in our grieving, I commend a life of trusting Jesus to you. Trusting him doesn’t exempt us from the trials of life and death, but in his birth he is with us, in his death and resurrection he beats away our enemies and his life, death and resurrection we find his pattern and guide for living.

The Church And The Scarecrow Festival

“You’ve got to go to the Pirbright Scarecrow Festival, it’s amazing,” said one of the mums at school. It was on yesterday, and, well, Sally was right.

Over fifty scarecrows scattered around the village green and the church, the latter forming a tableau of the recent royal wedding. I think my favourite, even if not the most sophisticated scarecrow, was the ‘cartwheeling verger’:

And here he is at Pirbright:

Yes, complete with odd socks.

It was a great day. Lots of stalls, amazing sausages and burgers from Fulks the local butcher, music, ice cream, fun for children and adults.

The royal wedding was the theme – or, perhaps more accurately, the theme was ‘William and Kate’. Hence you also saw scarecrows of William Shatner, Willy Wonka, and my favourite, a bush with a speech balloon containing the lyrics to ‘Wuthering Heights’. Yes, the bush was called Kate.

And you know what: the church was the driving force behind it.

Evidently, the event has been going some years, but the way the programme was worded, you couldn’t miss the theme that this had begun from the parish church. They had corralled local businesses into supporting it in various ways, and many local families had made the scarecrows.

No, it wasn’t remotely an overtly religious event, but I wonder what goodwill they build up in the village by doing this.