January 28, 2018, Words of Life – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000061
In his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, N.T. Wright tells a true story about a tourist ship that set out on a cruise, full of passengers on holiday. But when they were out at sea, something went terribly wrong and water began to pour into the ship. It was nighttime, so it was very dark. And all of a sudden there was total chaos; everyone began to panic. But there was one man – he wasn’t a member of the crew, he was just a passenger – but this one man took charge. And there was a sense of relief, mixed in with the panic, as people saw that there was at least someone in authority. They calmed down, at least somewhat, so that a lot of people were able to find their way to the lifeboats and were saved. And then that same man, the man-in-charge, made his way down to where there were still people trapped in the hold, and by holding on with one hand to a ladder, and with the other hand to a part of the ship that was nearly submerged, he made himself into a sort of human bridge so that a lot of people were able to climb across his body and out of the hold and to reach safety. Because that one man took charge, a lot of lives were saved that night that would otherwise have been lost. But when the whole horrible ordeal was over, they found that the man himself had been drowned. And Wright says, “He had literally given his life in using the authority he had assumed – the authority by which many had been saved.”
We read today that Jesus was in Capernaum, which is a little fishing village on the Sea of Galilee, basically in the same neighborhood where Peter and Andrew and James and John and Matthew had all grown up. It was the Sabbath, which is a Saturday, and the official Jewish day of worship, and Jesus had gone into the village synagogue, as he was accustomed to doing. And he read the Lectionary reading of the day, and then he began to teach them. And as he taught, people began to sit up and take notice, and they began to whisper a little bit among themselves, because Jesus’ teaching wasn’t anything like what they were used to hearing. Mark says they were astounded, they were overwhelmed, by what they heard.
And we shouldn’t think that the people were astonished because they were used to listening to men who didn’t know what they were talking about. The Scribes, who would normally have taught on the Sabbath, they were men who had spent their entire lives studying the Scriptures, from the time they were little boys. The Scribes knew the words of the Torah and the Prophets and the Writings like you know the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm and the Nicene Creed. And not only the Holy Scriptures, but they had also studied closely all the writings of the learned Rabbis who had studied the Torah and the Prophets and the Writings for centuries before them. The Scribes were learned men, faithful and dedicated in their studies. They were highly respected in the community as men who were knowledgeable in all matters of the Law and in all the holy writings.
But when Jesus sat down and began to teach them on that day there was such a difference that the people looked at one another and were utterly astonished. For the first time in their lives, the teaching that they heard was something much more than just holy learning. The words that Jesus spoke to them reached out to the people in that synagogue like the hand of that brave man in the tourist ship. Like that hand, reaching down into the hold where all those people were trapped, offering them a way out of death into life, Jesus’ teaching reached out to the people of Capernaum in their deepest need. Much later in Jesus’ ministry Peter would put it like this, on a day when a lot of the people who had been following Jesus had fallen away, and Jesus asked Peter if he was tempted to abandon him, too. “Where else would we go?” Peter answered him. “You have the words of life.” Because that’s what the people of Capernaum heard that day, for the first time – not just teaching, not just knowledge, but words of life.
People were already amazed and astounded by Jesus’ words when suddenly there was a man in the synagogue with them who had an unclean spirit. And it seems that the spirit spoke out from within this man. It knew who Jesus was, and it knew what Jesus was, and it felt his authority just as the people were feeling his authority, because it cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” In other words, “You have no business being here.” And it said, fearfully, “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – you are the Holy One of God.” And as the already astonished congregation watched and listened, Jesus commanded that spirit to be silent and to come out of the man. And it obeyed him. “Even the unclean spirits obey him!” the people marveled, “What kind of new teaching is this?”
When John began his gospel he said this about Jesus, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” One of the amazing things that Jesus came to reveal to us is that God’s words have power. At the very beginning of everything, God said, “Let there be light.” And suddenly there was light. And when Jesus came, and he called the dead man from the grave, “Lazarus, come forth!” the dead man came forth, alive. When the people of Capernaum heard Jesus in the synagogue that day, they were hearing the teaching of the God whose word makes things happen. They were hearing the word of the God who IS the Word of Life. And they could tell – they could just feel – even before Jesus commanded the unclean spirit, they could tell – that here was some kind of new teaching the likes of which they had never, ever heard.
We have all heard Jesus’ teaching about the man who built his house on a rock. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them,” Jesus said – not just everyone who memorizes them or is able to recite them chapter and verse, but who DOES them, who puts them into practice – “that person will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” And then of course there was the other guy, who hears the words of Jesus and doesn’t put them into practice, and when the rain falls that floods come, his house is swept away.
And we tend to think that Jesus is telling us that he expects us to be obedient, and that he’s promising that our lives will go better if we follow the rules that he’s laid down for us.
But if there is one thing to be learned from the people’s reaction in Capernaum, it is that what they heard in Jesus’ teaching was something much more than rules to be followed. That wasn’t anything new; the Scribes were very good at telling people how they ought to live. That’s what the Law was all about. No, Jesus’ words weren’t demanding something from them that had never been demanded – they were offering something that had never been offered. Jesus’ words were a lifeline; they had real power. They had authority over the unclean spirit in their midst. They heard something when Jesus spoke that offered hope, a light, something to grab onto like the man down in the hold of that sinking ship.
And the thing is, that the Word of God is still here with us to offer us hope in our most hopeless times. And it’s not just a matter of knowing that there is a magic prooftext in the Bible for every trouble in our lives. Because we believe that the Word of God – not the Bible, but Jesus himself – still speaks to us today through his Holy Spirit. There is power in the words of the Bible – when we study it, I think especially when we study with other people, the Bible, even though it was written hundreds or thousands of years ago, still speaks to us powerfully, intimately even. We come away changed. But he also speaks to us through his Spirit within us, words and thoughts that change us and guide us. He speaks to us through his people, our brothers and sisters. He speaks in the symbols of the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the water or Baptism. He speaks to us in his works, in the beauty and power and brilliant design of the natural world. We don’t have a faith that only deals with dead words and codes of behavior. We proclaim that we believe in a living God who speaks to us today, and whose words have authority even in our darkest times. But it is very often easier to live without expectation, so easy to lose hope and just make our peace with the darkness. When we face troubles like Sharon’s illness, or so many other overwhelming troubles that the world piles on us, let us watch and listen and reach out for the one who has the words of life – the One who is the word of life, today and in all the days to come, no matter what we face.