Perhaps the special character of the stories in the New Testament lies in the fact that they are not told for themselves, that they are not only about other people, but that they are always about us.
They locate us in the very midst of the great story and plot of all time and space, and therefore relate us to the great dramatist and storyteller, God himself.1
The Sundays of Epiphany continue the sequential gospel readings from the opening of Mark. It would seem fairly impossible to escape the power of this season and these words to inspire us, lift us and draw us into the story of God's good news in the story of Jesus. Amos Wilder reminds us that these stories do not only provide us with information about the past but promise to engage our present lives and shape our future as people of faith. The goal and task of the preacher is certainly not to fall short of that power in these stories. Instead, we are to preach with the conviction that these stories have the power to pick us up and place us in the very midst of the story of what God is doing in and through our lives today.
Though we now arrive at the fifth Sunday of Epiphany, we realize that we still have only reached verse 29 in the Gospel of Mark. A good first step for preparing to preach would be to read again from the beginning of the gospel to this point, to be reminded of the scope and pacing of Mark's story. In just a few verses, we have been swept up into an exciting crescendo of activity. Hardly has the "good news" been announced when John the Baptist appears on the scene gathering crowds who respond to his persuasive preaching of the "forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:5). The promised "One who is coming" arrives and is baptized accompanied by splitting heavens and a voice announcing divine favor (Epiphany 1). Even when Jesus astonishingly announces that the "good news" of God's reign has already arrived and calls hearers to repentance and faith, we might be just a little taken aback when a group of fisher folk suddenly abandon their former lives and follow Him (Epiphany 3). But there is no time to grab a breath. Immediately, Jesus leads them to a synagogue on the Sabbath where the crowds marvel at His authoritative teaching and power to exorcise demonic powers (Epiphany 4).
Even in today's reading, there is no slacking of the pace. As the Sabbath ends, it might have been tempting for Jesus to bask in the successful exorcism, the accolades of his authoritative teaching and a reputation that has already spread "immediately" throughout all of Galilee" (Mark 1:28). But in this story there is no time for resting on laurels. Three times in succession, once in last Sunday's verse, Mark 1:28, and now twice in the opening words of our lesson, we hear the word "immediately," a word whose repetitive impact (fourteen times in Mark 1 and 2) many readers of Mark have noted. It needs to be allowed its effect in spite of the NRSV's and other translators' attempts to omit or soften it. With this word, the story fairly bursts through the synagogue doors and pushes towards the rest of Galilee -- to the rest of the week, to the rest of our lives and to the place this story of Jesus will take us. The gospel for this day reminds us that the story of Jesus is always on the move and will not allow any of us hearers to remain who or where we are. Within a few short verses, the end of today's lesson will invite us to join this Jesus whose "preaching" and healing of the demonic in life will take him "throughout the whole of Galilee" (Mark 1:29).
This mission has a grand sweep. It is also particular and close to home. It is at least of some interest, if not a bit puzzling, that we find those same four fishermen who answered Jesus' call and "abandoned everything" (Mark 1:14-20) back at home and still concerned with the realities of day-to-day life. For example, a mother-in-law is sick with a fever. Yet, Jesus' power extends even here, and we get an anticipatory glimpse of just where this story and mission might lead us. Jesus took her by the hand and "lifted her up" (verse 31). The Greek literally reads "he raised her." It is surely no accident that here for the first time our imaginations are teased with this promissory "good news" word which will follow this story of Jesus (eighteen times in the gospel) to its surprising, climactic resurrection ending.
Yet, even now, this anticipatory Epiphany promise fairly bursts upon the scene. From the healing of one person, the numbers in the story have a staggering effect that no attempt to discount them as mere hyperbole can undo. People bring "all" who are sick to Jesus; the "whole city" is at the door. He heals "many" who are sick with "all sorts" of diseases and casts out "many" demons. The success seems palpable and unstoppable. Jesus' power is clear.
Except for the demons! Before he has exorcised them with only a word (Mark 1:21-28); now He is more forceful as He "casts them out" and will not permit them to speak (Mark 1:34). However, the final note "because they knew him" is a sobering reminder these demonic powers will not go quietly and so a premonition of where this battle will ultimately take this Jesus.
It is to that battle and its purpose that the rest of today's story now directs us. In the morning Jesus is up early and once again "in the wilderness" to ponder His mission in prayer. God's baptismal commission has brought Him to this place. There is a tug to remain for the "everyone" who is searching for Him. But Jesus' words, "Let us go on," speak to His clear sense of call and mission. "It is for this reason that I came -- to preach to the cities that lie ahead" (Mark 1:38).
Jesus' words address the clear sense of purpose and mission that are already part of Mark's story. It breathes of the power of forgiveness and healing that God has in store for the whole world. Within a few verses that mission has taken us from the particular of one mother-in-law's sick room to the whole of Galilee and, by implication, to the whole world.
In just this way, Mark's story is inviting hearers into the new existence of faith. What if we were to be persuaded by the good news of such a new existence? What if our lives here and now were to be shaped by confidence in the One who invites us with such promise? The call and the task for the preacher will be to make clear that such promise is here for us, helping to locate us in the midst of this story, and to finally make clear that this story is not just about the Sabbath. This story is not merely about the community at worship, but the story of Jesus which will engage all of our stories as it bursts beyond the synagogue and the place of worship, taking us into the rest of the week and the rest of the stories of our lives with its power.
1Amos N. Wilder, Early Christian Rhetoric: The Language of the Gospel (Cambridge: Harvard University, 1971), 57.