Epiphany 4B Sermon (2024)

4th Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:21-28;
1 Cor 8:1-13

Facebook live (sermon begins at 28:20): https://fb.watch/r6r5qlEdMm/

GOD’S REIGN AND THE POLITICS OF HEALING

Last week (Epiphany 3B), we witnessed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Mark’s Gospel. We heard that the boiled down Gospel message centers on God’s reign coming into the world. This required repentance not only then, but also now. Let’s consider back then, first. To say that God’s reign was coming into the world back then, was largely to say it would come like human empires and reigns, namely, by military force — except God’s reign would come with a bigger and better army, maybe armies of angels, too. In short, superior firepower. God would finally bring peace and justice through an army even stronger than Rome’s.

Well, they needed to repent, to radically change their hearts and minds, because Jesus was truly bringing God’s reign into the world, but it would not be through superior firepower. No, in fact, God’s reign was coming into the world through nearly the exact opposite. God’s reign was coming into the world through a Messiah who would suffer typical human violence rather than inflict it. Yes, he would endure our most brutal and horrible form of punishment — he would be executed on the cross — in order to establish God’s reign. The key difference would be that God would raise this Messiah on the third day in order to finally begin to show us that that kind of power is not a match for God’s kind of power. Namely, God’s creative power of love and life. God’s creative power of healing. Yes, the salvation of God’s reign was so completely different that it truly required a radical and deep repentance.

Last week (Epiphany 3B), we focused more on our need for repentance now, because two thousand years later we’ve not quite fallen into the trap of seeing God’s reign in terms of the power of force. Although some Christians have come to see it like that, waiting for Jesus to return with superior firepower to slay all the evil people. We have had to deal with that view as Lutherans so much, but we have turned the Gospel into something else. Instead of meaningfully talking about God’s reign coming into the world through Jesus, and what that means, we’ve come to mostly talk about the opposite direction, going up to heaven after we die. Again, don’t get me wrong. Being with God when we die remains a crucial hope and part of our Gospel message. But to instead say that the main message involves God’s reign coming into the world — like when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is heaven” — well then, we’re talking about much, much more than simply going to heaven when we die. The New Testament tells us that being with God in heaven is a temporary thing until someday God’s reign in the world becomes complete, and we will then all receive resurrection bodies with which to enjoy it. That’s the complete and full hope: that someday God’s reign will come to complete fulfillment. The whole creation will be restored and come to flourish. And we will be there with new bodies to enjoy it.

In the meantime, though, God’s reign has entered the world through Jesus and is working its long, slow march to completion. And you and I are called to take part in it! We are called as disciples of Jesus to help bring God’s reign to fruition! Can you imagine anything better news than that?! To share with our family and friends and fellow citizens. That you and I are needed to work in the coming of God’s reign in Jesus? Remember last week? Mark gives us a summary of Jesus’ basic message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” And what did Jesus do next? He recruited his first disciples: two sets of brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee. God in Jesus Christ is still recruiting disciples to this very day. You and I are called to be part of God’s salvation in the coming of God’s reign.

But we first need to repent. We need a change of heart and mind to look not just to going to heaven when we die but to begin to look for God’s reign as it is coming into the world. What’s the next step? The next step that we begin to see in Jesus’ ministry? I’ll just say it: politics. Yes, politics. You and I can’t understand what God’s reign looks like in the world unless we understand God’s politics. Doesn’t that make sense? How can one have a reign, a government of human communities, without having a politics?

Now, you may very understandably come back and say to me, “But what can we see in today’s reading that can possibly be described as ‘politics’?” To which I respond: Well, that’s the need for repentance coming clear again, right? We need a radical change of heart and mind to begin to see that God’s politics look so very different than our politics. Even more so back then.  Back then, as we said, the politics of their rulers was almost completely about the enemy. Politics was about punishing the enemy, about keeping one’s people safe from the enemy through superior firepower. The Good News of Caesar was all about how he had defeated this enemy or that. It was about how his army throughout the empire kept order — by using necessary force, of course. That was the Good News, the Gospel, of Caesar and his empire. For those on the underside of that empire, peoples like the Jews, any Good News would involve getting rid of Caesar and his army with their own army. Can you see how that might confue you if you’re looking for that kind of power?

Because the first thing that Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel — after calling disciples, that is — is to heal a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue. How is this about politics? Well, as I just said, in human politics we most often talk about punishing our enemies. In God’s politics, Jesus shows us that it mostly about healing, about well-being — and not only for those in power, but even and perhaps especially for those on the fringes of power, like this man with an unclean spirit. In fact, what would have been the ordinary politics to deal with an unclean man, a sick man, who just wanders into their sanctuary on the Sabbath? It would probably be to throw him out, right? Here was a guy who we would describe as mentally ill. What would we do if a mentally ill person walked in here right now and started to disrupt our worship? The first temptation might be to try to kindly usher him out, right? Well, back then, the politics were certainly to throw the guy out. He wasn’t just “mentally ill” to them. He had an unclean spirit which threatened to make them all unclean — on the Sabbath in the synagogue, no less! Shoot, they didn’t even allow women into the main room of the synagogue for those reasons, because women are so often unclean because of menstruation. Women had to sit behind a screen in a side room. So, yes, their politics would have been to protect themselves from this guy by throwing him out.

But what does Jesus do? He show us a very different politics. He throws out the unclean spirit, not the man. He shows compassion to the man and heals him. The politics of God’s reign is much more about healing for everyone than it is about punishing one’s enemies.

Why do we call this “politics”? First of all, we should expect it to be about politics because Jesus has already told everyone that it is about God’s reign coming into the world, and you can’t have a reign without a politics. Second, Mark gives us a big clue by using the quintessential word for politics, not just once but twice in this short passage. It’s the word translated as “authority.” In Greek, it’s the word exousia, which can also be translated simply as “power.” Who has the power, the authority, in human communities? The rulers. The people in charge. The politicians, if you will. Caesar, first and foremost, had the power, the authority. Pilate had the power. King Herod had the power of Caesar, so long as he obeyed Caesar. Locally, their Rabbis, their teachers had the power. The synagogue was the place of their authority. But Mark tells us twice that the people recognized a very different kind of power and authority in Jesus. In short, Jesus’ power and authority was about healing, about restoration and forgiveness — not about punishing or casting out. Yes, this was a very different kind of power, a very different kind of authority. In other words, it’s a very different politics.

Next week (Epiphany 5B), we’ll see more stories about healing. In fact, if Easter were to be late this year, which it’s not, we would have four straight healing stories to close out the Epiphany season. Since Easter is early, we’ll only have one more. But I hope you can see the main point of Mark beginning the story of God’s reign coming through Jesus with so many stories about healing. It’s that God’s reign has such a different politics. It’s all about healing. Next week, we’ll take at least one more look at understanding the repentance, the change of heart and mind, being asked of us. It’s the Good News about healing that we are called to bring to our neighbors. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, January 28, 2024

Facebook live (sermon begins at 28:20): https://fb.watch/r6r5qlEdMm/

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