By Deacon Timothy Siburg
RCL Reflection Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B
Sunday January 28, 2024
Key Verse: “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.” –Mark 1:27
Throughout history and our vocational journeys of life, we have all faced big questions. Questions like, “Are we there yet?” “Why?” “What does this mean?” And “What is this?” Okay, maybe one of these questions isn’t quite like the others. But that last question appears in this week’s Gospel reading. “What is this?” The question speaks to amazement. To sense-making. To awe and discovery. And it’s a discipleship question. In witnessing Jesus show up and do what Jesus does in this story, naturally there will be questions for those who see it.
The questions are being asked by the crowd in Capernaum who witness the healing act on the Sabbath in the synagogue. They had just heard Jesus teach, but then they see him heal a man with an unclean spirit. It’s kind of lost on the crowd, perhaps, what the spirit asks, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). It shouldn’t be lost on us that this is the second time already in the Gospel of Mark where a voice has announced for all to hear who Jesus is. The first came from heaven during Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11), and now we have an unclean spirit saying the same thing. It would be perfectly understandable for anyone to ask, “What is this?” Or “What does this mean?”
We could ponder about the crowd as a whole, but given the context of this story in Mark, I am particularly caught by the new disciples’ perspectives. What might Simon, Andrew, James and John, who laid down their fish nets mere verses before this story (Mark 1:16-20), be thinking? What might be going through their heads? What might be going through yours or mine, if we found ourselves in this story? How might you have responded in seeing and witnessing that Sabbath day in Capernaum? On this fourth Sunday after Epiphany, I wonder what might is being revealed about Jesus and God for us this week?
These are discipleship questions to be sure. But I wonder if they might also connect with the themes from this week’s appointed Psalm, Psalm 111. The psalmist sings, “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1).
The psalmist gives words of response. It’s almost as if the psalmist provides the words of how a steward might respond to witnessing God’s life-changing and life-saving love in real-time. For that’s what happened in the Gospel story. Yes, Jesus did teach, and I’m sure he was a riveting teacher. But let’s be honest. If we were in the room that day, we probably would have been even more impressed with how Jesus healed the man and commanded the unclean spirit. Because we all know, actions and deeds often leave an impression greater than words. Actions make the teaching real. And so, within the very first chapter of Mark, we have already seen a piece of Jesus’ life-changing and life-saving mission at work.
Someone connecting the dots with the psalmist or the prophets might read a little further in Psalm 111 and recall with the psalmist that the Lord, “has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant” (Psalm 111:4-5). That is the response of this story in Capernaum? The Good News spreads. Questions spread. People share what they have seen and heard, and “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (Mark 1:28).
Amazement and awe are a part of stewardship. If we believe that stewardship is all about how we respond to what God has done, will do, and promises to do for God’s beloved, how could we not be amazed? How could we not ask questions such as “What is this?” Not so much with judgment and doubt, but with awe and wonder. Trying to learn and make sense. Trying to come and see what this Jesus of Nazareth is up to and why.
Once again, if we were connecting the dots with the psalmist, we might recall how Psalm 111 closes. The Lord, “sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:9-10). The psalmist fills in the gaps of what the Lord is up to and gives a good snapshot of what Jesus has come to do, that even the unclean spirit immediately realizes.
If preaching on stewardship this week, lean into these two readings. There is room to wonder what God might be up to in this week’s Gospel story, as well as examples of responding as witnesses with all the questions that might come from an experience like this. And the Psalmist helps give words for a response as stewards for God’s life-changing and life-saving love and work that is already on full display in the Gospel of Mark.
In Worship and Congregational Life
Many faith communities hold their annual meetings on this Sunday. If yours is among them, I invite you to ponder how these themes might help tell the story of God at work in your congregation here and now. Perhaps frame your meeting as a way to respond to the question, “What is this?” To lean in with awe and wonder like those first witnesses to God’s life-changing work and love in Capernaum that Sabbath day. What might God be up to, in with, through, and for you as God’s people gathered in your unique context? How might lives be changed through God’s love made real through you?
You might not see a person with an unclean spirit be healed in worship on a Sunday morning, but you do hear through the Word proclaimed that God is with you and God’s love is real. And through the water and the meal, you remember God’s life-saving promises and covenant that God has made with God’s people. Promises that come with expectations and responsibilities that your congregation lives out through all the various ways that you are church and through the many expressions of ministry that you are a part of and make possible. This is a story that needs to be told. Connect the dots for the congregation in the annual meeting. Don’t just dwell about numbers on a spreadsheet but connect them to stories of God showing-up, God-sightings, and the ways that your neighbors have experienced God’s love and the Good News in part through you.
With Youth and Children
At first glance this week’s Gospel story might not seem the easiest to connect with kids and youth. But the reading contains declaration that could be fun for a ministry leader to experiment with. In Mark 1:25, Jesus says, “Be silent.” As a parent of two children, let me tell you, saying, “be quiet,” or “be silent,” doesn’t always work. Maybe this could be a week for a ministry leader to turn the question back on the younger saints in a time of teaching or a Children’s Sermon and ask, “Why might Jesus call us at times to be quiet?” Or “why might it be good to be quiet when your parents, or grandparents ask you to be quiet?” You might get some funny answers. But you also might hear some wisdom from a younger saint who might say, “Well … so we can listen and learn and hear what God is trying to say to us.” That is a message that would preach, not just in a Children’s Sermon time, but one for disciples of all ages. It could serve as a lesson for younger saints to think about how sometimes quiet is important for us as God’s people to think and see God at work. But it is also a way for us to help pay attention. There is enough noise and distraction in the world always around us. So, to take a moment to be quiet, might just be a big life change, if only even for 30 seconds.
Here are previous reflections for Epiphany 4B:
2021 – A question of authority
2018 – Of authority, freedom, and discipline
2015 – The good life: Psalm 111 and stewardship
2012 – About authority
2009 – Collision course