Silencing those demons and beginning to serve.

Mark 1:29-39
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Human suffering is a great way to meet Jesus.
I would love to have been able to interview the crowd that followed him around during his ministry and establish what percentage of them were following because they had encountered in Jesus, some liberation from their suffering . I am sure they would make up the majority of the crowd. Another sector might be those who were in the process of being healed by ongoing encounter with him?
I like the way the New Revised Standard Version translates the action of Peter’s mother-in-law after the fever.  It renders “dieykonei” as “she began to serve them“. Do you also hear the present continuous sense to it? I love the implication that it was the beginning of perhaps, a lifetime of service?

There is also an interesting quatrain of activities as Jesus goes about his public ministry:

  • He proclaims the unconditional acceptance of God for all, to all.
  • He heals the sick.
  • He casts out darkness(demons)
  • He retreats into prayer.

What a wonderful rhythm for the Christ following life. How often can I recall times of frustration or burn out because I have neglected to attend to these four activities in a balanced way.
As students of yoga know, you cannot only breathe in, nor can you only breathe out.
Yet we who have been blessed, healed, and who have had our darkness dispelled by Jesus. We who now serve and follow him, need to learn the potency and sanity for our own lives of Proclaim, Heal, Remove darkness, Pray. I don’t think the sequential order is essential. What is essential is balancing our lives firmly on those four legs.

Yes, I know I am avoiding commenting on why Jesus wouldn’t allow the demons “who knew him” to speak. I can only speculate from the times we do hear them speak in Mark, that they speak only of themselves in the most egotistical terms. For example, “‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Mark 1:24. Can you hear the “me” in “Demon“?

For the demons in Jesus’ day, and the “demons” in me now, it is always about “me”.
Why me? Why do I have a fever? Why should I proclaim unconditional love? Why must I be the healer of others and their relationships? Why do I have to put up with the darkness of others? What has it to do with me? Why should I have to pray now?
That’s demonic language.
That’s just not the kind of language that will help any of us understand the selfless, life sacrificing Christ; let alone be healed by him and begin to serve him.
Better we don’t listen to it?
If he can shut those voices up in me, I won’t complain.

Worthy of the name?

Matthew 10:37-42

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

It is no easy thing to decide to follow Jesus.  I mean to make the radical decision that you are going to be first and foremost a Christ follower is a weighty decision, certainly if Jesus is to be believed.  It would seem from this dialogue in the gospel that nothing can get in the way of this following. Certainly nothing from our culture nor our context.

That great Theological heavyweight of the last century, Richard Niebuhr gave me a useful framework for assessing just where I am prepared to place Christ vis a vis my own culture with its own demands.

Niebuhr’s schema is clearly marked out in this excerpt from wikipedia:


Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them. Conversionists live somewhat less “between the times” and somewhat more in the divine “now” than do the followers listed above. Eternity, to the conversionist, focuses less on the action of God before time or life with God after time, and more on the presence of God in time. Hence the conversionist is more concerned with the divine possibility of a present renewal than with conservation of what has been given in creation or preparing for what will be given in a final redemption.

Reading this typology years after my theological studies I am struck by how in all the years of my ministry I have shifted around in each of the categories and how I have also encountered fellow pilgrims doing the same.

As I feel the Christian church contexture of the modern day, with fundamentalists getting most the airtime and the liberals only being quoted when they push the envelope on ethical issues of gay rights or abortion, I realise that not many of us have come to the place of deep contented commitment where we are able to follow Jesus in the here and now of daily life without continually hiving off into ghettoes of fear of what is happening in the world, all the time holding our breath for something that is to come in the far off future.

If I consider the culture that I absorbed from my mother’s breast, the culture that I live in as a Euro-African and the culture that I have transmitted to my twenty something sons, I recognise that Jesus whilst acknowledged in what was always called “Christian culture’’ was not really central to that way of life.  My culture has never really stressed the cross bearing, compassion driven life of which Jesus spoke so often, and which was the very fabric of his being in the world.

I am not shamed or guilty about this, I am rather saddened that for me and for many, this business of Christ following is at best a veneer, a waxen mask that I wear to the church dance without really allowing my inner being to be changed.  Small wonder then that Jesus seems to be doing something new and refreshing outside the church charade.

How wonderful as Desmond Tutu proclaims in his latest collection essays to be published, “God is not a Christian”.

We Christians love our parents and children, school ties and apple pies, our parties and our points of view too much to be worthy of the compassionate cross carrier from Nazareth.

Taking the plunge – Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3:13-17 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Almost twenty years ago and a hundred kilometers off the coast of Port Elizabeth, South Africa’s most southern city, a yachting couple were in grave danger.  A brutal storm that characterizes these waters, had capsized their small yacht. Being a keel boat it had of course righted itself, but the mast was broken and lay like a broken limb across the deck with the sails and rigging in the turbulent sea.  Their lives were seriously at risk.

I read the story on the front page of the local morning paper. By then the news desk could report that a South African Air force Shackleton fixed wing aircraft had located the yacht when responding to the distress call which had been picked up by a local radio ham.  There was even a picture of the grateful couple waving up at the plane from their crippled craft.

I remember thinking how relieved they must have been to see the plane circle above them, but also how despondent they must have felt when they saw the plane turn around and head back to base.  There was of course no way a fixed wing craft could rescue them.  They had to wait a while longer for diverted shipping to come to their aid.

This story has stayed with me as an illustration of how useless and impotent a God who watches from the heavens is for us humans.  We who have to live in the reality and storms of life may be a liitle encouraged by a God who watches from a distance.  An overhead God may be as encouraging in my storms as the Shackleton was to the yachtsmen, but truth be told, what those yachtsmen needed more than an overhead observer, was someone on their level. One who could touch, grasp and lift them from their stricken vessel.

As a preacher, I am delighted every year by the sequencing of the Lectionary that has the Baptism of Jesus follow directly after the great Christ Mass celebrations of the Incarnation.

The baptism of Jesus is for me the great act at the commencement of Jesus’ ministry that declares him not simply to be the “Only begotten Son” who pleases the observing Father above, but this event also reveals him as the one who immerses himself in the sin soiled waters of humanity.  Here is one who can touch, grasp and lift me from my level of crisis and challenge because he has immersed himself in this life.  He is one whom I can embrace, bond with, and follow to wholeness.

For first century Judeans, desert people, who had a deep fear of water, similar to many Southern African traditional cultures, being thrust under water and possibly held there, was a powerful initiatory moment.  It marked, not only the washing off of past failure, it also enacted the gasping inrush of new ruach (translated as spirit, wind and breath) as they emerged from the depths. (Yes I know the Jordan isn’t that deep, but hey, you can drown in a cup of water, remember)

The fact that Jesus chooses to use this symbolism for the launch of his public ministry is not merely iconic, it is transformative for we who follow after him.

How amazing that we go into the year 2011 following a flesh and blood God, who doesn’t merely hover over us, but who immerses himself in our soiled lives and gasps every gasp with us along the way.