In April two years ago I stood here:
It’s what is left of the synagogue in the ancient fishing village of Capernaum, on the shores of Lake Galilee. Not the synagogue that Jesus was in, this one dates from the fourth or fifth century; but it is probably on the selfsame site as the synagogue Jesus knew, built on top of the synagogue in our Gospel story today.
I want you to imagine something with me today. I want you to imagine that you are back in century one, somewhere around 65–70AD, hearing Mark’s story of Jesus for the very first time. You don’t know what comes next, you don’t know how it ends.
What have you heard so far?
You’ve heard the title:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
So you already know this book is about Jesus, the Christ long-awaited by the Jewish people, who is also the Son of God.
And you’ve heard the story of his baptism, when Jesus heard God speak to him:
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.
And you know that he walked along the Galilee lakeside and plucked fishers from their work to be his disciples: Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John. And you’ve already heard his message:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
And by the way, as you listen to the Gospel According to Mark being read, you’ve already heard the words ‘immediately’ or ‘at once’. You’ve heard them four times in the space of 28 verses. You’re picking up that things happen when Jesus is around. There’s a sense of expectation. Something’s in the air.
So when Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, perhaps there’s a sense of anticipation. And the people aren’t disappointed.
They realise that here among them, from Nazareth, less than 50 kilometres away, is someone who speaks the things of God with authority. And who confronts the forces of evil with authority.
This was new to them. It made sense of what Jesus was saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.’ So
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.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
A good result for a preacher, you might say. Most of us would be very gratified with a response like that.
But is that what Jesus was looking for?
There’s a little detail in the story of Jesus rebuking the unclean spirit that was in the man. Whatever this spirit was, it knew who Jesus was. Well, we already know Jesus is the Son of God, it’s in Mark 1.1—but Jesus told it to be silent.
Why? Why would he do that? Why didn’t he want the people to know? Did he have a ‘secret identity’, like a real superhero?
We can get a clue in the reaction of the people there in the Capernaum synagogue:
They were all amazed…
Why wouldn’t they be? Here is someone whose words ring with truth and who can work wonders. Amazement is a normal response.
But it wasn’t the response Jesus was seeking.
The response Jesus was looking for was faith; but the time wasn’t right.
He wasn’t looking for people who’d be in awe of his speaking and healing abilities.
He wasn’t looking for fame. He didn’t want to get onto Oprah or Jimmy Fallon or Ellen DeGeneres or any other talk show. Until the time was right, Jesus was hiding something.
As we progress through Mark this year, we’ll see some of the other times Jesus tries to keep his identity a secret:
Jesus heals people all around Capernaum, but Mark says
he would not permit the demons to speak, for they knew him.
Then Jesus heals a leper, but tells him to tell no one. The leper tells everyone. And there are a number of other occasions where Jesus tells people to tell no one about who he is.
What’s that about?
In a couple of weeks, we’ll come to the story of the Transfiguration. There, Peter, James and John see Jesus in dazzling white clothes, and speaking with Moses and Elijah. A voice comes from the cloud saying,
This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!
We’ve heard that already, at Jesus’ baptism. There, in the Gospel According to Mark, only Jesus hears the Voice. Now, three disciples also hear it. Is it time to let everyone know? No. Mark continues,
As they were coming down from the mountain, (Jesus) ordered them to tell no one what they had seen…
It’s still a secret. In fact, scholars call it the ‘Messianic Secret’. Or, because Mark emphasises it so much, some call it the ‘Marcan Secret’.
If you remember the story of the Transfiguration well, you’ll realise that I’ve left a bit off the end. It actually says,
(Jesus) ordered them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
They were forbidden to speak of this until after God had raised Jesus from the grave.
Because only then would they understand who the Messiah was.
What comes before being raised from the grave? What has to happen first?
Jesus has to die.
But none of the disciples wanted Jesus to die. They wanted a superhero messiah with a cape over his robe and lycra tights underneath.
But Jesus knew that the course he was taking would end in his death. He was confronting the powers that be, the religious and political leaders of his day. By the early part of Mark chapter 3, they are already plotting his destruction, already planning to rid themselves of him.
Jesus can see what was coming, but the disciples couldn’t. The shadow of the cross falls over the whole of Mark’s Gospel.
But when it finally happens—when he is on the cross—when he dies—there is no Voice from heaven. The heavens are silent, darkened.
There is a human voice though. It’s the voice of a Gentile, a centurion, an invader, the voice of the man who had supervised his crucifixion:
Truly this man was God’s Son!
The confession of Jesus as God’s Son comes three times in Mark.
Firstly, the heavenly Voice speaks to Jesus alone at his baptism.
Secondly, the heavenly Voice speaks to the inner circle of the disciples.
Thirdly, the way Jesus dies on the cross speaks to a Gentile. That is, it speaks to the whole world. But this time, the voice is human, an enemy who finds faith. And the voices are human from then onwards.
Jesus is God’s Son, but they weren’t able to understand what that meant at first.
Not until Jesus dies, not until he rises again, can we understand.
Not until we trust that Jesus died for us, that he rose again for us, can we understand.
Not until we die with him, not until he rises within us, can we understand.
It’s hard to find a common way of understanding stories like the one we heard today, stories with unclean spirits. People read these stories in different ways.
But however we read them there are demonic forces of fear, or unforgiveness, of bitterness, within people. We have to die to them so that Jesus’ new, risen life may fill our lives. In other words, we have to repent and turn to Jesus.
Jesus isn’t a celebrity. He’s not your superhero. He rescued you, but he did it by his suffering and death on a cross. The shadow of the cross still falls, but now it falls on us; it is the cross that we take up and carry as the people of Jesus.
But it’s no longer a secret. The cat’s out of the bag, and it has been so since Jesus rose from the dead. It is now high time to tell everyone that the secret is hidden in plain sight. It is the Good News of Jesus:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
And it’s all for the world, the world in which we live.