Sunday, February 4, 2024

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

“Miracles” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Isaiah 40:21-31, NRSVUE)

Gospel Reading (Mark 1:29-39, NRSVUE)

In 1820, near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson finished a book project that he’d been working on for about a year — one that had been on his mind for much longer than that. He called it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth but it’s more commonly known today as the Jefferson Bible.

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was never meant to be a bestseller; Jefferson chose to share it with only a few close confidants and never allowed it to be published during his lifetime. It was bsacially a private devotional for Jefferson — one that he supposedly read every night before bedtime.

To create it, Jefferson took a razor blade to various versions of the Bible, cutting out selected passages and gluing a rearrangement of them into a blank book in order to create something quite different from the Bible we know.

He took the excerpts that he’d chosen only from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and reassembled them in chronological order of the events they described to create a single, sequential account of Jesus’s life here on earth.

But missing from Jefferson’s finished work are any of Jesus’s miracles and most anything else that could be considered… supernatural.

Jefferson saw Jesus as both a moral philosopher of the highest order, and the single greatest example of how human beings should live (though, in retrospect, one has to wonder how much of it really sunk in since Jefferson somehow rationalized that it was okay to own other human beings – but I digress).

Because Jefferson thought it was important to know Jesus as an ethical exemplar, he included most of the things he said and did along these lines, as well as a travelogue of all the places Jesus went.

But the supernatural stuff in the Gospels was too much for Jefferson, so all that which seemed to contradict the laws of nature (at least as they were understood in the early nineteenth century) had to go — including but not limited to the Annuciation, the Transfiguration and the Resurrection (pretty much everything ending in “tion”) Also missing are the angels and anything that even hinted at the divinity of Jesus.

The Gospel’s miracle stories made Jefferson particularly uncomfortable because he was, among other things, a scientist — a product of the Enlightenment, the so-called “Age of Reason.” Since miraculous happenings were, by definition, irrational and unnatural, in Jefferson’s mind, they couldn’t tell us anything about Jesus that was worth knowing. 

Unsurprisingly, today’s passage about Jesus’s healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and his subsequent healing and casting out demons among the people of Galilee didn’t make it into Jefferson’sBible. And only the first two verses of last week’s text — the ones that talk about Jesus going to Capernaum, entering the synagogue on the sabbath, and teaching with authority — appear in it; all the rest ended up on the cutting room floor.

In fact, a whole lot of Mark’s Gospel is missing from Jefferson’s Bible, which makes sense because Mark focuses on Jesus’s miracles and healings more than any of the other gospel writers do. In fact, about one third of the total verses in Mark recount such things.

Today’s story would have made Thomas Jefferson cringe and, I have to tell you, I’m not quite sure what to make it either. I say this because we too are children of the Enlightenment, influnced by a rational way of understanding the world in which we live, and this is, on balance, a good thing, I suppose.

We understand more about how diseases spread and how to treat them than our ancient ancestors ever could have dreamed;

we can predict the weather with pretty good accuracy (well, except here in Utah);

we even figured out how to attend church from the comfort of our own homes.

Don’t get me wrong — knowledge hasn’t made things perfect by any means, but it’s arguably made them better than they otherwise might be. And yet, the way we’ve been taught to see and comprehend the world around us leaves us ill-equipped to wrestle with a story such as this because it’s caused us to lose much of our capacity for dealing with mystery.

We can handle the idea of Jesus teaching in a synagogue because it aligns with our experiences in school and in church. But when the subject turns to Jesus healing or casting out demons, that’s a whole different story; it’s just not something that most of us have ever done or seen; it’s completely foreign to our expereince.

I took a lot of classes in divinity school, but ones on faith healing and exorcism definitely weren’t among them. I guess they figured we wouldn’t be doing stuff like that in our ministry. Yet, Mark and the other Gospel writers saw these as important aspects of Jesus’s ministry, so it’s hard to just ignore them.

Perhaps part of the problem is that what little we know about these things in our day and age tends to come to us via movies and television, which isn’t necessarily for the best.

For example, when we hear the term “casting out demons” we likely envision terrified people inside a creepy old house on a dark and stormy night performing various rituals in order to coax an evil spirit into leaving. And when we hear the term “faith healing” we might picture some televangelist with a five thousand dollar suit and a private jet trying to convince us that good health can be ours for the price of a small donation.

But it would be really unfair for us to read such twenty first-century understandings back onto the first-century world of Mark and of Jesus. The intersection of the human and the supernatural wasn’t necessarily an everyday occurrence back then either, but it was a widely accepted belief among religions in that place and time.

For Mark, the whole point of telling us these stories is, at least in some sense, pretty simple: they testify to Jesus’s authority — the ability he has to do what he does, and the mandate he has from God to show up here and do it.

For Thomas Jefferson, Jesus’s ordinary deeds and moral instructions were sufficient to establish his authority (albeit a narrowly construed and bounded authority) — which is why he chose simply to ignore stories like the one we read today, looking upon them with skepticism if not contempt. For Mark, however, these stories are integral to understanding who Jesus is, and so he speaks of them with utter amazement.

In last week’s text, Jesus shows up at the synagogue to teach the people there, and we’re told that “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” And then Jesus casts out an “unclean spirit” from the man in the synagogue (for the record, an “unclean” spirit in this context simply means one that is not sacred). Next Jesus goes on to heal not only Peter’s mother-in-law but also the people of Galilee.

By doing all of these things, Jesus demonstrates that he’s capable of starting a little trouble in a variety of ways for God’s sake. First, he shows-up the scribes and proves himself to be the definitive authority on scripture. And second, he performs a series of miracles and shows his authority over the evil forces that seek to undermine God’s reign. In other words, Jesus exercises power over both the human and the supernatural in a way that only God could. 

As people of modernity, we might be tempted to go the Jeffersonian route and dismiss the gospel accounts of the miracles of Jesus as being quaint fantasy, the mere mythology of a bygone era, irrelevant to our lives and circumstances today. We might even wonder whether these supernatural events actually happened at all.

I mean, none of us was there to see them for ourselves, and that’s what people seem to require these days in order to believe absolutely anything. We’re used to dealing in matters of fact but this is a matter of faith — and faith is what Mark seeks to inspire here.

Faith in the power of God that always transcends our ability to wrap our minds around it;

faith in the unconventional Messiah who came here to live among us and who will always be there for us, no matter what;

faith in the one God — Creator, Son and Spirit — who has taught us from the very beginning to expect the unexpected.

Look, I get it – these miracles are really hard to wrap one’s mind around. If I’m being totally honest with you, I’m not one hundred percent convinced that they happened the way that Mark and the other gospel writers say they did. They contravene everything we know about the way the world works; they defy any semblance of reason. But is there another way of looking at them, even as we acknowledge the fact that we don’t really understand them?

After all, can God be confined within the bounds of human intellect?

Does it ever make sense to judge the capabilities of the Creator by the standards of the created?

And if we believe in a God with whom all things are possible, then who are we to say what’s possible?

May we always be amazed and astounded by all that God had done, and all that God continues to do. And may we allow ourselves the freedom to revel in the mystery of it all. Amen.