Psalm 46; Leviticus 4; Mark 1:21–34

Originally published 4/8/2016 with portions published 4/8/2014. Revised and updated 4/9/2018:

Psalm 46: This celebratory psalm gives God the credit for victory and protection of Israel, recognizing that “God is a shelter and a strength for us,/ a help in straits readily found.” (2) In a verse that everyone of us can hold onto when times are chaotic (which they always are), our poet proclaims God’s sheltering protection:
Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,
when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.
” (3)

It’s easy now—just as it was probably easy then—to believe that everything in the world around us is flying apart metaphorically, if not literally:
Its waters roar and roil,
mountains heave in its surge.
 (4)

But be it natural disaster such as the earthquake and floods implied here; or be it war, revolution, or terrorism God is nearby:
God is in its midst, it will not collapse.
God helps it as morning breaks.
Nations roar and kingdoms collapse,” (6,7)

Nevertheless, God still reigns as, “he sends forth His voice and earth melts.” (7)

Although the psalm employs military imagery, celebrating how “The Lord of armies is with us,/ a fortress for us.” (8) God remains in charge of the affairs of humankind and of all creation, ultimately bringing cessation of hostilities everywhere:
Go, behold the acts of the Lord,
Who made desolations on earth,
caused wars to cease to the end of the earth
.
The bow He has broken and splintered the spear,
and chariots burned in fire.
” (9, 10)

In this psalm, God speaks. He tells us what we must remember that when times seem darkest we need do only one thing: ‘Let go, and know that I am God.” (11)

The eternal question for each person and each nation is, can we ever relinquish our need to attempt to control events? It is this lust for control over others that creates conflict and war. Earthquakes and floods may be natural occurrences, but it is because humankind has forgotten God that we find ourselves in desperate straits as a world, a nation, a culture and as individuals.

We have forgotten that  “The Lord of armies is with us,/ a fortress for is.” (12) believing as we do, that we are the little-g gods greater than God and do not require assistance. But it only requires scanning the headlines to realize how false and misguided this quest for control really is.

Leviticus 4:God is now giving Moses detailed instructions of sacrifices required for different categories of people “when anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them: (2)

There are specific sacrificial instructions for different categories of people, “if the anointed priest should offend” (3); for “When a chieftain offends and does one of all the commands of the LORD his God that should not be done” (22); when the people as a group sin: “the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally” (13); and for “a single person from the common people should offend errantly in doing one of the LORD’s commands that should not be done, and bear guilt,” (27) These categories provide insight into how the Israelites were organized: priesthood, tribal chieftains and the hoi polloi. 

I think what’s most remarkable here is that these sacrificial acts of justification were required even when the sin was unintentional, i.e., not the result of an evil thought or deed. It seems almost quaint in today’s “anything goes” culture is that the sin occurs and “the matter escapes the notice of the assembly.” (13) Today, the entire idea of sin—whether intentional or unintentional— is fading from the scene, even from churches, and is being replaced by requiring “tolerance” of any act, no matter how sinful, as well as the new moral code of “I can do anything I wish as long as I don’t hurt other people.”

We can view the priest and ruler as a leader and when the leader sins, there are consequences for the “whole congregation,” i.e., society at large. We need only look at how entire nations are suffering today because of corrupt or incompetent leadership in order to see how what’s being described here in Leviticus is still totally relevant today.

Likewise, there are societal sins such as our collective rejection of sexual mores, which are having profound—and mostly negative—consequences, particularly on the most vulnerable among us such as the ongoing collapse of family structure among the poor. Yes, these sins may be unintentional but the entire point here is that they nevertheless have negative consequences. An aspect of our failings that we too often fail to appreciate today.

Mark 1:21–34: Mark’s stylistic terseness creates a sense of action—much like quick cuts in a movie heighten the sense of energy and tension. And Mark’s Jesus is extremely action-oriented. If “immediately” and “follow” are the themes of Jesus establishing his ministry, then here in the synagogue where Jesus commences his public ministry is the theme of how Jesus conducts his ministry: Authority.  “…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) and “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (27).

Capernaum is about as far as you can get from Jerusalem and still be in Israel.  Yet, this is where Jesus began his ministry: in the Israeli outback.  Retrospectively, his strategy is clear: Begin in an obscure place and let the word filter out on its own.  No need to start giving speeches in Jerusalem.  And, unlike the many other prophets and Zealots wandering the countryside at the time, Jesus uses action together with Scripture to establish his authority.  This is far far more than simply the provocative speeches of other would be revolutionaries and rabble rousers.  Jerusalem remains asleep to the idea that a Messiah will soon be in their midst and they do not know what is coming.

Having just caused four disciples to follow him, he enters “the synagogue and taught.” (21) And the results are amazing to the locals at Capernaum: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) But Jesus’ teaching is just the introduction to more astounding events: “a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “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.” (23, 24).  

Jesus’ very first miracle act in Mark is exorcising the demon rather than physical healing. I think Mark is telling us that Jesus is just as concerned with our mental and emotional well-being as our physical state—something we fail at today in a health care system focused on physical healing but which too often abandons the mentally ill to their fate. And, alas, we have the school shootings to prove this hypothesis.

What’s also remarkable to our 21st century eyes here is Mark’s rather matter-of-fact recounting the words of a demon-possessed man. In that day, demon possession was the explanation for what today we explain as mental illness. However, even though demon possession may have been an everyday occurence in Jesus’ day, it’s clear that curing mentally ill people was not: “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.” (27, 28)

Following this event, Mark describes more “conventional” miracles that take place at Simon Peter’s house: healing the physically ill.  Jesus’ first physical healing in Mark is healing Simon’s mother-in-law. And soon, “at sunset, 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.” (32-34)

In just a few verses Mark has given us brief examples of the momentous impact Jesus has brought to the sleepy fishing village of Capernaum. And it’s all about healing—spiritual, emotional, physical. To be sure, Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue was “astounding,” but it’s the healing on which Mark is training his intense narrative spotlight. We are only in the first chapter and Mark has us already out of breath. Which when I think about it, is exactly what the impact of Jesus should be having on our own lives.

 

 

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