4th Sunday after Epiphany(B): The Path to True Joy
The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord
“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.
“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.
“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.
“Not now,” said Aslan.
Unclean Spirits. New Teachings. Authority. Astonishment. Exorcisms. Amazement. Questions. The Gospel of Mark does not want for sermon topics. As I began to look at this passage, I did something I don’t do very often, but should do more frequently: I read the text in multiple translations. As it turns out, my preaching professors were right, this is actually a great place to begin sermon preparation, because this time the NRSV is hiding something.
Maybe ‘hiding’ is the wrong word, and maybe this will be obvious to everyone else. At the end of the passage, after Jesus has taught with authority and then shown that authority by casting out an unclean spirit, the people are standing around. In the NRSV, “They were all amazed…” The Common English Bible reads “Everyone was shaken…”
What does it mean to be amazed around God? The Greek word is thambeo, and as it turns out, Mark uses it more than any other Gospel—a total of 34 times. Translators give a lot of different translations for this sentiment: astounded, amazed, overcome with awe, overcome with excitement, agitated, stunned, and baffled to name a few. At the end of Mark when the women leave the tomb and tell no one what they have seen, they do so because “terror and thambeo had seized them” (Mk 16:8.) In the garden of Gethsemane before his death Jesus is “distressed and thambeo “ (Mk 14:33.) Thambeo shows up at exorcisms, healings, when Jesus walks on water. The word is paired with distress, fear, terror, and as a response to “strange things.”
Given what Jesus did in his time on Earth, amazement and absolute terror both seem like reasonable responses. Given what God is doing today, it seems that amazement and fear are completely appropriate responses. God is dangerous, and to follow Christ is to enter willingly into that danger with fear and excitement. I think that the Sufi master Hafiz says it best when he writes:
Love is grabbing hold of the great lion’s mane
And wrestling and rolling deep into existence
While the beloved gets rough and begins to maul you alive.
True love, my dear, is putting an ironclad grip
Upon the soft, swollen balls of a divine rogue elephant
And not having the good fortune to die.
Watching the lives of the disciples we see that following Christ causes them to have much to fear as they enter into the unknown. Jesus wasn’t welcome in his own home (MK 6:1-6.) Jesus tells the disciples to feed 5,000 people when they only had five loaves and two fish, which from the disciples perspective means giving up the food they had to fill their own stomachs (Mk 6.) Jesus says that whoever wants to be greatest must become like a little child, and not a famous wealthy religious elitist (MK 9.) On top of all this, Jesus keeps telling the disciples that he is going to die. Following Jesus is a proposition that runs counter to everything the disciples had ever dreamed of (which, as a side note, might be why women and the poor resonated with Christ’s message; it allowed them to dream and gave them a place in the kingdom.)
Following God is exciting, but it does not mean clear and easy sailing. If we suggest that following Christ means anything less than letting the power and authority of Christ rip us apart, we do a disservice to our congregations. The gospel is that God puts us back together again. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly healing, casting out spirits, and leading people into a fuller understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God.
Christianity is not a recipe for success or wealth. Christianity is a path to true joy; joy found in relationship with the Creator. Lucy and Susan were both glad and frightened when they turned around only to find the recently deceased Aslan standing before them in greater glory than they had ever known. The people of Capernaum were amazed and shaken when Jesus taught then with authority by casting out an unclean spirit. We should be amazed and horrified when God calls us.
Be honest with your congregation. The call of Christ is earth shattering and life upending, but it is full of life and love. The call of Christ is the only thing that brings us into the fullness of the kingdom. To follow Christ is to surrender what we want to keep, and gain a wholeness we never knew was possible. To follow Jesus is to grab hold of the lion’s mane, and not have “the good fortune to die,” because this way leads to meaningful living, fulfillment, and to life eternal.
The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Together, Jon and Keri have a dog named Hala, two beehives, and chickens. Jonathan was commissioned as a provisional Elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2015. He serves two churches in McDowell County, North Carolina. He will be going before the Board of Ordained Ministry the first week of February for his Full Connection and Ordination interviews and would certainly appreciate your prayers.