I was going to have an object lesson this morning. I was going to place this reading desk over on the left side of the altar from your perspective. Then I was simply going to begin the sermon wondering and complaining that something was just not right. Then I began to think of all the churches I can remember being in, picturing in my mind on which side of the chancel the pulpit was located. If your experience is like mine, almost all the churches I can think of have the pulpit on the right side (Grace English, Chicago; St. Paul’s, Wood River; Trinity, Jackson; St. Mark’s, West Bloomfield; Zion, Detroit; Valparaiso University Chapel; Kramer Chapel, Ft. Wayne; Mt. Olive, Minneapolis; St. Lorenz, Frankenmuth; and we could go on and on). But there are a few with the pulpit on the left side (Immanuel, Rock Island, IL.; St. John’s, Taylor, MI; the Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis). Like so many details of church history and architecture, my brief survey suggested there is no tradition or “right and wrong” of the “right or left” controversy as far as the placement of the pulpit goes. The only point was how we tend to be reluctant to change. We prefer the familiar, the predictable. And when something’s different, it throws us, at least for a moment.
Introducing Jesus to his readers in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, the Evangelist doesn’t wait very long for you to figure out that Jesus is a powerful preacher and an amazing healer of people with various diseases and even casting out demons, before he throws you a curve, something unpredictable: “And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’” Their concern seemed to be that Jesus was not acting in accordance with everyone’s expectations.
There is one other little detail or hint that Mark throws in near the end of our reading suggesting there is way more to the story of Jesus than we think we know. And that is when he says, “And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.” He’s still preaching and casting out demons but notice Mark does not say they are “his” synagogues or even “our” synagogues, but “their” synagogues, suggesting there is some difference, some conflict between their expectations not only of Jesus but even of the value and significance of the synagogue and God’s expectations and plan for them and for the world through Jesus.
So maybe that’s why we’re not at all surprised that, when Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John, upon discovering that Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever and their mentioning this to Jesus, “he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Well, of course! That’s just what Jesus does. [By the way, doesn’t it bother you that we don’t know the name of her daughter, that is, Simon Peter’s, “the first Pope’s” wife!]
Anyway, that Jesus is a healer and even an exorcist he proved time and time again. All of this, He said, was because the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule and reign of God had arrived in Him, and the ultimate effect of that rule was to be nothing less than the healing and renewal, the resurrection, if you will, of all creation. When you think of it even His healings and cleansings and His raising people from the dead were only signs of the ultimate future He came to initiate, namely, nothing less than the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in the new and eternal heavens and earth, God’s creation no longer broken, sinful or in decay.
When His disciples went and found Him and wanted Him to return to preach and heal the many people who had heard of Him and were looking for Him He said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” He wanted to go on to the neighboring towns because He came to be the universal Savior of all, and because His earthly ministry of preaching and healing is not yet the whole picture. It would not be enough for Him to go through the whole creation healing and feeding people. The uncomfortable thing would be that His ultimate healing of the whole creation required His taking away of the cause of all brokenness and sickness and death, namely, sin. And the only way He could do that would be through His innocent, holy, suffering and dying on the Cross.
So it is, to this day, that our faith rests not in the healing or deliverance we may experience for which we give thanks to God, but our faith rests, ultimately, in His holy death by which He has taken away our sin and, baptized into His death, He can declare us, daily, cleansed, redeemed, forgiven and alive unto God. St. Mark is painting a picture for us of a Jesus who is very much at odds with anything and everything that would get in the way, not only of His mission, but of our faith, that faith grasp the right thing. Likewise, the life of faith is not presented as at all a comfortable thing but as a constant, daily struggle, a life-and-death struggle, a struggle to hear and to hang on the objective Word of truth.
We are all involved in difficult, confusing, challenging days to live by faith, each of us, individually, with our own stories, trials, challenges, as well as all of us together as a congregation, and a district and a synod, a fellowship always motivated by the greater vision of being members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ in and throughout the world today. It is because of the difficulty, the confusion, the challenge, the doubt, the fear, the weakness of faith that our Lord continues to lead us on, saying only, “Let us go on,” “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also.” For it is, after all, through us that He, our Lord Jesus, goes on preaching and casting out demons; goes on winning disciples, one sinner at a time, goes on bringing the kingdom, the reign of God through His holy, powerful Word, to the salvation and blessing, life and peace to all who will receive Him.
“Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus…make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess. 3:11-13).