Creating Empty Spaces for Jesus

Creating Empty Spaces for Jesus

Homily for the Third Sunday in Epiphany

January 21, 2024

Creating Empty Spaces for Jesus

Homily for Sunday, January 21, 2024
The Third Sunday After the Epiphany
Mark 1:14-20

Gregor, my Friday morning yoga teacher, often reminds the class how important it is to pay attention to the inner narratives we tell ourselves, because real life rarely unfolds according to our interior narrative.  When we get too caught up in our inner narratives, we risk missing out on life as it unfolds right in front of us.  And so as we are in our yoga poses, Gregor encourages us to be “in the moment,” feeling whatever we’re feeling, and then to do our best to take that “in the moment”mindset into the rest of our day, so that we might better allow reality to unfold as it will in all its richness unhindered by our constricting narratives.  

Mark, from whose Gospel we will hear this year, must have taken Gregor’s class, because Mark pays close attention to his narrative and is careful to add nothing that might be deemed extraneous.  For example, unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark contains no stories of Jesus’ birth.  Unlike Matthew, Mark has no Sermon on the Mount, no Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard and no Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. Unlike Luke, Mark has no Sermon on the Plain, no story of Zacchaeus, no Prodigal Son, no Good Samaritan and no story of the Ten Lepers.  Mark pays close attention to his narrative and is careful to add nothing that might be considered extraneous.

Mark’s “bare bones” style is in many ways unsatisfactory for, as Gregor notes, we like our narratives to go a certain way and to have certain endings. Mark’s spare style left so much that was unsatisfactory that the early Church edited and added to Mark’s Gospel. For example, Mark originally ended with the women going out and fleeing from the empty tomb, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,”wrote Mark (16:8).  But someone in the early Church added an additional twelve verses to “complete” the story so that it instead ended with what they believed to be a much more satisfying ending:  “And the disciples went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere” (16:20).  Or consider, too, the story of Jesus stilling the storm (Mark 4:36-41).  In Mark’s account – and Mark is believed to be the earliest Gospel, with Matthew and Luke basing their Gospels on Mark –[in Mark’s account], after Jesus had stilled the storm he said to the disciples: “Why are you so afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  “And they were filled with great fear…”  Rather than have disciples with “no faith” and who were “filled with fear,” Luke softens Mark’s language and has Jesus ask not “Have you still no faith?” but rather “Where is your faith?”  And while Luke reports that the disciples were afraid, Luke softens that fear by adding also that they“marveled” (Lk 8:22-25).  In Matthew’s account, Matthew moves the disciples from having “no faith” to having at least a“little faith;” and Matthew takes away the disciples’ fear altogether, saying only that the disciples “marveled” (Matt 8:23-27).   In both Mark’s Resurrection account and his story of Jesus stilling the storm, Mark’s writing is so spare and terse, his narrative on some level so unsatisfactory, that subsequent authors in the early Church chose to alter it.  

Which brings us to today’s Gospel, the story of Jesus calling the first disciples.  Mark’s account is so stark and discomfiting, and it raises so many questions, that for many of us the story of Andrew and Peter,and James and John, dropping everything and following Jesus simply because Jesus said, “Follow me,” is unsatisfactory. “Why did they follow?” we want to know.  “Surely, they must have encountered Jesus before.”  Or, “Surely,there must have been something about Jesus or something lacking in their present life that led them to l eave their nets and follow.”  But Mark is silent as to “why.”  Though Matthew’s account is virtually identical to Mark’s, Matthew at least gives three chapters of introduction and context, with Jesus’ calling the first disciples not until chapter 4.  Luke alters the story altogether, adding dialogue between Jesus and Peter and telling the story of a miraculous catch offish (Luke 5).  But Mark is silent as to the “why;” as with so many other stories, Mark is very careful with his narrative and adds nothing extra.  

Which is what I have come to appreciate about Mark.  While Matthew’s and Luke’s longer narratives each have their “charms,” as it were, I appreciate that Mark trusts us with his minimalist narrative.  Mark trusts that he has given us just enough about Jesus to get our attention, just enough to pique our interest, so that we might read on open to whomever Jesus wants to be for us.  For when we are able to let go of the narrative that we think Jesus and the Gospels should have – whom we think Jesus should be, or the story we think the Gospels should tell – then are we better able to allow “reality to unfold as it will.”  We are better able to let Jesus be Jesus, and to allow God to work in us what God wants to work in us.

Mark sometimes may be difficult to read, for he leaves much that is unanswered (such as “Why did the first disciples leave their nets and follow?”).  But Mark’s empty spaces open the door to “reality unfolding as it will” unhindered by us and our own narrative needs.  If we can persevere in engaging with Mark – if we can live into the momentary discomfort of Mark’s “emptiness” and live with what is unknown or “missing” from his Gospel – we might discover a new narrative beginning to unfold within. A narrative that is neither constructed nor constricted by our own needs and expectations, but a narrative that is of the Holy Spirit, who – when the Spirit has ample room to work – can begin to work in us a new and more true narrative.   A narrative that is not of our own creation but of God; a narrative that truly is life-giving; a narrative that can bring about our healing and wholeness.  I pray that in this coming year as we make our way through Mark’s Gospel, we may have ears to hear this new narrative and to receive the healing and wholeness Mark is convinced God wishes bringing us.




More Sermons