In Mark 1:21-28 Jesus is teaching in a Capernaum synagogue (which is a Jewish house of gathering, similar to a church). Jesus’ message wasn’t simply another ho-hum message: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Jesus’ style and substance transformed him into something of a JC superstar.
The response to Jesus’ preaching suggests that he was a charismatic powerhouse, even apart from the miracles he performed. We don’t have a YouTube video of what Jesus said that day, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling the effects. Apparently, the manner and content of Jesus’ speaking set him apart from the usual, staid speech by other scribes and rabbis. Did Jesus gesture and dramatize his teaching as a way of captivating people? Did he leverage an attention-getting stage presence to garner attention? We can at least offer a tentative “yes” to these questions given peoples’ responses.
The synagogue audience perceived Jesus’ teaching as authoritative, not merely an emotion-less, matter-of-fact repeat of what everyone had heard before. This implies that Jesus connected with people in a definitive manner. Jesus came across as a singular source of authority rather than as a lifeless religious bureaucrat. Jesus’ ministry reminds us how a powerful speaker knows how to convey authenticity through a combination of words, gestures, and emotions. Then as now, the content and manner of sharing a message can be the deciding factor in shaping the prize given to the audience.
We live in an age of dramatic presentations and famous speakers. We’ve also cultivated the art and science of communication based on insights from human psychology. Jesus was apparently a master at all of this, so much so that he rose above all others of his day. What does this mean for us as we swim in a sea of information and competing messages? Christian sects and individual churches find themselves in ongoing controversy about the style and substance of preaching. On the one hand, there is a mandate from certain people and religious institutions that sermons must be subtle and even self-effacing. On the other hand, some of the fastest-growing and most vibrant expressions of Christian ministry correlate with high-energy speakers who arouse and channel peoples’ enthusiasm.
Jesus was not a soft-spoken or boring messenger. His presence was what we lately call “gravitas,” a sense of drawing people in like when gravity acts as an irresistible force. Both the style and substance of Jesus’ message aroused action from his followers and critics. In our age of glamour there are those who are all style and no substance, but that wasn’t Jesus because he exemplified what can happen when creative style and evocative content coalesce. What do you get from this combo? POWER! Yes, a one-two punch that captivates, stimulates, and prepares for action. No preacher need ever apologize for this approach.
What can you do to help convey a compelling version of the God’s message? For one, we can continue supporting St. John’s “We can DO it!” campaign of renovating the fellowship hall. We’re creating a fantastic community meeting place that will enhance our ability to reach and teach. We have a wonderful message to announce, adapted to today’s worship and outreach styles. Are you willing to teach a class, share a poem, or invite a neighbor? I hope so. Some people are naturals at this while others find other ways to share their time, talent, and treasure. Whatever God calls you to accomplish, we can each join Superstar Jesus as we proclaim a life-giving call to love and truth.
–Reverend Larry Hoxey