My family had a similar cake specialty from Scandinavia known as blotekage which we served at Easter. It was four layers of sponge cake with fruit fillings between the layers - one pineapple, one apricot, and one raspberry - and all slathered in whipped cream. I was methodical in eating this: I began with the pineapple first, then the apricot, and then I saved the raspberry for last (I love raspberries!). But needless to say, just like that Smith Island cake, you only ate a small sliver!
I think scripture is much like those layer cakes. We begin our encounter with the word at the outer layer and as we read and reread the scriptures, new things pop out for us as we work our way down the layers of meaning. Thomas Aquinas taught that there were at least four ways, or layers if you will, of how we interpret scripture: literal, metaphorical, ethical, and transformational. Different layers are apparent to us at different times.
For me, reaching the raspberry filling layer of scriptural encounter was when I entered seminary and learned Greek. I enjoy languages and I learned there are times when the scriptures are downright cryptic and quite difficult to translate. This often happens when we encounter the idioms - those unique phrases in every language that really have no simple, direct translation. In today's Gospel reading, we encounter one of those quirky idioms.
We are early in Mark's narrative about the ministry of Jesus and we encounter him teaching in the synagogue. A man with an unclean spirit confronts Jesus with a question: "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" If you consult different translations, you'll find this question rendered in a variety of forms. One of my Bibles has him saying, "Leave us alone, Jesus of Nazareth!" The reason is that in the Greek, we encounter a very strange phrase which literally translated is, "What to you and to us, Jesus of Nazareth?" Hmmm ... "What to you and to us" ... seems like we have something missing here ... like ... a verb? This is a strange phrase and not typical of Mark's narration style, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. What does one do with this curious phrase?
Translators have struggled with this for centuries - hence the variety of ways it comes across in English. But given the rules of engagement for Greek translation and that the word translated as "what" can also be translated as "who," I'm going to suggest another way to render this. It could also be translated, "Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth?" Now there's a very pointed question! It is not a neutral question either - it is one which demands an answer. Anyone who has ever hear the name of Jesus of Nazareth must answer the questions: "Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth?" and "Who are you to me?"
I suggest these two questions are the focus of the season of Epiphany. In every Gospel reading, we are hearing stories of people who encounter Jesus and have to answer these questions: "Who are you to us?" and "Who are you to me?" I'm going to give you spiritual "homework" today. Take these two questions and make them central to your prayer life for the remainder of the Epiphany season. "Who are you to us ... here at Grace Church?" and "Who are you to me?"
Now I know when you do this, there's a little voice in your head that will want to quickly answer these questions. That voice ... the one that just said, "What little voice in my head is she talking about?" That is the voice of your left brain - the logical part of your mind which will jump to the front and want to quickly answer the question posed. The Buddhists call this the "chattering monkey" brain. Try to be still with these questions and don't fall for the quick answer of the chattering monkey which will, invariably, answer with the standard fare: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Messiah, Son of God, Redeemer, etc. Those are other people's words ... they are not yours. Instead, sit with these questions: "Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth?" / "Who are you to me?"
In a few short weeks, we will turn a corner in our Church year from Epiphany, with it's focus on "Who are you to us, Jesus?" to the season of Lent where we turn to self-examination and ask the question, "Who are we to you, Jesus?" / "Who am I to you?"
As you ponder the questions of who Jesus is, also remember the unclean spirit asks, "Have you come to destroy us?" This is also a disturbing question, but one we should not fear. We know there are those things within and without which are not of God - the "unclean spirits" lurking in our selves, our homes, churches and communities. There are things which need to be destroyed, to die, so that new life can emerge. We need not fear when the answer comes that something in us needs to die in order for God to raise us to new life. This is the hope of the resurrection which is promised to us.
As we engage the questions "Who are you to us, Jesus of Nazareth? Who are you to me?", may another layer of faith and trust be revealed in our walk with Christ.