“God Has Everything To Do With Us”
January 31, 2021
Mark 1: 21–28
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
Never underestimate the power of a good teacher. Think for a moment about some of the teachers you have had in your life. Likely you recall some standouts. I remember a history teacher in seminary who was excited at every lecture. He made the subject matter come alive. Each class period he amazed me.
Today, the gospel writer Mark introduces us to Jesus the teacher whose ability appears to be engaging. Two lines in this reading stand out to me and both refer to the people who encounter Jesus teaching in the synagogue:
· “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority,” and,
· “They were all amazed and kept asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching — with authority!’”
With these lines in mind, I want to explore the characters of this story:
· the people in the synagogue,
· the man with the unclean spirit, and
Mark tells us the people in the synagogue that day were astounded and amazed. When was the last time Jesus astounded and amazed you?
I ask because these are rough, unlikely days for astonishment. Almost one year into the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are battling a persistent malaise. We are weary, anxious, dejected, bored. We are too worried about the future to live attentively in the present. Time drags on in soggy shapelessness, or flies at breakneck speed as we struggle to multitask under face masks, shrinking savings accounts, mutations, and quarantines. For many of us, worship is still only online, so our access to spiritual community, space, ritual, and sacrament is limited.
Where, in the midst of all of this, might we experience astonishment? Amazement? Where is the voice of authority that can snap us back into full and vibrant living, now?
Mark tells us the people in the Capernaum synagogue were astounded at Jesus’ teaching.
“They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.” (v 21)
Capernaum was a fishing town located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. A city of about ten thousand people, it was along a major trade route and had become Jesus’ home base. By its size, the city had a major synagogue. And although the original synagogue is long gone, if you go to Capernaum today, you can still see the ruins of the synagogue that was built over its foundation later in the fourth century.
For Jews, the synagogue was the center of religious life where they gathered weekly for prayers, the singing of Psalms, reading of Scripture and a time of teaching.
On this day when Jesus astonished the worshipers, all we know about the people present was that they showed up in the synagogue, listened to Jesus teach, and allowed his words to penetrate to a place of freshness, newness, and transformation.
The implication, of course, is that these people came to the synagogue in a spirit of curiosity and openness. Alongside whatever sense of responsibility, tradition, and habit compelled them to show up that day, they also held onto the possibility of surprise. Of encounter. Of trust that God might show up and do something different and shocking.
Do we approach God, the Word, our spiritual communities, and faith in this way? With anticipation? With a hunger for encounter? Or have we allowed the trials of this past year to make us cynical? However we worship these days — virtually or in person — do we come before God and God’s people, desiring, and expecting the shock of actual divine presence? If not, why not?
Can we still leave room for Jesus to show up and surprise us? How can we make sure we are not so entrenched in our theological, liturgical, cultural, or political points of view that we fear and resist the new?
These are especially hard questions to ask ourselves if we have been Christians for a long time. The new becomes old. The fresh becomes familiar. The heart hunkers down for a comfortable and unvarying long haul, and we forget that Jesus came — and comes — to make all things new. The audience in Mark’s Gospel was “amazed and astounded” by the work of God because they allowed Jesus to be unfamiliar in their midst. This need not be the anomaly. In fact, it should not be. Jesus still amazes. Amazement is the birthright of God’s children.
Another character in the story is the man with the unclean spirit. To be honest I have no idea what the “spirit” in this story actually is. Some have recast it as a mental illness, or perhaps a condition like epilepsy. Others insist on it being an actual demon — still others argue that spirits in the New Testament are metaphors for anything that might “possess” or “control” us — anger, fear, lust, greed, hatred, envy, etc.
Frankly, I do not think it matters because the point is not “what” the spirit was, but how utterly it ravaged the poor man whose body and mind it possessed. According to Mark, the man had no voice of his own — the spirit spoke for him.
Yet, the unclean spirit goes to the synagogue and listens to Jesus. It recognizes “the Holy One of God” before anyone else does. It calculates the stakes, realizes that Jesus’s presence signals its doom, and puts up a loud, vicious fight before it surrenders.
Does any of this sound familiar? Sometimes our “unclean spirits” take up residence in our holy places. That is, we carry our destructive habits and tendencies right into our spiritual communities, relationships, and workplaces. Sometimes our demons — our fears, addictions, sins, and compulsions — recognize Jesus first because they know that an encounter with him will change everything. So, they make us recoil as soon as he shows up in the guise of a loving friend, or a provocative sermon, or a pricked conscience. Sometimes our lives actually get harder when we move towards faith and healing, because unclean spirits always fight the hardest when their time is up.
***Finally, Jesus. Mark never tells us what Jesus taught his audience that day. All we know is that he entered the synagogue, taught with an authority his listeners found astonishing, and underscored that authority with an exorcism that rattled everyone who witnessed it. Is this a character we can relate to at all? Or is Jesus’s role in this story so completely enshrined in his divinity and power that there is nothing for us to emulate?
I think the story offers a couple of plausible takeaways. First, Jesus did not use his authority to self-aggrandize or to accrue power. He used it only to heal, free, serve, and empower those around him. Maybe this is precisely why his audience found him so compelling — his was the authority of a servant king. He had no political power — and sought none. No earthly throne or kingdom to speak of. But he had an integrity and a generosity that compelled people to listen and to follow him.
Second, Jesus stepped directly into the pain and ugliness at the heart of this story. He did not flinch. His brand of holiness did not require him to keep his hands clean. He was ready to engage anything that diminished the lives of those he loved. Yes, he preached with great effectiveness to the faithful, but he also spoke the unclean spirit’s language, listened to its cries, and rebuked it for the sake of a broken man’s health and sanity. Consider the question the spirit asked before it left its victim: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” There is only one answer to that question. “Everything.” God has everything to do with us, even and maybe especially when we are at our worst. When the shadows overwhelm us, when the demons shriek the loudest, when the hope of liberation feels like nothing more than fantasy — that is when Jesus’s authority brings the walls down.
In this difficult season we are all walking through, I pray that we can recover a capacity for holy amazement. I pray that like the man with the unclean spirit, we will surrender to freedom when Jesus offers it to us — even if the “exit” of our demons causes us hardship. And I pray that like Jesus, we will speak words of loving, healing authority to a world that longs for an astonishing encounter with the divine.