“The Birthright of God’s children”

Kurt Jacobson
7 min readJan 28, 2024

January 28, 2024

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 good teachers at every level of my education. One in seminary amazed me every lecture because he was excited about church history. I could set my watch for 15 minutes and know that by that point, Dr. Sonnack would be fully engaged in his lecture which were always viscerally exciting and intellectually satisfying.

Today, the gospel writer Mark introduces us to Jesus the teacher whose ability appears to be amazing and 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

· Jesus.

Mark tells us about the people in the synagogue that day were astounded and amazed. When was the last time Jesus astounded and amazed you?

I ask because it seems to me that as a culture, we do not encounter much inspiring astonishment or amazement. Instead, there seems to be a collective weariness that hangs like a persistent fog above the landscape of our shared humanity. Maybe it is due to a lingering effect of the pandemic, or the increasing global unrest, or the intense and piercing political divide in front of us each day.

Maybe our weariness is that notwithstanding all the things we can point to, we also lack public voices that inspire the masses and give society a vision for which to aspire. We do not have any great voices of integrity and inspiration like the world knew through the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela to name a few. Add Jesus to the list.

Where then, might we experience astonishment? Amazement? Where is the voice of authority that can snap us back into full and vibrant living?

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 north 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 malaise 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 tough 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, it does not matter 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’ role in this story so completely enshrined in his divinity and power that there is nothing for us to emulate?

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 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.

What will it take for you to possess a capacity for holy amazement? What are your demons which need to be surrendered to the freedom Jesus offers? May the day come soon when you and this world will experience an astonishing encounter with the divine.


OpenartAi “Tired soul of giving love”

Capernaum-Wikipedia created by Eddie Gerald



Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.