*Grandview Beach, an old bulkhead near the long-gone lighthouse, I photographed in 2009.
The Gospel of Mark 1:21-28
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
It was the Sabbath. Naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to synagogue.
Some of them entered sleepily, others with weariness after a busy week. Others perhaps in a rather irritable mood for who knows why–maybe it had been no more than that they were out of cream cheese back at the house and the bagel at breakfast that morning just wasn’t as good without it.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
They came from a variety of experiences in the week gone by, awash in differing emotions and mental states. It was their habit to come there, for as long as many of them could remember. You went to the synagogue, moved your way through the fairly predictable service, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a doxology, and then went home for the noon meal.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
But on that particular morning, Jesus of Nazareth was there and stood up as some kind of guest pastor that day. Few, if any, had ever heard of him before and when they looked at the bulletin and saw he was from Nazareth, perhaps a few groaned. But then he started to teach and they sensed this man and the message about God’s kingdom he was talking about were one and the same thing. A few folks were starting to whisper their amazement even as others scrawled a furtive “Wow!” on the bulletin, showing it to the person next to them. Something extraordinary was happening
Suddenly and from the back pew a shriek went up. “WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH US, Jesus of Nazareth?! Have you come to wipe us out already!? I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”
“Be quiet!” Jesus commanded. You know everyone was glad he said it because it was probably on the tip of their tongues, but then Jesus said something that no one else had had in mind: “Come out of him!” No sooner were those words out of Jesus’ mouth than the man convulsed, shrieking one last time and collapsing into a heap. But then he was better, the fire gone from his eyes and a look of calm in their place; probably the only calm-looking one in the whole place at that point! This is the scene recounted in Mark.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to the Synagogue.
But on that particular day, by the time they returned home from the Synagogue, the people had the overwhelming sense they had been in the very presence of God in a way that was anything but typical. In a setting of prayer, teaching, worship, and community gathering – questions of Jesus’ authority had found their answer.
WHY I BRING THIS UP
In this continuing season of Epiphany, dedicated to celebrating and considering the means by which Christ becomes visible and known to the world, we are challenged again to be amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and his deeds, and the upending of our assumptions about what’s possible. Just as the words of Mark are written in the present active tense, it isn’t just about longing for and acknowledging past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness and the Gospel’s power, it’s about discovering what deserves our amazement today.
In the book A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, there is the story of when “a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. When it was Rabbi Yechiel’s turn, he noted, “In my family, I’m the first eminent ancestor.” A bit shocked, his colleagues went on to each expound upon the Torah, holding forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors. One after another they delivered their learned dissertations, when at last it came time again for Rabbi Yechiel to say something. He arose and said, “My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning.” Then he sat down. [p. 51].
I think this points to the contrast in Mark, between Jesus’ teaching and that of the learned scribes, as Jesus’ teaching is described in two ways: it is “with authority” and it is a “new teaching.” It is fresh. It is authoritative.
Mark depicts Jesus as uniquely authorized, commissioned, or empowered to declare and institute the reign of God – this intrusive, boundary-breaking, liberating reign that breaks people from the powers that afflict them and which hinders his creation, both individually and in societies, from flourishing. His presence, words, and deeds, however, will be contested.
“Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means, and his teaching is self-authenticating without need of external support, whether from Scriptures or elsewhere [Mark, Interpretation Commentaries, p. 50]. His words are meant to shake us up as a church, to not be so comfortable in the way it has been that we are unable to experience our vision being enlarged and our awe of God being rekindled through Jesus Christ and the ongoing work of the Spirit. Two words describe the people’s reactions, “astounded” and “amazed”. The first is perhaps best translated as “blown out of their minds”, something so incomprehensible that the mind can’t fathom what has just been experienced – in his teaching, his authority, and yes the way he related to the man with the unclean spirit as he commands and the spirit obeys.
Someone such as Christ’s challenger would have been sent out as soon as he had identified himself, as his ritual uncleanliness would have been considered a contagion. But the kingdom breaking forth challenges that in the very person of Jesus Christ. Healing cannot take place through exclusion, only inclusion. Healing cannot take place through the limited vision of what is present, but what is possible. Jesus challenged the implicit holiness movement of his day, by accepting the presence of all into the house of God, regardless of what troubled them. He trusted his own message of grace, and that was an element of his authority – one shared with us as Christ-bearers.
As to the man himself with the unclean spirit who initiates the exchange, his opening question is idiomatic and thus difficult to translate. It conveys a sense of “Why are you picking this fight?” or “Couldn’t you have just left things as they were between us?”
Jesus, by his sheer presence in this synagogue, has upset the order. He has crossed an established boundary. He has not left things as they were.
In all of this, I find myself thinking back to a man I once knew. He had been, well, a pretty terrible human being in life. BUT! Something had awakened in this man and we were moving through a number of weeks toward reconciliation and a cautiously caressed change in his heart, when he became seriously ill. Normal arrangements to baptize him were cast aside, as I instead poured water on him, baptizing him on the gurney as we hurriedly navigated the hallway toward emergency surgery. He never regained consciousness and died a day or so later. Absent since his teens, more than six decades had passed, as he was now welcomed back into the church on the day of his very funeral. I have to say, not everyone was initially happy about the prodigal coming home: particularly the church celebrating his life, knowing how he had once lived and not having witnessed his spiritual restoration. The grace of Christ really is greater than our sometimes stunted imagination, his authority greater than brokenness, and his witness can come through those we would have dismissed and considered essentially already “buried.” We were the ones amazed, for that day reminded us of the authentic promise and power of the Gospel. It isn’t something that only happened in a synagogue two millennia ago.
In follow up to last week, I thus ask you to again ponder the call of God upon your life. As a believer given authority in the name of Christ, you are expected to think about the lesson from Mark and how “the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that YOU most need to DO and (b) that the WORLD most needs to have ACCOMPLISHED.”
Again, the question remains: WHERE does “your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?” In remembering and celebrating our beloved Dot yesterday, I daresay that many of us in the service and the lovely fellowship time following it might have caught a piece of this concept ribboning through the stories and observations shared about her life. By her joy-filled wonder at nature’s miracles, in her deep devotion to learning, through her acknowledgement of this world’s deep hungers in the way she raised up, guided, and unconditionally loved any and all whose need SHE recognized, we were privileged to witness the convergence of Dot’s deep gladness with the great need of this world. LOVE. LOVE, my friends, is at the core of both this question and it’s answer. Let us continue this conversation in the weeks ahead.
Pastor’s Note: Preached on 28 January 2018, at First Christian Church. The “introduction” section was adapted from a paraphrase of the lessen, which I came across. Marvelous way to remember that sometimes we come to church with not a dissimilar mindset, so the Gospel can reawaken us from the all-too-human tendency to sleep walk through life, a trap that even the followers of Christ can fall into. In humility, sermon is offered for your further reflection.