February 1, 2015 Mark 1: 21-28
Rev. Catherine Purves
It was still early days. The first four disciples, the fishermen, had just been called. Jesus was still virtually a stranger to them. He was a compelling enough figure that they were willing to leave their homes, their families, and their businesses to follow him. So they must have been hopeful and intrigued and relatively certain that this was no ordinary rabbi. The way he preached made it seem like something big was just about to happen. You may remember Mark’s summary of the main message of Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The first stop on their preaching tour was Capernaum, a city on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. The brand new disciples didn’t know what to expect when Jesus entered the synagogue that day, and neither did anyone else. It’s hard for us to relive their surprise at what happened next. We know too much about what Jesus said and did. In fact, it’s probably difficult for us to generate much shock or awe about any of the amazing events that are described in the Gospels. The miracles of Jesus are familiar to us. The healings are expected. The parables are all known. Even the perplexing idea that Jesus could somehow be both God and man is something that we have grown up with, and so it has lost its ability to astound us. But for those first disciples and for the unknowing crowd that had come to worship on that sabbath day, the events described in our reading were anything but commonplace. No matter what they may have heard about the rabbi from Nazareth, they didn’t see that coming!
Can you try to imagine yourself back in that Capernaum congregation? Can you recapture their surprise and their dawning awareness that something totally unprecedented was happening right there in their local synagogue. What could it mean? How should they respond? And what would happen next? Let’s try to imagine the excitement, the awe, and the expectation that the events of that one day would generate. If we can begin to experience what that was like for them, then we might be able to believe that God could still, even today, surprise us when we least expect it.
Now, it was just an ordinary sabbath, like today. The people of Capernaum gathered at the appointed time for worship in the synagogue. They came, just as we come each Sunday, because that’s what they had always done. It was part of the rhythm of their lives. It gave them that sense that God was in heaven, and God was in charge, so they could get on with their everyday lives. Their regular weekly worship was predictable, and it gave them a certain security, reassurance, and a sense of who they were as people of God. They went to the synagogue seeking comfort and peace. On that day when Jesus arrived at their modest place of worship, they had no idea what was about to happen.
During the sabbath services, prayers were offered, Psalms were sung, and the word of God was read – nothing too earth-shattering about that. Then anyone could rise and preach from the text. You can imagine that much of what was shared would have been predictable and clichéd. The same men would have stood up to say the same things in the same way. The emphasis was on continuity, not novelty. They were preserving the truth not discovering it. How many of us come to church in order to have our preconceived notions confirmed? How many of us sit here waiting for a familiar word, paying no attention to a new or a challenging word or perspective? If we come to find comfort and security rather than seeking what new thing God in Christ might be up to in our world, then when God does act, we certainly won’t see that coming, and we might miss it altogether.
So the whole community was sitting there in that synagogue with amazingly low expectations when suddenly a young man, a stranger, stood to speak. Those who weren’t already dozing perked up to see what he might say. Perhaps he would have a fresh interpretation of an old law. That at least would help pass the time. The peculiar notion that we gather for worship out of a sense of obligation rather than in joyful expectation is, sadly, not just a modern misconception.
Strangely enough, Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said in his sermon. Luke records this same incident, but he doesn’t say anything about what Jesus taught either. Did they even remember what he said on that ordinary sabbath day that had suddenly become extraordinary? What did make a clear impression on them was the way in which he said it; they were overwhelmed by the man himself and his sense of authority. He was not like any of their other teachers. This was a new teaching. When we come to worship each Sunday, if we don’t hear something new, and if we are not shaken out of our dozing, lethargy of low-expectation, then we are probably not really listening to Jesus, and we are probably not encountering the man himself in all of his authority. Suffice it to say that no one shook Jesus by the hand at the synagogue door and said, “Interesting sermon, pastor.” Mark says, they were astounded at his teaching, they were amazed, and then that other man arrived.
You may have already mentally translated Mark’s phrase, “a man with an unclean spirit” into “a man with mental problems,” “or a man suffering from epilepsy.” That fits in better with our understanding of the world and the human mind, but it also greatly reduces the shock-value of this completely unexpected confrontation. Again, try to imagine yourself as an ordinary first century Jew, minding your own business, just trying to get through a synagogue service without falling asleep. First, someone with what sure sounds like an actual word from the Lord shows up. Who was he? Where did he come from? What were they to make of him? Before any of those pressing questions could be answered, a demoniac suddenly appeared in the synagogue, shouting abuse and disrupting their normally uneventful worship service.
Try to set aside your modernity for a minute and see what they saw. This was an actual showdown between the dangerous and destructive powers of darkness and the bold and victorious power of this unknown man of God. The demon knew who Jesus was, “the Holy One of God,” and he called him by name, “Jesus of Nazareth.” This should have given the demon the upper hand, but he was powerless to resist the command and the authority of Jesus. What a drama it was that was played out in front of those unexpecting parishioners. It was like a preview of Armageddon. And that was what Jesus had been saying all along, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” The powers of evil had better watch out, because their day of dominance was about to end. The people in the pews that sabbath morning never saw that coming!
If all we imagine when we read this account of Jesus visiting the Capernaum synagogue, if all we manage to envision is an impressive sermon and a rather dramatic healing, then we are quite missing the point that Mark was trying to make, and we are completely understating the impact of Jesus’ presence, authority, and power. The danger for us is that we may be unconsciously doing the same thing when we gather for worship on the sabbath. Are we coming with low expectations? Do we even expect Jesus to show up? Are we recognizing in his word to us a new and powerful authority that commands our attention and our transformation? Do we really believe that Jesus is more than a match for those powers of darkness that threaten our lives and our world? Or do we continue to live in fear of them, in spite of the clear proclamation of Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”
For those unsuspecting citizens of Capernaum who gathered, as usual, at their local synagogue, nothing would ever be the same again. They couldn’t stop talking about what had happened on that sabbath day. And Mark tells us, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” God was doing a new and a completely unprecedented thing in this unknown man from Nazareth. God is still doing new and unexpected things through his Son, Jesus. We, who claim to be his followers, should surely now expect the unexpected. And we should come to worship each and every sabbath ready and eager to encounter that same Jesus whose word and deed are still able to surprise us as he wields the full power and authority of God in our world.