January 31, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois
The Gospel According to Mark is the story of a new teaching, a new way at looking at familiar things. Mark moves rapidly from scene to scene, skipping the transitions, moving from moment to moment with words like “immediately,” “just then,” “at once.” This pace builds the larger story – the Kin-dom of God breaking into the world – while leaving it to us to fill in the details.
Here, in Capernaum, we get a glimpse of two of the main things Jesus will do – teach and heal. In this short passage, only a paragraph of text, we don’t get much of a description of the scene. Jesus and the new disciples have traveled to Capernaum, and he taught in the synagogue on the sabbath. What did he teach? What scripture was read? Who was there? What was the town of Capernaum like? The key thing we come away with is that “They were astounded at his teaching” (v. 22). This was something new, a teacher that captured their attention in a way others had not.
The synagogue was a focal point in the community. It was central to “communal life: they functioned as courts and place for political discussions, storage of archives, education of children, public reading and teaching of Torah and prayer.” Much like many folks in this country grew up at the church, attending worship, Sunday School, Monday prayer group, Wednesday Bible study, and Thursday choir rehearsal, people would have come to the synagogue most days of the week. It was common practice for various people to teach on the sabbath, so Jesus teaching was not surprising. What set him apart was the manner in which he taught. Rather than leaning on the scholarship of well-known scribes and rabbis, Jesus taught as an authority.
The teachers that they were familiar with, called scribes in this passage, would have studied the Torah in detail, examining the law of Moses through the insights of respected rabbis who had come before. They were practiced in explaining and applying the law to specific situations. Jesus, the “Holy one of God” (v. 24), spoke from his own authority, connecting closely with his audience. He brought the dusty scriptures to life, engaging their imaginations, and challenging them to consider the broader meaning and implications of the law of love and justice.
What would we find amazing if Jesus were to teach in our sanctuary? Would we hear the same familiar stories, or might they come to life in new, bold, and prophetic ways? Would we hear something we haven’t heard before? Would we be surprised, shocked, or offended? Would we sell all we possess, give it to the poor, and follow him? He might send us out to heal the social, moral, economic, and ecological illnesses of our society. He might ask us to face the unclean spirits, the evils of the world, and overcome them with goodness and love.
Like a student disrupting the class, the teacher encounters a man with an unclean spirit. Is it demon possession, or impurity and dirtiness that infects him? There are many ways that one might be identified with evil, influenced by malevolent spirits, or driven to distrust and paranoia. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (v. 24). Go away, we don’t want your kind here. The presence of the man is not surprising: people believed the world was inhabited by many spirits, which were mostly malevolent. Judaism, as well as the pagan religions of the Greco-Roman world, understood that people needed to be freed from the power of unclean spirits or demons. The unclean spirit exerted control over the human being–mind, body, and soul.
Was the man seeking for Jesus or simply entering a holy place and encountering Jesus? Was he as surprised at finding Jesus there as the others were amazed at the teachings of Jesus? However he came to be there, this man is a captive and needs to be set free. This is the moment Mark has brought us here to see. Jesus rebukes the spirit, and the spirit is cast out. Jesus commands, and even the unclean spirits obey. “A new teaching—with authority!” (v. 27). Jesus heals, releasing the captive, and restoring the man to wholeness. A miracle takes place. The Kin-dom of God appears on earth.
This scene takes place in a synagogue, a holy place. Jesus will heal and cast out evil in many places. It is the other holy place – within the human body – that is significant here. What has been profaned by evil has been made holy by the Holy One. This person, these people, and even us, set free from the power of evil and made whole again. Jesus astounds them with his teaching, demonstrates authority through this miraculous act of deliverance.
In our time we need a new teaching. We need to better understand our history, our politics, and our relationship with one another, the earth, and with God. We also need a miraculous healing, to be released from pandemic disease, economic turmoil, and ecological ruin. We need the one whose “fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (v. 28). The good news is, the disciples of the Teacher are right here.
We have, it seems, been living from scene to scene, skipping the transitions, moving rapidly from moment to moment. Maybe this pace has left us missing some details, but the bigger story continues – the Kin-dom of God is breaking into the world – and we’re participants in the mission of bringing truth and healing, hope and courage to the world. There is evil which must be confronted and cast out. There is justice and love that must be taught. We are called as the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to seek with Christ the restoration of the world.
He comes with justice speedy to those who suffer wrong,
to help the poor and needy, and bid the weak be strong,
to give them songs for sighing, their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying, are precious in his sight.
This sermon was guided by the work of the Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, “Sermon Seeds: Coming Through the Holy Places,” January 31, 2021 from: https://www.ucc.org/sermon-seeds/sermon-seeds-january-31-2021/.
The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard
Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of
the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the
 Eckhard J. Schnabel, Mark, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017).
 James Montgomery, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” v. 2, in Chalice Hymnal (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995).