In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus in Capernaum. Located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, this is the town that Jesus claimed as His homebase. On my trip to the Holy Lands in 2017 it was one of the places that was most meaningful to me because of its authentic link to Jesus’ life. We meet Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue, His typical venue in the towns He visited. Our group was able to walk around a synagogue that dates back to the second century. It is probable that the one we were able to explore was built on the ruins of the sacred space where Jesus confronted the demoniac as part of His worship leadership. From one side, it is possible to see the Sea of Galilee below. The breeze blew through open windows, giving a tangible feeling to how Jesus must have experienced His time there.
A fifth century church is built atop the ruins of what is believed to have been the home of Peter’s family, including his mother-in-law. His house was just 100 feet south of the synagogue on the main street of the town. With that proximity, we understand how the deep faith of this disciple was fostered in that setting. Jesus visited the mother-in-law and healed her in the passage that follows the synagogue incident. The home was a pilgrimage site for some of the earliest believers, with Christian symbols written on the walls. Coins, pottery, oil lamps dating to the first century were there. So were fishing hooks! The men who responded to Jesus’ message, “Follow Me”, were fishermen from an area known for its fishing industry.
The church constructed atop the ruins has a see-through floor that allowed us to look down into this sacred space where Jesus harnessed the power of the Holy Spirit and brought healing, first to her and then to the crowds that gathered outside of the living quarters. Word spread quickly that a healer was in town and Jesus ministered to them with a generous Spirit. Approximately 1000-1500 people lived in Capernaum in Jesus’ time and that would have been considered a sizeable town. The ruins cover a strip that is a mile long.
We are in the season of Epiphany when God’s presence is revealed to us in special ways. Capernaum was so significant for me because it bridged the 2000-year gap that separates me from Jesus. I was privileged to breathe His air and see His views in the place He claimed as home.
The revelation of God in this passage comes in the person of Jesus. The demon recognizes who He is and the readers are reminded in this first chapter of Mark’s Gospel that evil is real. As if to combat this darkness, the scenes in Mark are bracketed by Sabbath gatherings. They include ritual observance of worship life in the synagogue. Mark also includes stories that tell of Jesus’ willingness to violate Sabbath law. I wonder what routine experience glues the pieces to our lives together? What does it feel like when we miss a Sunday of worship? How do you feel when you leave this sanctuary after worship and a time of connecting with friends?
Jesus was in the synagogue because He knew that was the place where He would find others who worshiped God. Each Sabbath, He found folks who sought to live sanctified lives in trying times. William Willimon writes that “These habits, protected through generations of difficulty, have created a people ready to jump up and run to John. They have created a community of faithful people who hear Jesus and hope for something big, not because he is new, but because he is rooted in something very old.” Jesus arrives in Capernaum and carries on the ancient tradition of His people: teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. He is acknowledged as a teacher “with authority.” We are addicted to information and have it literally at our fingertips in the form of our phones. Who or what teacher would we find to be “authoritative”? I wonder if we are open to hearing truth other than what we’ve come to believe? Whose authority is larger than our own?
Introducing Jesus as a teacher may seem less impressive when compared to calming a storm or bringing a man back to life. But, for the Jews, discovering a religious leader who captured their hearts and inspired them to seek out God was no small thing. Jesus is compared in this passage to the scribes, whose position in the Jewish hierarchy was elevated. One author describes the difference between Jesus and these esteemed scholars like this: The scribes are those who “trade grammatical niceties with each other while drawing fat salaries…The scribes teach and preserve and prepare; Jesus blazes, explodes, and erupts.”
One pastor was feeling unsure about his preaching impact. So he polled some folks after worship one Sunday, asking them to fill out a brief questionnaire that measured how much of his sermon they could recall. When he collected the results, he was discouraged that so few details were remembered. But a wise elder in his congregation set him straight. She said a sermon isn’t about ideas anymore than the passion to our day comes from head knowledge. The purpose of the sermon is to meet Jesus in place, to be amazed that He hasn’t given up on us yet. The pastor felt better. He realized his people came to be astonished that Jesus lives among us and calls us—over and over again—to be His disciples.
What we learn about His teaching is that those in the sanctuary that day were astonished. We know nothing of His content, as we are given in the Beatitudes. He teaches them about God’s will but does it as He powerfully combats the force of evil that threatened their era as it does ours. One commentator writes that “the scene is alive with the crackle of conflict. There is no polite conversation here between Jesus and the possessed man.”
The demon greets Jesus as if he’s an old friend. We see a surprising side to Jesus in this encounter. Mark begins his story of Jesus’ ministry with a reminder that Jesus was engaged in a cosmic battle. I wonder what the demon saw in Jesus? Are we able to see in the man from Nazareth the purpose of God being fulfilled? We who gather weekly for worship acknowledge our own desperation. We may not name our difficulties as “demons” but we understand what it is to be weighed down by guilt, depression, financial hardship, meaningless lives, addiction, victimization, and greed. It is impossible for us to look into our world on any single day and not recognize that there are forces at work against God’s will for us. I think of patients I work with who believe the lies of the demonic: “You’ll never succeed”, “Your only friend can be found in a bottle”, “The abuse committed on you as a child is your fault”. The list could go on and on. They tell me they have done the unpardonable and often lose all vestiges of hope for a new day. So we remember that we stand in a long tradition of believers who look to God for our strength. We watch for opportunities to ease the burdens of others. Whether we recognize it or not, we wage a holy war against all that crushes life out of our world. We are the bearers of hope to the sorrowful who fear that they cannot be forgiven ever!
It is in worship that we are closest to that astonishment that the Capernaum believers felt as Jesus led their worship. When we are confronted with Jesus as the Christ, the man of Nazareth, we are astonished at His authority. When our faith life seems still, Jesus shows up and our plans are gloriously disrupted. We show up at worship each week not just for the strength to go on for another week. We take time to come more intentionally into God’s holy presence knowing that demons will be named and scattered!
A clergy friend talked about deciding to use a devotional guide as a starting point for his executive board’s meetings. They were embarking on a bold building campaign and he hoped the reflective time added to those meetings would guide the church leaders with the difficult decisions ahead. One of the board members stood up suddenly as the pastor shared the reflection and stormed, “I come to church on Sundays to hear a sermon. I’m here tonight to do our business, not to get preached at!” People were startled and he stomped out of the room. The pastor and parishioners looked at each other, shrugged and the study continued. Demons were unleashed. These conversations of the Executive Board were pointing toward needed changes. The irate leader had been very happy to serve when his own agenda prevailed. But, as the status quo was challenged, he blew up. He was harboring a need for power that hadn’t been evident before. The minister said that, ironically, the board member accidentally left his briefcase behind and had to slink back into the meeting later to claim it!
Martin Luther said, “When the word of God is rightly preached, demons are set loose.” We might be surprised when worship kicks something up in us that we didn’t know was there. “Wait, that’s not what I came here to hear!” “How can I use any of this next week?” “Who chooses the music for this service anyway? They never sing my favorite hymns!” It’s dangerous to come to worship each Sunday because to worship is to have your favorite prejudices disrupted through a startling meeting with God! To be a Christian is to hold on for dear life at times because there will be forces—both cultural and spiritual—that work against our faith in Jesus Christ.
In his autobiography, Arthur Miller wrote a story about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. A doctor had come to administer another dose of sleeping medicine that would give her much-needed peace. Gazing upon her, finally asleep in their bed, her husband wrote, “I found myself straining to imagine miracles. What if she were to wake and I were able to say, ‘God loves you, darling,’ and she were able to believe it! How I wish I still had my religion and she hers.”
There are forces that will diligently work against us hanging onto a saving belief in a God of love. The demons who recognized Jesus and begged Him to depart continue to disrupt our carefully laid plans. Whether we recognize it or not, we are waging a holy war. With the waters of our baptism, the trouble begins! We are not inoculated against sorrow or pain, confusion or chaos. But we are assured that Christ is with us for the long haul. And that is astonishing news!