Capernaum, Possesing Spirits and Living Out our Worst Fears

Mark 1:21-28
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!”

On this 4th Sunday of the Season after Epiphany, in this season of unknowns, Jesus continues to be revealed to us. From the waters of Baptism, to the calling of his disciples, Jesus and his mission towards us and all creation is revealed in news ways. 

Today, we pick up in Mark’s gospel where we left off last week. Jesus has preached his first sermon, “The Kingdom of God has come near” and called Simon and Andrew, James and John to be disciples. 

Now the group of them head to Capernaum, which becomes the home-base for Jesus’ ministry. It is the Sabbath, the day of worship, and they go to the synagogue. Jesus begins teaching, as was the right of any circumcised and Bar Mitzvahed Jewish man. Usually, it was local scribes or a Rabbi who preached but sometimes travelling preachers like Jesus would come by to teach. 

As Jesus begins, the congregation notices something different. Jesus is not teaching like the scribes. The scribes who were like walking encyclopedias of religious knowledge. The scribes were experts in the law, in the teachings and interpretations of the Jewish faith. The scribes didn’t innovate or interpret, they simply memorized what had been interpreted and written down by rabbis and other authorities long ago. New teaching was dangerous and probably heretical. It was important to stick to what they knew to be tried and true. 

Yet, Jesus was preaching something new. Something different. Jesus was preaching from his own authority. Preaching like he had some special access to Moses, Elijah and the other prophets. Like he had special access to God. 

While most people weren’t sure what to make of this Jesus guy, who he was or where his authority came from. One person did. Or rather a man possessed by an unclean spirit. While regular humans don’t see who Jesus really is, the supernatural unclean spirit knows. And the spirit knows that Jesus is a threat to the established order. The spirit knows that Jesus has come to turn things upside down. The spirit knows the world as he and the people around him are stuck the past, in the comfortable systems, traditions and ways of being that they are used to. And Jesus is going wreck things. 

The spirit is the one who speaks. 

What have you to do with us? I know who you are!

The man with a spirit might just be a man with an unclean spirit. But for Mark the man might also represent the ways in which that community, that world, was possessed by tradition. Stuck in past. Unable to introduce any change that threatened the status quo. 

Sound familiar?

Or maybe, did that used to sound familiar? 

In years past, we may have heard this story from the Gospels and thought about how the quaint little synagogue in Capernaum was probably a little stiff and stodgy. But we also probably identified with them, we know these folks and their comfortable community. 

Or at least we did. 

These days we almost certainly wish we were the Capernaum Synagogue. The community faith able to keep their traditions, able to be unchanged by the outside world, able to just keep on keepin’ on without anything or anyone bringing disorder or disruption. 

But for nearly a year a now, we have been living the worst nightmare of the Capernaum Synagogue. We have been disrupted and forced to make nearly everything new. Even as we strive to retain as much of what we can of the familiar way of being church, they way we must form our community today has been completely transformed in the past year.

The man with the unclean spirit asked if Jesus had come to destroy. 

I wonder if on some level destruction for the folks in Capernaum looked liked us. Empty churches, lonely people, the feeling of disconnection and drifting apart. The knowledge that who we were when this all started is not who are now. And who are now is not who we will be by the end. We has been changed as individuals and as a community. 

That the whole world is being forced to change as result of this time we are living in, but just how everything has been changed isn’t settled yet. Much as been lost, but we aren’t sure what has been lost for good. 

The man with the unclean spirit expressed the collective anxiety of a system that feared change, that worked hard to maintain the status quo and the order of things. 

The spirit of our time is of anxiety and uncertainty, of having to live through change that we do not control, of having to endure things that are uncomfortable and difficult. This moment require sacrifices that we don’t know if we have it in us to keep making. 

There just might be a part of us that wants to stand up and say to God too, 

“What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?”

When the unclean spirit interrupts Jesus in the synagogue and names the threat that Jesus is – the threat to not only to the spirit’s possession of the man, but also the threat that Jesus represents the whole community and the status quo –  Jesus will have none of it. 

Be silent and come out of him!

Jesus will not be deterred by the anxiety and fears, or the unwillingness of the spirit or people to let go. Jesus is preaching a new world, Jesus is calling the people around him into the future, into a new way of living. Jesus’ new teaching is astonishing, radical, unheard of. And it comes from a place that people don’t understand, but that the unclean spirit does. The unclean spirit knows that the old ways, that the established approved way of doing things is safe, is comfortable, it is known. The spirit knows that people would so often rather be possessed by trying to maintain the past than face the unknown future. 

Be Jesus knows that God is calling them into something new and unknown. 

And today, Jesus knows that we have been thrust into that new and unknown thing, and that even still our anxieties and worries, our fears and hesitations are keeping us from seeing God’s future. Because we would love to go back to our past, to recreate what we once were. We used to long for the glory days, but now we would settle for just the pre-pandemic world. We feel the traditions, systems, and ways to doing things that were good for generations before us just slipping away faster than ever. 

Now don’t hear Jesus wrongly. Jesus is not saying that what we once were was wrong or bad. Jesus it not saying that God wasn’t active in the past, or that God wasn’t working through the ways we used to do things. Often when churches and individuals face change, letting go of what we once were is so hard because it feels like losing so much and failing all those who came before us. 

That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that God has been present among God’s people the whole time. Jesus isn’t exorcizing us of our past. Jesus is exorcizing us of our holding on to what we were, of our fears and worries of what we will become. 

It is not the past keeps us from seeing God’s future, it is our efforts to keep things the same, to recreate what once was, what we once were.  And Jesus’s new teaching is really about showing us a new world. Showing us God’s future. Showing that God is coming us from the future, meetings us in the places that we are going to, not where we have already been. God knows we cannot go backwards. 

In 2021, we know that this has never been more true. There is no going back. 

And that is what is so radical to the people in the synagogue in Capernaum, so radical for us today. God is not a God of the past, God is not about keeping things, keeping us the same. God is about resurrection, about turning death and the forces that hold us back, into new and abundant life. 

It might seem like folly to imagine a community of friends and family, gathered together in that community space and community home, like the Capernaum synagogue, or the familiar church buildings… 

But today, Jesus is calling us into something new. And Jesus has been calling us, calling the church, the Body of Christ into the new thing for quite a while now. 

And just as Jesus called out to the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus is calling out to us. Calling out our fears and worries, our anxieties and hesitations. Jesus calling them out of us, showing us that no matter what the future brings, no matter what our present brings, that the God to whom we belong is a God of new things, new realities, new teachings and most of all –

New Life. 

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