The city of Capernaum sits on the northwest side of Lake Tiberias, also known as the Sea of Galilee, deep in the hill country. Here is a fishing village, dotted with simple homes collected around common courtyards and a synagogue. In this sacred building came gave space for faithful ones gathering before God to pray, sing, recite scripture and then listen to learned scholars interpret the text. Synagogue rhythms arose within the Jewish community out of the trauma of the exile, when scattered from land and temple, persons came together to remember God’s faithfulness and affirm the tenets of life together.
Like any worshiping community, I imagine the synagogue might have had ushers, acolytes, persons with cherished pews, and scrolls that held their sacred stories. And, I imagine, at any given Sabbath service, persons entered worshiping space with their own collective of worries, gratitude, questions, and hopes. Will my boat haul in the fish I need to make it to market this week? Will my mother-in-law recover from her nasty bout with the flu? Will my fiancé and I with our engagement announced this week, find our way to a life blossoming with love? What will the Romans demand in taxes this year? Ever worshiping congregation is filled with such worries, blessings, dreams, and prayers. Sometimes, when I think of all the stuff all we hold and bring with them to the mercy seat of God, it is enough to make the heart burst, the tenderness of it all.
On this morning Jesus is among the congregation. He has been baptized and is freshly back from a wilderness wrestling with the devil. He has called his first disciples. Those four are likely accompanying him to the service. The reading of scripture is the heart of the worship time. After the scroll is read, Jesus raises to be the morning’s teacher. He speaks and the one worried about the next day’s catch hears a voice that commands the wind, seas, and calms storms. Jesus speaks and the one praying for her mother-in-law’s return to health looks into his face, sees eyes shining with compassion and fingers gentle in their touch. Jesus teaches and the merchant anxious about his taxes hears echoes of the commanding voice who will announce give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and remember God’s capacity to clothe the lilies of the field.
In the back pew, in the farthest corner, sits a person wrestling with a demon on their back; an unclean spirit the text says. Unclean means not-of-God; a force opposing the very goodness of God, a spirit that is the anti-thesis of the Holy Spirit’s capacity to generate love, mercy, gentleness, and self-control. This worshiper is unkempt, with tangled hair, ragged coat, shoes with gaping toes around the toes. No one else sat near him for the disturbance of their spirit gives off a silent warning.
But if someone had risked sitting next to this one wrestling with a demon, and asked, “Tell me the story of how you came to occupy this suffering space,” any number of responses might have emerged.
It started with one small mistake, a sinful act, I admit, a sign of my brokenness. A sin that multiplied into another step away from God, and then another, until the journey in the wrong direction had spun out of control. Or perhaps, the person could confess, “I have struggled for year with a distress of my psyche, my mind can feel bent upon itself. I’ve tried to untangle it. I’ve tried to control the fears that morphed into phobias, and the pushing away of help. But it is bigger than me now. I bow to its control.” Or maybe the suffering one would say, “the roots came from someone else’s treatment of me, a whole community’s rejection of me. My heart has been destroyed by hatred, unequal treatment, the punishing nature of exclusion.” However it began, the spirit has grown into a force larger than a single person. The voice of that demonic force speaks to Jesus from within and yet beyond the suffering one. “What will you do with us, Holy One of God?”
Whether we categorize the unclean spirit as psychological, spiritual, or social or a combination of all three, surely, we know something of the forces that work against God in our lives and the world. These forces that have tendency to grow large quickly, increasingly unruly and cunning in their capacity to render us possessed by that which is not God.
“I was so overcome with anger, so enraged that I lost control of myself.” “I have been imprisoned by an obsession I cannot shake, pulling me away from life I know I’m designed to live, the persons who love me.” “For decades I have been weighed down, oppressed by hurdles erected by hate, hurled at me with impunity. I cannot climb above it all.”
As David Lose so aptly says, “rather than bless, unclean spirit curse, rather than build up, they tear down, rather than encourage, they disparage, rather than promote love, they sow hate, rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart.”1
In Mark’s gospel it is these spirits that recognize Jesus. What an odd thing. The religious scholars don’t cry out. The crowds misread Jesus’s identity. The disciples remain confused and hesitant until the end. But the demons – the forces that oppose God – they know Jesus right from the start. This curious fact has always intrigued me. Like a rebellious toddler who senses the adult with the conviction and the power to match their unruliness, like the moths that are attracted to light that will harm them, the demonic forces emerge readily in Jesus’s presence. Here lies Mark’s larger message to us, the core of his gospel proclamation. Jesus is the One who has the power to destroy every force that separates us from God.
The unclean spirits call out and Jesus replies, Silence. Hush! More bluntly, Shut up. Be gone. And the one in the back pew, bowed down by the suffering, ashamed of the outburst, can feel the demon depart, the heaviness recede, the goodness of God come back into focus. As James Howell says, “to the racket of the world, to the rancor of political ideologies, to the clamor of companies compelling us to buy, buy, buy, and to the voice hollering in our heads saying “you are no good. Jesus says, Hush, Silence, Be gone.”
I find the things that most separate me from God – lingering scars from unhealed hurts, the compulsion to worry about things beyond my control, or my complicity in systems that destroy creation or communities – these things can feel larger than me, more powerful that my ability to contain them. These are spaces where I need God’s intervention, a Jesus who commands, Be Silent. Depart, a Christ who can destroy the things that destroy us and impart the love that resurrects our lives. A dear friend expressed a similar idea, when he said on his 60th birthday, “I’m nowhere near as put together as I thought I would be, when at 30 I contemplated 60. Daily, I still must confess, I am a broken person in need of God’s grace.”
As dramatic as the scene is that day in the synagogue at Capernaum, I believe such healing commands are everyday occurrences in the community formed in Jesus’s name, given life by Jesus’s power. We enter here broken by a world that says you are insignificant; Jesus says you are my beloved children. We pray here for assistance, for boldness to speak out against hatred, Jesus says, my love overflows from you into the world. We come here, ashamed of our past mistakes, weighed down by our casual cruelties, our unsatiable greed; Jesus says you are forgiven, given power to life as my disciples in the world. Jesus, Word made flesh, comes with power to break evil’s hold, compassion to heals rather than destroy, with an urgency to conquer hate with love. And time and time again he passes along the power to us, heirs of his kingdom, healers and liberators sent forth in his name. May we go forth in that power. Amen.