The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The gospel lesson designated for this Lord’s Day portrays the power of Jesus. This is a power that enters into the drama of the human predicament, as we are about to consider in more detail momentarily. Jesus and his disciples have gone to Capernaum. On the sabbath he goes to the synagogue. Now a synagogue is a public place of worship where Jewish people congregated on the Sabbath. The board of elders at the synagogue must have invited Jesus to speak. For he is teaching there.

 

This setting is not unlike that at our church. (That is, when we do hold worship services in our sanctuary). Perhaps the service began with a liturgist who invited the people to calm their hearts and minds as they prepare to enter into the worship hour. There is order; there is tranquility. The people’s minds are focused. They listen intently as Jesus reads the portion of scripture appointed for the day and begins to expound it. 

 

Suddenly a man storms the synagogue. He is obviously troubled. Mark tells us that the man has an unclean spirit. This is a specifically Jewish term for “demon.” We all know people who are troubled in this sense. About someone we may have said: “he’s had to wrestle with his demons.” Some people are more troubled than others. Because of past trauma or abuse or reckless choices, they have turned into troubled, volatile, and unstable human beings. They are hard to love. They are hard to include in family and community gatherings, because they are disruptive. And so we limit our contact with them, maybe even to the point of avoiding them altogether. But in so doing, we leave them out in the cold, depriving them of the connectedness without which no man or woman can flourish in this life. But we do not know what else to do. Psychologists counsel us to remove “toxic” people from our lives. They tell us we have to maintain appropriate boundaries. Perhaps this is what the people told one another at the synagogue. We should not assume that this man was a stranger to them. That he is there on the sabbath, a day set apart by the Jewish people for renewing family and community ties, reflects his need for connection with them. 

 

But he has not come quietly to find his seat among them. Instead, he bursts into the congregation and in a loud voice begins to shout down the speaker, who is Jesus. Jesus is in the act of teaching the people when the man disrupts the service, shattering the tranquility of the hour.   

 

Why is he crying out? We ought to see that he externalizes what is within him. He is not at peace. There is a storm that is raging inside him. His outburst betrays the roiling waters within him. Have we ever known a time of inner turmoil? We sought in vain for a port in the storm. Or have we ever known a time when we were unable to dampen the loud voice in our heads? It might have been an accusatory voice, condemning us for an act we committed in the past, that act we wish we could erase from our memory. It might have been a scolding voice, telling us that we are not good enough, that we never realized our potential, that we are not attractive or good looking or charismatic enough. Psychologists tell us that we internalize the voice of a parent or a teacher or a role model and carry it within our head. Parenthetically, that is why, if we are role models, we have to be careful in our speech: “the power of life and death resides in the tongue” (Prov. 18:21). We may have sought our entire lives to drown out those voices with less or more success. And carrying them within our head has affected us; the voices have negatively influenced our behavior, in ways of which we’re probably not even fully aware.  

 

To the man who disrupted the synagogue service with his loud cries, Jesus gives the command: “Be silent!” Perhaps Jesus is addressing these words to us today. Do we need to hear these words? To that loud, accusatory voice that condemns us, to that loud, scolding voice that tells us we are not good enough, Jesus gives the command “Be silent!” This command does not come from within us. We have tried before to silence those voices. Positive self-talk is important, to be sure. But note that positive as well as negative self-talk come from the same source. The better angels of our nature co-exist uncomfortably alongside our shadows. That is why we need a word addressed to us that comes from outside us. That is what happened to the troubled man in the synagogue. He hears a powerful voice that addresses him, a voice that penetrates the very core of his being. Our hope today is that the voice of Jesus addresses each of one of us who is troubled by the voices we carry within our head. For his voice has the power to silence those voices.

 

“Come out of him.” We see in this command an image of the cleansing that Christ wants to accomplish in us his by his power. Recall that the expression that the Jewish people use for “demon” is “unclean” spirit.  In this regard, it is worth nothing that Jesus tells his disciples in John 15 that they are clean because of the word that he has spoken to them. The power of his word is the power of the Holy Spirit, who is living and active in this word. All that is bad and unacceptable and unclean in us the Spirit of God mercifully removes so that we no longer have to be harassed and troubled by it. It may not happen instantaneously, as it evidently has here. It may be a long and drawn-out process that lasts well into our old age. But we can trust God to carry it out. In this connection, we can recall that verse in the Letter to the Philippians, in which the Apostle Paul assures his readers that he who began a good work in them is faithful to complete it at the day of Christ Jesus (1:6). It is a work that is good because it is for our good. The good news is that God wants to heal and restore us. 

 

Who Jesus is, what Jesus has to communicate, stands opposed to who the man has become, what he has to communicate. The man’s recognition of this fact finds expression in his cry of distress: “What have you to do with us?” He is right to pose this question. Unclean and clean cannot coexist; they are opposites; they mutually repel one another. It cannot be otherwise. The man with the unclean spirit knows that he is in the presence of the holy one of God. What fellowship does light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? (1 Cor. 6:14, 14). In the Bible, holiness is symbolized by fire. “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God, or ever again see this great fire, I will die” (Deut. 18:16). This verse, which we heard in our Old Testament lesson, interprets for us the man’s cry of distress. But the man does not have it quite right. To be sure, fire destroys, but applied properly, it cauterizes and thereby cleanses and heals. Jesus has come not to destroy the man; he has come to destroy that within the man which is destroying the man. That is the good work that God does within each one of us, as we have already mentioned. 

 

In the face of superior power, the unclean spirit, which has controlled the man and done him ill, has to flee. This display of power evokes awe and amazement. Our gospel lesson wants to impress on us that Jesus has caused quite a stir. In fact, the Gospel of Mark throughout is interested in capturing the reaction of the people to the words and actions of Jesus. It uses no less than six different verbs to express awe and amazement. Two of the six appear here. The word used in verse 27 to express their awe in the face of the exorcism is stronger than the one used in verse 22 to express their astonishment at Jesus’ teaching. Both together are meant to give us a vivid image of those standing in wide-eyed amazement in the presence of one whom they cannot compare to the scribes who usually teach them each Sabbath in the synagogue. Jesus has a gravity, a weightiness, a substance that no doubt they found it difficult to explain.

 

It is worth mentioning in this regard that there was an expectation among the Jewish people that God would one day send to them a prophet like Moses. The source of this expectation lies in the passage we heard in our Old Testament lesson for today. God tells Moses that he will raise up a prophet like Moses from among their own people; he will put his words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that God commands (18:18). We can imagine the people on that day asking one another whether this Jesus is the Prophet about whom Moses prophesied.

 

In any case, the people are shaken because of what they witnessed on that sabbath day. They are amazed because of the authority that Jesus demonstrated in his teaching. They are awestruck because of the power that Jesus wielded in his confrontation with the unclean spirit. And their state of mind remained with them long enough to move them to spread news about him everywhere in the surrounding regions.  

 

This news spread not only spatially but also temporally. It has reached our ears today, almost twenty centuries after it was first reported. It is news that means to impress on us that God has conferred on Jesus divine power. He still bears this divine power. For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8). In him the power of God is present in behalf of human beings against the forces that damage and destroy life. It is a power that comforts and heals and cleanses us, opening up for us a new horizon made possible by our hearing and receiving the words addressed to us by Jesus, just as it did for the man with the unclean spirit. This in fact is central to the good news about the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims: God is at work restoring life, which means that God at the same time is at work vanquishing the forces that negate life.   

 

If we are waiting to witness this power, either in our own lives or in those of our loved ones, perhaps especially in those who are hard for us to love, let us not give up. There is nothing in heaven or on earth that can ultimately thwart God’s power. If we have already tasted this power, let us not be embarrassed to acknowledge it. Let us not mistrust it or lose our confidence in it. Rather let us keep before our eyes that which we have seen both in our gospel lesson and in our own lives. Jesus speaks into our situation with power. He will continue to do so. His power is not intended to manipulate us or aggrandize himself at our expense, as power is so often used in our world. Rather it functions to overcome and defeat those things that damage and destroy life. It functions to lead us into life. This is why the kingdom of God that Jesus announced is good news. It is why he calls us to hear it and believe it. Amen.

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