In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
One of Mark’s favorite words in his gospel is “immediately.” There is a constant urgency associated with Jesus’ actions—he immediately goes somewhere; he immediately does something. Jesus’ ministry seems a little… hectic. In many English translations of today’s passage, the word is omitted. But in Greek, the opening verse reads: “Immediately on the Sabbath, Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.” (Mk 1:21b, trans. from SBLGNT). Jesus seems to have only just arrived in Capernaum. The very first thing he chooses to do after sundown is to go to the synagogue, almost as if he knew this was the place he needed to be.
At this point in Mark’s gospel, we don’t know very much about Jesus yet. If you read the first chapter up to this point just as you see it: John baptizes Jesus, Jesus retreats into the desert, then travels through Galilee where he calls Simon and Andrew, and James and John to follow him. In these 20 verses, Mark presents Jesus as a rather compelling and mysterious presence in Galilee. And so, this stranger to the Galileans teaches in the synagogue, and his audience is captivated by his words. He is so unlike anyone they’ve ever seen. He is no ordinary preacher. The crowded synagogue is silent as his voice echoes through the chamber—his words full of passion and authority. Their eyes are glued to him as he speaks… Captive to his voice.
Jesus’ words swell their hearts and expand their imaginations. And then out of that sacred, reverent silence…
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
Heads turn in every direction as they seek to find the voice that dares to interrupt this rabbi.
“Have you come to destroy us?”
This new voice is troubling. It is rough and deep and dark. It echoes through the canyons between bodies as it grips the congregation in fear.
“I know who you are…”
Jesus turns toward someone in the crowd—sitting off by himself in the dark corner, with his hood drawn low over his eyes.
“The Holy One of God.”
Still, the crowd’s eyes are fixed on Jesus as he rises from his place and extends his hand toward the man who spoke. The entire congregation heard Jesus’ next words—crystalline, direct, and forceful:
”Be silent. Come out of him.”
The man’s body seized as he wailed and gnashed his teeth. The darkness emerged from him and it disappeared. The peoples’ amazement amplified. When they left, they spread the story to everyone they knew, and, immediately, the entire region was captivated by the reports from Capernaum.
The words of the unclean spirit lingered with me as I prepared this sermon. “What have you to do with us?” “Have you come to destroy us?” I expect these questions inspired both fear and skepticism. Those sitting in the synagogue must have been troubled by these words. This other man is now provoking the rabbi. I sense there’s a definite tension as people’s eyes oscillate between the two men. The crowd continued to watch the two strangers, and perhaps a division begins to erupt. Who speaks the truth? Which of these can they trust? Both have the potential to destroy the synagogue—whose side will they choose?
By a simple definition, what Jesus performed in the synagogue was an exorcism. Since the 1970s, our cultural imagination has created a pretty intense idea of how an exorcism happens. I don’t necessarily think that Jesus’ exorcisms involved any split-pea soup, like in The Exorcist. But I do want to suggest that it was very alarming and traumatizing for his audience to be face-to-face with evil and to see it as it leaves this man’s body…
Let’s remember that the ideas of demons and evil are throughout Hebrew scripture. They were real to the Jews in Jesus’ time. In the Gospels, we encounter them as the “unclean spirits” who possess the vulnerable. These spirits are present enough in Jesus’ timeline for us to know that his followers and the gospel-writers’ audiences would have regarded evil and spirits and demons as the ‘real deal.’ Shortly before Jesus appears in Capernaum, he wrestled with Satan in the wilderness. Jesus has seen evil. He has felt its temptation. When the unclean spirit spoke to him, saying, “I know who you are,” Jesus’s response might have been, “I know who you are, too—and I’m not impressed.”
I believe for certain that God intends each of us to grow into a fuller, more complete version of ourselves—to become a little more like Jesus each and every day. Yet, we struggle… with temptation, and doubt, and fear. We are much like that synagogue congregation in Capernaum. We have to pick a side. We are pulled between two, competing mindsets. We get stuck between awe and fear. We sit between good and evil.
The words that we heard today from Deuteronomy help steer us in the right path—in the Christ-like or Godly way. God says to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet […] I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet […] But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name […] that prophet shall die.”
The people sitting in that synagogue were tempted by a false prophet, even by objectifiable evil. Their amazement at Jesus and his teaching infuriated the unclean spirit. When the spirit spoke to Jesus, I wonder how many of them doubted Jesus, or even feared him. But Jesus reminded them which of these strangers represented the good: “Be still and come out of him.” The spirit fled—perhaps out of fear of Jesus, or because it knew it wouldn’t win this fight. Exorcism doesn’t have to include screeching and spinning heads. At a very basic level, exorcism is us asking Jesus to cast out our fear and skepticism. To dispossess us from the allure of false prophets. Exorcism is turning to belief. Surrendering. Being amazed, instead of fearful.
As Christians, we are called to be evangelists of the Gospel, to be Christ-like. To resist evil. To proclaim the Good News. And sometimes we fall short. We get skeptical and turn away. We doubt. We fear. We hesitate. But at our core, we always want to turn again to hear Jesus’ reassuring voice which repels the demons that tempt us and compel us toward the darkness.
This story of Jesus in Capernaum pairs well with the lesson from Deuteronomy. They both teach us that we must be more diligent about recognizing the good prophets, the good in the world. To think critically about what guides our actions, our beliefs, and our values. To put our faith and trust in Jesus and in God. Yet, so often, we are easily captivated by false prophets, by the evil of the world, instead of focusing on Jesus. False prophets capitalize on our fear and our ability to be so easily distracted. We’re attracted to evil through fanfare and parades—ostentatious showings of power and prestige—while humble Jesus sits in a synagogue and teaches. That’s how we recognize him.
Jesus purges the evil from the world without fireworks or abusing his power. He helps the poor and heals the sick. He consoles the sorrowful and liberates the captive. And his goodness always wins. Maybe that’s what we still need to hear and remember today. If Jesus walked into Grace Church in Martinez, would we recognize him? Would we choose him over the false prophet? What demons would he command to come out from us? What kind of a church could we be?
Who might I become if I turn to Jesus and say through the darkness…
“I know who you are, O Holy One of God”?