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Epiphany 4B Sermon
Mark 1:21-28
January
31, 2021

 

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Mark 1:21-28

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and 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.’ 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ 26And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Our passage today begins with the phrase, “Jesus and his disciples went to Capernaum. Jesus was raised in the city of Nazareth - a small town north of Jerusalem, in the region of Galilee. Last week we heard of Jesus calling some men who were in the business of fishing on the sea of Galilee. During my last trip to Israel, our group stopped at a site in Tiberius on Galilee. In the late 1980s, a small fishing boat from the first century was brought out of the mud and encapsulated in preservative materials. They call it, “The Jesus Boat,” not because it has been proven to belong to Jesus’ fisherman disciples, but because it is from the same time period as Jesus’ life on the sea. It would be a longshot to actually belong to Jesus’ disciples, but scientific dating techniques tell us that it probably was used while Jesus walked and sailed in these boats on this lake in the first century.
Jesus and these first disciples went to Capernaum. Capernaum is on the north-west coast of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus spent a lot of time in this area - it is considered his second hometown as a matter of fact. Capernaum is an English version of the word, “Kafer - Nahum”, which means, “Town of Nahum” - it was the hometown of the prophet Nahum, from the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, Capernaum is the home of Simon and Andrew. There are remnants of a former synagogue still there from the Fourth century, sometimes called, “The White Synagogue,” which are built upon the foundation of the synagogue which was there in the first century - they refer to it as the Jesus Synagogue because, like the Jesus Boat, it was in use when Jesus was there. Because of that, this was most likely the structure in which Jesus taught in our reading from Mark 1 this morning. There are all sorts of archaeological sites here that you can visit on tours to the Holy Land, including a rather UFO looking church built over the place traditionally believed to be the home of Simon Peter.
While at this synagogue on the sabbath, Jesus is approached by a person who is possessed by an unclean spirit. This poor fellow is powerless against the presence of this spiritual being which has overtaken him. Often these stories of demonic possession confuse us and make us uncomfortable. We don’t always understand what is going on, and we often explain them away as cases of mental illness or emotional breakdowns rather than literal demon possessions. Remember, people in this time of history believed that illness of any kind as linked to “bad spirits.”

Also remember that this man was a regular, religious person. He was at the synagogue on the sabbath day, so he was a faithful Jew. How could he have been attacked by such a spiritual presence in such a way that the whole community would marvel at it? It makes me think about how often otherwise good and even religious people have been possessed by drives that can take us away from the love that we are called to show to our neighbors around us. How many times have I been so possessed by something so that I cannot even see how it affects the people closest to me? People can be possessed by all manner of things in their lives: Anger can take over and lead us to do all sorts of irrational things; jealousy might create rifts in our relationships that cannot be repaired; greed can make us forget the important things in life in order to pursue instant, temporary satisfaction; substances like drugs or alcohol, or addictive behavior like gambling or sex can motivate us to act in ways that we never would think of doing otherwise. And fear can often create suspicion in those that are different from us. In addition, sometimes the best intentioned of things can possess us in negative ways - our work, our family, even our health can become obsessions that not only bring stress to our own mental health but can bring brokenness between us and those we love the most.

There are not only personal consequences to these possessions, but our society suffers as well. Poverty, crime, distrust of our leaders, racism, corporate greed, governmental corruption, and so many other injustices thrive because of the unclean spirits that can possess us and others in our communities. You might say that there are so many things vying for authority in our lives that we often get lost in the cafeteria of choices that are readily available to us in our society and age. You might also say that personal choice, individualism and protecting our broken lifestyles are influences that can possess us as well! Even those of us who are Christian disciples, who attend worship and are part of a community faith … like the demon possessed man in this story … even we can and do contribute to the ways that society is broken as we give ourselves over to worldly authorities in our lives.
What are we to do? How do we take back the power of these influences and reside once again in the authority that Jesus has and wants to share with all of us? Notice that Jesus stops this man from talking when he begins to name Jesus and his titles. “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.” You would think that Jesus would want him to just keep on talking so that others might hear his witness! But no - Jesus rebukes him, silences him, and exorcises him from the man’s body. Jesus does not want this unclean spirit to name him, because in that culture when you name someone or something, you have authority over that one. Think about what God commanded Adam to do in Genesis 2:19-20 … he encouraged him to give all of the creatures names. So, by naming that thing or person, we claim power, control and authority over it!

Even though the world will see it as counter-productive, we can take the authority of these outside influences away from them by naming them. This is the basis of all twelve-step programs for substance abuse recovery - admitting that there is something that has authority over my life, and I cannot, on my own, control how that affects me. It is by admitting to being possessed by any of these things that we personally can begin to heal, and the ailments that plague society can heal as well. Unless we can each name our demons, they will control us and destroy us. But it takes courage to do so, because we will usually suffer some kind of public shame because of it.

And that is the power of the message of the cross. There was no greater instrument of shame in the ancient Roman world than a cross. Death by crucifixion brought terrible shame to the one who was executed as well as to that person’s family. Jesus owned up to that shame, he went willingly and never gave that shame authority over him. He continued in God’s authority, and when the scribes and others who would not name their demons were so possessed that their hatred of Jesus came to a head, they had him killed on that very symbol of Roman possession, used to keep peace in the communities that they occupied.

What a way to begin a ministry - by being a true authority in all that he taught, and by re-claiming authority back from those who were supposed to have authority in that small fishing community of Capernaum. And by healing a man of the demons that possessed him by refusing to let them name him, and by acting on the authority that God had given him. It is no wonder that his fame spread throughout the whole region of Galilee!

I want Jesus to be the ultimate authority in my life because I know that our world will continue to be broken and sinful as long as he isn’t. I invite you to name those things that are vying to be the ultimate authority in your life - name them and offer them up to God in prayer and say it out loud to the people who have suffered because of it. It is important to do this so that we can strip the authority away from anything that competes to have power over our lives and give it back to Jesus. Jesus is still about the business of driving out those things that possess us in order to heal us and our world. What he promises to replace them with is love and joy, and a community of justice and peace. Amen.