… 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!”… (Read the whole passage here.)
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 Jewish man. Usually, it was local scribes or rabbis 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 an unclean spirit did. 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 that he and the people around him are stuck in is the past. The comfortable systems, traditions and ways of being that they are used to are over. 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 threatens the status quo.
Churches these days often struggle with this issue. We often long for things to be as they once were. We long to have Sunday schools with 100 kids every Sunday, and services that are standing room only. We long for offering plates to beoverflowing, we hope for more baptisms than funerals. We long for the past, or at least the way we remember things to be.
As a faith community or as individuals we can be possessed by our past. We can fear change, block anything new, strive to keep things the same. As the old joke goes,
How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb?
Change!??! That lightbulb was good enough for my grandfather, so it is good enough for us.
When the unclean spirit names the threat that Jesus is not only to the good deal that the spirit has possessing some poor man, but also the threat that Jesus represents the whole world of the people of Capernaum and beyond, 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 gets. 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 us into something new and unknown. And Jesus knows that we need to be exorcized of our fears and worries if we are going to see God’s future. Because we are often possessed by maintaining our past, by trying to recreate what we once were. We hold onto the traditions, systems, and ways to doing things that were good for our grandparents and so, we believe, are good enough for us.
Now don’t hear Jesus wrongly. Jesus is not saying that the past is wrong or bad. Jesus is 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 we are dishonouring our forebears. It feels like we are saying our parents and grandparents were wrong, that they weren’t being faithful.
That is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus knows that God has been present among the people, among us the whole time. Jesus isn’t exorcizing us of our past. Jesus is exorcizing us of our holding on, of our resistance to change, of our need for safety and comfort. Of our fears and anxieties.
It is not the past that 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 that new world. Showing us God’s future. Showing that God is coming to, meeting us in the future. God knows we cannot go backwards.
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 forces that hold us back, into new and abundant life.
Let us pray,
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.