Imagine this scene: Jesus walks into the synagogue at Capernaum and begins to teach. What would that have looked like?
January 31, 2021
Village Chapel Presbyterian Church
Dr. Todd R. Wright Imagine this scene: Jesus walks into the synagogue at Capernaum and begins to teach. What would that have looked like? I heard a professor at PTS distinguish synagogues from the Temple this way: The Temple was a singular place, a holy place, the place for Israel to worship and offer sacrifices to God – in short, a place to see and to do. Synagogues were different: they could pop up anywhere (even a fishing village on the shore of Galilee); they were places to gather, study, and pray – in short, places to hear and learn. So the people gathering that day (this was pre-COVID!) expected to see their neighbors, to pray, to listen to scripture read and reflected on; they expected to hear and learn, not see and do. According to Mark, that’s how things started – Jesus was welcomed and began to teach. But his teaching crackled with authority. The women who had been whispering in the back, hushed. The man leaning against the side wall, stood up straight. Those nearly dozing after a long week in the fields, were awake and straining to hear. The children, who were playing in the dust, were suddenly quiet. They had never heard anyone like this. Most teachers quoted other scholars, obsessed with minutia. Jesus acted like he knew God personally, as if the words of scripture were his own words, as if he had the authority to explain and expand on the holy. And while he was speaking, one of the people gathered there, a man with an unclean spirit, cried out! Can you picture that?
Maybe it would help if you pictured the scene playing out in our sanctuary. Remember how it used to be: We’ve gathered. The choir has processed; Carolyn is at the organ. She’s played a duet with Sharon on the piano. The sunlight is streaming through the stained glass, spilling color into the space. Somewhere an ambulance rushes toward the hospital and across the alley the car wash roars and sprays. We’ve sung and prayed. Scripture has been read and a guest preacher is sharing a few thoughts. And then someone interrupts. How do you picture that moment? How do you picture that person? Is the clamor coming from the back? Is it someone who has wandered in off the street, a stranger? Maybe someone who is in ragged clothes and smells a bit like Wild Turkey? Or is it one of the choir members, shouting from the back row of seats, and getting so worked up they are striding toward the pulpit, knocking over chairs on their way? Or is it someone sitting in the pews, about half way back, someone who has been coming for years? You’ve heard them tell jokes during the coffee hour? You’ve never seen like this! Or is it somebody’s grown son? Always a little troubled, you heard they got kicked out of college – the rumor was poor grades and maybe drugs. Now they’re having a fit in the center aisle! And what about the people around them? Are the ushers trying to politely escort the stranger out … or maybe calling 911? Are the other choir members trying to slow him down, grasping at his robe? Is his wife in tears, begging him to not make a scene? Are his parents hissing at him to sit down and be quiet?
We are not used to such confrontations in worship. Trust me, neither were the folks in Capernaum! (Remember, synagogues were a place to hear and learn, not see and do.) Mark tells us that Jesus does not shy away from the confrontation. In fact, Mark seems to think it is important to show us Jesus starting his ministry this way. Roger Gench compares Mark to the other gospels: “In the Gospel of Matthew, which presents Jesus as a definitive teacher, the public ministry begins with the Sermon on the Mount, a compendium of Jesus’ teaching. Luke’s compassionate Jesus inaugurates his ministry with a programmatic statement [on] his ministry as one that will bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed. The public ministry of John’s Jesus, who came that we might have life abundantly, emerges at a wedding in Cana where he produces vast quantities of choice wine. So, note well: in Mark, Jesus’ ministry begins with confrontation, so we should anticipate a lot of yelling and screaming and conflict during lectionary year B.” That’s a bit unnerving for people who tend to be calm and quiet, but it may be just what is necessary for a year that began with a confrontation at the Capital. In Jesus’ day, as in ours, there will be some who scream, who question, who clash. We do not use the word demon much anymore, but the truth is evident: they are possessed by something so strong that they feel compelled to speak at the top of their lungs, to act without restraint, to forget their manners (or, seemingly, all good sense). We have seen it! This past year it has felt like we were present in that synagogue in Capernaum, minding out own business in a space that had felt like home when, suddenly, we had ringside seats for a frightening confrontation. In fact, it has been worse than that, because there have been multiple confrontations – as if a whole host of demons were on the loose! Think of the arguments you have seen … over our COVID response or race or politics. What Mark calls demons, we might call forces opposed to God’s will. As one person put it … “Rather than bless, they curse; rather than build up, they tear down; rather than promote love, they sow hate; rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart.” And what’s worse, the ones doing the shouting cannot be dismissed as crazy strangers. They were our neighbors, our relatives, our friends. They were … us!
So notice how Jesus responds. On the surface it looks like he sizzles with severe authority. When the demon screeches, “Why are you messing with us?” Jesus snaps back, “Quiet! Get out of him, immediately!” But the situation requires more than boldness and authority; it requires compassion. Who knows how long this man has been tormented? Who knows how long he has been wrestling with forces beyond his control? Who knows whether his pain has been hidden or just ignored? But on this day, Jesus sees his need and heals him … right there in the midst of the synagogue; even though people think that is only a place for hearing about God’s mighty deeds, not seeing them done! It makes me wonder, what might God do in our midst to free us from the forces that are tearing us apart, and to make us whole again? Amen
 Derek Davenport of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary  from his “Looking into the Lectionary” post on the text for the Presbyterian Outlook  from “Possessed by Paul S. Burge for workingpreacher.com, 1/22/12