January 28, 2018/Mark 1:21-28
Things happen fast in the Gospel of Mark. Here we are, still in the first chapter of this gospel, and Jesus already is on the move. Coming to Capernaum, he enters the synagogue and teaches. Not so unusual, for a Jewish man new to town to teach a lesson in the synagogue. But usually, visiting men were invited to teach – kind of like us inviting a guest minister to step into the pulpit. Mark doesn’t say anything about Jesus’ receiving an invitation. He simply entered the synagogue and taught.
“In our churches it’s unlikely that a stranger would be allowed to simply walk into the church, enter the pulpit, and begin teaching. There is a lot of bad theology out there. So, churches are right to be careful about who gets to teach and preach.” Had Jesus walked into the local Presbyterian church – this church, say – we probably would have reacted just like those folk in the synagogue that day. And they were astonished.
Astonished – flabbergasted, dumbfounded, dazed. They don’t know what to think of his teaching, his words spoken with such authority. Not the kind of teaching, of interpreting of the sacred scriptures they are accustomed to. No, Jesus taught with authority. They don’t know what to think. They are dazed.
Then another man enters the synagogue. Our translation says he was a man with an unclean spirit. A more literal translation of the Greek would be, a man in an unclean spirit. This demonic spirit had so overtaken him, held such total control over him, that it was as if the man himself no longer existed.
This unclean spirit takes one look at Jesus and immediately knows that he is in the presence of the Holy One of God. “I know who you are,” he cries out. I know who you are.
The people, hearing Jesus, are astonished. They are dumbfounded. They hardly know what to think about this man. We hear no comment from the disciples who have accompanied Jesus into the synagogue. Evidently they, too, are overwhelmed and stunned into silence by Jesus’ teaching. But this unclean spirit, this demon, immediately recognizes Jesus – calls him by name, tries to regain some sense of control over the situation by asking what Jesus of Nazareth might have in common with demons, ultimately confesses that Jesus is the Holy One of God. “The clean folks don’t know who Jesus is, but the unclean man does.”
Jesus’ response is interesting. Yes, he casts the demon out of the man. Yes, he frees this man to be human once again. But first he admonishes the demon – “Be silent!” He rebukes the demon harshly – we would get the idea better if the text read: “Shut up!” Keep your trap closed. Don’t say another word.
Once again, Mark tells us, the people hardly knew what to think. Not only does this man teach with authority, he commands unclean spirits and they obey him. He certainly has authority – he demonstrates that he has power over the evil in the world. Quickly, without fanfare, he exorcises the demon.
This story makes sense to us, on one level. We can understand Jesus’ teaching with authority. We can even understand the idea of Jesus’ casting out demons. But what about that one short sentence: “Be silent!” Why does Jesus shut down this affirmation of his real identity? Why would he not want it shouted from the watchtowers, proclaimed in the streets, declared with conviction for all to hear?
“Be silent!” he commands. “Shut up!” Not another word.
Maybe it was just too soon. Maybe Jesus wanted the people around him, including his own disciples, to grow in their understanding of who he was without help from demons. Maybe he felt people could not possibly grasp, at this early point in his ministry, that he was indeed the Son of God.
Just as we cannot know the mind of God, we cannot know the mind of Christ. We cannot know what he was thinking at that moment, as he silenced the unclean spirit and cast it out of the man it held captive. But I wonder, how might I have reacted, at that moment? Would I have heard the words of the demon, would I have been astonished and amazed not only by Jesus’ teaching and his control over this unclean spirit, but also at the thought that he might just be the one for whom I had been waiting? Would the brokenness in me have blossomed under the nurturing gaze of the Holy One? Or would I have cried out in dismay? Would I have tried to push away the very One who might heal my brokenness, turned my back on him in shame? Or would I, along with the crowd, wonder who this is, this man who teaches with authority, who speaks with power that even demons obey?
The comfort offered in this story is this: whether we recognize Jesus as the Holy One or think him a charlatan or ignore him or even run away from him, he does not turn his back on us. He does not leave us, walk away from us, no matter how broken we may be, no matter what craziness holds us in thrall. Just as Jesus moved toward this man held captive by an unclean spirit, “God does not stay away from [us] because of [our] challenges or shortcomings but rather draws nearest to us precisely in these moments.”
That day in the synagogue, the only one who recognized who Jesus was, was an unclean spirit. But Jesus did not turn his back on the crowds or the disciples who gaped at him in astonishment. He moved into their midst. He continued to teach them, to heal them, to rid them of their demons – to love them. Even when we don’t recognize him, even when we do not know who this is, Jesus comes into our midst. He comes among us in bread and wine. He shows up in loving prayers offered on our behalf when we cannot pray ourselves. He appears in the reading and hearing of God’s Word.
“Each of us can be driven crazy by a sense of being possessed by something not quite right. And it’s why each of us comes to Jesus, even if we are not aware of it. We are all the crazies. We are all here. We, too, need that first ministry of Jesus. We are attracted to Jesus because we recognize something in him that overwhelms us, something that will cleanse us with truth, with deep and loving truth.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
 Robert Cornwall, “True Authority,” Ponderings on a Faith Journey, 1/27/15
 David Lose, First Things First, 1/26/15