Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 31, 2021
Mark 1:21-28 Commentary
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to the synagogue.
Some of them went sleepily, others went with a great weariness following a busy week of work. Still others trekked over in a rather irritable mood for who knows why–maybe it had been no more than that they were out of cream cheese back at the house and the bagel at breakfast that morning just wasn’t as good without it. In any event, something set them off and so they weren’t in the best of moods as they approached synagogue. Still others arrived having bickered with their kids on the way over. “We’re going to God’s house, for pity sake! Shape up, you kids!”
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
From various paths, emerging from a variety of experiences in the week gone by, awash in a welter of differing emotions and mental states, they came. They came because, among other things, it was frankly their pious habit to do so. For as long as many of them could remember they had gone to synagogue on Sabbath morning. It was the thing to do. It was what was expected of you. You went to the synagogue, moved your way through the fairly staid and predictable liturgy, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a hallel doxology, and then you went home for the feast day meal at noon.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
But on that particular morning, Jesus of Nazareth was there, and his presence would create a worship service no one would ever forget. This Jesus stood up as some kind of guest pastor that day. Few, if any, had ever heard of him before and once they looked into the bulletin and saw he was from Nazareth originally, not a few perhaps groaned inwardly. But then he started to teach and although he was no John the Baptist full of theatrics and arm-waving fire-and-brimstone rhetoric (“Why can’t HE be our guest pastor some week!?”), there was something striking in the very way this Jesus spoke.
It wasn’t just that his ideas and vocabulary were fresh and innovative and it wasn’t simply that he was a better orator than they at first guessed. Rather, there was something in the very presence of the man that made you want to sit up straighter. Even the teenagers, who had worked so hard at perfecting a bored-stiff look on their faces, couldn’t help perking up, slouching a bit less and listening more closely than they’d care to admit.
This man had authority. He had a moral gravity, a weightiness and substance to him that people found difficult to explain. Somehow they sensed that this man and the message about God’s kingdom he was talking about were one and the same thing. This man’s impact had nothing to do with any seminary diplomas he had hanging on his wall. It did not stem from his once having been ordained and it wasn’t just because he had clearly done his homework, had practiced his sermon, and so was able to preach without distracting stutters. No, this man was the very message he was proclaiming. They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but this man packed a wallop just by virtue of being there at all.
A few folks were starting to whisper their amazement even as others scrawled a furtive “Wow!” on the bulletin and then showed it to the person next to them. They were just starting to realize that something extraordinary was happening when suddenly and from the back pew a shriek went up.
People’s blood ran cold.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT WITH US, Jesus of Nazareth?! Have you come to wipe us out already!? I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”
Well, this didn’t happen every week in worship, either!
“Be quiet!” Jesus commanded. And everyone there was glad he said it because it was on the tip of their tongues, too. You can’t tolerate that kind of thing in church. The only thing for such an interruption is to tell the person to hush and then hope the ushers get over there fast to bring this sadly crazed person to the narthex. Everyone in the synagogue was thinking “Be quiet!” and so they were glad Jesus said it out loud on their mutual behalf.
But then Jesus said something that no one else had had in mind: “Come out of him!” And no sooner were those words out of Jesus’ mouth and the man convulsed! He shook like a leaf in a violent wind before shrieking one last time and then collapsing into a heap. But then the hapless fellow was better. The fire had gone out of his eyes and a look of calm came over him.
At that precise moment, however, he was the only calm-looking one in the whole place! Everyone else was scraping their jaws off the floor! This just didn’t happen every week at church! By that late in the service on a typical Sabbath people’s thoughts usually began to drift to other vital things, like will they get home on-time enough to keep the pot roast from drying out and is little Martin is behaving himself in worship center. But not today! No one’s mind wandered, no one turned his thoughts to the mundane or the typical. They had encountered Jesus, and he was all they could talk about for a long time to come.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to the Synagogue.
But on that particular day, by the time they returned home from the Synagogue, the people had the overwhelming sense they had been in the very presence of God in a way that was anything but typical. But then, what they didn’t know, was that the very Son of God would be present that day, too.
The thing is, however, that we Christians go to church each week and we do know that the Son of God will be present via the Holy Spirit. But do we expect that this living presence of Almighty God will shake us up, make us exclaim over the power in our midst? We shouldn’t need to see the kind of razzle-dazzle the people of Capernaum saw that day nevertheless to know that we have encountered something wonderful. Maybe we should even expect it. Because when you gather for worship and Jesus is truly there, anything can happen but something life-giving will happen.
We should expect no less.
As we’ve noted before in other sermon commentary postings on Mark, this is one gospel where everything happens IMMEDIATELY as Mark peppers the early texts of this gospel with the Greek word euthus. In fact, the first of 3 uses of that word in this text from Mark 1:21-28 is rather intriguing. If we translated verse 21 literally, it would say, “And coming into Capernaum, immediately the Sabbath arrived and he taught in the synagogue.” Mark is no doubt signaling a mere temporal linkage here but it almost sounds as though when Jesus shows up, the Sabbath follows him immediately as does the teaching that comes as a result. Similarly in verse 23 no sooner had Jesus immediately arrived to teach on the Sabbath and immediately this spirit-possessed man crops up. Later in verse 28 after Jesus had both taught the people and driven out the demon IMMEDIATELY his fame spread throughout the region. This triplet of uses of euthus seems to have a sense far more interesting than some temporal sequencing along the lines of “First this happened and then this happened and then this happened . . . “ No, Mark seems to say that it is the very presence of Jesus himself that more or less causes or in some deep sense leads to these other things happening. It all has a kind of holy inevitability, which is just what you’d expect when the Son of God is near!
A while ago I read a charming anecdote involving Pope John XXIII. One day the pontiff was having an audience with a group of people, one of whom was the mother of several children. At one point the pope said to this woman, “Would you please tell me the names of your children. I realize that anyone in this room could tell me their names, but something very special happens when a mother speaks the names of her own children.”
I suspect we know what the pope meant. And maybe it was something like this that the people sensed about Jesus. Maybe this is what they meant when they said he had an authority others seemed to lack. The teachers of the law were good at teaching about God. They drew off their book learning and seminary training, they employed their various gifts of oratory and enunciation. And good though they were at this, there always seemed to be a bit of a remove between a given scribe and the God he was talking about.
But not so with Jesus. There was an intimacy to his knowledge about God. He spoke as though he had spent a long time personally being with God. Oddly enough, it almost seemed at times like he was speaking as God. Probably no one in Capernaum that day went quite so far as to conclude this was God in the flesh, but when this Jesus fellow talked about God, it was like hearing a mother intone the names of her own children–the love and the personal involvement Jesus had with his subject matter made it clear that this was not coming out of his head so much as his heart.
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