OUR READING for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint Mark. Within this text we find that the gospel described the knowledgeable authority of Jesus…
And they went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
And immediately there was in their synagogue 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!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee. (Mark 1:21-28)
By mid-first century the church of Mark located in Alexandria, Egypt had collected sufficient witness to unfold the ministry of Jesus. Therefore within this first chapter, we find that the text we read carried the early church rapidly through scenes of his baptismal sending, the wilderness challenge, and his calling of the first disciples. We thus find him now centering his initial ministry in Capernaum, located on the northwestern shore of the Galilean Sea. (see also Luke 4:31-37).
You see, after calling his disciples, Jesus gathered with them in the synagogue. By the context here, and the following episode at Peter’s home, we may assume that both the disciples’ family and larger faith community were present in Sabbath worship. In answer to a customary and polite invitation then, Jesus as being a guest and itinerant rabbi, was invited to teach (see also Luke 4:16-31).
All became amazed, however… astounded at what he told them. But his teaching did not sit well with all who were present. Jesus at first did what every rabbinical teacher would do, he read scripture, and explained using scripture. But then, he had gone farther… he taught them with authority! In other words, he commented on what was read out of his own Spirit.
Now this obviously disturbed many, but offended one person in particular. That one person is noted in the reading as having challenged the outsider rabbi’s dialog. That one is thus described in scripture as having a “demon”, an unclean, turbulent or disturbed spirit (ἐν πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ). In other words, the man got really worked up by what Jesus had said.
Knowing this, we can assume that by Jesus’ teaching with authority, the man discerned a dangerous path whereby the synagogue and its people could be placed in peril. Hence the loud challenge, “What have you to do with us?” We wonder how many synagogues of Mark’s day, or churches of our own day would eventually say the same. Do we offer these same words as we are boldly challenged by the Word of God?
We hear that the man experiencing the turbulent fear, therefore… must have surely recognized the authority of Jesus. Thus, when we consider this determination I offer that with the recognition that Jesus was indeed the Son of God… tumult surely wretched the man. Torn to the core of his sinful being, he was revealed as vulnerable before the gaze of Almighty God.. How many of us today have certainly been there?
Therefore we understand that Jesus’ command for the demon to “Be still…” and to come out of him was not just made out of masterful hostility toward the demonic spirit, but was a calming, “Peace be with you!” to the one afflicted. The effect was such that the disturbed man then cried and shook uncontrollably. You see, throughout this gospel the writers point us toward a pattern of forgiveness. The disciples followed without seeing clearly throughout the gospel of Mark, but the demonically-possessed again and again saw rightly. Crying out, "have mercy!", we see them as ourselves. Does it not seem even today that those who are farthest from the Light, more certainly know darkness and fear exposure? And realizing the darkness, are they… or we ourselves… not bid at once to be by the side of our saving Lord so to be healed by him?
We might ask then, “What effect did receiving this story have on the early churches of Mark?” Being written and read in the synagogues, wouldn’t this scene challenge doubters and spur those possessed with unbelief. Could we say that the text challenged those who were so heavily invested in a certain theological and liturgical position that they would cry out when disturbed? Indeed what would happen to any gathered church community when they question amongst themselves and realize the truth of what our Lord has taught? The answer was historically seen amongst the churches and nations that first heard the good news, and is recognized yet today as our various denominations, churches, and peoples receive the Word of God. Receiving the gospel of God proclaimed rightly amongst us today, disturbs, challenges, convicts and frees us. But know this! Through our proclamation of this Truth, anchored as such in Mark’s gospel, our Lord’s fame shall indeed spread far and wide. Thanks be to God.