4 EPIPHANY - B - 18 MARK 1. 21-28
“….and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”
Last week’s gospel introduced us to Jesus’ first sermon and the calling of the local fishermen, Peter and Andrew, James and John to be his disciples. All of which took place in the region of Galilee. In today’s gospel, we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
Capernaum was on the NW shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was situated on the great trade route to Damascus and was a center for customs. Jesus would later call Matthew from his position of collecting taxes from this same customhouse to be one of his disciples. There was also a Roman garrison quartered in the town.
Each time I read this passage or think about it I am reminded of the occasion where I found myself standing on the remains of the mosaic floor where the first century synagogue once stood. It was here, St. Mark says in today’s gospel, that Jesus exercised a demon or unclean spirit from one who heard him teach about God and the coming kingdom.
It is strange that a possessed man would be present within the synagogue precincts. Stranger yet that it always seems to be the enemies of God that recognize Jesus as the Holy One of God while those that should appear to be blinded to his true identity.
Of all the places, I visited in the Holy Land where it was said that Jesus was supposed to have approximately been, the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum, I believe, are the closest I came to being where Jesus had actually once stood. It was an awesome experience.
Jesus’ teaching astonished his listeners that day, but the man with an unclean spirit interrupted his teaching. The unclean spirit speaking through the man identified Jesus as the Holy One of God. Jesus commanded him to be silent and then cast him out.
The very first event of Jesus’ ministry, as Mark presents it, is one that expresses his authority. True it was Jesus’ teaching with authority that had astonished those who were present that day, but it was his authority to cast out the unclean spirit that literally amazed them.
He had come to preach and teach about God and the coming kingdom, according to Mark, but it was his power over the kingdom of Satan, demonstrated in the synagogue at Capernaum, that caused his fame to spread. He cast out the demon and in doing so restored the man to wholeness.
The first miracle, if you will, in Jesus’ pubic ministry signifies that Satan’s power over the world has come to an end. The kingdom of darkness has been shattered by the kingdom of light and with it the dominion of God has broken into human history. Belief in demons was widespread in the time of Jesus. If he could cast out demons, what else could he do?
No wonder, then, as Jesus began to travel about preaching and teaching, the people who were sick, diseased, or possessed flocked to be touched by him, or were brought, and in some cases, even carried by relatives or friends in the hope that they too might be healed and made whole.
This short gospel reading centers on Jesus’ authority. Not as the scribes, in terms of teaching, Mark records, or the prophets of old who taught in the third person, “thus saith the Lord.” Nor as the legal experts of the day who quoted the opinions of eminent Rabbis as a basis of authority as to what might be legally done or what might not. Christ taught in the first person.
He spoke as having authority from God to enunciate and enforce the principles that underlay the law, and to carry them on into a new expression and a more complete correspondence with the will of God in the coming kingdom. Christ’s authority over the kingdom of darkness was guaranteed by the submission of the unclean spirit.
Moreover, it did not take long for the news of what he had said and done in the synagogue at Capernaum to reach the authorities in Jerusalem. How do we see Jesus? How do we recognize him? The demon, as well as the authorities in Jerusalem saw him as a threat. Do we?
For those whose lives had become a total nightmare, however, whose personalities seemed to be taken over by alien powers, Jesus was seen as their savior and redeemer. These folk seemed to have a kind of inside track on recognizing him, knowing who he was and what he had come to do.
He had come to stop the nightmares, to rescue people, both nations and individuals, from the destructive forces that enslaved them. Therefore, whether it was a shrieking demon, a woman with fever, a leper, or whatever disease, sickness, mental, physical, or spiritual people suffered from, Jesus dealt with them all with the same gentle but deeply effective authority.
We all have nightmares. We all become beside ourselves through frustration and anger that can easily change our personalities. We all find ourselves at wits end. We all conclude from time to time that we find ourselves in circumstances that we feel powerless over. When we do, we can not see the light of hope, only darkness and despair.
Is it then that we recognize Jesus as our savior and redeemer? It is only in time of need that we turn to Him and call his name. Is it only when we need rescuing that we recognize him as the one who saves? Jesus came to save us from our nightmares and our feelings of hopelessness and despair. He came to heal us and make us whole. In essence, Jesus came to give us life.
Moreover, He has the authority and the power to do so. It is God’s will that we live the new life to which we have been called; to step from the darkness into the light, and like the man once possessed in the synagogue at Capernaum come to know who Jesus is and why He came. For it is through the merits of His life, death, and resurrection that the way to eternal life has been opened to us.
It is in our acknowledging him as the Holy One of God that we discover that we have been rescued from a life of sin and death. It is when we live a life of faith based on our love of God that we discover our true identity and to whom we ultimately belong.
Today’s gospel reading, as short as it is, is how Mark begins to tell us both about how Jesus became so popular so quickly and of how the course of his public career pointed inexorably to its dramatic conclusion. On the cross, Christ completed the healing work he began that day in the synagogue in Capernaum and the world has never been the same. Thanks be to God. AMEN+