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January 29, 2012
The synagogue in Capernaum. A Sabbath service. In such a setting, we expect people to be gathered in quiet contemplation and respectful attention as they worship and learn.
Mark paints a very different picture. In Mark’s telling, we see a synagogue full of astounded, confused people. An unclean spirit accosting Jesus and convulsing his human host. Loud cries, anxious questions. Chaos. Cacophony.
And in their midst is Jesus – speaking with clarity. Healing with certainty. Teaching with authority.
Can we relate to such a story? Can we imagine ourselves alongside the people of Capernaum in all their amazement? Can we perhaps empathize with the troubled man?
I think we probably can. Some of us may have come into church this morning carrying old doubts and new anxieties. Some of us may feel that chaos and cacophony are constant, if unwelcome, companions. We may have arisen this morning in situations where quiet contemplation and respectful attention are distant, unlikely goals. Some of us may be amazed that we have managed to get here this morning at all as we struggle with one form or many of illness, obligation, distraction or fear.
So many obstacles stand between us and the freedom of whole-hearted, whole-spirited worship. You might be sitting here today preoccupied by pending medical test results. The person next to you in the pew may be dealing with the pain of a family estrangement. I am mortified to remember the many Sunday mornings when getting my four children ready for Sunday School was more battle than blessing and we all finally tumbled out of the car in the church parking lot desperately in need of a calm and healing word. Each of us chooses and strives to be here despite challenges and circumstances which would keep us away. We are not strangers to chaos and cacophony even as we gather in the worshipping community.
And in our midst is Jesus – ready to act for us as he acted for the man in Capernaum.
We, like the people in the synagogue want to know more about this Jesus, to understand more fully who he is and what his healing presence means in our lives.
Our passage today — the first detailed account of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark’s Gospel — presents Jesus as a teacher. In 1st century Israel, the synagogue was the center of learning, and learning was the centerpiece of Sabbath observance. Those who lived and worshiped in Israel learned early in life that one may do no work on the Sabbath, because the Sabbath is holy to the Lord. On this day, the people put aside their own pursuits and interests to devote themselves to hearing the Law and the prophets read and explained.
And so when Jesus frees the man from an unclean spirit on the Sabbath, Mark presents this not as work, but as teaching. A new teaching – with authority. And this healing is the only content of Jesus’ teaching that Mark includes. Nothing of what he might have said about the Law and the Prophets. Only his exchange with and triumph over an unclean spirit. Jesus teaches through a particular, astounding action that illuminates and manifests the Kingdom of God which he has proclaimed. Karl Barth writes that “although [Jesus] did not always heal on the Sabbath, he did so deliberately and gladly because … healing was the specific Word of God that He had come to accomplish” (IV.2, 2. 226).
Jesus heals a man, and the people hail this as a new teaching. They may have come to the synagogue expecting that the morning’s speaker would expound on the Law or explicate a passage of Scripture. Instead, they witness teaching in action, they experience the Gospel as a message of liberation. Jesus restores a bedeviled man to wholeness and thereby “introduces a new understanding of Sabbath priorities [in which] the Sabbath represents more than a day of rest; it is also the promised day of God’s domination”(Wilhelm, p. 25) over those forces which would deny us the fullness of life.
It’s not surprising that the people in the synagogue were amazed. We can speak of miracles, we can believe in miracles, but to be present at a miracle is indeed an amazing experience. Jesus carries healing and wholeness within himself and offers it to those he meets. Because healing and wholeness are so often elusive in our lives, it’s not surprising that the people around Jesus, including his close companions, are consistently amazed, bewildered, astounded. Again and again they ask, What is this? Who can this be?
But the spirits – the spirits – they know who this is. In our story, a man possessed by an unclean spirit comes face to face in the synagogue with the man possessed by the Spirit of God, and there is instant recognition. “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” It’s the same each time Jesus encounters forces which have set themselves in opposition to the Holy. These forces know him; they know that his coming means their end. Their confession of his identity will not protect them from his power.
We live in a time which largely denies the idea of an active spirit realm existing alongside our material world, and we have many perfectly reasoned and perfectly reasonable explanations for why people’s lives go awry. But the deep truth is that whatever vocabulary we use – unclean spirits, addictions, bad habits, sin – there are forces in the world and impulses in our own lives which oppose and fear the holy. And I think those forces and impulses still recognize Jesus, and know that he has indeed come to return them to nothingness. Jesus will free us from their domination. The unclean spirits continue to know and confess Jesus, even while we, faithful disciples that we are, still sometimes find ourselves amazed and bewildered.
And in the midst of our amazement and bewilderment is Jesus – teaching with authority, leading us to wholeness.
As an educator, I am intrigued by this depiction of teaching through action, through connection. I am drawn to the idea that teaching with authority means touching people’s lives in real and healing ways. There are a great many facts and formulas filed in my mental storage cabinet. Yet none of them has impacted my life as fully or as forcefully as the human connections I’ve enjoyed and the blessings I’ve received from teachers who shared more than information.
I’m sure I learned all sorts of useful things in 4th and 5th grade, but what I remember is that my teacher for those 2 years, Mrs. Smith, would stand patiently in the classroom doorway every afternoon while I insisted on telling her a joke before I left for home. She even laughed, although I think they were probably weren’t very funny jokes.
One of my greatest teachers was an interim pastor serving my congregation in Houston. A few members found her immediately unacceptable and began efforts to remove her. She responded to their hostility with love, answered their aggression with prayer. I wanted to be her champion, to fight those who were making her life and work difficult. She, with wisdom and grace, forgave them, and in forgiving them, healed my anger and anxiety as well.
We could all tell similar stories of teachers who have touched our lives with authority born of compassionate relationship.
As a Christian, I am intrigued by this Bible passage which invites us to understand Sabbath not through what is prohibited but through what is possible. Jesus teaches of Sabbath as a time to turn away from serving the world to serve instead the Kingdom of God. Jesus presents the Kingdom in which we can flourish because we are freed from that which binds us. Jesus opens the Kingdom in which acting to bring health and wholeness to another embodies Sabbath observance, the Kingdom where such teaching sanctifies the Sabbath and keeps it holy.
A new teaching with authority through a healing encounter.
Among the crowd gathered in the synagogue in Capernaum is a particular man with a particular need. There is an unclean spirit within him, a spirit which disrupts his life and denies him inclusion in holy worship. Jesus frees this man from his fragmented existence, from the spirit which puts him in opposition to himself. Jesus frees him to engage in whole-hearted, whole-spirited worship. By freeing this one man, Jesus teaches the entire gathered community that the Kingdom of God is the kingdom of healing and salvation.
The people in the synagogue exclaim, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” It is a teaching of wholeness, of inclusion in the worshiping community, of freedom from that which constrains our lives.
Jesus teaches by doing. By curing. By caring. And the authority of his teaching comes not from established religious structures or prestigious theological credentials but from the impact of his teaching on people’s lives. Jesus offers a Sabbath teaching that releases each of us from the fears, shames, sins, demons and distractions that keep us from full Sabbath celebration. Jesus meets us in the synagogue and fits us for full participation in the worship of God and the work of God’s kingdom.
And Jesus calls us to become Sabbath teachers ourselves, reaching out to others in ways that illuminate and embody the Kingdom of God.
We don’t even have to look very far for opportunities. Right here at UPC, we can be Sabbath teachers through using our time to volunteer at Micah 6 or at Up-Lift, offering kindness along with financial or food assistance.
We can be Sabbath teachers through using our talent to share a Bible story with our youngest children in Bridge to Worship, honoring them as full members of our community while inviting them to grow in wisdom.
We can be Sabbath teachers through using our treasure to support the work of Shane and Sarah Webb in South America, where they serve as mission workers; or by contributing funds, clothing or school supplies to Manos de Cristo here in Austin.
There are countless ways to be Sabbath teachers, to share with the world Jesus’ message of healing and wholeness, to touch the world with Jesus’ love and compassion.
The people of Capernaum were amazed and kept asking one another, “What is this?” They answered their own question for they recognized it as “A new teaching – with authority!”
They knew they were witnessing the authority of God within a Sabbath teaching of healing love.
May God bless each of us with a Sabbath teaching to carry into the world.