Today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark presents us with an almost unbelievable scenario, a situation so unusual, so improbable that it twists us our credulity, as readers, into the realms of the absurd and the impossible.
The story begins simply enough. In the verses preceding this text, things had been quite extraordinary and unusual. Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and the heavens had been opened and the voice of God had been heard; then Jesus had gone out into the wilderness where he had been tempted by the devil for forty days; then he had come back and begun his public ministry with his proclamation that the kingdom of God had come near, followed shortly by the calling of the first disciples to come and follow him. And they had dropped everything in order to respond to him.
Extraordinary events, all.
But today’s reading begins with a far more regular, ordinary, mundane event in Jesus’ life. It was a Sabbath day, and Jesus went to the synagogue. In other parts of the Gospels, it is stated that this was Jesus’ regular practice – there was nothing particularly unusual about it.
Earlier in the chapter, the author of the Gospel of Mark had informed us, as readers, that Jesus was from Nazareth, so the fact that the narrative takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum is included with the specific intention of signalling that he was no longer completely on his own home turf. He was, at some level, an outsider, a visitor. As the Gospel stories unfolded, Capernaum would subsequently become an important location for Jesus’ teachings and miracles, at least while he remained in the area around Galilee; but at this point in the Gospel story, he was not yet very well known in that village, or in the synagogue.
And yet, he had been permitted, or even invited, to come and teach those who had gathered, in that worshipping community, on that Sabbath day, and the reception that he received was respectful, encouraging and positive. In fact, verse 22 states that those who had gathered were “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
To put it another way, the people in the synagogue, that day, seemed to notice that he knew what he was talking about. And they were impressed.
Well, most of them were.
Our attention is then shifted, for a moment, away from the warm reception that Jesus was receiving towards the reaction of a decidedly less enthusiastic congregant. “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.”
The text offers very little information about the man who suddenly appears in the story. We do not know his name, his age, his background, his struggles, his problems, his reasons for being in the synagogue. Perhaps he, too, was a visitor that day; or perhaps he was a regular participant in the life of that community; perhaps he was going through a rough time in his life; or perhaps his participation in the worshipping life of the synagogue was simply an old habit, a regular part of his weekly activities.
We simply do not know.
But what we do know is that the presence of Jesus made him distinctly and decidedly uncomfortable. Or, perhaps more accurately, there was a spirit within the man that was made to feel profoundly uncomfortable – perhaps even threatened – by the appearance, by the teachings, by the presence of Jesus.
“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.”
And this is where we suddenly realize that the story has taken an unbelievable, unusual, improbable turn, a twist that sends us, as readers, into the realms of the absurd and impossible.
Consider what the story is suggesting – that someone could actually attend a worship service, with the gathered community of faith, with something less than a completely perfect, holy spirit within them.
We all know, of course, that such a thing is impossible. Like the people of that ancient synagogue, on that Sabbath morning, we all know that our own spiritual lives, and the spiritual lives of those with whom we worship, are always in perfect and pristine order as we make our way to church on any given Sunday – just the same type of perfect, pristine spirits that could be found in the people of Jesus’ time as they made their way to the synagogue on any given Sabbath.
We know, after all, that our spirits are always perfect by the time that we get to church. There is never any lingering pride or anger within us; no resentments or bitterness; no trace amounts of disappointment or despair; no lust or greed could ever be found within us. We trust God implicitly in every part of our lives; we have allowed every part of our existence to be subjected to the Lordship and control of Jesus himself. Our faith is strong; our hope is secure; our love is without fault. No one could ever dare to suggest that our own lives, our own minds, our own spirits, our own souls are anything less than completely Christ-like, or that anything less than a state of sublime spiritual serenity and grace infuses us as we gather to worship God.
Or, maybe not.
Maybe, just maybe, there are emotions, thoughts, feelings, spirits within each and every one of us that would be made to feel slightly awkward, and perhaps even completely uncomfortable, if Jesus himself showed up here today.
Maybe, just maybe, there would be parts of each and every one of us which would cry 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.” And, by extension, we know who we are…the less than completely holy people who have gathered to worship God.
Jesus’ response to the man is quite intriguing. He does not judge him, or interact with him very much at all. There is no long conversation or exchange about whether the man has faith, or whether he wants to be healed, or what he has to do in order to overcome the more difficult spiritual elements within him that were challenged by the presence of Christ.
None of that.
Rather, Jesus simply tells the spirit within him to be silent and come out.
The text does not need to be read in a way that requires us to judge the man in the synagogue with the unclean spirit as some demonically possessed individual whose very soul was in jeopardy. Rather, the text invites us to stand alongside the man, to realize that our spiritual lives are not necessarily any more perfect or cleaner or holier than his was, that day, in the synagogue.
And when we realize that the text invites us to stand alongside that man, we are — finally — standing in the place where we can also hear the words that Jesus spoke to him.
Or, more accurately, we are standing in the place where we can also hear the words that Jesus spoke to the spirits that were within him and that were challenged and uncomfortable in the presence of Christ.
“Be silent, and come out of him.”
What would those words mean, in our ears, even now?
Be silent, pride and envy, and come out.
Be silent, lust and greed, and come out.
Be silent, anger and resentment, and come out.
Be silent, bitterness and fear, and come out.
Be silent, and come out.
Because, as the life of Jesus would reveal, he wanted to fill the man’s spirit with a lot of other things.
Be silent, and come out. Because I want to fill your spirit with love, with joy, with peace, with patience, with kindness, with generosity, with faithfulness, with gentleness, with self-control.
Speaking personally, for a moment, I am not alone in saying that I want my life to be filled with those spiritual qualities. Who among us does not want our lives to be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control?
And the only way to allow those qualities, those gifts, those fruits of the Spirit to be born in us, to grow in us, to flourish in us, is if we actually have the honesty to realize that we need to stand right alongside that man with the unclean spirit, in the synagogue; and we need to hear Jesus say, to anything that is less-than-holy in us, be silent and come out.
And it can happen. And it will happen.
And why? Because what the other people in the synagogue came to realize that day was that the One who was standing among them actually had the power, and the authority to speak into the very depths of the human spirit; and who had the power, and the authority, to allow God’s transforming power to do its work — even on that unsuspecting person with a less-than-perfect spirit who came to the synagogue that day.
Just as He can, today – even to unsuspecting people with less-than-perfect spirits who came to church, today.
People like you and me.
Be silent, and come out, said Jesus.
Because I want to place my Spirit in you. And I want my love, my joy, my peace, my patience, my kindness, my generosity, my faithfulness, my gentleness, my self-control to be born in you and grow in you.
So be silent, unclean spirits, and come out.
Because I want my spirit to live in you.
Thanks be to God.