May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.
I remember attending a conference a few years ago discussing aged care issues; each speaker proposing ways to deal with governments, financing, services and customers. At the breaks, people would gather to reflect on what they had heard, depressed about the current state of aged care and the difficulties in staying viable and attractive to potential customers. The speakers spoke about familiar problems, offering familiar critiques and the same familiar solutions. There was nothing new, but it was comforting to know we all thought the same way.
Towards the end of the conference, there was a new speaker who spoke differently. He offered another perspective on the challenges and offered radical new choices and a genuine pathway forward to achieve change. The conference attendees woke up, they were astonished and persuaded. We felt for the first time there might be different way forward. The questions at the end were excited. I remember how engaged everyone was with the speaker and the ideas.
I felt sorry for the next speaker thinking it would be very hard to speak after such a compelling solution had been proposed for the sector. However, I was completely wrong. The next speaker continued as if nothing different had been said. The attendees sank back with relief into the same old narrative as if there had been no other choice offered. They reverted immediately back to ‘the real world’ with shared looks of relieved certainty as their worldview was reinforced. They absolutely did not want anyone offering them a different story which required them to think and behave differently.
I remembered this experience as I read the story of Jesus starting out in his ministry in Mark’s Gospel, teaching and healing on the sabbath in the synagogue in Capernaum. (1:21-28)
One of the ways we are captured by this world and held hostage to its values and practices is the belief it is impossible to change anything. We live in the real world! Instead, we are encouraged to see Jesus as a good man, a teacher with valuable ideas, making a great contribution, ensuring our culture remains as it always has done, while continuing to privilege the white, patriarchal and wealthy citizens of our country and excluding the poor and marginalised. Jesus is one of the great story tellers who is a helpful moral guide in our busy lives.
We might imagine believing in miracles is really a little childish and how good it is we are able to see the healing stories through our modern, educated eyes and know Jesus was a really good counsellor and mentor as we adjust his story to fit out rational, enlightened circumstances.
The presumed battle between good and evil is a bit anachronistic and embarrassing, as people shuffle in their seats when their priest has the bad taste to call out our devils and idols sitting in disguise among us.
Indeed, the most frightening and dangerous people in the world are those who are absolutely certain of their righteous interpretation of their God’s message; and, because they’re right already, they don’t need to change, its everyone else who does. It sounds like some of those in the Capernaum synagogue.
There are some hints of these varying reactions in Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus starting his ministry. Jesus has gone to the local synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath after calling his disciples together and he began to teach those who were there. Mark tells us:
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority. (Mark 1:22)
We are left in no doubt about the quality of the teaching and his authority because there was a man with an unclean spirit present, who 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. (Mark 1:24)
The man expresses our deep concern which we share with those in the synagogue. Jesus’ teaching takes us to places we don’t want to go including a recognition of who he is. And, in the middle of this text, the synagogue in Capernaum becomes ‘their’ synagogue, as we realise the people from Nazareth are only visitors and not really welcome given they are trouble makers. Then the unfavourable comparison with the scribes by those enjoying the quality of Jesus’ teaching would have been resented by the synagogue’s regular scribes and leaders.
Yet Jesus teaching and healing, core themes in Mark’s Gospel, leave us in no doubt who Jesus is when seen in the miracle of his own life, death and resurrection.
Jesus is directly interested in us personally and in all humanity, loving the people he came to ‘seek out and to save’ (Luke 19:10). God’s care for us is visible and evident in the establishment of God’s kingdom in Jesus Christ, who, as the kingdom himself, is the mind and heart of God in the Gospel stories.
God is at our side, as he was with the man with the unclean spirit, and knowing all suffering is painful, it is completely rejected by God. We know God is on the side of the poor and God’s love is wide enough to mean God is with all who suffer in whatever way the world prescribes. God in Jesus enters into our suffering; in Jesus’ kingdom activities, Jesus expresses an absolute defiance and rejection of all the powers of evil and destruction which enslave and hold humans captive in all their forms. Jesus’ expelling of unclean spirits is his reaction against the forces robbing all life of the fulness which God wants us to experience.
Like people in Jesus’ day, there are those who cry out and resist God’s call to be free, liberated, healed and made whole. Our cries mingle with the rest of the world as we resist and convulse with the battle for our lives and hearts as God calls us by name.
Our love of money and status, and our fear of poverty are real and are reflected in our continued support for the structures and systems of the world which hold them in place.
The recent social, economic and political divisions laid bare around the world in the pandemic are a reminder it is in God we need to trust rather than solely in human solutions.
All Jesus’ healing and teaching are demonstrations of his love and care and embody the free grace he brought to the world. Jesus was ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14) offered freely as Jesus heals us in body, soul and mind. This free grace given in Jesus supports all our efforts as his followers to heal and bring relief to those who suffer around us.
In this story we see and hear the conflict for the kingdom of God in Jesus as we recognise the forces of evil. God is the authority which banishes it away for all times. The unclean spirits recognise Jesus’ power and love and are vanquished. The inbreaking of the kingdom of God is made once for all at the crucifixion. Jesus’ commitment to God is laid bare as he loved us so much he was willing to die for us rather than deny it. Overwhelming violence, terror and death were not powerful enough to bury Jesus.
In the end, Jesus’ identity is revealed and understood not only by his loving acts of healing or his teaching, but also by his death and resurrection.
Amazement at Jesus’ teaching, his command over the powers of evil and the idols we have held fast to in our world today, might have us shuffling in our seats or buying tickets to hear him speak and watch him heal. However, unless we are prepared to be one of Jesus’ followers we will simply remain among the crowd at the synagogue in Capernaum, doing the same thing in response to the same judgements in our community and culture and wondering why we always get the same outcome, just as I did at the aged care conference.
Indeed, we might even be the one with the unclean spirit, recognising Jesus but resisting change because it is all too hard and we’d rather stick with what we know than take the risk.
We can hold fast to our beloved idols because they’re familiar and understood, as we say ‘better the devil you know’; or, we can trust in God and make the change to a new life. Given God’s love and grace freely and abundantly given to us and for all of us for all times, I know which I am choosing.
The Lord be with you.