Mark 1:21–28 (NRSV)
The Man with an Unclean Spirit
21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
God with us. A concept that I hope we do not get tired of. I know I have been stuck on this same topic for the past few weeks, but in my defense, we are in the season of Epiphany which is manifestation of the divine. God with us.
Yesterday the seven areas of our Yearly Meeting met together over webex for a leadership summit. The topic of the discussion was standing at the crossroads. There were over two hundred participants from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado each meeting together and discussing the various crossroads we have found ourselves at. Our first session began with Standing at the Crossroads with our Lord. God with us. Every discussion we had revolved around this central theme that even in our darkest most stressful hours we are not alone when we stand with Jesus.
It is interesting, one might have thought that all of the discussion leaders were conspiring together but the funny and amazing thing is that we did not have the final discussion questions in hand until I was halfway to Emporia. Something tells me that there is a reason I have been stuck with this epiphany topic of God being with us. We need to come to some sort of acceptance or realization that we are not alone, that maybe we truly are standing at some fork in the road needing to discern which path to take with the knowledge and assurance that God is with us. That God is with us and our families, He is with us when we interact with our neighbors and he is commissioning us to walk with him out into the world. He is with us but which path on the fork do we take?
Last week we considered the calling of the first disciples. Jesus walked along the shores of the sea and called out to Simon, Andrew, James, and John to come and follow him. We are told that each of these men immediately stopped what they were doing and followed. The idea of following in this manner is a complete abandonment of their previous lifestyle, and taking on a new one. He calls out to them because the kingdom of heaven is here. God is with us. Today we join this group as they walk into the city of Capernaum, and we get a glimpse at what is important in the lifestyle of Jesus.
I have spoken often about the holy rhythm Jesus shows us: He makes it his custom to worship in the meeting places, he withdraws often to isolated places to pray, and he goes out into the community to serve. We, like those first disciples, are called to the same things. We are called to drop everything and follow him. And today we follow him to the synagogue.
When we read through the various gospels and letters in scripture we are comfronted with the synagogue, but do we really have a firm grasp as to what this place is? All too often we get the idea that the synagogue is almost like a church today. That is only partially correct. The religious system and concept of synagogue emerged during the period of exile. Babylon had entered the land of Israel, demolished the temple and carried many away from their homes to live in the land of captivity. They stood at a crossroad and raised a question, “How can we retain our faith without a temple?”
Do we find ourselves asking a similar question? How can we retain our faith when the youth seemingly turn their backs on the church? How can we retain our faith when? The prophet Jeremiah lived during this transition time. The last good king, Josiah, had just died and the son and the rest of the nation were far from God. They had moved within a generation from earnestly seeking God to total rejection. Jeremiah 6:13–15 (NRSV) says:
For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord.
The nation from the least to the greatest was greedy for unjust gain, even the religious leadership. They look for unjust gain, they deal falsely, they act shamefully, the commit abomination, and they are not ashamed. The entire nation is like this.
Jeremiah 6:16 (NRSV) continues:
Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. But they said, “We will not walk in it.”
The entire nation has turned from God, they are faced now with defeat and Jeremiah encourages them to look and ask. What was done before and where is the good way, the way we can find rest for our souls. They stood there at the crossroad and were asking how do we retain faith even without the central fixture of their faith. We move forward a few centuries and they again find themselves at a crossroad. How can we retain our faith when our land is occupied by the Greeks and the Romans?
Jesus goes to the synagogue to worship with the community. These synagogues are more then just a place to worship. They are schools or centers of education and social life. The young boys would go and learn the basic of the law from the rabbis. The adults would go and listen to various interpretations from the scribes that would help them build greater understanding. And if a student happened to show signs of understanding, the rabbis might call out to them to follow them and would be trained to give interpretation. Jesus goes to worship with them. He goes and he begins to teach them. They sit and listen they are astounded by the way Jesus teaches. It is different than the teachings of all the others that have visited before.
While Jesus was there teaching, someone comes forward and begins to ridicule Jesus. “what have you to do with us?” he says, “have you come to destroy us?” We are told that this is a man possessed of an unclean spirit. This man though is sitting there in the synagogue with the rest of the community. I want us to consider that for a moment, a man with an unclean spirit is right there in that sacred space.
I sat with this passage this week and I thought about what this demon possessed man said to Jesus. What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us? There is a state of fear within those words.
God does not want us to live in a state of fear. Instead he calls us, both men and women, to follow him into a lifestyle that is grounded in hope and love. Yet are we focused on our own destruction. We are standing at a crossroad.
Jesus walked into that sacred space, he began to teach, and it astonished those that heard. They stand at the crossroad do they listen to Jesus or do the oppose out of fear because Jesus is calling them to something just outside their comfort zone. We cannot possibly do that, it might fail, it might destroy everything we worked for.
Stand at the crossroads and look, ask for the ancient paths and where the good way is. Are we listening? The ancient path for us as friends is based on listening. George Fox would often go out in the fields taking his bible and expecting to find a way forward. While he sat in the field he heard the sounds that made his heart leap, he heard that God is with us, our ever-present teacher and guide. When George heard that message he went out, no longer filled with the fear but filled with power.
Two men, one was filled with an unclean spirit of fear the other filled with hope. Yet here we are standing at yet another crossroad wondering what we should do. Jesus is calling us to take on his life and life style. A lifestyle of prayer, worship, and service. A lifestyle where we do not move to service until we are guided by our ever-present teacher and guide to the good way to walk.
Yet still we stand at the crossroad unable to move, why? Could it be because we are listening to the unclean spirits whispering in our ear? The one saying you cannot do that it will destroy you. You cannot do that you do not have enough knowledge. You cannot do that you do not have enough resources. You cannot do that because if you do things will change. Who are we listening too?
Jesus looked at that man, and said “Be still and come out of him.” At the word of Jesus God with us that spirit of fear left. The crowds were astonished about this. He teaches with authority and even the unclean spirits obey his command, but are we listening?
As we enter into this time of open worship I encourage you to consider the crossroad before us, and ask for the good way forward. God might already be leading us there but we are too afraid to listen. But Jeremiah says if we were to walk in the way we are shown by the spirit, we will find rest for our souls. Let us listen to the Spirit of hope, the spirit of love and the spirit of reconciliation. That spirit is God with us. It is God in us, God before us, and if God is for us who can be against us?