Mark 1:1-15 (NRSV)
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
God with us. This one statement is probably one of the most difficult concepts to imagine. Most of us are perfectly fine with the concept of a supreme being far off in the heavens. Most if not all of us can perfectly accept the stance of a creator who hung the stars with his fingers and set the heavenly bodies in motion. We are ok with the statement of Christ the king, this one might get us a bit because our culture does not like the idea of a king. We like to have our own say and the ability to vote. The concept of a no g means that there is a personality out there whose word is law. A personality who may not even care what our opinion is, which does not sound very democratic. But the idea that this divine being would live with and among us is almost unimaginable.
There are a couple of important aspects to the divine king coming to live among mankind. The first is that the subjects would have an opportunity to gain understanding directly from the source, instead of the information filtering through various agents. Within each level the official makes some interpretation to what the intent of the law is. And to traverse between the levels takes time. For some things this process can be beneficial; for example, if there were not bureaucratic levels to traverse for oil pipelines or other potential environmental threats companies could potentially cause unnecessary damage that could have been prevented. At other times it can hinder the course of justice; the greatest examples of this are people who have been wrongfully incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, who serve time in prison while the court appeal processes are navigated. To give humanity direct access to the divine king would mean that the divine monarch would be able to teach us themselves, they would be able to show us by what intention their decrees were given. And our cries for justice or mercy would be directly heard, instead of having to wait for our requests to be delivered by the various levels of the royal court.
The second aspect of the incarnation of a divine king is that the king has intimate knowledge of the lives and lifestyles of their subjects. Nearly every day I see some statement being made about the disconnection that the ruling class has with the common people. Nearly every day I see statements being made from people on subjects that they have little or no expertise in expressing some sort of change that might make sense in theory yet in practice rarely works according to plan. For example, several times through the holiday seasons I had managers make lists of tasks to accomplish during the day. The first task would always be to stock the shelves with the products received that day. The problem would come when the estimated or allotted time necessary to accomplish these tasks according to the company standards exceeded the scheduled labor force available that day. It was actually not uncommon to have the necessary time to double the number of laborers, leaving the first task on the list unfinished and management wondering why the second and third task were left unaccomplished. This disconnected feeling often leads to diminished moral, unless the manager is seen sharing the load.
I know those are simplistic examples but hopefully it allows us to begin to see the amazing reality of the incarnation. Jesus being fully God and fully human connects the divine king to common humanity. Jesus through his incarnation steps out of the royal palace and moves into our neighborhood. He eats the meals of a common family. He labored on tasks like everyone else. Jesus was divine yet human.
Today we meet Jesus once again on the banks of the Jordan with his cousin John, who we know as the Baptist. When we first read this passage our mind almost instantly focuses on the dove that has descended from the opened heavens to rest on Jesus. We can almost hear the voice speaking with our ears. This image is powerful. Right away we see Jesus as the divine king. But the image is almost too powerful, it almost causes us to only see the divine aspect to Jesus’s personality. If we are not careful we can disconnect with the teachings of Jesus because we see the monarch the ruler and judge not the man. We might begin to think that the decrees of Jesus are all good on paper, and they make good discussion points but cannot possibly be put into practice. And suddenly we lose God with us and again see God over there in the high heaven as detached from human reality as a royal family is detached from the reality of life in the slums of a city. Jesus becomes God with them instead of God with us.
It is no wonder why in the history of the church humanity has sought other advocates for our plights. Christ is king, but I am funeral director how can the king know what I am going through. So, we find someone that was close to God and similar to us so we ask Saint Joseph of Arimathea to talk to Jesus for us. Or maybe you are a teacher so we ask Saint Thomas Aquinas to speak on our behalf. Maybe I have fallen into sin, and was caught stealing and feel I cannot approach a righteous king so I instead call on Saint Nicholas of Myra the patron saint of repentant thieves. Christ is king, He is over there and I am here. He is far away and I am struggling. But we know that Christ is our advocate we know that those saints of old are merely human as we are, but why then do we often sit in our struggles, why do we watch our friends struggle trying to become good enough on their own?
Do we really believe that God is with us? This is where the temptation of Jesus becomes so powerful. Jesus was fully divine yet He faced temptation. Jesus was the cocreator of the entire universe yet while he walked among humankind he had struggles. Three of the four gospels mention the trials that Jesus faced. Some of those accounts are very detailed while Mark describes it in one paragraph, in two verses. Over the years I have found a great deal of comfort as I have contemplated the temptations of Jesus. Nearly every time I come across it in my reading, I find myself sitting with it for a while. I know that sounds weird, even a bit unrighteous but I like knowing that Jesus struggled. To be honest I tend to bypass these two verses in Mark, I usually get to this point and I either move along to the next verses rapidly, or I turn to one of the other gospels and sit with them before moving forward. This week I stayed with Mark. I stayed because Mark mentioned Jesus’s struggle and he did so in his own unique way. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
The other two gospels that mention Jesus’s temptations go into detail of what Satan tempted Jesus with, yet Mark only says that he was tempted by Satan. Mark is also the only account that speaks of wild beasts. That is what caught my attention this week. Why would Mark explain this time as he was with the wild beasts? While I looked up this word I found that most often referred to undomesticated animals, but as I continued to read about it this same word I found it to be more interesting. Although it could be used to refer to undomesticated animals it mainly described a predator. So, in the wilds of ancient Israel these wild beasts would prowl around to attach the sheep. But that was not the only interesting thing I found. The term translated “wild beasts” was also used to describe the enemies of Israel. More specifically the Philistines. But like an infomercial there is even more: Wicked people, monster, and demon. I even found that this is the same word used in The Revelation to describe the anti-Christ. Jesus was out there in the wilderness for forty days facing monsters, enemies of God’s people, predatory animals, and everything that opposed the nature of God. Basically, Jesus was out there in that wilderness facing everything that we face every day of our life.
Immediately after the heavens opened and the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and a voice proclaimed, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That same spirit not only encouraged Jesus to face our demons, that Spirit compelled or drove Jesus out there. This is the very same word for an exorcism as well as Jesus later sending out the disciples. Jesus was compelled to go out to face our demon, to fight our monsters. He went out like David to fight that Philistine giant Goliath. Jesus went out to face head on everything that opposed the ways of God, for us and with us.
I want us to let that sink in for a moment. What is our largest struggle? What is the greatest monster hiding under our bed? What has us so frightened that we are unable to move? That very thing Jesus looked at in the wilderness, he looked it directly in the eye and calmly yet firmly told it to back off. And like the demon in the synagogue, like legion in the man from the region of Decapolis, and every other monster Jesus faced, faces, and will face they back off.
He was with the wild beast and the angel waited on him. Even in the wild wilderness surrounded by the monsters of life Jesus was not alone, and neither are we. We occasionally sing a song by Chris Tomlin called Whom Shall I Fear. In that song we sing:
You hear me when I call, you are my morning song, though darkness fills the night it cannot hide the light: Whom shall I fear?
You crush the enemy, underneath my feet, you are my sword and shield though troubles linger still: Whom shall I fear?
I know who goes before me, I know who stand behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever He is a friend of mine; the God of angel armies is always by my side.
It goes on to say:
Nothing formed against me shall stand, you hold the whole world in your hands, I’m holding on to your promises: you are faithful, you are faithful, you are faithful.
I know who goes before me, I know who stands behind, the God of angel armies is always by my side. The one who reigns forever He is a friend of mine; the God of angel armies is always by my side.
Jesus was compelled to go into that wilderness, he was driven to that place filled with wild beast and he went there to face our demons for us and with us. He goes there before us, he stays by our side as the battle wages one, and he covers our back as we walk through that dark valley to the place of victory. So why do we fear?
We fear because we do not believe that Christ is greater than our struggle. We fear because we are too afraid to let Christ fight for us. We fear because if we let go of our struggle we might be seen as weak or unrighteous, unable to conquer our demons. But why do we continue to hold onto and hold up the vanquished foe? Jesus fought the battle for us in that wilderness and he pushed them back, they began their retreat until the ultimate victory was won when Jesus died on that cross, was buried and rose again from the grave. Goliath fell and so will the monsters that we face. If we face them with the incarnate God with us.
Jesus left that wilderness, coming back into the community and proclaimed, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Do we believe, or do we look at our world in fear? Do we believe, or do we cower in the corner in the shadow of lifeless and powerless enemies? Do we believe that time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near?
As we enter into this time of open worship I encourage us to consider not only the beasts we face but also the season of the year we are in. The season of lent which began on Wednesday is the time of year where we walk with Christ through his struggles, or in actuality where he walks with us through our struggles. We consider the sacrifices he made for us, the main one being the sacrifice he made when he was compelled out of his great love to take on our struggles for us and with us. And during this time many find it encouraging to make sacrifices as well, not out of duty but as a sign of solidarity with Christ and with each other. We each struggle, at times we can see the struggle and at other times that battle we fight is hidden. Do we believe? If so let us repent and believe that Christ has conquered our foe for us and nothing formed against us will stand to keep us from the promise of God, which are forgiveness, mercy, everlasting love, reconciliation, and life without end.
Mark 1:29–39 (NRSV)
Jesus Heals Many at Simon’s House
(Mt. 8:14–17; Lk 4:38–41)
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.
32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
A Preaching Tour in Galilee
(Mt 4:23–25; Lk 4:42–44)
35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.
What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? Over the centuries the church has tried to determine this to the best of their abilities, yet within each generation the question is again asked. And along with each generation that asks the question, those in the previous generation begin to question the faith of the younger generations. It is a vicious cycle but one I hope we can get past.
This is why the gospels are so important. The gospels are the testimony of those first disciples, it is their recollection of what life following Jesus looked like. Each gospel account is just a little different, which shows us the unique perspective of each of the writers. It shows us what that particular writer deemed important, and what convinced them to continue their devotion to follow Jesus. And that is exactly the definition of what a disciple of Christ is, one that follows or one who takes on the lifestyle of Christ.
The life of a Christian is a life of discipline, it is a life of continual practice of the same things to become more perfect with each repetition. The Christian life is something more like an art than a science. We come together and we practice as a group, then we go out into the world and we apply what we have practiced in the wider community. We learn and we apply. We have repeated exercises to highlight certain aspects of devotion so we can review and reapply those skills around those we love. Unfortunately, being a disciple of Christ usually does not have fancy indicators of mastery like the disciplines of various martial arts. I will not be passing out various colored belts to indicate to those around you that you have moved to the next level. But similar to the skills a student learns in those disciplines the life of a Christian has constant review and application. This is why we continue to walk with Jesus through the Gospels, this is why we continue to read the epistles and apply them to the testimony of Christ found in the gospels. This is why we look at the books of the law and the oracles of the prophets through the light of Christ in the gospel, because Christ is the master and perfecter of faith and he is the one through which we obtain life.
Jesus was spending time worshiping with his community at the synagogue in Capernaum, during this time of worship a man with an evil spirit came forward and started to make a scene. Jesus freed the man from this demon and the community was amazed. But this action had a cost. That evil spirit knew who Jesus was. During the exchange the spirit said, “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.” We might now realize what this might have meant at the time but this announcement by the spirit was an attempt to discredit Christ.
Everyone has some sort of idea as to what the purpose of Jesus is. As soon as those words were uttered certain those ideas were set into motion. The scriptures speak a great deal about the promised messiah and what his purpose will be. He will be a king that will restore Israel to a kingdom without an end. He would be a priest to bring Israel back to God. He would be a military leader to conquer all those nations who oppose the nation. He would be…
All these ideas going through the minds of everyone present at the synagogue that day. Everyone had some idea as to who Jesus might be. And Jesus goes home to Simon’s house. There was another prophecy that was on their minds as well, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and he ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and he thirsty ground springs of water the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way…” The evil spirit announced that Jesus was the one, and Simon takes Jesus home and they tell him about Simon’s mother in law.
At this moment the disciples are not fully sure what life with Jesus might be. They have ideas in their mind but those ideas have not been fully developed or disciplined. Simon takes Jesus to his home and he is remembering the various things Jesus has said so far, he is reminded of the things that John the Baptist has said, and he concludes that if Jesus is in fact the son of God, then he should bring him home to see his mother in law.
Much of our faith begins like this. We hear stories of people’s lives being changed and we wonder if maybe Jesus could take away our problems or heal our pains and illnesses. That is basically what the prophecy in Isaiah indicates. The messiah will take everything wrong around you and make it right. This sounds great. But it is not the whole truth.
Simon took Jesus home with him. His mother in law was laying in her bed sick with a fever. I want us to consider the situation here a bit because it is difficult for us to totally grasp what this would look like in our contemporary culture. Simon was a simple fisherman. His living space was not some grand manner house, but most likely a one room apartment. It is very possible that it might be attached to a complex of rooms that the other members of his family also lived, all joined together in a courtyard. In this court yard they would potentially have outdoor cooking facilities that all the rooms shared, but not necessarily because at times where all the rooms met would just be the place the children would be sent to play. But the family would live in one room. Everything they owned would be in one room. All the children and their parents would be in that one single room. The bedding, the various cooking tools, the clothing, the lamps, the fishing tools all packed into this one room. In the evenings they would all lay mats on the floor and sleep together in this one room. In the morning they would pick up the mats and would convert the room into a workspace. If a member of the family was ill, they would remain on their mat and the entire family would have to work and play around them. Simon’s mother in law was ill, the family was cooking and work around her. She was sprawled out in the middle of the floor while various members of the family attended to her needs. Everyone was very aware of the illness, and there was no place to go to get away from her. Jesus came into the house and he saw her laying there on the floor.
We are told that Simon and Andrew informed Jesus of the mother in law’s condition. I often wonder about this. Did they tell him with the hopes that Jesus would heal her? Up to this point Mark only informs us of one miraculous sign, the healing of the man with the unclean spirit. They quite possibly warned Jesus of her condition because of the ideas of illness at that time. Most ancient cultures believe that illness was caused by some transgression. In polytheistic societies they believed they angered the gods in some way and the only cure would be to offer appeasement sacrifices to spare the loved one. The Jewish culture was not as superstitious but even with them they believed that your life and its prosperity or illness was a direct result of God’s pleasure or displeasure with you personally. Could it be that Simon and Andrew were afraid of Jesus, afraid of what he might think of them when there was a member of their family sick laying on the floor? There is a third possibility as well, many illnesses that would render people ceremonially unclean. Especially illness that had any form of bodily discharge, we are told that Simon’s mother in law was ill with a fever, but maybe it was something more, maybe she was ceremonially unclean and for Jesus to enter the house he would then be unclean himself. This is a valid argument because religious leaders at this time were greatly concerned with cleanliness because it reflected their righteousness. They would not associate with people that were unclean. Of course, this was not the intent of the law, but ancient cultures without the knowledge of microorganisms could not understand the concepts of contagious diseases, which is largely what the cleanliness laws of Moses try to prevent. They try to prevent the spread of disease.
We do not know why Simon and Andrew warn Jesus of the mother’s illness, but we do know that Jesus was not concerned with cleanliness or her righteous standing. He went to the woman, he reached out and took her hand, and he lifted her up. As she rose to her feet the fever left her body and she was restored to health. She immediately began to serve the family. Remember she would have been laying in the middle of the room and the entire house would have been devoted to her care, the fact that she began to serve them means that she cleared out her mat and converted the space to accommodate a meal.
I want us to stop there for a moment. And consider what just happened. We do not know why Simon and Andrew warned Jesus of the mother’s condition. We often assume that they told him because they wanted Jesus to provide some form of healing, but there is no indication as of this point in Mark’s account of the story that Jesus had the ability or power to heal the body. But from the testimony of John the Baptist we do know that repentance of sin was a concept many in the area were aware of. We are also aware of the ancient concept that illness was a result of sin. Could it be that what Jesus demonstrated to Simon and the other disciples was that he had power to forgive sin? He had the ability to remove from anyone the root problem of sin?
Jesus spent the remaining day in the company of Simon’s family. And when evening came the entire village came to the house. They waited because it was unlawful to carry a burden on the sabbath day. The moment the sun set, the sabbath was over so the entire town brought all who were ill and demon possessed to Jesus. The entire city had heard or had seen what Jesus did that morning in the synagogue and they heard the testimony of the unclean spirit. They had all heard the preaching of John in the wilderness that there would be another who would come after him, who John would even be unfit to untie the thongs of his sandals. This greater person would not baptize with water for the repentance of sin, but would baptize with the holy Spirit and fire. They came because there were many in their community that were gripped by illness. There were many who would be seen as unrighteous and suffering the wrath of God. They came seeking hope. Hope that maybe Jesus would be the one that could chase away all their problems and restore the nation to its former glory.
The sick were not the only ones to be brought to Simon’s porch, also among them were those possessed by evil spirits. But this time Jesus did not allow the spirits to speak. Instead he commanded them to remain quiet. I wrestled with this verse this week. Why would Jesus command the spirits to be silent? When the spirits were confessing Jesus’ true nature, I would think they were actually promoting the mission of Christ. But this is where discipline comes into play.
If the spirits were all screaming that Jesus was the holy one of God, Jesus’ true purpose might not have been obtained. Instead everyone would be coming not for the change of lifestyle Jesus was teaching but for the spectacle. Everyone would come to Jesus for what they could gain instead of learning what it meant to live life with God and God with us. We still see this today. There are many who seek the miraculous, demanding that God provide healing for their loved ones, demanding that God set their financial distress in order, but where is their faith when God does not cave to their demands? I truly believe that God can do miraculous feats even today, I have seen things that I can only describe as being a miracle. But I do not believe that this is normative. The demand of the miraculous causes us to develop the concept that we are only in God’s presence when things are going well, but where is God when we are sprawled out on the mat unable to move because of fever?
Jesus’ miraculous healings were there to assist in the proclamation of the kingdom, they were not the sign of the presence of the kingdom. Jesus, the very son of God, faced everything that we face. He faced the exact temptations, he faced the family struggles, and the need to work hard to fulfill a request on time. He was fully human and yet fully God. He is God with us. The healings that Jesus provided were tools in the spreading of the message. Because of their concept of blessing and curses they thought that illness was the result of sin, to prove his power over sin Jesus provided the healing of disease to prove the point. As we understand both the nature of sin and illness these miraculous feats seem to decrease in frequency but they do not disappear. Because God will do what is necessary for the expansion of his kingdom here.
After the night of healing and silencing of demons Jesus withdraws from the house and goes to an isolated place. This is probably the most important portion of this passage. Jesus withdrew to a silent place to pray. Within the first chapter of Mark we are shone the complete cycle of Jesus’ holy lifestyle, the very lifestyle we are called to reflect. He withdrew to the isolated, the desert wildernesses to pray. In the first chapter we see this twice. The first occurrence was when Jesus was tempted in the desert and the second is here after he heals many. He then engages with the community and worships with them. And he ministers and serves their various needs. After this he returns to the isolated place to pray. Prayer, worship, service. Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. This leads us back the question I began with, what does it mean to be a Christian? Does it mean we perform miraculous signs? Does it mean we speak the languages of the angels? Does it mean we have a strong moral code? All of those are partially right or could be partially right, but none are perfect. To be a true Christian means we follow Jesus in his life. We take on his lifestyle and are not swayed by the winds of our day.
The first disciples lost track of Jesus that morning, they went out hunting for him. Searching everywhere, but why? They thought they might be in the presence of the Holy one of Israel. They went searching because Jesus had power to control the demons and he could heal the sick and they wanted him to begin to restore the kingdom of Israel the way they thought it should be formed according to their interpretation of scriptures. They wanted to go back to the town to bring more people to be healed to build a greater following and potentially lead the revolution. They sought Jesus and they found him in that isolated place and when they found him they said, “everyone is searching for you.” But Jesus looks at them and says, “Let’s go to the other towns.”
To be a Christian, to be a follower of Christ, or to be his disciple is to take on his life and lifestyle. It is to become a disciplined student following the training and teachings of the Master till we reflect his ways in all that we do. It is a constant return to the beginning and practicing all over again. It is setting aside the desires of our own selfish ambitions and answering the call deep within us to follow him. But what do we find when we do this? We find our true selves. We find the person we were created to be, and as we come closer to God with us in Jesus we also see who God is through those around us. What does it mean to be a Christian today? It is the exact same as it has always been, we meet Christ in the gospel and we follow him in prayer, worship and service to others. As we enter into this time of open worship and communion as Friends let us embrace the lifestyle of Jesus and answer the call to build his kingdom here.
Image by: Father Victor Hoagland
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?