1/28/2018 Fourth Sunday after Epiphany The text is Mark 1:21-28.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Things never go the way you expect them to. That’s both the joy and frustration in life. I’m finding as I get older that I don’t mind, though. It’s the surprises that tickle me the most, the things you don’t see coming.” This quote from Michael Stuhlbarg has both an element of truth about it and an element that is way off base. For not all surprises tickle our fancy. For, just when you think everything is going along fine, surprise! The world steps in and turns your world upside down.
Those of you who have watched a loved one battle with illness know this well. Those of you who have lost someone young to death, know what I mean. When someone as old as Doris Smith dies at 100, it is not surprising, but when a baby is stillborn or teenager dies in a car accident or cancer robs the life of someone who has not reached retirement age, we are shocked. This isn’t what should happen. It isn’t what we expect to have happen. These surprises are not a good thing and they can blindside us in unhelpful ways. They can change our lives. But then, to quote Michael Stuhlbarg, “Things never go the way you expect them to.”
Things did not go the way the people of Capernaum expected them to go one Sabbath day when Jesus was in town. Now, it is no surprise that Jesus is preaching in the synagogue on that day. It is common practice for visiting rabbis to speak and to preach as part of the worship service. And on this day, Jesus is in town. Of course, what he tells them is intriguing for unlike the scribes who normally do the preaching, Jesus doesn’t use jaded language that hides the true meaning of God’s Word. Jesus teaches God’s Word in its truth and purity, and he speaks with such power and authority that everyone is astounded.
That is no surprise to us for we know that God’s word can be make the comfortable uncomfortable, while comforting the afflicted. God’s word can be offensive, irritating and even painful to those who trust in their own righteousness, while, at the same time, it can be healing and life-giving to those who trust in the God who willingly dies for our salvation. So, it’s no surprise that those gathered are astounded. But then, out of blue – surprise! A man possessed by an unclean spirit disrupts the idyllic scene and begins to 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.”
The gasps of those present are almost audible to my ears. No one expects something like this to happen, especially in a holy place. No one in the congregation is prepared. But just when you think everything is going along fine – whammo! The world steps in and turns things upside down.
Mark doesn’t tell us much about how people react when the man begins screaming at the top of his lungs. I know how people react to the disruption caused by a child having a temper tantrum in this space and it isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always helpful and it is seldom compassionate. But, if such a disruption came not from a child, but from a grown man, I am certain that the surprise would have most us frozen with fear or dialing 911 on our cell phones.
It’s unnerving to think of an unclean spirit presenting itself in a worship service, even though the devil often saves his greatest mischief for inside the church, where we feel closest to God. The mischief is meant to shake our faith and draw us away from God when we need God the most. And so it is on that day in the synagogue. The intrusion into that holy space is a diabolical effort to paint Jesus as the destroyer of humanity instead of the savior of the world.
Jesus reaction to this disruption is surprising. He isn’t angry at the man. He doesn’t ask people to remove him from their midst. He reacts to the intrusion and the effort to discredit him with compassion. He loves the man. He hates the unclean spirit. So, he demands that the spirit be silent and commands the unclean spirit to leave the man. With the power and mercy of God, Jesus reaches out to heal, not to condemn. Jesus uses no formula or incantation. He simply speaks the word and the unclean spirit cries out and then comes out. And all who bear witness are amazed.
Now, to be amazed means to “wonder with great admiration.” And, it incorporates the idea of being alarmed, panicked or rendered motionless – the same way most of us react to being taken by surprise. And what do you do when you are taken by surprise? You try to make sense of it all. So, those present begin to question each other, wondering who this Jesus could be. He is like no other rabbi. His preaching has power. His message has might behind it. People are being set free from sin and unclean spirits, right in front of their eyes!
All this is surprising to a people who come to worship expecting nothing new. All this is surprising to a people expecting the same old stuff to take place. All this is surprising to a people, like us, who think they have everything figured out. You know what I mean. You live a good life. You follow the basic teachings of your faith. You go home and do your own thing. And you forget that things never go the way you expect them to until life takes a surprising turn.
When the people of Capernaum are taken by surprise that day in the synagogue, their lives are changed. Their lives are changed as they witness first-hand the power of Jesus and they can’t contain their excitement. They begin to tell others about his power! And, immediately his fame spreads abroad throughout all the region of Galilee.
My friends, we know that not all surprises are good. Some can blindside us in unhelpful ways. But know that if Jesus can quiet and cast out an unclean spirit, he can also calm you and free you to live in a world where things do not work out as planned. Look to him in your time of trouble and he will be there. Look to him for guidance and hope and he will be there. Look to him and let him surprise you with God’s grace. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.