I have a ton of trouble with this passage. Trying to pull a sermon out of it absolutely frightens and paralyzes me. And while I would love to pull a sermon out of this passage, and have truly wanted to do so all week long, I have struggled with two things about this passage that have kept me from doing so. On the one hand, there is far too much going on in this passage to cram into just one sermon, and, on the other hand, there is not nearly enough going on in this passage to drag even a very short sermon out of it. And I know exactly how crazy that sounds because I’ve been crazy with it all week, fighting, struggling, thinking and not thinking, and feeling like a wish-washy scribe the whole time. So I don’t have a clue this morning as to whether or not you can appreciate my dilemma, or even if you care to appreciate it, especially if you haven’t got a clue about what it is that I’m babbling on about.
And so for my own sanity, I think I’m going to preach two sermons this morning, one that is very, very short, and the other one, well, I’ll do my best to keep it within reasonable bounds.
So, here goes with the first sermon. It is very early in Jesus’ ministry. He has only just begun. So far, he has collected only four disciples, but the rest will be along before too long. Jesus and his four new disciples have come to the town of Capernaum, which for all intents and purposes will be Jesus’ new home town, or at least the base of his ministerial expeditions, although, as we can see clearly from this passage, Jesus is still known as “Jesus of Nazareth,” even if it is a demon who identifies him in that way.
The Sabbath has come, and Jesus and his four disciples, as will be their practice throughout all of his ministry, have come to the synagogue to attend Sabbath Day services. And in those days ‘most anybody could preach. There was no “D.P.” in the synagogue, (that’s “Designated Preacher”), and so it is quite appropriate for Jesus to be the one to speak. All he needed to do was ask. and so he does, and so he preaches, and everyone is astounded. It is like nothing that they have ever heard before. But before anybody can get over their amazement about what Jesus has said, there is a demonic disruption in the worship service. Someone who has been inhabited by an unclean spirit interrupts the service and challenges Jesus.
And again, everyone is shocked, stunned and amazed, because Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit and restores the man to his sanity. And then, after all of that, after this absolutely stunning worship service, it seems like the only result was that Jesus got really popular, and that his fame spread throughout the whole area, and isn’t that grand, and we knew that Jesus was quite popular already, so Mark didn’t even need to tell us that.
And so that’s sermon number one, and as far as I’m concerned, it is totally inadequate. There’s something shocking going on in this passage, but it ought to be shocking to us as well, and not just to those lovely folks back at the synagogue in Capernaum. And, in addition to the shock and awe, there’s also a sense that some alarm has been raised among the good folk in Capernaum, and perhaps that alarm ought also to be evident among the good folks in Thomaston, too.
And so, here goes with sermon number two. In order to put this wild synagogue experience into proper context, I think we have to go back to verses fourteen and fifteen. Those verses have this to say: “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.”‘ That is shocking and stunning and alarming in and of itself. Jesus is saying that history has been altered, that the world has turned a corner. That from this moment forth, that nothing will be the same, because the kingdom of God has arrived. The time is fulfilled, Jesus says, all of human history has been leading up to this moment, the time is now…repent and believe in the good news. And the good news is that God, the king of the universe, has arrived on this planet, and is in the process of setting up a kingdom that will dwarf and overshadow every other kingdom, human or otherwise, and that the only appropriate response to the good news of the arrival of this kingdom is to repent and to believe. Talk about ultimate authority, this is it in the extreme. Here is, at least on the surface, a relatively unknown young Jewish fellow, appearing along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, announcing, in no uncertain terms, that the world has changed forever. From this time on, nothing will be the same, because indeed, if it is really the kingdom of God that has arrived, then like God, this kingdom is universal, all-present and all powerful. There is no other kingdom, or institution, human or otherwise, in this world that is safe in the presence of this newly arrived kingdom of God. No wonder that the only appropriate response is to repent. Apparently, there is no other option.
OK. So far so good. Jesus has announced the presence of the arrival of a new kingdom on this earth that has radically and permanently altered history, the present, and presumably also the future. With a stunning and earth shattering event such as that, one would expect that it would come with some pretty dramatic change. In our own mindsets, we might expect sirens to go off, blaring into the wind, or fireworks breaking open the night sky. If the coming of God’s kingdom into this world is that radical, then we’d look for something equally radical in terms of change to accompany it.
Mark does tell us in verses 16-20, that there were four guys who changed careers a lot faster than most of us are comfortable with. No fireworks, no sirens, just four guys whose lives were radically altered. We learn in those verses that these four guys left everything and followed Jesus. Part of us thinks that that’s just wrong; that they shouldn’t have responded to Jesus in such a radical way. But that is what happened. They must have repented and believed the good news, in order for their lives to be changed so dramatically.
And so now, I think were pretty well set to head for the synagogue. We’ve had the bold pronouncement that the kingdom of God has arrived, and we’ve seen the evidence of that arrival in the lives of four guys who changed careers, seemingly at the drop of a hat, but really in response to the absolute authority of Jesus, and his call to repentance.
And so now, here in the synagogue, Jesus has begun to preach, and something is happening in the lives of the people gathered there. They have never heard anything like what Jesus is saying ever before in their lives. This is totally new stuff, and they were absolutely astounded by it. Whatever it was that Jesus said, it must have confronted the people with the absolute claim that God had on their lives. The reaction seems to indicate that Jesus was speaking more like a prophet than a preacher.
But this stunning and powerfully authoritative speech has stirred up something else, something that may not have been all that evident in the synagogue before Jesus arrived. In the synagogue there is someone who has been inhabited by an unclean spirit. Up until the arrival of Jesus in the synagogue, nobody may have known about or noticed this. But in the presence of Jesus, the poor man loses all control over himself, and the unclean spirit takes over. But the unclean spirit is uttering an absolute cry of terror. “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 the answer to the unclean spirit’s question is obvious. Jesus has come to destroy the unclean spirit. Jesus is a complete threat to the powers of evil and darkness. In the presence of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of the evil one is rendered impotent. The unclean spirit understands perhaps better than anyone else in the synagogue that the coming of the good news also signals the arrival of judgment.
With the coming of the kingdom of God to this earth, there is now no longer any room for other, lesser, competing kingdoms. And so with the banishment of the unclean spirit in Capernaum, all other institutions, powers, authorities, principalities and kingdoms, human or otherwise, are put on notice. The time is fulfilled. All have been judged, all are temporary, all will come to an end. Only the kingdom of God will endure, and it will endure forever.
At the end of this passage everyone in the Synagogue is in a state of shock and awe. They know that something new has just happened to them, but there’s no place in their lives for this new thing to fit. They have no known category of life into which it will fit. They are in complete disarray. And that’s a great place for all of us to be. There’s nothing better than to be totally disarrayed by the presence of Jesus. Being totally disarrayed by Jesus banishes all of our pretensions, all of the power and authority that we cling to, and it puts us in good stead to receive the good news. And the good news is that Jesus is here. The kingdom of God is here. And that we, like those four guys who changed careers so suddenly, have become disciples of the one who when he spoke, caused demons to flee, storms to be settled, the dead to be raised to life, and sins forgiven forever.
The Kingdom is in fact in our midst; let us live as if it is.