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.
Dr. Grady J. Walker was my college English professor, a father figure in my life, and the man for whom my son, Grady J. Locke, is named. He also had a wicked sense of humor. He grew up in the rural town of Sayre, Oklahoma, and at a moment’s notice he could shift from his usual refined, English professor voice into the voice of a backwoods pentecostal preacher in the middle of a tent revival. His favorite time to do this was whenever he observed me behaving in some way he disapproved of. He would put his hand on my forehead and (with just enough of a twinkle in his eye to let me know he was joking) he would begin to mock-pray: “God grant me the power to save this poor, wretched soul–in Jesus name, I command you Neal Locke, to come out of this demon! Neal, you leave this poor, helpless demon alone and don’t bother him anymore! Amen!”
I think that’s the only exorcism I’ve ever taken part of, and apparently I was the target, not the beneficiary.
The second miracle in our sermon series on the miracles of Jesus (although it’s the first miracle of Jesus in the gospel of Mark) is the healing of a man an “unclean spirit.” In the original Greek it’s a πνεύματι ἀκαθάρτῳ (pneumati akatharto), literally a non-cathartic spirit. In modern English, the word catharsis (which comes from this same Greek root) is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as the “elimination of a complex by bringing it to consciousness and affording it expression.
So one way to look at this miracle is that Jesus encounters a man who is troubled by deep psychological issues, (which the most advanced scientific terminology of his day tended to describe as a demonic possession), and by bringing this complex out into the open, by giving it expression, Jesus provides the man with catharsis, or healing.
I don’t say this to minimalize the supernatural or miraculous aspect of what Jesus does here. Like the water into wine miracle last week, Jesus radically accelerates a process that might otherwise take weeks, months or years of counseling and therapy into two short commands: “Be silent” and “come out.”
But also like last week’s story, I think the real miracle here is not the flashy thing on the surface that we are so quickly drawn to. It’s not the exorcism. In fact these were pretty commonplace in Jesus’ time–contemporary written sources tell of plenty of healers who wandered the Palestinian landscape performing healings and exorcisms. This was more like a basic credential–if you wanted to claim to be a messiah, you’d better be able to cast out demons, or no one would take you seriously. Every would-be messiah can do that much, at the very least.
So if not the exorcism, then what’s the real miracle here? I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I do want to focus for just a little bit on the flashy part, because there are some things we can learn from, even if they aren’t so miraculous.
Verse 23: “Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” Notice the place. All of this happens in the synagogue. In other words, it happens in church on Sunday morning, or at least the Jewish equivalent of that. And this isn’t just some random person who happens to wander in some day–the grammatical construction of the Greek phrase “there was in their synagogue” implies that this is someone who was part of the congregation, a regular member. Yes, the verse starts with “Just then” (εὐθὺς) but that’s one of Mark’s favorite ways to start a sentence in this gospel, and shows up all the time–so much so that translators often ignore it and leave it out altogether (except here, of course).
Why is this important? Because too often we think of church as a place for good people…shiny, happy, perfect people who have their lives all figured out–and often we pretend to be those people when we’re here. But we’re not. We come to this place (all of us) broken and carrying baggage. And that’s okay. There’s an old saying that the church exists to be a hospital for sinners, not a hotel for saints. Or to quote Jesus himself later in Mark, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Moving on to verse 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.'” Notice that the one crying out here is done by the demon, not the demon possessed man. That’s an important disctinction. Sometimes it is our brokenness and our suffering, our circumstances and our sorrow, that cry out to others long before we even have the voice to seek the help we need ourselves.” Jesus doesn’t respond by saying “Just ignore that, everyone, it’s the demon talking, not him.” Likewise, in the church community we are called to listen carefully for those sometimes silent cries for help, to watch for the signs of need in our midst, and be ready to spring into action to help carry one another’s burdens.
Verse 25a: “Jesus rebuked him, saying…” This sounds a little harsh in the NRSV translation. Why would you rebuke someone who is suffering from an illness that is likely beyond his ability to control? The word translated as “rebuke” is the Greek word ἐπετίμησεν (epetimesen). Most places it appears in the New Testament, it’s actually translated as “honor.” For obvious reasons, most translators are reluctant to translate this verse as “And then Jesus honored the demon…” But I think there’s a sense here that to honor someone or something is to give it the credence and respect it is due, to take it seriously.
When your doctor looks at X-rays or scans that indicate a potential cancer, you don’t want her to be dismissive of the results (oh, it’s nothing). Nor you want her to fly off the deep end. You want her to take the information seriously, and come to the right diagnosis. This is the sense in which Jesus “honors” (not rebukes) the man’s illness. He immediately recognizes and speaks to the gravity of the situation. What does he say?
Verse 25b: “Be silent, and come out of him!” In Greek this is just two words. Think, “Silence!” and “Stop!”
There’s an old sketch from Mad TV where Bob Newhart plays a psychologist. Whenever someone comes into his office, they describe at great length all of their problems, and invariably, Bob Newhart’s advice is the same. He looks them in the eye…and says… “Stop it!” Then he charges them five dollars.
As funny as that is to watch, it’s probably better comedy than psychology or spirituality. We know we need to stop it. But we usually don’t know how. And that’s where the other command of Jesus comes into focus: Be silent. In our manic, busy, overscheduled lives, this is probably the hardest thing of all for us to do. We’re afraid of silence. We’re afraid to be still. We’re afraid of all that might happen if we don’t do all the things we think we’re supposed to do for all the people we’re supposed to do them for. The voices of fear and ambition and anxiety and angst roil around inside our heads reaching a fevered pitch and we become like those driven by demons to do, to be, to have, to achieve, to make, to seem, to feel, to stretch, to run, to carry, to say, to appear, to please…
And Jesus says to us: Be silent. Stop. Be still, and know that I am God. At that command, even the winds and the waves obeyed him, as well as the troubled hearts and minds driven by demons inside.
Be silent. Stop. Be still and know that I am God. We all might do well to heed those words more often.
I promised at the beginning to tell you what the real miracle is in this sermon. To find it, just look at the reaction from the people in the story. No one seems that impressed when Jesus heals the demon-posessed man. But they are amazed and astounded at something else entirely.
At the beginning of the passage, verse 22: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” And again at the end, verse 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.'”
They are amazed most at the teaching, and see that as the source and explanation of all the rest. And this is where the truest miracles, the truest transformation begins to happen–not when we’re running around like crazy chasing things just outside our reach. No. It’s when we stop, when we make space and time in our lives to learn, to listen in the silence–to ourselves, to each other, and to the voice of the one who created the heavens, the earth, and everything in between.