Weekly Seeds: Coming Through the Holy Places

Sunday, January 31, 2021
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Focus Theme:
Coming through the Holy Places

Focus Prayer:
God our deliverer, you walk with the meek and the poor, the compassionate and those who mourn, and you call us to walk humbly with you. When we are foolish, be our wisdom; when we are weak, be our strength; that, as we learn to do justice and to love mercy, your rule may come as blessing. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Mark 1:21–28
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. 

All readings for this Sunday:
Deuteronomy 18:15–20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1–13
Mark 1:21–28

Focus Questions:

  1. What places have special significance for you?
  2. What do you consider to be a holy place? What makes it holy?
  3. How do you respond to a holy place? Does it alter your attitude or behavior?
  4. How have you experienced miracles?
  5. What miracles are you hoping for in this season?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Where do you go for a miracle?

The Gospel according to Mark demonstrates the power of the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. Mark is a storyteller focused on the unfolding drama of the Kin-dom of God breaking in rather than a theological treatise on the significance of the moment. Mark expects the events to speak for themselves. His pace moves so rapidly that it can read rather choppily and even seem disjointed, but that does not mean it doesn’t have structure or literary intention. Mark invites us into the action as a silent participant as if we are eavesdropping on an exciting adventure and will just have to figure out some of the background details for ourselves.

In this week’s passage, we know that Jesus traveled with his new disciples to Capernaum and was teaching in the synagogue during the Sabbath. We don’t know the content of his teaching or the composition of his audience. We do hear their reaction reflected astonishment because they recognized that Jesus was different because his teaching was different.

The synagogue held a prominent role in the community and were central to “communal life: they functioned as courts and places for political discussions, storage of archives, education of children, public reading and teaching of Torah and prayer.” (Eckhard J. Schnabel) It was natural and a customary practice to attend synagogue on the sabbath day for teaching, and no one seemed surprised that Jesus was teaching, it was the manner in which he taught and the lessons he gave that set him apart from the other rabbis in the community. James LaGrand notes that “The focus of this story in Mark’s Gospel is on Jesus’ power and authority. As a young teacher, Jesus might have been expected to shore up his teaching with references to acknowledged authorities, but this was not his style.” As Schnabel continues:
The authority (exousia) that the audience recognizes probably consisted in the fact that Jesus did not explain Scripture with reference to other rabbis: he expounded the will of God with resolute immediacy. The teachers of the law (grammateis; often translated ‘scribes’) were professional experts in the Mosaic law who studied, explained and applied the law to specific situations.
Jesus, as a Person of the Triune God, would not need to consult any human authority to bring truth to those listening to him. He spoke on the basis of his authority in a direct connection to those in front of him. Is it any wonder that they would be profoundly impacted by this encounter. It is not clear, however, if they were amazed at the teaching because it was extraordinary in itself or were they unaccustomed to bold, true, and prophetic teaching? Was Jesus teaching them something new that they had not heard or considered before? Did that make his teaching extraordinary? Or, had they become accustomed to safe and sanitized teaching that failed to challenge them or engage their imaginations?

If Jesus came to teach in our faith communities, would we simply be amazed at the presence of God? Or would we also hear messages we’ve never heard before because we have sanitized the good news for the fear that it would offend or divide? Has our concern that some do not want to hear it fully kept us from facilitating an encounter with the Holy One for those who are open and even desperate for a word from the Most High. Would we be taken aback by an encounter with Jesus?

In the laundry list above that delineated the roles of the synagogue, it reads more like a community center than holy ground. Perhaps that is because the place as a physical location became more central than its purpose in the lives of the community of faith. What happens to our houses of worship when what we do there assumes more prominence than The One we are to encounter there?

The synagogue was built as a holy place like the temple before it and the various sanctuaries, meeting rooms, house churches, and other gathering places that have come after it. Designed as a place to be “with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation” (Psalm 111:1b), it, like our holy places, assembles the community for purpose, nurture, formation…and healing. While the laundry list isn’t a bad list, it also doesn’t correspond to the list that Jesus referenced from the prophet Isaiah when he stood up to teach in the holy place on another occasion. That list he gave included bringing good news, binding up the broken, proclaiming liberty and release. The synagogue had disconnected from its mission, and so has so much of Christianity today. We bemoan the loss of people attending our services when the loss of people happened because the church isn’t attending her mission.

The Gospel according to Mark is all about mission. Racquel S. Lettsome writes, “This mission of love and justice in the world includes addressing ecological, moral, economic, and social ills. The focus is, therefore, communal, as relationships are of primary importance. However, it is not only human relationships that matter but also humanity’s relationship with all of creation.” There is work to do in the Kin-dom of God, and that concern is cosmic in scale rather than the individualistic focus that so much of the western church emphasizes. Mark presented a countercultural view of the gospel then and continues to gift us with it today.

An unexpected character is introduced into the drama–”a man with an unclean spirit.” He cries out with a question, “What do you want with us?” As Schnabel explains, “Normally people stay away from impurity, uncleanness or dirt, whether literal, moral or ritual. The question What do you want with us? is an Old Testament idiom, a formula of disassociation, meaning ‘go away and leave me alone.” On the surface, it might seem that the man is speaking of his person and the spirit that inhabits him, but it’s possible that his world reflected a communal perspective or that in the telling of this story, Mark uses this man and his accompanying spirit to represent those who align themselves with evil in the world. The “us” referenced here, then, takes on significance beyond the individual who suffers under the influence of a malevolent spirit:
In the midst of his teaching, a man with an unclean spirit interrupts him and identifies him as the “Holy One of God.” The presence of the man is not surprising: the world was believed to be inhabited by spirits, which were mainly malevolent in nature. Both Judaism and the pagan religions of the Greco-Roman world saw the need for people to be freed from the power of unclean spirits/demons. In Judaism, the presence of unclean spirits symbolized the struggle between God and the forces of evil. Therefore it is ironic that the people who are supposed to be on the side of God, namely, the religious leaders and members of the congregation, are not the first characters in Mark’s narrative to recognize who Jesus really is. Instead, it is the unclean spirit who knows what the people of God do not. Jesus responds by silencing and removing the demon with a verbal command, thereby confirming the audience’s original assessment of his authoritative teaching. His is a “performative utterance.” Jesus speaks and things happen; demons obey. (Lettsome)
It appears that it is the unclean spirit speaking to Jesus, but it is not clear who brought them into the synagogue. Was it the man seeking Jesus or simply entering a holy place and encountering Jesus? Perhaps he was as surprised at finding Jesus there as the others were amazed at the teachings of Jesus. Maybe, it was the spirit leading the man toward this confrontation with Christ. Whatever the case, it was clear that an exorcism needed to take place to free the man from the hold that evil had over him.

James LaGrande tells us that an exorcism is a form of healing. The unclean spirit exerts control over the human being–mind, body, and soul. That influence is at odds with a liberating God who came, in no small part, to set the captive free. That work is central to the gospel and to restore God’s vision for humanity. Jesus command for that demon to come out is an early demonstration of the Kin-dom of God staking a flag on earth. The territory claimed was not Capernaum or even the synagogue but on the person being possessed. In this act, Jesus reclaims the holy place of humanity.

The action does not happen without opposition. The unclean spirit attempts to exert its control over the situation by showing their knowledge of Jesus’ name, hometown, and true identity. In response, Jesus silences the unclean spirit. The first step in the exorcism is to silence the enemy. Taking away their voice diminishes their power and control and loosens their hold on the possessed. The demand to come out quickly follows and the unclean spirit is excised. The man is healed. A miracle takes place. The Kin-dom of God is on earth. It is an announcement with as strong a declaration as occurs at Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.

This event takes place in a holy place–a synagogue. But it also takes place in another holy place–within the human body. What has been profaned by evil has been made righteous by Emmanuel–God With Us. And, in this particular instance, we see healing take place alongside teaching. After Jesus astounds with his teaching, he provides an even greater demonstration of his authority through this miraculous act of deliverance. What if our worship preparation included making space for miracles to take place? What if our ministry and mission were framed in the expectation of the miraculous?

We are living in a time in need of the miraculous…in need of healing. Of course, healing needs repair–that laundry list that Jesus recited in another holy place. In a time when the world continues to struggle against a pandemic and the United States, among other nations, is called to confront the pervasive evil of white supremacy and nationalism, healing can only take place when evil is confronted, silenced, and cast out. There is a whole segment of the population who have been possessed by deliberate misinformation, hostility to science, and white nationalism. The inauguration of a new administration does not change that.

The church is called to do that work, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and as partners with Christ in the restoration of the world. We are not free to abandon our human siblings; we are called to participate in their healing and call upon divine intervention to move in the miraculous.

For further reflection:
Any place is sacred ground, for it can become a place of encounter with the divine Presence.” — David Steindl-Rast

All things share the same breath – the beast, the tree, the man, the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.” — Chief Seattle, Suquamish Chief

We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that He should bother to call us by name, our mouths wide open at His love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground.” — Brennan Manning

We stand before a burning bush whenever other human beings share with us something of their relationship with God or something of the movements of their hearts. In such moments may we always realize that we stand on holy ground.” — Margaret Silf

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.