Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

A Cleansing Silence

Message preached February 1, 2009
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Mark 1:21-28

Order of Worship

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"I know who you are," the man cried right in the middle of a Sabbath worship service in Capernaum. Can you imagine the scene?... One of my friends from seminary days served a congregation in the Midwest where a man with "Tourette syndrome" attended with his family. This fellow's disease caused him to periodically say out loud some quite profane things during worship. It was something he could not control. The church loved him into the Kingdom by accepting his disorder and his family. After a while, they didn’t hear his outbursts, focusing instead upon the voice of God's Spirit. It was a bit confusing, however, to the occasional visitor. Furthermore, the shut-ins periodically asked about some of the background noise they heard on the weekly tape of the service.

I wonder about that scene in Capernaum. Actually, it makes me a little uneasy, how about you? The talk about an unclean spirit, (or was it spirits? - a collection of something or other plaguing this man), puts me on edge. Likewise, the fact that this happened right in the middle of a sacred time and place is a bit creepy. Can you imagine the reaction of the people there when it happened? Now, maybe the folks in that synagogue were so used to this fellow that what caught their attention were not his antics but the response of Jesus. We have no way of really knowing. By the way, I didn’t intend to connect Tourette syndrome with having an unclean spirit. A person can be spiritually well and still suffer from some psychological or physiological impairment.

That, however, was not the case with this man in Capernaum. Actually, we're not really given much information about him, for he is not the focus of the story. Another piece of the puzzle that is disturbing is the fact that this man, or the unclean spirit or spirits within him, is the first to openly recognize Jesus in Mark's gospel. "I know who you are," this nameless man, or the spirit or spirits within him cry. Peter, Andrew, James, and John, who have just dropped their nets to follow Jesus, don't say as much. It's not until halfway through the gospel that Peter has his high moment of openly recognizing Jesus as the Christ. Even then, there's a bit of the devil behind his words, for Peter denied what being the Messiah was about for Jesus, that it would lead to suffering and death.

One thing I've learned about scripture is not to run away when it begins to make me uncomfortable. So very often, that which makes me uneasy is the very avenue God needs to travel in my life. Have you discovered this to be true in your own spiritual journey?

Let's step into this story again. This is the first episode in Mark's gospel where Jesus actually ministers. Before this point, he has been preparing himself: first being baptized, then fasting for 40 days in the wilderness, and then calling out his disciples. At the seaside town of Capernaum, Jesus entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and apparently was invited to teach as a visiting rabbi. For the folks in that congregation on that day, something in what he had to say, or how he spoke, was different. He taught "as one having authority," it says. How are we to read those words: "as one with authority"? Scripture compares him with the scribes, the professional holy men of the day. Apparently he had authority they lacked. What does this mean?

I’ve encountered a couple angles in answering that question. One is that while the scribes focused on the nit-picking details of the faith, enforcing a legalistic code of behavior, Jesus opened the windows of faith which allowed people to see the bigger picture. A more ‘liberal’ interpretation might see it this way. On the other hand, those scribes may have been wishy-washy, never really saying what needed to be said. In contrast, Jesus taught boldly and confidently. A more ‘conservative’ point of view might claim this angle. Sometimes in scripture we hear only what we want to hear.

When I hear the word "authority," I link it to its root: "author." For Jesus to teach with "authority" must have in some way allowed people to see not just him, rabbi Jesus, but God - the "author" of creation. God was speaking through him in a way that felt very direct. People noticed the difference, though they were not able to put it into words.

Not all of them were dumbfounded, however. There was that deeply disturbed man in their midst who spoke out. It doesn’t say anything about him frothing at the mouth, rolling in the aisles, or mouthing profanities uncontrollably, at least not at first. He could’ve been a very respected gentleman in that community for all we’re told, though I have my doubts. Maybe he was the town crackpot, I don’t know. Scripture merely says he was "a man with an unclean spirit," who interrupted Jesus with his words of recognition.

"What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" he cries out, or was it the spirit or spirits within him? "Have you come to destroy us?" These are actually good questions, not just the rantings of a maniac. When you think about it, they are questions we need to ask and answer for ourselves about Jesus. What business has Jesus with me? Has he come to tear down or build up? In Mark’s gospel, this is the first question that is asked. Even when Simon and his brother, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, James and John, responded to Jesus’ invitation to leave their fishing nets and follow him and fish for people instead (the episode immediately before this one), they asked no questions, according to Mark.

However, this man with an unclean spirit (or spirits) was bold enough to ask questions of this One who taught with authority. "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth. Have you come to destroy us?" he inquired. Before Jesus had time to respond, however, the man continued with what sounds like a confession of faith, or something. "I know who you are," he said, you are "the holy one of God." Now, we need not hear in these words a great statement about who Jesus is. The same was said of Aaron (Psalm 106:16), Elisha (2 Kings 4:9), and Samson (Judges 16:17). Still, this is the first confession found in Mark's gospel, and it comes from the lips of a possessed man. The demons that plague him recognize holiness when they see it.

What happens next is an exorcism. Whether or not the people in that synagogue were aware of this man's spiritual struggle, his inner demons, Jesus was. And he spoke to that unclean spirit. "Shut up" he said. Literally. "Come out of him!" he commanded. And that spirit left, but not without some real turmoil. "An epileptic fit," we enlighted folks might say in an effort to blunt sharp edges that need to remain jagged. The "loud voice" was a death wail. The man lived, the spirit was vanquished. And the people who watched were amazed. Wouldn’t you be?

If we are to place ourselves into this story, to really allow it to speak to us, should we merely be the onlookers who were quite taken by what Jesus said and did? Or can these words speak to our own spiritual struggles, as we find our brother in this man with an unclean spirit? There are often many inner voices that demand our allegiance. No, I'm not speaking of schizophrenia or some other psychological disorder. We are all pulled in so many different directions, even "unclean" ones - if we dare to be honest and begin naming our demons. What unclean spirit or spirits plague you?

The words spoken by this man with an unclean spirit provide an entrance for us, not only into the gospel story of Mark, but also into the good news of Christ for us. These questions and affirmations are really steps of faith. When we first encounter Jesus, or meet him again as if for the first time, we wonder what he has to do with us. That is, what do we have in common with Jesus or, more to the point, what does he really want with us, what business is he about in our lives? What does Jesus have to do with me? There are, after all, so many voices that clamor for our attention. If Jesus is really to be authoritative in my life, what will change? If I know this is God touching my life, what may die in me in the process? As Hebrews 10:31 says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

"Have you come to destroy us?" is indeed a good question. When we sing to the "Spirit of the living God," asking this Holy One to "fall afresh upon" us, there are those strange words: "melt me, mold me, fill me, use me" (#349). Note, the melting and the molding come before the filling and the using. There is a dying that comes before resurrection, a releasing of the old that happens before we can take hold of the new. It is one thing to say that God is in control. It is another thing to let go and allow God full reign. In many ways, the "death wail" has to come before the profession of faith. A friend of mine suggested this was the case with that troubled man in the Capernaum synagogue. Too quickly he moved from question to confession.

We, also, say the words too easily, before they really take hold of us. You see, the point isn’t so much that "I know who you are, Holy One." Rather, it's "the Holy One knows who I am." ... "Be silent," God speaks above the roar of all these inner voices that vie for our attention. Often, the Holy One needs to say to us, "Shut up!" If you are offended by those words, then maybe your Jesus is too polite.  The healing word of God can be a rebuke, which convulses our lives, bringing what once was upside down - right side up. We need that authoritative, healing word - even those of us who have lived in Capernaum and faithfully attended synagogue all our lives. You did notice, didn’t you, that this first exorcism happened "in church?"

Let me close with the words to a song and then a prayer. I invite to turn to #630 in the hymnal, and read with me (not sing) the words, which powerfully retell this story. Afterward, we’ll turn together to the One who knows who we are… In unison:

 "Silence! frenzied, unclean spirit," cried God's healing, holy One.
"Cease your ranting! Flesh can't bear it. Flee as night before the sun."
At Christ's voice the demon trembled, from its victim madly rushed,
while the crowd that was assembled stood in wonder stunned and hushed.

Lord, the demons still are thriving in the grey cells of the mind:
tyrant voices, shrill and driving, twisted thoughts that grip and bind,
doubts that stir the heart to panic, fears distorting reason's sight,
guilt that makes our loving frantic, dreams that cloud the soul with fright.

Silence, Lord, the unclean spirit, in our mind and in our heart.
Speak your word that when we hear it all our demons shall depart.
Clear our thought and calm our feeling, still the fractured warring soul.
By the power of your healing make us faithful, true and whole.

-Thomas H. Troeger, 1984 (Hymnal #630)


O Lord, this is, indeed, sacred time and place, but its sacredness is not what appears on the outside. What is sacred is your presence around and in us. There are moments when we are not sure which is more disturbing - the demons that plague us, or your Word which comes to free us. We’ve grown comfortable with our fears, our troubling thoughts, our panic, our guilt, our nightmares, our temptations. What have you to do with us, Lord? What will be destroyed by your Word? Like a pregnant woman, we're afraid of the pain of birth. Like that man with an unclean spirit, we are full of questions.
            Touch us, O Lord, with your healing Word. Know us beyond how we can know ourselves, Holy One. Lead us, then, to see who you really are. Amen.

(para traducir a español, presione la bandera de España)


©2009, 1997 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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