November 14, 2010
Lauren J. McFeaters
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim release to the captives
and to let the oppressed go free.
Right there in front of God and everyone, this demon, who inhabits the man of Capernaum, shatters the synagogue with obscenities; screeches with a dementor’s rage: “Get away you Nazarene! Leave me alone! I know what you’re up to. You’re the Holy One of God and you’ve come to destroy me!”
All of this may seem primitive to a modern mind. How many demons have we ever witnessed in worship? How many unclean spirits have we had contact with? It’s perfectly understandable that Jesus should find demons along the way. He’s been tempted by the devil himself. He heals demoniacs and mends the possessed. But demon sightings, unclean spirits, and satanic possessions – they’re a thing from ancient times; laid to rest; to be seen no more.
After all, nobody likes a good exorcism anymore. For awhile The Exorcist spawned decades worth of terrifying entertainment: films, books, art, music, Halloween costumes. I can still hear the haunting refrains of Tubular Bells and think of the devil. Time after time we’ve seen the bloody battle between good and evil played out on any means of media available. Except for the last few years obsession with vampires, exorcisms have seen their day.
Yet we miss the point of the story when we dismiss this demented man’s ravings as someone with whom we have nothing in common. There is something in all of us that cries out, “Leave me alone Jesus of Nazareth!”
When Jesus liberates the possessed man, he uses saving words: words of salvation that reach deep inside and extracts the foul, unclean spirit. These are fighting words; “Shut up and get out!”
But the liberating Word doesn’t end there. It’s just getting started; for rather than keeping quiet, the people of Capernaum start talking and chattering and discussing and sharing and their testimony about Jesus began to reach every place in the region.
In his book called Testimony, Tom Long tells of Dorothy Day and that late in her life, Dorothy Day said, ‘If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.’ Faithful Christian witness and testimony, says Long, does what God is doing in the world. It establishes communion, proclaims peace and acceptance, and sets things right. It tells the truth that god’s light shines in every corner of human existence.
Just a few verses beforehand Jesus proclaims in a Galilean synagogue:
Jesus wastes no time for right there in the middle of worship a man begins screaming; writhing. He’s seized by unholy terror when the demon inside him recognizes the Spirit of the Lord.
And Jesus immediately shuts him down and shuts him up: “Quiet! Silence! Get out of him!”
The demonic spirit throws the man down in front of the worshippers and leaves. “What's going on here?” they ask. “Someone whose words make things happen. Someone who orders demonic spirits to get out and they go?” Jesus was the talk of the town.
What’s a hapless demon possessed man from ancient Palestine to us anyway?
And to experience Jesus’ liberating Word is a shattering experience. It would be like a deaf person hearing a symphony for the first time, or a blind person coming face to face with a sea of color, or the paralyzed person leaping on stage during Swan Lake.
Jesus’ liberating Word to the man of Capernaum drives the demon out, and makes him free to live and be surrounded by a community who only astonished can say: “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power this Jesus commands the unclean spirits, and out the demons come!”
“Our testimony, like that of the people of Capernaum, is bold to name God, thank God and praise God. Our testimony about God is not closed up in the sanctuary, locked behind doors, or left behind in the pews. Christian testimony cries out to God, is grateful to God, and shares the news of God in public places.” (2)
This is quite a difficult task for many of us. For so many, faith is a private matter, personal, and individual and the Jesus of Capernaum is a disturbing and alarming Jesus.
How often do we allow ourselves to experience the disconcerting, startling, unsettling Jesus? It’s tough to give Christian testimony when we picture him as the lamb of God; the soft, warm, pliable, lovable man who floats over hill and dale with a smile on his face; who glides from town to town – content and at ease.
We try to tame Jesus by turning him into someone who is temperate and gentle; placid and yielding; who is never a threat to anyone especially ourselves. He’s so sweet, he’s suitable for framing.
So giving testimony to a Gospel born of passion, power, wildness, and zeal presents a real challenge for us. Will Willimon put it this way, “the contemporary church in the United States has succeeded in sentimentalizing Jesus to the point where we have taken the romantic gentle Jesus docile and mild of the 19th century and reworked it into Jesus – our BFF [Best Friend Forever], our buddy, our therapist, our driver on life’s highway who always affirms and never criticizes; always blesses and never curses.” (3)
Dorothy Sayers calls this our domestication of Jesus; when we take God’s power over evil and pretend evil doesn’t exist. She writes the people who hanged Jesus ...never accused him of being a bore. On the contrary, they thought him too dynamic and alive to be safe. It has been left for later generations to soften him up and surround him with tedium. We have very efficiently trimmed the claws of the lion of Judea, certified him meek and mild and recommend him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious folks of every ilk.
The Lion of Judah; that’s the Jesus the demon of Capernaum screams and barks about. The Lion of Judah; that’s the Jesus the demon of Capernaum shrieks and squeals about. The Jesus we meet today sends the devil to back to hell. The Jesus we meet today vanquishes Satan by winding a few words around the throat of the devil and squeezing.
When we give testimony about the living God, we can not sentimentalize God’s power. For that power is the roar of thunder and the bellow of the waves and the cry of the volcano. And our testimony must match it. Our words must equal it. You see, as one preacher puts it “our words matter. Our words are a main pathway on which our testimony and faith goes forth into the world. Others know us by our words and God gives us words to tell the truth in love and to provide testimony to the world of who we are and what we believe. We see the powerful hand of God at work and we don’t want other people to miss it.” (4)
And in response to God’s power, we open our mouths and our arms and give testimony; we give witness, we give Word about God’s work.
And a testimony about him began to reach every place in the region; every place in Princeton and beyond; from River Road to East Windsor; from the Great Road to Ewing; from Leigh Avenue into Montgomery, and Princeton Pike to Yardley and far, far beyond.
Thanks be to God.
(1) Luke 4:31-37: 31 He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Let us alone! 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.”
But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm.
They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!”
And a report (testimony) about him began to reach every place in the region.
(2) Thomas G. Long. Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004, 87.
(3) Will Willimon. Pulpit Resource, January-March, 2010, 35, 41-42.
(4) Thomas G. Long. Testimony, 120, 155.
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