The Curious of Capernaum
“The Curious Case of Capernaum”
Sermon Preached by Thomas P. Markey
John Knox Presbyterian Church
January 28, 2018
As a parent of two small children, I have come to understand that silence is a very curious and peculiar reality.
On the one hand, silence – which most often comes during nap time or bedtime – can represent a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of following two small children around all day.
Yet, on the other hand, silence can represent an unnerving anxiety, one in which, on more than one occasion, has sent me on a panic-stricken search for two small children who have managed to sneak away.
Silence really is a curious thing. What do you think of when you hear the word silence?
Does it bring about feelings of peace and serenity? Perhaps hearing the word silence sparks a memory of time when you were able to get away from the chaos of everyday life and enjoy some simple peace and quiet.
Or does it bring about feelings of awkwardness and being uncomfortable? Perhaps hearing the word silence sparks a memory of a time when the last thing you wanted was peace and quiet, a time when all you wanted to do was to shout and to scream.
As a noun, silence can be defined as a complete absence of sound.
As a verb, silence can be defined as cause to become silent; prohibit or prevent from speaking.
Silence can be profoundly empowering, providing a life-giving experience of quiet and stillness where we might be afforded the opportunity to feel centered and secure.
Yet, silence can also be a deeply dehumanizing and demoralizing experience, one in which our voice, our agency, and our very humanity is taken from us.
The Gospel of Mark is not for the faint of heart. It moves and maneuvers much like a toddler. There is constant motion. It moves quickly, seemingly too quickly. Things happen, as Mark likes to say, “immediately.” There is a sense of urgency in Mark’s gospel that can be almost overwhelming. Blink and we might miss something important. In all honesty, it can be hard to keep up with the action.
As a result, I often find that the Gospel of Mark reads like the latest TV drama. Fast-paced and unrelenting, we are left on the edge of our seats taking in each moment of drama, nervous and unsure of what exactly might happen next, but certain that some unexpected plot twist is coming our way.
In light of the urgent and immediate way in which Mark’s gospel transpires, I find it helpful to take a moment to venture into the world of Mark. To venture into the world of the community and congregation in which he was living, working, and writing, perhaps there’s a reason for such urgency and such immediacy. Mark is writing in the “immediate wake of the destruction of the temple” and, as Chapter 13 of Mark’s gospel reveals, the community was encountering a slew of difficult and overwhelming situations: false messiahs, ongoing violence, conflict with powerful and prominent leaders, and discord among families. It was this intensified level of suffering, along with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that led Mark to believe that the Realm of God was not simply coming soon, but that God had sent Jesus Christ to be an “active agent through whom God actually begins to bring about God’s realm in the here and now.”
In this way, Mark was most concerned that the community serve as a witness to the presence and coming Realm of God, that they “faithfully endure their season of suffering so that they [would] be ready to welcome the Realm of God.” For Mark, this kind of witness required immediate and urgent action.
True to form, our story today follows this pattern of urgency and immediacy precisely. You see, we’re only on the sixth episode and we’ve already got Jesus performing an exorcism!
Fresh off of calling some of his disciples, Jesus and his followers arrive in Capernaum and, when translated literally, we are told that “immediately the Sabbath arrived and he taught in the synagogue.” It is only two short verses later and, immediately, we encounter a person with an evil spirit crying out at Jesus. It is a dramatic encounter between Jesus and the evil spirit, one in which ends with the evil spirit being rebuked, leaving all that have witnessed the confrontation in amazement, astonished by the authority in which Jesus teaches and acts.
And so, as we read this particular encounter, it seems, just as it seems throughout the Gospel of Mark, as though there is little, if any time at all, for silence to make its way into this particularly abrupt and intense account of Jesus’ life. The Realm of God is not just coming, it has arrived and we haven’t a minute to spare.
And yet, in this curious case of Capernaum, in the face of an urgent ushering in of God’s realm, in the midst of this immediacy, in the midst of severe suffering and crying out, we do, in fact, encounter silence.
Jesus’ rebuke of this unclean spirit is a simple one: “Be silent!” In Greek the word is phimoō, meaning literally “to muzzle” or “to be kept in check.”
Thus, through this simple yet authoritative command, Jesus secures for us a space for silence. But silence, it is a curious and peculiar thing. What are we to make of such silence?
Theologian Ofelia Ortega offers this powerful reflection as to how we might fully engage with this particular encounter of silence,
“We are struck by Jesus’ word in response to the forces of evil that dominate the impure one – “Be Silent.” The verb literally demands an action like putting on a muzzle. And here is where the main idea of the narration centers. Mark wants to demonstrate that Jesus’ word is effective, powerful. His word is action, and his action is embedded in his word. The authority is not only in the teaching, but also in the action. The term “authority” – exousia – is understood in the strong sense of the “divine power.” And this divine power is the one that Christ will transmit to the Twelve to send them to preach and cast out demons.”
You see, much like the evil spirit that had overtaken the man in the synagogue, the oppressive structures and institutions of power had overtaken the people, muzzling them, keeping them in check, silencing them.
So, when Jesus commands that the unclean spirit “Be Silent!” his message extends far beyond this single spirit in the synagogue. Jesus – the radical and revolutionary that he was – has subverted the silence, ensuring that these oppressive people, systems, and institutions of power, who for so long have been silencing their victims, become the ones who, as Jesus commanded, “Be Silent!” – that these appropriators of severe oppression and injustice be the ones who are muzzled and kept in check.
In so doing, Jesus’ provocation of silence to the evil spirit and, thus, to the evils of the world, becomes a call to action for us. It is an invitation – a challenge even – to us, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, to call out and to silence the forces of evil that are at work in this world.
An invitation and a challenge that in the face of evil – in the face of oppression, injustice, and discrimination – that we would, in the same way, command these evils to “Be Silent!”
An invitation and a challenge that in the face of evil – in the face of systems and institutions that aim to silence through power and privilege – that we would, in the same way, command these evils to “Be Silent!”
An invitation and a challenge that in the face of evil – in the face of people who have long silenced their victims – that we would, in the same way, command this evil to “Be Silent!”
Thanks be to God for sending a messenger that has prepared the way, a messenger that has shattered the silence. Amen.
 Ronald J. Allen. Reading the New Testament for the First Time. 107.
 Ibid., 110.
 Ibid., 110.
 Rev. Scott Hoezee. “Epiphany 4B: Mark 1:21-28,” http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany-4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel.
 Ofelia Ortega. “Mark 1:21-28, Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. 312.