Celebrity Sightings: “He Entered the Synagogue”
First Baptist Richmond, January 28, 2024
When the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
I was having coffee with my friend Phillip Martin last week. Phillip is the Pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church at the end of Monument Avenue, and he is one of a handful of local pastors who join me for coffee on Tuesday mornings. Last week, for lots of reasons, it was just the two of us, and so I had time to tell him about this sermon series I’ve been preaching. “What about you?” I asked. “Have you had any celebrity sightings?”
His eyes lit up.
He said, “Actually I did a wedding not too long ago for someone in my church who had graduated from the Collegiate School here in Richmond. It was a big wedding. Ten bridesmaids and ten groomsmen. But one of the groomsmen…was Russell Wilson.”
And I did the absolute worst thing you can do in a situation like that: I said, “Who’s Russell Wilson?” He said, “You don’t know who Russell Wilson is? He’s like, one of the top ten football players in the nation! He played quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks for ten years. Now he plays for the Denver Broncos. You don’t know who Russell Wilson is?” And then he had to explain to me how Russell went to Collegiate for a while, and was a friend of the groom, and that’s how he ended up in the wedding that my friend Phillip Martin did. But then I had to
explain to my friend Phillip Martin that the story of a celebrity sighting usually works better if the person you’re talking to has actually heard of the celebrity.
Compare that story with the one Shirley Seibert told me. She said the details were fuzzy, she was a little girl at the time, only four or five years old, but she remembered that one day her mother took her and her four siblings to watch a train roll through their little town of Pulaski, Virginia. A big crowd had gathered in a grassy area next to the train station. Her mother’s sister-in-law was there with her four kids, and the cousins had a wonderful time playing together. But eventually they heard the sound of a train whistle in the distance, and those young mothers got very excited, because as that train rolled through their little town Elvis Presley waved from the window.
After that first story it feels like I might need to explain to you that Elvis Presley was an American singer and actor known as the “King of Rock and Roll,” and regarded as one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th Century. But maybe not. Maybe everyone really does know who Elvis was. He was in that elite group of celebrities known by only one name, people like Prince, Madonna, Beyoncé, or the subject of today’s Gospel lesson:
If you joined us last week you may remember that Jesus had come into Galilee preaching the good news that the time was fulfilled and the kingdom of God was at hand. The people who heard it began to hunger and thirst for that coming kingdom, so that when Jesus walked along the seashore and called Peter and Andrew, James and John, to follow him, they dropped their nets and did exactly that. Today’s reading opens with the words: “They (meaning Jesus and those first disciples) went to Capernaum; and when the Sabbath came, he entered
the synagogue and taught.”
I’ve been to that synagogue, or at least, what’s left of it. It’s impressive by 21st Century standards, but by First Century standards it must have been magnificent. You may remember that moment in Luke, chapter 7, when some Jewish elders from Capernaum come to Jesus begging him to heal a Roman centurion’s son. They say, “This man is worthy to have you grant this, for he loves our nation and has built our synagogue” (vs. 4). It must have been nice!
At any rate, it was that synagogue that Jesus and his disciples entered on the Sabbath. In those days any adult Jewish male might be called upon to preach, and it was the custom to invite visitors to do it. Local congregations were often glad to hear some fresh insights on the Scriptures, just as they are today. So, when the leader of the synagogue heard that there was a young man in the congregation who was quickly gaining a reputation as a preacher, he may have invited him to come up and say a few words. Jesus did, and when he did (Mark tells us), “the people were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
There are two words I’d like to point out in that verse: the first is the word astounded. It’s the English translation of a Greek word that means, literally, “to strike out, to expel by a blow, to drive out or away.” One possible translation is “to knock out.” These people were knocked out by Jesus’ teaching; they were astounded. The second word I’d like to point out is the word authority. These people were astounded because Jesus taught “as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
In my understanding the scribes would often read a passage of scripture and then tell the people what some famous rabbi had said about it: Rabbi Hillel or
Rabbi Gamaliel, for example. Jesus apparently read a passage of scripture and then told the people what he thought about it, just as he did in Luke 4, remember? When he read that passage from Isaiah that says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me,” and then said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”? Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus read or what Jesus said, but it was that kind of thing, apparently, and the people were astounded by his authority.
In Greek the word is exousia, which means, literally, “out of the substance.” The scribes in Jesus’ day didn’t have any authority of their own. They got it out of the substance of what the great rabbis had said. Jesus, on the other hand, got it out of his own substance, and that word is important. One of the earliest Christian creeds—the Nicene Creed—in an attempt to clarify the relationship between the Father and the Son, insisted that the Son was “of the same substance as the Father.” The word they used was homoousia. So, when Jesus spoke out of his substance—his ousia—it was the same ousia as the Father. That’s where his authority came from, and that’s why his teaching was unlike anything those people in Capernaum had ever heard before.
It knocked them out.
It was just then, in that moment when they were turning to each other, whispering to each other, “This man teaches with authority!” That another man leapt to his feet, a man with an unclean spirit that 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!” Fred Craddock points out that in our lectionary readings for this season Jesus has been identified as the King of the Jews, the Son of God, the Lamb of God, and the Messiah, but in today’s text he is given a new title: “the
Holy One of God.” Craddock says, “It is pronounced by a demon who is commanded to be silent.” And then reminds us: “A demon speaking the truth is still a demon.”i
Which is why Jesus rebukes it. He tells it to “Be silent and come out of him!” And the Greek word for “come out,” reminds me of the Greek word for “knock out,” as if Jesus had come into the synagogue swinging a baseball bat, knocking out his audience and casting out unclean spirits. However he did it, he did it. Mark says the unclean spirit, “convulsing [the man] and crying with a loud voice came out of him.” And when it was all over the people were amazed. They kept on asking each other, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At the beginning of this passage the people are astounded, at the end of the passage they are amazed. No wonder Jesus’ fame began to spread through the surrounding region of Galilee. But while we’re on the subject, let me ask you: when is the last time you were truly amazed or astounded by anything?
Last Tuesday I shared with the staff a story about my niece, Rebecca. When she was five years old Christy and I took her to the circus. We didn’t have children of our own in those days. Rebecca was our beloved niece. We thought she would enjoy it.
This was the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, mind you: “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Christy and I settled into our seats with enough popcorn for a dozen five-year-olds and put Rebecca between us, so we could hear every gasp, every giggle, every sigh. But when the show started, and one of the performers rode a unicycle on a tight wire high over our heads, Rebecca seemed bored. She popped a piece of popcorn into her mouth and said,
That’s how it went for the rest of the show. A man sticks his head into a lion’s mouth? “He’s trained.” A woman does three somersaults on the trapeze? “She’s trained.” The Human Cannonball comes flying out of a cannon? “He’s trained.” No matter how hard they tried, those circus performers couldn’t get more than an eye roll out of our niece.
But if you think it was bad then, forty years ago, what do you think it’s like now, when young people can see fantastic things on every device available to them, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week?
No wonder the circus went out of business.
I didn’t elaborate in staff meeting but I’ve been thinking about it since: just how many fantastic things you can see on screens and how hard it is, sometimes, to distinguish between what is real and what is not. You can see a movie where dinosaurs are chasing people across the landscape, another where a man is trying to survive by himself on the planet Mars, another (and this is an old one) where the movie poster promised that “You will believe a man can fly.” And yes, you will—you will believe everything you see on the screen, because seeing is believing, right? You will believe everything until you begin to realize that everything you are seeing has been manipulated, digitally, and then suddenly you don’t believe anything anymore. You’re like my niece Rebecca saying, “They’re trained,” only in your case you might say, “It’s all done with computers,” or these days, “with artificial intelligence.”
It was only last week that I began to wonder if there is any correspondence between that kind of cynicism and the fact that it’s so hard to get young people to come to church these days. Here we are telling them that we have to offer is true,
and real, but they’ve seen so many things that look real and aren’t, and heard so many things that sound true, but aren’t, that they might be a little jaded. I’m not talking about those of you who are here. My guess is that somewhere along the way you had an experience of Jesus that left you both astounded and amazed. You know this is real. But those who have never been here don’t know what you know. They haven’t had the same experiences you’ve had. And they might have seen and heard so many unbelievable things in their lives that they don’t know what to believe anymore. Some of them may have decided that it’s safer not to believe anything at all.
It makes this week’s Gospel reading all the more remarkable. Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum and begins to teach, and surely those people had heard it all before. They had heard everything Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Gamaliel had to say about every passage in the Bible. But they had never heard this: they had never heard Jesus. Mark tells us that the people were “knocked out” by his teaching, and when that demon was “cast out” they were amazed. They said, “What is this? A new teaching, with authority!” meaning that this stranger from Nazareth was teaching out of his own substance, but it took an unclean spirit to inform them that the substance out of which Jesus was teaching was the substance of God himself. “We know who you are!” it shouted, meaning all of them, every good and evil entity in the spiritual realm: “We know you are the Holy One of God!”
When it was over the people were amazed and astounded. Maybe that’s what we need, more than we know, and maybe that’s what those young people out there need, more than they can imagine: an encounter with Jesus, the Holy One of God. But when, and where, and how will that happen? Not many of them
are wandering into church on Sunday morning to see what’s going on. If Jesus can only be encountered here it might never happen for them. But just last week my wife, Christy, stood in this pulpit and said that she sees Jesus in you. She quoted Teresa of Avila who said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassionately on this world, yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes. You are his body.”
The good news of that quote is that other people may be able to encounter Christ in you, and they can do that anywhere you are, not only in church. But if they do—can I say this?—it’s got to be real. It’s got to be authentic. Young people these days can sniff out hypocrisy a mile away; they have been taught not to believe everything they see or everything they hear. So, if you are going to be for them the Body of Christ, it’s got to be real; it’s got to come out of your own life-giving, life-changing experience. But if you do this right—if you can show them the Jesus you know and love—it is possible that they will be both astounded and amazed, and that their lives will never be the same.
—Jim Somerville © 2024