Jesus Can Work Anytime, Anywhere
Psychologist Madeline Levine has been counseling teenagers for over 25 years, but recently she’s begun to see a new breed of unhappy teenagers – smart, successful, and privileged kids who feel utterly lost and empty. For Levine, one client in particular typified this kind of unhappy teenager. Late on a Friday afternoon – the last appointment of her week – she saw a 15-year-old girl who was “bright, personable, highly pressured by her adoring, but frequently preoccupied … parents.” The girl was also “very angry.”
Levine quickly recognized the girl’s “cutter disguise” – a long-sleeve t-shirt pulled halfway over her hand, with an opening torn in the cuff for her thumb. These kinds of t-shirts are used to hide self-mutilating behaviors: cutting with sharp instruments, piercing with safety pins, or burning with matches. Suicide isn’t the goal when people engage in this kind of self-harm. It’s a way of discharging the pain inside. It’s a way of feeling … something. When this young girl pulled back her sleeve, Levine was startled to find that the girl had used a razor to carve the following word onto her forearm – “EMPTY.”
I tried to imagine how intensely unhappy my young patient must have felt to cut her distress into her flesh …. The most common thing I hear in my office from the kids is, “I’m fake.” The surface of [their family life] always looks good …. The lawns are always perfectly manicured, the houses always look beautiful. But when you get to what’s going on beneath these kids’ T-shirts, there’s not much happening inside.
Empty. I’m not sure there’s a sadder word. Not when someone uses it to describe what they feel inside. It’s like there’s this deep, dark cavern inside. A black hole. And no matter what they try to fill it with – accolades and accomplishments, nice things, relationships and sex – that emptiness is still there. Unwavering. Unrelenting. Like a black hole it swallows everything they use to try to fill it.
“I’m fake.” This world is filled with people terrified that if anyone sees beneath the surface, beneath the façade, they’ll see the emptiness inside. And then they’ll know that it’s all a façade. Is there something that can fill the black hole inside every one of us that consumes everything we try to stuff it with?
In the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus, on a Jewish Sabbath, teaching and healing, and setting free. And everywhere he goes, he finds people desperate for … something. Something to fill the emptiness inside. As we continue our series on the Gospel of Mark, turn with me to Mark 1:21-34. As we read, there are two words I want you to notice – “immediately” and “astonished.” In fact, I’ve asked Gregg to highlight those words in all caps and bold print, and whenever we come to one of those words in this text, I want you to read that highlighted word out loud with me. Are you ready? Here we go.
Early church father St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Likewise, French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every [person] which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” The problem is, we’d rather try anything but Jesus to fill that God-shaped hole, to calm that restlessness, to fill the emptiness. So when Jesus shows up, his presence is quite disturbing.
Jesus and his first disciples – Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John – head to Capernaum, a Jewish town on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. And, as any good Jewish rabbi and his followers would, they head to the synagogue on the sabbath and Jesus stands up to teach. But there was something radically different about this new rabbi. For starters, his disciples weren’t the best and brightest of Jewish students, like the disciples of other rabbis would be. You became the disciple of a rabbi as the final step in a Jewish educational system intentionally so that ONLY the best and brightest made it all the way to the top. Everyone else would have hit the exit ramp at some point, no longer able to keep up. And this wasn’t a bad thing. It just was. They would leave school and apprentice with someone, usually their father, learning his trade. And Jesus found all four of the disciples he has so far on the shores of the Sea of Galilee fishing. Not recreationally fishing. They were learning the trade of the fisherman – in James and John’s case, mentored by their father Zebedee.
But there was something else that was weird about Jesus, this new rabbi. He had spent several years down the road in Nazareth working as a carpenter, the trade of his father Joseph. Jesus hadn’t gone all the way through the system either. Now, we know he wasn’t dumb. At 12 years of age his knowledge of the Jewish scriptures was so deep that he astonished the scribes and rabbis, not in some local synagogue like the one in Capernaum, but in the Jerusalem temple itself – where the best of the best of the best were found. But for whatever reason, perhaps because his father Joseph died and he needed to take over the family business to support Mary and his brothers and sisters, Jesus became a carpenter like his father before him. We don’t actually know what happened to Joseph. We know only that he disappears from the story after the birth and childhood narratives of Jesus’ life. And we know that until he was about 30 years of age, Jesus worked as a carpenter in his hometown, the Galilean town of Nazareth.
So here comes this carpenter-turned-rabbi, which was kind of unheard of, and his newly found collection of disciples who had just left the fishing industry to follow Jesus, which was very unheard of. And yet, when he teaches, he speaks as one who has real authority. Look at Vv. 21-22. Scribes were experts in the Jewish scriptures, which were also their laws. And when they taught on a passage, they would read the passage, and then mention the most common interpretations from the different Jewish schools of thought: the school of Hillel and the school of Sammai, each named after their rabbi. And then they scribes would side with one or the other of the major schools of thought, and the teaching would be full of debate and theoretic reflection on the meaning of the scripture. But that isn’t how Jesus taught. His teaching wasn’t based on the authority of others. His teaching was based on the authority that he carried within himself.
And this was disconcerting to the people. Mark tells us that they were “astonished.” But the word he used is actually stronger than our word “astonished.” Both the style and the content of Jesus’ teaching caused the people real alarm. It discombobulated them. They didn’t know what to do with it. Or with him. And what was his message? The same as it has been thus far in Mark’s gospel – repent and believe. Turn away from the things you’ve been pursuing, the things you’ve tried to fill the gaping hole inside with, and trust me.
Now, look at what happens as Jesus teaches. Look at Vv. 23-26. Remember, Jesus and his first disciples are in the synagogue. This was the Jewish version of a worship service in that day, and the demon-possessed man was fully comfortable there UNTIL JESUS SHOWED UP AND STARTED TEACHIING. Now, be careful. This is not a critique of Jewish worship. This is a critique of ANY worship – protestant, catholic, orthodox, Jewish, or any other – in which Jesus is not the focus and the center. Jesus’ presence and teaching was disturbing, not just for the people but for the powers of darkness too!
This man’s personality was so damaged that the demon had taken over his seat of self and actually spoke through him. And the demon knows exactly who Jesus is. He understands the decisive significance of Jesus’ presence. The battle that had begun when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan was ongoing.
Today there are a lot of theologians and Bible teachers, especially in cultures like ours, who downplay the demonic. They’ll say that what people in the ancient world attributed to demonic activity was actually just severe mental illness. And today we know better. We’re enlightened.
The Washington Post ran a controversial op-ed piece titled, “As a psychiatrist, I diagnose mental illness. Also, I help spot demonic possession.” The subtitle read, “How a scientist learned to work with exorcists.” The author, Richard Gallagher, is a board-certified psychiatrist and a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. Dr. Gallagher wrote:
For the past two-and-a-half decades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness – which represent the overwhelming majority of cases – from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist – open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people – led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions.
Is it possible to be a sophisticated psychiatrist and believe that evil spirits are, however seldom, assailing humans? Most of my scientific colleagues and friends say no, because of their frequent contact with patients who are deluded about demons, their general skepticism of the supernatural, and their commitment to employ only standard, peer-reviewed treatments that do not potentially mislead (a definite risk) or harm vulnerable patients. But careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.
So far the article has generated nearly 3,000 comments, mostly from people whose worldview does not permit the reality of demon possession or even the existence of demons.
Now, I want you to notice that Mark actually differentiates between illness of any kind and demonic activity. In Mark’s Gospel, ,when people who are dealing with an illness are healed, they always refer to Jesus as Lord, Teacher, Master, or Son of David. His human titles. But when demonic activity is present, they always refer to Jesus as the Holy One of God, Son of God, or Son of the Most High God. Titles that emphasize his divine nature and the spiritual conflict taking place behind the scenes as Jesus walks the earth.
Now, notice what the demon does. He calls Jesus by name. Many people in the ancient world believed that if you spoke the name of a spiritual power, you could exercise control over that power. So the demon is trying to control Jesus, but Jesus simply shrugs it off, tells the demon to shut up, and orders him to come out of them man. And violently, the demon obeys. Because he must. Jesus is clearly in control here. Look at Vv. 27-28. The people are again astonished. Alarmed. Shocked. Disturbed. They were familiar with exorcists and exorcisms. But with Jesus there was no special technique used or spell or incantation spoken. There was no symbolic act. Just the power and authority of his word. His disturbing presence. His disturbing word.
Perhaps the most astounding thing here is that Jesus doesn’t try to have the man removed when he interrupts Jesus’ sermon. He doesn’t remove the troublemaker, he delivers him. Jesus never pushes those who are in need away. Look at vv. 29-31. Church is over, and Jesus and his disciples head over the Simon Peter and Andrews house for fried chicken and the football game. Ministry time is over, right? They’re at home. Not so fast. Peter’s mother in law is sick. Really sick. The phrasing Mark chose for describing her fever is actually “burning up” with fever. Jesus goes from church to home, and just as need found him in the church, it has found him at home. But Jesus doesn’t say “come and see me tomorrow, the game’s on” or “I’m too tired and hungry to help right now.” No! He touches her and heals her. Completely heals her. I mean, she gets up and starts serving dinner. No recuperation period needed. Jesus heals us so that we can better serve him, and others.
Now, look down at Vv. 32-34. Word has traveled. This carpenter turned rabbi has the authority and power to deliver from demonic oppression and to heal the sick. Mark tells us the whole city showed up at Peter and Andrew’s door seeking healing and deliverance. And Jesus healed and delivered. He didn’t send them away. Jesus came to preach the coming of the kingdom of God. He came to preach about the need for repentance and trust. They came to see a miracle worker and be healed. They were empty and desperate. And he touched them. He healed them. He delivered them. He met them where they were, in their need. It didn’t matter that they weren’t in a worship service in the synagogue anymore. Wherever Jesus was, when he met need and emptiness, he brought himself fully and healed and filled. He brought hope.
Now, what’s the deal with all of the “immediately’s”? First, Jesus is now moving with purpose. He enters Capernaum and immediately goes to the synagogue to teach, to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. And then he moves with purpose from the synagogue to the house, where his ministry continues. There are no accidents with Jesus. There is no happenstance. There is only divine mission, and divine appointments.
You don’t just happen upon someone who needs to hear about Jesus, or who needs healing, or hope. It may appear like circumstance and happenstance, but it is, always, a divine appointment, if you are moving with purpose, understanding that wherever you find yourself today, there are people around you who are empty, hurting, lost, and in need of hope. And as an apprentice of Jesus, his disturbing power is there flowing through you into the hearts and minds and lives of the people you meet every day.
A college-aged Christian named Angie wrote of her encounter with an international student just before Christmas, 2006:
I had a divine appointment on the flight from Chicago to Lincoln sitting next to a 19-year-old Saudi Arabian guy, Ali, who was on his way to begin at the University here in Lincoln….
As soon as I heard that he’d never been in the U.S. before and was from the Middle East, I felt Jesus tugging at my heart. After a little chit chat about his feelings about being so far from home and asking what he knew about American culture or life in Nebraska, I told him I was a follower of Jesus. I asked about his spiritual background. I told him that he’d probably meet a number of people in Nebraska who are Christians, and said it’d probably be helpful to understand a little of where they’re coming from. I pulled out the 4 [Spiritual] Laws and read through each point with him….
We talked a little bit more, and then I went to read my book. He went back to the booklet and read it cover to cover! I could hardly concentrate, I was so excited. I prayed for him as he was reading it, thankful to have been reminded this morning in the Word that God is the one who works, convicting people of their need for him. After he finished reading, I asked him what he thought, and he said it was very interesting.
As we landed I told him I’d pray for him…then was convicted that I should do it right there. Scary!!! What would this Muslim think? I asked if I could pray for him, and he immediately said yes. At the baggage claim I went over and met his cousin and invited them both to an American culture event: Christmas Eve service at our church! We’ll see!
This is why I love being a Christian—it’s heart-pounding-scary at times and exhilarating when I see someone that I know Jesus wants to come to him, and I have the choice to step out in faith or stay in security. The disturbing power and disturbing presence of Jesus is there living in you. Who are you going to share it with today? Jesus can work anytime, anywhere. Let us pray.