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A Day in Capernaum

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Feb 08

Text: Mark 1:29-39

Have you had one of those days recently when you just feel harried? Too many things to do, too many pressing demands? Everything on your to-do list seems to be top priority. Maybe your paper was due last night or your project is past deadline. Or a supervisor keeps piling on tasks. Maybe your best-laid plans have gone awry. The carpool arrangement has fallen apart, or you’re half an hour late because of snow. Time crashes in and you just can’t be everywhere you need to be. Or maybe (if you’re like me) life presents so many amazing and important opportunities that it’s hard to say “no” and you end up with way too much on your plate? Have you ever had one of those crazy, busy days?

Jesus was having one of those days in Capernaum. He had barely begun his public ministry, but already, his fame was spreading and people pressed in on him from every quarter. He has gone to stay at Simon’s and Andrew’s house and Mark tells us “the whole city gathered around the door. And Jesus cured many who were sick and cast out many demons.”

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place to pray.” Jesus probably began each day with prayer, following the Jewish custom to which the Psalms testify: “O Lord, I cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” (Psalm 88:13) We can assume that Jesus put on a woolen tallit—a prayer shawl—with its tzitzit (fringe) hanging down—as was the custom for Jewish men. He went out to pray in quiet place, far from the house, the busy center of town, away from the crowds.

Any of you who have a regular spiritual practice of some kind—whether it’s prayer, meditation, scripture study, even running or lap swimming—whatever your practice—will recognize how important that practice is for grounding, helping you stay calm and centered, and helping you stay clear and focused in the midst of great demands, the cacophony of voices calling out for attention.

Any of you who tend toward introversion will recognize the importance of time alone for recharging and reflecting. No matter how much you love being with people and no matter how important the tasks, time apart is crucial for the spirit. This is a matter in which we can support and encourage each other to find the time our spirits need.

Jesus gets no such encouragement from the disciples. To the contrary. As Jesus is searching out the time he needs to be alone with God in the practice of prayer, the disciples track him down. “Everyone is searching for you,” they say. “Look, there is more work to be done here. People are clamoring for you. Come.”

The disciples hunt him down. That’s what the Greek word (kat-ad-ee-o'-ko) katadoiko means. It is a strong verb, not a gentle inquisitive seeking, but an urgent quest. Even a word that carries a tone of foreboding. The disciples mean well, but they bring to Jesus their own priorities and sense of urgency.

There must have been plenty of urgent demands in Capernaum. We twenty-first century sophisticates sometimes succumb to the error of idealizing earlier times. As if life was simpler and everything was somehow clear and straightforward for people in first century Palestine. In order to do justice to these stories, this rich tradition we have inherited, we need to do justice to the time in which Jesus was living. Peoples’ lives were plenty complex.

The setting for today’s reading is first-century Capernaum, in the heart of Galilee. Capernaum was a small town on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, which is also known as Kinneret, Lake of Gennesaret, or Lake Tiberias. Located in the Jordan Rift Valley, a valley created by the separation of the African and Arabian tectonic plates, the Sea of Galilee is over 200 meters below sea level, making it the lowest freshwater lake in the world. Fed by underground springs, the primary inlet to Sea of Galilee is the Jordan River, flowing in from the north.

Capernaum was established during the Hellenistic period—the 2nd century BCE—and in Jesus’ time it was a large Jewish village, sited on a major road that linked the Galilean region to the south with Damascus to the north. Most of the population were farmers and merchants and—of course, fishermen—like Simon and Andrew’s family.

We know from archaeological evidence that Capernaum’s synagogue was built of Galilean limestone. But houses were made of volcanic basalt, covered in plaster. When we imagine the house where Jesus stayed—where he healed Simon’s mother-in-law—we can picture a central courtyard surrounded by smaller rooms.

The first century Mediterranean world was populated by faith healers and people claiming to have special curative powers. Lacking modern medicine, these must have been in high demand and we can imagine that part of crowd’s response to Jesus—part of the clamor—was because he really did heal people.

In the hill country outside the small towns, were itinerant preachers—like John the Baptist—with various claims to power and authority. We know, too, that there were a wide range of political groups (often imbued with a religious flavor)—including the Zealots and the Sicarii.

In the towns, daily rituals were practiced, holidays and festivals were important, synagogue worship was central, and Sabbath observance was a unifying practice. But there were many expressions of Judaism (many Judaisms), not a single monolithic Judaism. We read about Pharisees, Sadducees, and Levites and can begin to piece together the complexity and variety of expression, even the tensions between various sects and schools of Judaism.

Into this complicated, contested world, Jesus comes, with clarity of purpose. And he gets right to work. Mark’s gospel begins with the force of a train that has left the station. And it gathers momentum quickly. In today’s reading—only 29 verses into Mark’s gospel—Jesus is busy with healings, exorcisms, teaching and preaching. And he seems to have a clear sense of his mission. The gospel begins with the ancient prophecy from Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mk 1:2-3).

Immediately we meet John the Baptist (Mark gives 8 verses to “Cousin John”), Jesus is baptized (3 verses), he is tempted in the wilderness (2 verses), begins his Galilean ministry (2 verses), calls his first disciples (4 verses), and heals a man with an unclean spirit (which takes 6 verses). Jesus’ fame spreads throughout Galilee.

Reading the gospel of Mark is like coming into the theater ten minutes into an action film. We find ourselves wondering, “who is this man?” and “what’s going on?”

Mark has no fancy preamble. There’s no begetting. No birth narrative. No royal lineage. No heavenly portents, guiding stars, angelic pronouncements, no virgin mother, no mensch of a father. Mark doesn’t give us much to situate Jesus or tell us who he is. There is precious little to legitimate his ministry, or to give us (or the disciples, for that matter!) a road map.

Just the full-fledge adult Jesus on a busy day in Galilee immersed in the work of healing, teaching and preaching. Whether from a sense of urgency or simple clarity, Jesus is wasting no time.

He is occupied with making God’s power and presence manifest to the people in the small hill towns in Galilee. When the disciples in Capernaum hunt Jesus down, telling him, “They are searching for you,” “There are many more in Capernaum who have need of healing,” why does Jesus press on? Why does he not linger and heal every last soul in that small town? How does he know when it’s time to head out? How does he know what his mission is? What else does he have in mind? What more?

Mark gives us a single potent glimpse of divine revelation at the moment of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, when God speaks to him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” (Mk 1:11)

A single, compact verse that reveals Jesus’ identity. You are my Son, the Beloved. But what does it mean to be the Son of God?

With Ash Wednesday ten days from now, the season of Lent will begin and during Lent we will be asking who is Jesus for us? Not only in the context of first century Palestine, but in our context now—with all its diversity and complexity and all the demands of our lives. We hope you will join us for worship and Lenten study as we explore together Jesus’ question: “Who do you say I am?”

Today we get a first glimpse. If Jesus’ baptism is his inauguration into ministry, here in Mark 1:38-39 is his own statement of purpose. When the disciples come to him in Capernaum to press in on him with their demands, Jesus responds, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”

And with that he leaves Capernaum, and heads out into the “Galilee, proclaiming the message in the synagogues and casting out demons.” (Mk 1:38-39)

Let us go on to the neighboring towns.

What does it mean to be the Son of God? If we want to understand that, we will have to wait and see what Jesus says and does. We will have to follow him through the Galilee and, eventually, into Jerusalem.


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