Mark wrote that Jesus and his new followers went to Capernaum. It makes sense—Capernaum is where Jesus lived. That’s part of the back story here, part of what this Gospel does not tell us outright, part of what we do not see.
Mark writes that Jesus walks into the synagogue and begins to teach. At first, it sounds like he just shows up for the first time, but it isn’t his first day there. These people, including the leaders of the synagogue, already know Jesus—Mark tells us at the beginning of the next chapter that Capernaum is where Jesus is at home.
This time, though, there is something new. Jesus has a following, a set of disciples, although they don’t sound very impressive. And this time, straightaway, there is a challenge—a man with an “unclean spirit” barges in and harangues Jesus, presumably speaking its strange words in the voice of this wretched man. When Jesus tells the spirit to leave the man, it does, the people watching are amazed.
That makes twice in the same passage that the audience is amazed or astounded: first, with the authority that Jesus displays in teaching, and second with his power in casting out a demonic spirit.
We could delve into trying to understand this demon in other ways that are more acceptable to modern thought, such as by recasting the man’s condition as an illness, but that would do violence to the story as it is told. Mark’s story is one of opposites and one of anticipation.
Opposites, then. Jesus is accepted by the religious leaders and worshipers in the synagogue. At the same time, he is challenged by a voice speaking for demonic powers, who recognize him and fear his presence. The irony is that in the end it is not demons who put Jesus to death—it is the religious people.
Anticipation. When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit, it cries out with a loud voice as it leaves the man. Mark describes the death of Jesus in the same way in verse 37 of chapter 15.
The power that challenged Jesus in the beginning was not the one that killed him, or maybe it was. Maybe it was hard to recognize the same intent in such apparently different, plainly decent, people. There are some real life lessons there. Expect challenges, for one, particularly just when things start going well, and sometimes from unforeseen places.
Another is that true power does not come from dogma—Jesus did not teach like the scribes. He didn’t tell them the rules. He showed them the truth, and truth is never found in rules but in people. Rules can be written down. Facts are found in laboratories. Truth, like power, is found in the heart.
We might think about the anticipation written into Mark’s Gospel, this early echo of the death of Jesus captured in the casting out of a demon. The demon is driven, wrenched out of a man with a loud cry of pain and rage. Jesus breathes out his life with a loud cry, but of what? And though Jesus journeyed toward his own crucifixion just as surely as that man walked into the synagogue, was there a difference in how they left this life? Does it matter that Jesus knowingly walked toward his end, while the man was driven by powers he did not understand?
There are echoes in our lives as well, moments when we are reminded of the brevity of this life, when we pause in anticipation of our own end. That is good, to be reminded, to remember. Otherwise we are like those ancient scribes, scratching out the details of our lives to distract us from living, to distract us from dying. There is power in being reminded of death. We do not cherish things we believe we cannot lose, do we? If we believe that we will see days without end, will we ever pause to watch a child play or marvel at a star we have not seen?
There’s a watch you can buy that counts down the seconds left in your life. Really. It is based on actuarial tables, general forecasts of life expectancy, something like that. You can find it here, if you’re interested: mytikker.com (I have no commercial interest—the link is only for the curious. And no, I don’t intend to buy one either.) The idea is that being reminded of the brevity of life might help one appreciate living.
Jesus and the demon-possessed man are telling us something about how to live. The man, screaming even as he is being freed, tells us that there are things we need to let go in order to live—and the process might be painful.
Control is not power. Rules are not truth. Life is not without pain, but it is worth the pain to live.
“Follow me,” he said. We don’t know how many people heard the invitation, if it was an invitation. We don’t know how many people said no, or said nothing at all, turning their heads, their backs, choosing the path they were already on as though continuing on that path were not itself a choice.
We know of some who said yes. Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John, these four and a few others. Of the ones who followed him, a dozen or so men and a few women had names that we know. Some remain unnamed, unknown in our own time.
For those who got up and followed Jesus, did they know what they were doing? Did they mean to make a lifetime commitment, to leave their professions and livelihoods to follow this man? That is the version we are often told. Could it be that they were only intending to walk along the beach with him for a while, to see what he had to say that day?
Looking ahead, what did they know of their future? Looking back, did they know what they left behind?
Following God. It’s hard to make sense of those words in this modern age. Bright people tell us that gods are mythic expressions of our own minds or of our collective unconscious, and ironically it seems that our highest social goal is the expression of self. Believing in an actual God is regarded by many as the purview of the dimwitted, the obsession of the unenlightened, those among us too backward to think through to the conclusion that God was made in our image and not the other way around.
Yet some of us pray. In the midst of our doubts, we pray. In the midst of our uncertainty, we hope. In the fog of our unknowing, we follow, walking behind a God we cannot see.
They did not know, when they got up to follow this man Jesus, that they were making a good choice. They may not have thought of it as more than a lark, an afternoon diversion. Even if they had heard him talking to the crowds and seen the things he could do, there was plenty of room for doubt. Years later, after many more days and years of following than they had perhaps intended, they had seen so much, known the presence of God in their lives.
Even so, they must have had regrets, wondered whether they had made the right choices. If those earliest disciples had refused to follow Jesus that day, would they have known what they missed? Would they have known, saying no, what they were leaving behind?
We do not know which of our choices are good ones, not usually, and almost never at the time that we make them. We do not even know which of our choices are important, which ones will change our lives. We may think that the choice of a job or a school or even a spouse is important, and it is, so far as it goes. We may think that talking to a stranger in an airport or giving a coffee to a street person or picking up a book to read are small things.
Sometimes the least of these will change our lives the most in the end, and we may never know what we have left behind.
The disciple John had many years to reflect on his choices. Here is an excerpt from my novel I,John– the passage is in the voice of John himself, looking back on his decision to get up and follow the man Jesus. I hope you enjoy it.
In the beginning was the word. That is how it began, just words and a man who walked down the shore and found us in our father’s boat. That’s the truth of it. He walked around talking to anyone who would listen, and he found us. Why we got up and followed him, I wonder.
Look where it got us. Look where it got him.
My father’s boat—we spent so much of our childhood in it. I can barely remember what he looked like, my father, but I do remember his beard, his hands. And I remember his eyes, looking at me when Jesus called us to follow him—my father was staring at me like he was gauging the strength of a net. He nodded, I thought, at least it seemed to me later that he had nodded, had offered us that small blessing with the quick understanding of a father. He could read water, read the sky, read the fish swimming, and he read my brother and I, though he was looking at me. My brother James was always like a fish jumping for a light, holding back just for me and for our father to decide. James was the oldest, but while he often walked ahead of me, he somehow always seemed to be following me.
So our father, Zebedee, looked at me and nodded, and James and I put down the nets and walked away with Jesus. It was never the same afterward. Maybe that is why I remembered that moment. Something in me knew that it was important, that it marked a change. There are moments in our lives that matter, not that there are moments without value. It is just that some moments are like a point when we are touched by God. We are brought into contact with something greater than ourselves, outside ourselves, that resonates with the spirit within us. We never returned, not really, not to stay. Our father’s boats were finally given to the servants, and sometimes I felt regret and doubt for leaving that life. We had not understood when we walked away with Jesus that we would never return. I don’t know whether my father knew it, but we did not.
Maybe that is why I agreed to look after Mary in the end. I was an irresponsible son who walked away from my father and our family business, and looking after her offered me a sense of redemption. Not that I had any choice. He had found the strength to speak while hanging on that cross. “Behold your mother!” What was I going to say? No, thank you, I have other obligations? Maybe that was the reason he said it, made that effort as he hung there to place Mary in my care and me in hers. It was a gift, something that would heal the sense of guilt inside me that he knew I carried, though I never spoke of it. Perhaps he had known how much I missed my father just from my voice, or from the way I sometimes spoke to James, or perhaps Jesus simply knew.
I loved her, of course. Who could not love Mary? If James and I were marred by what we saw that day, watching him suffer, watching him die, then she was more so.
And he was certainly dead.
I was left remembering all of it, at least I was left remembering those days. They were in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it was the same. Some moments stood out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. One might think that the crucifixion was my most vivid memory, but it was not. Oh, I remembered that day, certainly, but it was not what haunted my dreams or crept into my waking thoughts. I remembered blind men, and Mary. I remembered Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remembered the bread that Jesus gave us.
Most of all, I dreamed of that morning at the shore.
Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.
No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.
Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.
“Friends, have you got any fish?”
I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.
No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.
“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”
All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.
The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.
“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.
There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.
Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed. The women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.
“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.
In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.
I, John is available now from booksellers everywhere!
Nathanael was a dreamer. There is nothing wrong with that. There is much that is very right about sitting under a fig tree and watching the world around you. It doesn’t even have to be a fig tree, or a tree at all. A park bench will do. A curb. A quiet corner.
In some ways dreaming must have been easier in Nathanael’s day—fewer distractions. On the other hand, where did he find the spare time? Life in general was more difficult then, or so we think as we busy ourselves with our gadgets and conveniences. We have traded the joy of a meal for the convenience of fast food, and our lives are the less for it.
Perhaps that is what Nathanael was doing when Jesus spotted him—having a meal. There are worse places to have lunch than under a tree. Of course, he may have been taking a nap, or waiting for a friend.
Jesus saw something in this young man, not that we even know how old Nathanael was. He could have been quite old. He may have sat under that same tree with a loaf of bread and a little wine every day for forty years, for all we know. Maybe he was famous for sitting and day dreaming, the sort of old man who feeds the birds with scraps from his lunch.
Jesus spotted him as an honest man. Maybe there was something open and inviting in the way Nathanael looked out at the world, expecting something to happen or someone to call him to join an adventure.
He certainly got one.
Jesus promised Nathanael that he would see “…heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man.” That would be something, heaven opened to our view, and angels coming and going. I wonder whether Nathanael ever got to see it. If so, the gospels fail to mention it. If Nathanael wrote a gospel himself, it’s been lost. We may never know whether he saw those angels. We do know that he saw plenty after that day under the fig tree. He saw enough.
He was amazed that Jesus had seen him and known what sort of man he was, just from looking at him. It must have been a simple thing for Jesus, like a circus announcer knowing at a glance whether a child will prefer the tigers and elephants or the clowns. Whether the insight Jesus had was human or from God, Nathanael was amazed.
You ain’t seen nothing yet, Jesus told him.
According to the Gospel stories, Nathanael saw sick people healed, blind given their sight, and the dead raised back to life. He heard some of the most profound teaching that has ever been spoken on the planet. He listened as one man challenged the practices of an ancient religion and belief systems stretching beyond the Roman empire. Perhaps even more amazing, more spellbinding, was watching a man walking willfully and purposefully toward his own end for a higher purpose.
We are mesmerized by computers and video screens. We are astonished by government waste and abuse. We are fascinated by the failures of the famous, enthralled by the excesses of the rich, captivated by the atrocities of terrorists, evil regimes and unlikely lunatics. Why are we amazed at these things?
We walk past children and flowers as though they were commonplace throughout the universe. They aren’t. A fig tree doesn’t get a second glance, even if it got a first one, and nobody wastes time standing around under the thing. Viruses replicate, stars flame, and water dances within and around us, pouring through our veins, falling from the sky, dancing as ice crystals and clouds, and we either take no notice or complain. We move in bodies made of stardust, and we have forgotten the wonder of it.
There is so much in our lives that should astound us, so much that should settle or shake our faith. We are amazed when we stumble upon the things we did not see but that were there all along.
Hearing a kind word when we did not know we were seen. Disregard from people we love. Love from someone we had not noticed. The laughter of children, the love of dogs, and the toleration of cats. The ability of human beings to get out of bed when the day before has taken everything from them. Sunlight. Starlight. The vivid elasticity of memory. The power of dreams. A changing heart. The brevity of our years.
We should stop to look, stop to be seen. Breathe the air, watch the light, look for what is in plain sight that we have not noticed. Hurrying is not the best use of our time. Being busy is not the same as being alive. Talking about God is not the same as being touched by God.
Nathanael professed faith in Jesus as soon as they met. It was not because of what Nathanael saw in Jesus. It was because of what Jesus had seen in him.
We are surrounded by people, captured on cameras, pulled into roles that fill the minutes of every day, and still we often feel that we are unseen, unknown, strangers to one another, moving so very alone and invisible through crowds of people like ourselves. We realize that the people who do not see us are themselves also unseen, that each of them is as surrounded and as alone as we. And we do not see them, because we are lost in our own solitary way through the crowd. We tell ourselves that we value our anonymity, that it is safe.
When you were under the fig tree, I saw you, Jesus said. I noticed. I saw you standing there, unseen by everyone but me.
It is amazing what being seen, really seen, by another human being can do.
Imagine being seen, really seen, by God.
That is what faith is all about—simply believing that God sees us, even when we cannot see God.
Familiar things are the hardest ones to see. We walk past them, overlook them, think we already know everything about them—how they look, what they mean, what they are going to tell us. But we don’t know them, not really. We only know what we think about them, which is not the same thing.
There is a glass sun on a slender pole outside my front door. It is beautiful, a once blue glass disc with metal sunbursts, a face with a bemused smile on the glass. Days go by before I see that the disc of the face is turned in its frame, rotated so that it is looking at me sideways, napping. I do not know if it is the wind, or whether children come and move it, perhaps on a dare or to find out how long it will take me to notice. I seldom do. Perhaps it moves with the help of the birds, or somehow more mysterious. As I said, I often walk by without even seeing it.
I have an image in my mind of how that glass sun appears, a memory of it standing new in the corner of a shop, when my daughter was a toddler. Yet every time that I stop to look at it, I realize that it does not match the image in my mind. The color is different. The blue is more pale, or more green. The smile is less, or maybe more, friendly. I find that I do not know this sun so well as I may have thought.
John the Baptist again—the lectionary insists that we keep returning to the Gospels to read about him, even though we already know him. We already know God, for that matter, and the entire Christmas story. A child in a manger, angels singing, wise men, sheep and shepherds, we know them all.
And so we cannot see them.
We do not see our neighbor, because we know her, and if we stop to see the burden she is carrying we may have to lift some of it ourselves. We do not look for God, because we already know as much as we care to know, thank you. Seeing God would be life changing, and we are not that brave or that stupid. Why look in the mirror when the image we imagine is more pleasing?
Stating the obvious, that is what I am doing. We don’t care to hear it. We already know what it means, and we have all heard this sermon a hundred different ways, so why listen now?
“He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him.” Was that John or Jesus who saw, and did the other one even notice? And the voice that came from heaven, who heard it? Who believes such a thing happened, or was it only a way of telling a story, a wrinkle in the Gospel narrative, and do we hear this voice at all? If I hear a voice, could it be God, or must it be my unconscious mind talking to me? How do I know the difference?
Anyway, how do you talk about God to people who are tired of listening? When did it happen that talking about God, or, God help you, the Bible, was the same as being intellectually insipid? Why are skeptics celebrated as insightful and brilliant, while those who are open to possibilities of the spirit considered dimwitted?
If I can walk past a glass sun at my own front door and not see it, what makes me think I would notice God-things? We don’t see the things we know are there. Why would we ever see or hear the things that we may doubt? It is ironic—those who claim to know God do not look for what they think they already know, while those who deny the existence of God do not look for what they refuse to accept.
It’s a wonder that anyone notices God at all. In fact, it’s a miracle.
Just look at the messengers. John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness. An unlikely bunch of rough disciples. Women. Most of the New Testament written by a zealot claiming mystical experiences. More women. Prophets who wore strange clothes, or no clothes, or who otherwise exhibited odd and unusual behaviors, things that might indicate mushrooms were involved. Judging by all of these people, it seems that God does not speak through the mainstream. The people existing comfortably in the middle already know what they want to know, and they’ve heard all the voices they care to hear.
God is on the edges, witnessed by the fringe elements of the faith community. Remember, Jesus himself was an outsider, rejected and killed by the intelligentsia. It was only years later that he became a central, loved, and respected figure at the heart of what is now Christianity.
The world we think we know, the people we know too well to see, the truth we think we understand—these are what separate us from God. We fail to know God, not because God is far away, but because all that is holy is too close for us to see.
No one has ever seen God, says the evangelist John in the first chapter of his Gospel. Never mind the vision of Isaiah, or Elijah in the cave, or Moses on Mount Sinai: they were mistaken, or only had a glimpse, or perhaps it all happened in their minds. Only the Son has seen the Father, John tells us, leaving us in the quagmire of understanding the Trinity, one God in three Persons, Father, Son and Spirit.
As we have said elsewhere, we may be like God, but God is not like us.
And what does John the Baptizer have to do with all of this? All of the Gospel writers insisted on the importance of this odd man in the wilderness, pointing people to God. What is the big deal, and why should we spend time at Christmas remembering such an outlandish man?
Perhaps pointing people to God is the message of Christmas, and that is what mattered about John the Baptist. He wasn’t making a fuss about himself, certainly wasn’t dressing to impress or living out the delusion that the world revolved around him. In that regard he was a spiritual Galileo or Copernicus, pointing out that the world, in fact, is centered elsewhere. We might consider living the same way—centered elsewhere. Both Johns, the Gospel writer and wilderness prophet, tell us so.
For all that we grasp the shape of our solar system, we cling to our notion of a world that spins around us.
A Christmas resolution then:
May we be centered in God, not in ourselves. May we live life better for knowing it is not only about us. May we keep Christmas by pointing to the presence of God, the holy Other all around us.
God has come into our world, and God will come into our world. Blessed are those who see.