The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”
They went to Capernaum; and 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. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he 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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching — with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
“It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, the Jews of Capernaum went to the synagogue. Some of them went sleepily, others went with a great weariness following a busy week of work. Still others trekked over in a rather irritable mood for who knows why–maybe it had been no more than that they were out of cream cheese back at the house and the bagel at breakfast that morning just wasn’t as good without it. In any event, something set them off and so they weren’t in the best of moods as they approached synagogue. Still others arrived having bickered with their kids on the way over. “We’re going to God’s house, for pity sake! Shape up, you kids!”
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
From various paths, emerging from a variety of experiences in the week gone by, awash in a welter of differing emotions and mental states, they came. They came because, among other things, it was frankly their pious habit to do so. For as long as many of them could remember they had gone to synagogue on Sabbath morning. It was the thing to do. It was what was expected of you. You went to the synagogue, moved your way through the fairly dull and predictable liturgy, listened as the scribes read a portion of the Torah, sang a Hallel doxology, and then you went home for the feast day meal at noon.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to synagogue.
But on that particular morning, Jesus of Nazareth was there, and his presence would create a worship service no one would ever forget. Few, if anyone, had ever heard of him before and once they looked into the bulletin and saw he was from Nazareth originally, a few perhaps groaned inwardly. But then he started to teach and although he was no John the Baptist full of theatrics and arm-waving fire-and-brimstone rhetoric, there was something striking in the very way this Jesus spoke.
It wasn’t just that his ideas and vocabulary were fresh and innovative and it wasn’t simply that he was a better orator than they at first guessed. Rather, there was something in the very presence of the man that made you want to sit up straighter. Even the teenagers, who had worked so hard at perfecting a bored-stiff look on their faces, couldn’t help perking up, slouching a bit less and listening more closely than they’d care to admit.
This man had authority. He had a moral gravity, a weightiness and substance to him that people found difficult to explain. Somehow they sensed that this man and the message about God’s kingdom he was talking about were one and the same thing. This man’s impact had nothing to do with any seminary diplomas he had hanging on his wall. It did not stem from his once having been ordained and it wasn’t just because he had clearly done his homework, had practiced his sermon, and so was able to preach without distracting stutters. No, this man was the very message he was proclaiming. They couldn’t quite put their finger on it, but this man packed a wallop just by virtue of being there at all.
A few folks were starting to whisper their amazement even as others scrawled a furtive “Wow!” on the bulletin and then showed it to the person next to them. They were just starting to realize that something extraordinary was happening when suddenly and from the back pew a shriek went up. “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?! Have you come to wipe us out already!? I know who you are, you are the Holy One of God!”
Well, this didn’t happen every week in worship, either!
“Be quiet!” Jesus commanded. And everyone there was glad he said it because it was on the tip of their tongues, too. You can’t tolerate that kind of thing in church. The only thing for such an interruption is to tell the person to hush and then hope the ushers get over there fast to bring this sadly crazed person to the narthex. Everyone in the synagogue was thinking “Be quiet!” and so they were glad Jesus said it out loud on their mutual behalf.
But then Jesus said something that no one else had had in mind: “Come out of him!” And no sooner were those words out of Jesus’ mouth and the man convulsed! He shook like a leaf in a violent wind before shrieking one last time and then collapsing into a heap. But then the hapless fellow was better. The fire had gone out of his eyes and a look of calm came over him.
At that precise moment, however, he was the only calm-looking one in the whole place! Everyone else was scraping their jaws off the floor! This just didn’t happen every week at church! By that late in the service on a typical Sabbath people’s thoughts usually began to drift to other vital things, like will they get home in time to keep the pot roast from drying out and is little Martin behaving himself in Sabbath center. But not today! No one’s mind wandered, no one turned his thoughts to the mundane or the typical. They had encountered Jesus, and he was all they could talk about for a long time to come.
It was the Sabbath and so, naturally, they went to the Synagogue…” 1
What was it about Jesus that was so engaging that morning? Why was Jesus able to see that the crazed man wasn’t speaking for himself? This re-telling of this morning gospel text by author Scott Hoezee emphasized how passionate, engaging, and inspiring Jesus was. I mean, after all, he was able to get the teenagers to perk up just a little bit! But what made him that way?
We could simply say that Jesus was the Son of God, and as such, it was in his DNA to be able to grab everyone’s attention and get them to understand what he was saying. But I think it was much more. As we all know, just because something is in your DNA doesn’t mean you are automatically successful at it. It was much more than DNA that enabled Jesus to have such a presence that morning. It was his passion, a passion he had received from God when he rooted himself in the traditions and stories of his ancestral past and in the present of God moving within him. Jesus had just spent forty days in the desert, forty days in isolation, forty days being tempted by evil, forty days grounding himself in the history and story of his people and in God. Jesus was able to teach with authority and cast out the demon accusing him of trying to change tradition because Jesus had spent forty days understanding his story and the traditions that rooted him and reinterpreting those traditions to match his context.
As James Balwin wrote in The Fire Next Time, “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.” 2
Dr. Walter Earl Fluker writes in his book Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community, “…there must be a place of beginning for those who would seek change and transformation. Such a place must be the province of the individual – not the solitary individual who is disassociated from history, but the individual who is rooted in the ambiguities and possibilities of history and yet dares to believe in
and hope for a livable future.” 3
As Christians trying to discern our presence and impact in a world where Christianity seems to be “outdated,” we must root ourselves in our story in order to use our traditions as a lens to develop our vision for the future. As sociologist Edwin Shils reminds us, the authority of tradition is not “because it has always been done that way,” instead its authority lays its ability to root us in our past while helping us envision the
future. 4 When we become aware of the power of tradition to restore our spiritual center while rooting us in our history, we become open to the present as well as the future. This openness allows us to connect with the passion God has graced us with to explore new options and strategies while still being anchored in the values that guide, inform, and project us into the future. 5 Our call to be rooted in our story and in tradition is not a static thing, it is a dynamic process of analysis, interpretation, and response to our present and future context.” 6
Our story and traditions, as Howard Thurman describes it in his meditation “The Growing Edge” are the “roots that are silently at work in the darkness of the earth at a time when there shall be new leaves, Fresh blooms, and green fruit… the upward reach of life when weariness closes up all endeavors… the [motivation] to carry on when times are out of joint and [we] have lost their reason, [and] the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. 7
When we place ourselves over our story, when we allow our roots to sprawl out over our history, just like Jesus was doing in Capernaum on that Sabbath morning, we enable ourselves to become rooted in traditions that will allow us to interpret our present context and envelope us with the passion to bear fruit in the future. Jesus was able to teach with such authority that Sabbath morning because he was rooted in the history of his people, as well as shrouded in the passion God invoked in him.
As we go out into the world this week, I encourage you to let your roots out, to take notice of where your roots get tangled up and where they want to take hold. Because where your roots take hold is where your passion will become known. And through the lens of tradition, your passion will bear fruit for the future. So, I encourage you to go out with your roots showing, because where your roots take hold fruit will come.
1 Scott Hoezee, The Center of Excellence in Preaching: Epiphany 4B The Lectionary Gospel, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/epiphany- 4b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel. Accessed on January 22, 2018.
2 Fluker, Walter E., Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community. Prisms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. 3.
3 Fluker, Walter E., Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community. Prisms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. 5.
4 Fluker, Walter E., Ethical Leadership The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community. Prisms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. 53.
5 Fluker, Walter E., Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community. Prisms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. 54.
6 Fluker, Walter E., Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community. Prisms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. 54.
7 Fluker, Walter E., Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community. Prisms. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. 83 also see endnote 66 in the book.