Sermon for January 31st

Old Testament Reading Deuteronomy 18:15–20

Epistle Reading: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Second Gospel Reading: Mark 1:21–28

Sermon: “Authority!”

The ruins of Capernaum sit about a hundred feet above the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s an usual site in that region because the stones are dark volcanic rock, not at all like the limestone of most of the region. It was the hometown of Simon Peter and if you go there today, you can see the foundations of his house and the ruins of the synagogue where events of today’s gospel reading take place. Mark tells us that while walking down along the shoreline, Jesus has already begun to call his disciples – Simon whom Jesus nicknamed Peter(Rocky) and his brother Andrew, and the two sons of old Zebedee, James and John who nicknamed “the Sons of Thunder”.

Our story occurs on a Saturday as the people of the town were gathering at the Synagogue for worship – much as we are gathered here today. They were no doubt curious about the new teacher who had come to town. The one who had been going around the region of Galilee proclaiming “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” They could not have possibly know just how close the king of that kingdom really was, as he come in and sat down among them, likely accompanied by those four local disciples. The very Son of God had come among them and they did not now it yet, but they were about to get a couple of pretty good clues.

As was customary for a visiting rabbi, Jesus would have been invited to read a passage from the Hebrew scriptures and offer his commentary on the passage. In this case, we don’t know which passage he read, but Mark does record how the congregation reacted. “This man doesn’t teach anything like we are used to hearing. His perspectives are new and he teaches with Authority”. From what we know of the teaching of the Rabbis of the day, what they were used to hearing might have sounded much like a traditional sermon even today – there may have been story to explore the passage, definitely a run down of what other great teachers had to say about the passage and perhaps a tentative suggestion or two of their own. But Jesus spoke differently – not suggestions, not possibilities, not the endlessly rehashed opinions of others, no – not Jesus.

He spoke with the authority of one who knew the truth directly. He spoke as one sent from God. It would have been amazing to sit in that crowd and listen, to drink in the truth of the Word of God, directly from the lips of the Son of God himself. No wonder they were amazed. Long ago, Moses had promised them that God would continue to speak to God’s chosen people through Prophets – Those called by God to directly deliver God’s messages, truths and warnings. Prophets like Nahum, Elijah, Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel did come as foretold, others after the exile too, but after Malachi – 400 years of silence…. The expectation only built that surely the time was coming when God would send Messiah – The greatest of all the Prophets and Kings, the one who would ultimately fulfill the role of the Prophet that Moses promised.

But there was more than just teaching to amaze them that day. One of their congregation had a problem. He was possessed as Mark says, by something unclean, something that he could not deal with on his own. This spirit mastered him and used him for its own purposes. Nevertheless, he was there in the Synagogue that day. He may not have been in total control, but somehow he knew where hope might be found. Perhaps it was something in what Jesus said as he taught, but an outburst was coming. Could it have been the same passage he read in Nazareth? (Luke 4:18-19) “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Whatever it was, the unclean thing in this man cried out in distress and alarm: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – The Holy One of God!” It will be a long time before even Jesus own disciples give a testimony like that, but Jesus isn’t interested in such testimony – it came from fear and rebellion, not belief – it knows Jesus very well – but will not follow him or surrender. He commanded the Spirit to be quiet and to leave the man. As it did so, the man suffered a violent convulsion, and shrieked. And then I imagine it was very, very quiet for a few moments.

Afterwards of course, everyone would be talking all at once, amazed and wondering what it could mean: “A new teaching with Authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” The Authority of Jesus was to be demonstrated in many more ways – His healing of all sorts of diseases, his feeding of thousands with a little boys lunch, with the calming of raging natural storms and the calming of raging minds, even raising the dead. Jesus expressed the authority of God wherever he went and whatever he said. The people in Capernaum’s synagogue had come expecting only the familiar, but left in wonderment.

Now we modern folks don’t quite know what to do with stories like this. On the one hand, we are practical minded folks who think we know a great deal more about disorders of the mind than did those primitive folks in that synagogue. Sometimes I wonder if that is really true? On the other hand, we may have seen too many horror movies and have an unhealthy, unbiblical view of demons and possession. We might fear that God is somehow unable or unwilling to protect us. Either way you take the story, it’s a powerful miracle. This is the very first sign of power that Mark presents in his gospel and it sets the tone for what is to come. It reveals the Authority and power of Jesus for any who will accept it. Here is the point – Jesus shows his authority by opposing the forces of evil which would rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for them.

Seen this way, perhaps we might consider possession not quite as foreign an event as we might have thought. Perhaps we might actually have first hand experience with it too. I must confess that I have, on occasion, been possessed by anger at a colleague or family member that has led me to say and do things I deeply regret. I have been possessed by envy and greed that have led me to use my resources in ways I regret. And that’s just the beginning. Can you honestly, tell me that you haven’t had these experiences also, when you feel possessed by something that is oh so clearly not the Spirit of God blessing us so that we might be a blessing to others? It might in fact be very instructive to name a few of the Unclean things that seek to possess us.

If you go down to the Apple Market, you’ll find a whole aisle full of cleaning agents. Solid soap for you face, liquid soap for the shower, sudsy shampoos for your hair, tougher cleansers for the sink, ones that don’t suds for the dishwasher, still more varieties for our clothes and countertops and floors. Deodorants; air fresheners on and on and on. We are seemingly obsessed with cleanliness, particularly in these days of pandemic, but are sometimes unwilling to admit our need of Jesus to make clean what really matters – our hearts and souls. Jesus is willing to cross that boundary and restore wholeness. He has the power and the authority and the grace to do that for any who will but cry out or ask.

So let me name some of those unclean things that no soap in the world can touch.

One of the most common, and dangerous thing is our Fears – and we have many, Oh so many fears that grow into other even worse things – Fear of scarcity can become greed, fear of the unfamiliar, of those not like us in some way, breeds suspicion and distrust. It combines with the fear that there may not be enough for us – enough resources, control and traditions to hold us up and it can become darker and dirtier still – racism, militarism, terrorism. Oh yes, our demons are very real and very powerful.

Addictions – we have many of these too. Whether its alcohol to try to make us feel sociable, drugs to wake us up and hurry us along, drugs to calm us down and help us sleep, drugs so we feel less pain – all of these are common, but they are also a terrible trap and can own us and control us. They affect us personally and they prey on our families. Additions are not all chemical either, pornography is one such thing for instance. There are even society-approved unclean spirits: like workaholism, greed and the unbridled pursuit of individual freedom regardless of the cost to others. Addictions to our own little echo chambers where we only hear what is expected and where we will not be challenged by the truth and authority of the whole word of God, not just carefully chosen portions.

Most basic of all is Unbelief. Oh no, you say, not us – we are here with you on Zoom or right here in the sanctuary. Yes, thanks be to God for that – and so was the man in our story, and we are grateful for that too. But its time to come clean with ourselves and with God. We confess that we are at times possessed by doubts. Doubts that God is able, or that God sees what is really going on. Doubts that God is really present and at work, perhaps we even wonder if God is really good — because we see loss and evil in the world. At those times helplessness, hopelessness and despair can possess us.

It’s important to name our demons, to confront them and let the light of God shine on them. People who suffer the effects of being occupied by unclean spirits lose their ability to control their movements and their voices; either they are immobilized or compelled to move destructively against others or themselves. We continually see this in the news everyday. Only when Jesus comes into our lives, only then can we be set free and healed, not by our own force of will – no we have so little of that on our own – can be freed only by the power of God moving in our lives. Sometimes, having to admit that we have been so lost is hard. The process might be dramatic with cries and convulsions as in today’s story, or simply a realization we have followed an unclean path which led us to a foreign country, working in a pig pen and its time to come home.

Here is what I know: Jesus is still in the business of freeing us from those unclean powers which seek to rob God’s children of all God hopes and intends for us. God is good, God does see what is going on and God is present here and now, and I want you to believe that as well. The message of the kingdom that Jesus brings is that God has come near – in his own person. We are invited to come and be part of it. Repenting of our unclean ways by the grace of God – not by our own strength. That’s the Good News! God has come to us and invites us to come with him. That’s grace and health and peace. Its not ancient history either. It is a new and fresh today as it was 2000 years ago.

One more thing: All of us are in fact given the right and the privilege – the authority, if you will – to proclaim the love and grace of God through Jesus Christ to each and everyone we meet. Who gave us this authority? The same one who said (Mark 1:17 NIV) “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” Let us go out and do that in his name.