Showing Up with Authority

The_Scream

Mark 1:21-28

1.

Let’s begin with a character study this week, shall we?

There are many characters in today’s Gospel. With whom do you most closely identify?

I bet many of you, after hearing what was just read, would say the disciples. The disciples followed Jesus; we follow Jesus. It seems a safe bet.

But these guys, remember, had only just responded to Jesus’ call. We don’t know why they dropped everything on that beach along the shore of the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus, leaving behind safety and security for risk, uncertainty, and danger. But they did.

Everything was new and fresh and exciting for them. Adventure was upon them!

However, most of us responded to Jesus’ call long ago. We’re not leaving everything we know behind to follow Jesus into the unknown. Instead, on the Sundays we can manage it, we stop what we’re doing for a couple of hours to come to church and worship; then pick up right where we left off when we get home.

And as for the newness part of it, the adventure? By now our faith is mostly old hat.

So, come to think of it, maybe we don’t identify so closely with the disciples. Maybe for you and for me, we identify more closely with Jesus.

He walks into this local synagogue and teaches with authority. And, after all, isn’t that what we want? To teach the good news of Jesus to the community around us with authority?

What must his sermons have been like?

We hear a little bit about what they were not like: the sermons of the scribes.

And here you might be tempted to remember the absolute worst and the absolute best sermons you’ve ever heard—or, in my case, the absolute worst and best sermons I’ve ever delivered—and say, “That worst example was like the scribes; the best like Jesus.”

Or you might remember that movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; and that scene where the economics teacher is calling roll. “Bueller? Bueller?” he calls repeatedly. He’s also the teacher who says, “Anyone? Anyone?”

Do you remember him? The longer version goes like this:

In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the—Anyone? Anyone?—Great Depression, passed the—Anyone? Anyone?—tariff bill, the Holly Smoot Tariff Act, which—Anyone?—raised or lowered?—raised tariffs, in an effort to collect more revenue for the federal government. Did it work? Anyone?

The camera pans around: students are bored to tears; a couple resemble zombies; one is fast asleep, his head on his desk in a puddle of drool. And of course we’re all left thinking Ferris was right: how could anyone be expected to go to high school on such a perfectly glorious day?

Anyway, that econ teacher is what comes to my mind when I hear about the scribes preaching so unlike Jesus.

So, now that I mention it, maybe we identify most closely not with Jesus but with the scribes. For the scribes of ancient Israel were those who interpreted the Torah to their people; and we are those who interpret the Bible to the people of our modern world.

It’s much the same as Jesus was doing, except the scribes taught not with their own authority but with an authority beyond themselves—the authority of the Torah.

And that’s how a lot of us feel. We can teach the Bible, sure, and so we do—to our kids, to our grandkids, to our family members, to our friends, to each other—but, unlike Jesus, without any kind of authority to call our own.

Which brings us to the final character of today’s story: the man possessed with an unclean spirit.

Does any of us identify most closely with him?

The wording in the text says he was “a man with an unclean spirit.” But let’s just tell it like it is: he had demons—his own, personal demons.

And doesn’t each of us deal with his or her own demons? . . .

Maybe we do in fact identify with this man.

2.

Now here’s an interesting thing to me about this man: he was there, in the synagogue, with his demons.

How long had he been there? How long had this been going on? Was he a one-time visitor?

More likely, he was a regular, a long-time member.

Communities were a lot more settled—people were far less transient—in those days. The synagogue wasn’t like church today—or not like we’re trying to make our churches today—in the sense of inviting and welcoming visitors. Visitors weren’t really a thing for synagogues. Synagogues were part of community life—for all the community, not just those who felt like showing up on the Sabbath.

So, point is, this man with his personal demons was probably known well to Peter, Andrew, James, and John—and the other members of the community, including the scribes.

No doubt he knew just how to interact with the community—just how to put on a game face—so that outwardly he looked like he had his act together.

He wore the right clothes.

He tithed the right amount of money.

He attended the synagogue’s annual meetings.

And he voted.

He’d probably served on committees, or as a delegate to convention, or even on the vestry.

So, just how long had he been dealing with his demons? . . .

And yet no one knew!

The scribes, remember, weren’t like Jesus. They did not teach with authority.

But then Jesus showed up. And he taught with authority.

And we know this precisely because the unclean spirit came out!

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.”

The scribes and the community couldn’t do it. It took Jesus, with his inherent authority, to bring the demons to the surface—demons that this poor man had been dealing with for who knows how long!

And once his demons were confronted, he experienced healing.

3.

Which brings up a probing question.

What demons are you dealing with today?

Like the man in today’s Gospel, do you go to your place of worship and put on your game face, exchange the peace with a smile, commune at the altar, and go to the annual meeting—

But then, when the spirituality and business of the day are over and done with, will you return to your home to continue to do battle with your inner demons—demons no one else knows about: not your parish family; not even your own family?

There is hope. We see that today. With a word, Jesus commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man; and it does.

Now, I’m not Jesus. Your spiritual friends and leaders—they’re not Jesus either. Try as we might to preach and teach with authority, or to command an unclean spirit to leave you alone, at the end of the day we’re just scribes, interpreting the Bible the best we know how.

But here’s the thing: Jesus often shows up in spite of us.

When we’re doing what we do, living the lives we live, fulfilling our vocations as God gives us strength and ability, suddenly and without warning Jesus is there in our midst.

We know this; we sense it when it happens.

And you know who else knows this?

Our personal demons.

And they shudder!

Those unclean spirits at war within you know Jesus whenever and however they hear him—in church through the bread and wine, on the phone with a friend, or in an argument with an opponent.

Whenever and however Jesus shows up, your inner demons know, and they shout out so that you can almost hear them audibly, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

4.

If the overarching Epiphany message is about anything, it’s about transformation.

Jesus was baptized and the skies between heaven and earth were torn apart. He has ushered in the kingdom of God. He is the ladder forever uniting earth and heaven. He is showing himself, God Incarnate, to the world. The healing of the world has begun.

But, as we know, transformation is not a quick conversion—like praying a sinner’s prayer or responding to an altar call. Transformation takes a lifetime, an era.

We, the church, have thus been called to carry on the work of transformation, to continue to heal the world, to love outwardly.

Yet transformation reaches inwardly too.

We have our inner demons. Transformation necessitates that we deal with them—that we wrestle with them until they convulse us, let out a scream, and depart. Only then do we begin to experience true healing.

My prayer today is that Jesus shows up and continues his work of transformation—both out there, in the hurting, dark places of the world; and also in here, in the deepest, most secret hiding places of our souls.

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