Amazing, Astounding Authority
A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist
January 29, 2012
The Fourth Sunday after
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he
entered the synagogue and taught.
were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and
not as the scribes.
then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit,
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.”
Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”
the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of
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
once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of
Somehow, when I was in my teens, my dad ended up preaching every other week at a
little Presbyterian church in Keystone, West Virginia, that had exactly twelve,
elderly African American members.
I’m not sure how it happened. The
church was two-and-a-half hours away from where we lived.
But Dad didn’t have a church of his own in those days (he was doing this
special ministry among the poor).
He may have just heard of their need and offered to meet it.
Whatever the circumstances, he began to do this job and before long he
loved those people and they loved him.
Sometimes, though not always, he brought the whole family along and when
he did it nearly doubled their attendance.
Maybe that’s why they loved him.
one of those occasions he suggested that next time we ought to have a pot-luck
luncheon after church, and that’s what we did.
The men laid some wide planks across a couple of sawhorses down in the
church basement, and the women brought food as if they had been cooking for two
weeks straight, and put it on that makeshift table until those planks were
bending and groaning under the weight.
I remember standing at the head of that table holding an empty Chinet®
plate, not knowing where to begin.
And that’s when my brother Ed—just to tease me—said in a loud voice, “Now
Jim, don’t be bashful!” And those
women flocked around me, clucking like mother hens and repeating, “No, no!
Don’t be bashful!” They went with
me down the full length of that table, piling my plate with heaping helpings of
food. And because they had been so
attentive, I felt obliged to eat every bite.
was during those days that my brother Scott began to feel a call to preach, and
my Dad asked those people if they would be willing to listen to a seventeen-year
old boy struggle through his first sermon.
They said they would, that they would be “thrilled,” “delighted,”
“honored.” And so it was that my
family and I ended up sitting on the nearly empty pews of that church one Sunday
morning along with those twelve, faithful members, as my brother Scott—wearing
the closest thing he had to a suit—stepped up to the pulpit.
I don’t remember the sermon exactly, but I do remember what he said
before he began to preach. He said,
“Why should any of you listen to anything I have to say?
I’m just a teenage boy. I
haven’t lived long enough, or had enough experiences, to tell you anything you
don’t already know. I’m not an
authority. But I have this Bible,
and this Bible is an authority.
It’s the Word of God! And so
I’m not going to tell you what I have to say, I’m going to tell you what the
Bible has to say, and I hope you will listen.”
And then he began. And we
did listen. And as I recall it
wasn’t a half-bad sermon.
Picture Jesus then, preaching one of his very first sermons at the synagogue in
In those days any adult Jewish male might be called upon to preach, and it was a
custom to invite visitors to do it.
Local congregations were often glad to hear some fresh insights on the
Scriptures, just as they are in churches today.
So, when the leader of the synagogue heard that there was a young man in
the congregation who was quickly gaining a reputation as a preacher, he may have
gladly invited him to come up and say a few words.
What did Jesus say? Mark
doesn’t really tell us, at least not here.
Earlier in this chapter he says that Jesus was going around preaching,
“The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near.
Repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).
If that was the essential content of his message, then we might assume
that he preached something like that in Capernaum, although he may
have elaborated on his theme, and quoted extensively from the Scriptures, and
illustrated with a story about a pot-luck luncheon.
He may have; probably not.
But whatever he did it wasn’t his storytelling that got the whole town talking,
it was his authority. Mark says
“they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having
authority, and not as their scribes.”
let me just ask: when was the last time you were astounded by anything, much
less by a sermon? My dictionary
says that to astound is to “overwhelm
with amazement, to astonish greatly, to shock with wonder or surprise.”
Can you imagine these people sitting there overwhelmed with amazement,
greatly astonished, and shocked with wonder and surprise?
What kind of sermon would that be?
What would a preacher have to say to get that kind of response?
Mark says the astonishing thing was not so much what he said but how he
said it, “as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”
I can almost hear their scribes preaching, talking about a passage of
Scripture and quoting everything this or that famous rabbi had said about it.
I’ve heard sermons like that, where there doesn’t seem to be one original
thought, where every word comes straight out of the commentary.
But that’s not the way Jesus preached.
He got up and said, “Listen, all this waiting you’ve been doing, waiting
for the Messiah to get here, for God’s kingdom to come?
Well, time’s up. The waiting
is over. The kingdom is here.”
He didn’t quote from the commentaries.
He didn’t try to defend what he said.
He simply said it with authority.
told you before that the word translated here as authority is the Greek word
exousia, which means, literally, “out
of the substance.” It means that
unlike my brother Scott Jesus didn’t need to appeal to some external authority.
He didn’t need to hold up his Bible and promise to preach nothing but the
Word of God. He
was the Word of God.
He was the Word made flesh.
And when he spoke he spoke out of his own substance, out of his own “stuff,” if
you will, and according to one of the earliest Christian creeds he was made of
the same stuff as the Father. You
can’t get any more authoritative than that. So he doesn’t tell the congregation
that the Kingdom
of God might come,
someday, if they keep hoping and praying.
He simply says, “You can stop waiting.
The Kingdom is here.” And I
think if you had been sitting in that synagogue on that day you would have
believed him. And if you didn’t,
then you probably would have been convinced by what happened next.
then,” Mark tells us, “there was a man in their synagogue 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!”
And notice what Jesus does.
He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t cower
behind the pulpit. He doesn’t ask
the ushers to take the man out of the synagogue.
No, he simply rebukes the unclean spirit.
He says, “Be silent and come out of him!”
Can you hear the difference in volume?
The unclean spirit is “crying out” while Jesus simply speaks.
It reminds me of the way my mother used to discipline her boys.
She rarely raised her voice, but she didn’t have to.
She spoke softly and carried a big stick.
So, here’s this demon-possessed man, screaming and making accusations,
and Jesus says, “Be silent and come out of him.”
And it did. It didn’t want
to. It screamed again and convulsed
the man. But in the end it came
out. It didn’t have a choice.
And the crowds were amazed.
Long after the service was over they were still talking about it and saying,
“What is this? A new teaching—with
authority! He commands even the
unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
book called Mark as Story David
Rhoads and Donald Michie look at the Gospel as if it were a novel, analyzing its
structure and rhetoric, its characters and plot.
It’s a wonderful book. In
the chapter on plot Rhoads and Michie discuss Jesus’ encounters with what they
call “demoniac forces.” They say,
“Immediately after Jesus’ [baptism], the spirit drives him out to the desert to
encounter and be tested by Satan.
The depiction of Jesus enduring the forty days, being with angels, and emerging
to proclaim the rule of God, suggests that Jesus is the victor in this direct
encounter with Satan, a conclusion supported by Jesus’ subsequent authority over
unclean spirits…. This conflict with unclean spirits involves displays of
power—dramatic and violent, loud and emotionally wrenching.
The demons are quite destructive, but the contest is clearly one-sided.
John had prophesied that the one to come would be stronger because he
would be armed with the power of the holy spirit.
With the spirit of God, Jesus is far more powerful than the demons who
recognize him as son of God and are afraid of him.”[i]
The unclean spirit in today’s reading, for example, screams at Jesus,
“Have you come to destroy us?”
Rhoads and Michie go on to say that while Jesus has authority over the forces of
evil and the forces of nature, he has no authority over people.
“People choose, and nothing can be forced upon them,” they conclude.
“Jesus cannot heal or even cast out demons when that act depends on
someone’s faith and no faith is present.
And he is powerless to make people have faith.
[In this Gospel] if the cripple has faith, he will be healed; if the
father of the boy with the mute spirit has faith, the demon will be driven out.
But when people at Nazareth
do not have faith, Jesus is not able to heal them.
Jesus has no authority to ‘lord over’ people; he cannot make someone do
what he wants them to do.”[ii]
But he can make the demons do what he wants them to do.
He speaks as one having authority.
And on that day in the synagogue at
Capernaum, he left the people amazed and astounded.
his comments on this passage David Lose (rhymes with “rose”) says to all those
working preachers out there, “Tell me the truth: don't you just dread exorcism
stories? I mean, if there's one kind of biblical story we have a hard time
relating to, it's got to be this one.… Demon-possession is simply beyond the
imagination and experience of most of us.”
But he goes on to say, “Maybe we could boil down the first chapter of
Mark leading up to this story by saying that Jesus has come to proclaim and
demonstrate the Kingdom of God on earth, and that he does this 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,” he says, “I have to admit that not only is possession not quite as
foreign an event as I might have thought, but that I actually have first hand
experience with it. I have, that is, on occasion been possessed by anger at a
colleague or family member that has led me to say and do things I regret. I have
been possessed by jealousy and envy that had led me to use my resources in ways
I regret. And that's just the beginning.”
He says, “Can you honestly tell me that you haven't had these experiences
also, when you feel possessed by something that is so clearly not the Spirit of
God blessing us to be a blessing to others?”[iii]
goes on to name some of those things.
He talks about how people can feel possessed by addictions to drugs,
alcohol, gambling, and pornography.
He talks about our possession by other, more “society-approved” unclean spirits,
like workaholism, affluenza, or greed.
He says that maybe when we look at this passage we need to open it up a
bit, or at least open up our imaginations about how we, too, are sometimes
possessed by “unclean spirits.” And
maybe we need to open up our understanding of how Jesus is still at work
cleansing us from such spirits, and think about how that actually happens.
not always as dramatic as what happened in the synagogue at
that day, but sometimes it is. “Ask
around,” Lose says, “and you’ll soon find stories of people who have had
dramatic and sudden encounters with grace and mercy.”
I’ve heard some stories like that.
One of our mission teams likes to remind me that they were bold enough to
pray for a woman with an unclean spirit in Indonesia, and
the spirit came out. And I’ve seen
some things with my own eyes that could be described as both “sudden” and
“dramatic.” But sometimes, Lose
says, “the road to healing and restoration takes both time and company.”
Ask around and you will find those kinds of stories, too.
Stories about people who got some help through our Divorce Recovery
Workshop, or one of the AA groups that meet here at the church, or a Sunday
school class that just wouldn’t quit praying. Sometimes
it’s dramatic and sometimes it’s not, but in all of this and through all of this
Christ is at work opposing the forces of
evil which would rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for
Remember what I said earlier? Christ has authority over them, over the forces of
evil, but he doesn’t have authority over us, over people.
“People choose, and nothing can be forced upon them,” Rhoads and Michie
write. “Jesus cannot heal or even
cast out demons when that act depends on someone’s faith and no faith is
But what if we choose to believe in Jesus?
What if we choose to believe that he is the Son of God and that he has
authority over the forces of evil?
Don’t you think then we could say, “Lord Jesus, look inside my life.
Look for every evil, unclean thing you can find in there.
And then, by the authority given to you be the Father, cast them out.”
And what if he did exactly that?
Don’t you think at the end of the day we would, like those
synagogue-goers in Capernaum, be amazed and astounded?
—Jim Somerville © 2012
David Rhoads and Donald Michie,
Story: an Introduction to the Narrative of a
Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982),
In fact, many of the thoughts expressed
in this section of the sermon are Lose’s, not
Story, p. 78.