Amazing, Astounding Authority

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
January 29, 2012

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1:21-28 

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and 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.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They 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.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee (NRSV).

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. 

On 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.

It 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 Capernaum.  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.”

Now 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.

I’ve 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 in Capernaum 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.

“Just 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.”

In a 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.

In 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]

Lose 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.

It’s not always as dramatic as what happened in the synagogue at Capernaum 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.” [iv]  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 them.

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 present.”[v]  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

[i] David Rhoads and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: an Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 77.

[ii] Ibid., p. 78.

[iii] David Lose, Marbury E. Anderson Biblical Preaching Chair, Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota (on the Working Preacher web site: http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=550).

[iv] Ibid.  In fact, many of the thoughts expressed in this section of the sermon are Lose’s, not mine.

[v] Mark as Story, p. 78.


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