Can you remember any of your schoolteachers? When we were young it felt that they were all powerful. I can’t remember much about what they actually taught me but I can remember very clearly the ones whom I admired for the sort of people they were. When they spoke or taught, they didn’t just have power – in fact that ceased to be important because they spoke and acted with authority. They knew their subject and taught it so that we could depend on what they said. The RE teacher wasn’t like that at all. She had power because she was a teacher but no authority -either about what she taught or the way she behaved in class. And think about Trump! He had all the power but none of the authority. Suggesting that disinfectant could cure COVID-19 or that masks were a political statement….
This morning’s lectionary passages are all about the authority of God and the authority given to Jesus as Son of God. The reading from Mark wants us to consider the new world which the gospel presents.
We read at the beginning of this passage, at the very start of Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus taught in the synagogue. There’s nothing unusual there. Any man could teach there. Like us, the leaders of the synagogue would be pleased that there was a speaker for the day! What was astonishing, though, about this week’s speaker was that, unlike the scribes he taught with authority. The scribes had all the power and knowledge. But Jesus, unlike the scribes, doesn’t just quote a series of authorities, or pile up learned references as the scribes would. We don’t find out at all what Jesus taught on that day, but what Jesus teaches is not a series of facts, observations, or theories. His teaching is himself, The Word. He does more than set forth truth. He is the Truth, Truth with a capital “T”. What he speaks is authoritative because of who he is, “The Holy One of God”.
The opposite is true too. Just because someone has “authority” does not necessarily mean they have power. Jesus had the authority, but in the end it was the scribes and the Pharisees who had the power to call for his crucifixion. “Authority,” in the best sense of the word, is persuasive, it doesn’t depend on threats or force. People are moved by genuine authority because it is persuasive, because it speaks to the heart, because genuine authority is recognized as being different, it’s recognized as having come from above.
And, seemingly, once the people had heard Jesus speak they realised that Jesus has authority – though at this point we can’t be absolutely sure exactly what that authority was able to do.
Then, with no interval, into the story comes the unclean or demon spirit. In the gospel of Mark, there’s no differentiation between Jesus’ teaching and his healing. It’s all part of the same package. So, when the people see Jesus heal with authority, they’re “astounded/amazed” because this is something new. This is not at all like what they’ve experienced with the scribes. This teacher is different.
The fact that the demon was in a man seems to have no importance. Usually, when someone is healed in the gospels, we hear about how their sins were forgiven or how they rejoiced afterwards or even went back to thank him. You’ll notice in this account though that the man hardly gets a mention. We can’t define what the unclean or evil spirit was exactly, but it was clearly something that completely overtook the man so that he was nothing apart from that spirit. In several places in Mark’s gospel, we come across unclean or evil spirits, and those spirits all recognise Jesus’ authority, whereas quite often those around him, who you would expect to recognise him, don’t.
This morning, I want to think of this exorcism as an example of Jesus’ overcoming evil in the world. And this is what amazes the people: Jesus has the authority to overcome evil. Which is still astounding today if you think about it. What other power or authority is there that can overcome evil? We can put people in prison, but that doesn’t make evil go away.
How many of us struggle with the presence of sin or evil in our own lives? Do we have the power or authority on our own to just make sin go away? The Apostle Paul’s statement in Romans could easily be ours every day (it’s mine anyway): “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
There’s an old Native American story about a chief teaching some braves about that struggle within which we all have. He said, “It’s like two dogs fighting inside of us. There is one good dog who wants to do the right and the other dog who wants to do the wrong. Sometimes the good dog seems stronger and good is winning the fight. But sometimes the bad dog is stronger and wrong is winning the fight.”
“Who is going to win in the end?” a young brave asks.
“The one you feed,” the chief answered wisely.
The only food available to feed the good dog within us comes from above. It comes from outside of us. It’s the food of hope and love and grace, and its total nutritional value and authority comes from God. By practising love and peace we’re feeding that good dog. We don’t have the power to overcome evil on our own. In fact, left to our own devices, sadly we’ll more often choose evil than good.
This is precisely why we begin every service of worship with a prayer of confession. Far from being the self-righteous hypocrites the world paints Christians out to be, we know all too well our own capacity for evil and our own need for forgiveness. And that’s why we come to worship.
It’s in worship that we meet Jesus, the “Holy One of God”, who has the authority to call sin out of us, to forgive us, and to transform us.
May we be still and know his presence as the hymn says:
“Be still, for the power of the Lord, is moving in this place, He comes to cleanse and heal, to minister his grace: No work too hard for him – in faith receive from him. Be still, for the power of the Lord is moving in this place. And that power doesn’t have to be restricted to the church building but is everywhere when we seek his presence.
May we feel the power of the Lord moving in our lives to enable us to choose the right path. Amen