29 January 2012

Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany - "By Whose Authority?"

            A few years ago, my brother and his wife gave me a Stephen King book on tape for Christmas.  It was an early Stephen King book, so it’s got all the subtlety of a freight train; he goes straight for the throat with blood, guts, nightmares and boogeymen.  One of the stories involves a machine at a commercial laundry that is possessed.  The main characters try to drive out the demon in “The Mangler” without success, mostly because they don’t know the kind of demon they’ve got on their hands. 
The thought occurs to me that the people of Capernaum might have felt the same way.  “A man with an unclean spirit” could have meant a lot of things, and many of them are things we explain in medical terms today.  Perhaps he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.  Perhaps he was autistic.  Perhaps he suffered from bipolar disorder.  Whatever the root cause may have been, it left this man on the outside of his community, cast out because his community could not understand what it was that had taken dominion over him. 
Understand that in Jesus’ time, unclean spirits were not a medical problem with a medical solution.  The only way to heal a man with an unclean spirit was by exorcism – and very few people had the authority to cast out demons.  If you knew the unclean spirits for what they were, you could do battle with them – but if you didn’t know the unclean spirits, you had no authority over them.  Knowledge and authority – these are the keys to our gospel reading today.  Let us pray: 
Father in heaven, You gave Your authority to Jesus of Nazareth, Your Son, to cast out the unclean spirits in our lives; to create clean hearts in us and renew right spirits within us.  Let us hear His voice calling us out of darkness into light this day.  Amen.

            In Jesus’ day, rabbis and scribes taught by quoting the rabbis and scribes that had come before them.  A rabbi was considered wise when he could cite numerous other rabbis in his teaching on scripture.  A reading from scripture would be heard, then the rabbi would expand on it by saying, “Rabbi So-and-so says this about this scripture, and Rabbi So-and-so says this.”  Thus a rabbi taught about God’s word. 
            But Jesus didn’t teach like this.  In Mark’s gospel the people are amazed because Jesus teaches with authority.  In Matthew’s gospel, we get a picture of how Jesus taught.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says,
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart…
you have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” 
This is what caused the people of Capernaum to be so amazed – Jesus taught out of His own heart.  Jesus made no appeal to precedent in His teaching.  Jesus’ word stood on its own power.  He speaks ex ousia – out of his own being.  His Word IS the authority.  And thus the people are amazed – because carpenters from Nazareth don’t have the authority to teach as Jesus teaches.  To teach like this, a man must be possessed – the question is, is it a Spirit of God or an unclean spirit that has done the possessing?  We have the luxury of reading that the Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism, that Jesus was indeed possessed by the Holy Spirit and thus teaching with His Father’s knowledge and authority – the people around Jesus, on the other hand, had to wait for revelation, to see what manner of authority Jesus really possessed.
            The unclean spirit asks Jesus one question:  what do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  We often read this as if Jesus had nothing to do with the unclean spirit, as if they had nothing in common.  But they did have one thing in common:  the man in whom the unclean spirit lived. 
The unclean spirit was determined to keep its prized possession for itself – to hold on to its host as long as it could, no matter what the consequences might be for the host.  This is how unclean spirits operate:  their drive for consumption, possession and destruction lead them to use and corrupt and destroy their hosts.  Unclean spirits may tempt their hosts with benefits, but that temptation is nothing more than bait laid in a trap; once the unclean spirit possesses the host, the destructive power of the unclean spirit takes over and the host begins to die – which drives the unclean spirit to look for a new host even as it is consuming the old.  There’s a reason that Satan is also known as the “Lord of the Flies:”  it is because flies come from maggots, who are only found consuming the bodies of the dead.  Unclean spirits and demonic powers gorge themselves on death and destruction, filled with a never-ending hunger for fresh hosts to consume. 
Perhaps this never-ending hunger drove the unclean spirit into the synagogue that day in Capernaum.  A synagogue full of fresh, innocent souls might have pulled the unclean spirit like prime rib pulls a starving man.  Instead of gnawing the bones of those who had already become spiritual corpses, this unclean spirit is looking for a meal with more substance, and so it heads off to the synagogue in search of fresh meat. 

Jesus, on the other hand, was determined to free the man with the unclean spirit.  Why?  For the man’s well-being; because the man needed to be freed from his possession by the unclean spirit.  Jesus is not like the unclean spirits – they only want to consume and destroy, while Jesus wants only to create and build up.  Jesus is possessed by the Spirit of God and has the authority of His Father in heaven; He is filled with anger at the ways unclean spirits possess people, and he has come to cast out the demons that hold men and women under their power.  Mark’s gospel gives us a picture of Jesus that is neither safe nor predictable, and that’s a good thing, because the demons we fight aren’t safe or predictable, either.  If a man with an unclean spirit can enter the synagogue in Jesus’ day, then we who gather in this modern-day synagogue aren’t safe, either. 
So the people stand in amazement as Jesus calls out the unclean spirit with a word and frees the man from his possession.  Jesus’ own words are all the authority He needs –
Be silent, and come out of him!
No need for “In the name of the Father…” or “by all that is holy:”  Jesus IS the Holy One of God, and the unclean spirits are the only ones who know exactly who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do. 

            It is the authority of the Father that Jesus holds within Himself.  Deuteronomy tells us that this authority and power of the Father is a great and powerful thing.  Moses asks God not to reveal Himself in power again, because it will kill the people to see God the Father in all His glory.  And God agrees with Moses, because God loves His people.  As James Healy puts it, “[God] kept his word. Inviting obedience to his plan, he expressed his authority through [the prophets]. At last he sent Jesus, not in thunder and lightning, but in our fragile flesh. And Jesus used authority to liberate and lift up, not to put down; to empower and encourage, not to intimidate and oppress. Forever his rightful claim to authority would be his utter surrender as servant of God's people and his challenge to oppressors. And his perfect act of obedience to God's will would be the ultimate act of freedom.”[1]
            Jesus holds God’s authority within Himself, and yet Jesus, being possessed by the Spirit of God, uses that authority to free people from the unclean spirits that hold them captive.  Jesus’ authority is a creative, life-giving authority that lifts up the oppressed and welcomes the outcast back into the community.  It’s no wonder the people of Capernaum were so amazed at Jesus’ authority:  for centuries, any authority they had was used to protect the people by driving out the different, the unclean, the sinners – now Jesus was welcoming them back into the community, freeing them from their burdens and calling all of them to live new lives filled with the clean spirits of forgiveness and repentance. 

Jesus is still calling out the unclean spirits.  But do we realize today that we are the ones for whom Jesus is fighting?  Jesus is still calling with His voice of authority to cleanse us from our evil and to make us clean.  He is still fighting the battle for us, still confronting the demons that surround us, rebuking them and casting them from us.  Most of us read this story from Mark as if Jesus were a meek, gentle shepherd who had pity on a poor man with schizophrenia or some other mental disorder.  It’s time we realized that Jesus drove out more than one demon that day, and that Jesus drives out demons in ways we can’t even imagine.
            In Capernaum, Jesus taught with His own authority about the Scriptures. 
                        Today, Jesus reminds us that God’s Word is not something to be taken for granted.
In Capernaum, the unclean spirits knew that they had no place in Jesus’ kingdom.
Today, we continue to discover that the ministry of Christ’s church is damaged whenever its members are held captive by unclean thoughts and impure actions.
In Capernaum, Jesus drove an unclean spirit out of a man who couldn’t ask for help.
Today, Jesus is attacking the demons that hold us in their possession: 
and every other demon that prowls and threatens and fights to hold us captive in sin. 

Don Juel wrote a commentary on Mark for Augsburg Fortress in 1990.  His title for these verses is “The Battle is Joined.”  The Gospel of Mark begins with a fight, and it is a fight for the rest of the way.  Only Jesus has the authority to drive out unclean spirits with His word.  But only Jesus has the authority to create new hearts in that word also.  God has called us to listen for that voice, calling the unclean spirits out of us, calling us out of the darkness of sin and into the light of Christ’s presence.  Hear His Word and rest your hearts in His authority, for the unclean spirits know that in His kingdom, their power is ended – while we are set free to live in freedom and His righteousness, now and forever. 

[1][1] Healy, James K.  © 1994 National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 1994.

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