“What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?” But Jesus rebuked him saying, “Be silent and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit convulsed him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” (Mark 1:24a, 25-27)
It’s been three long years since I’ve preached from Mark’s gospel, so I’m a bit rusty. Last year the lectionary readings were largely from Matthew’s gospel and the year before that was Luke and both of these two are quite similar. But not so Mark – it’s different. It’s a shorter gospel, and for that reason some have called it the Reader’s Digest version of Matthew. But that’s really not a fair description – Mark’s gospel has a different focus, and if we take note of what is included and what is not, that focus will be made clear.
So, what’s missing in Mark? Gone are the long, careful reports on the teachings of Jesus – no Sermon on the Mount, not many parables, no long discourses filled with wisdom and truth... Mark doesn’t deny the teaching ministry of Jesus, but he’s not interested in the details of it. That’s not his focus.
So, what is the focus? Plainly and simply, it’s the person of Jesus Christ. Mark records the things Jesus did, the places he went, the people he hung with, the miracles he performed (lots of miracles in Mark), the way he lived and how he died. That’s what interests Mark, because for him, the medium is the message... Jesus doesn’t just teach the good news, he is the good news. He’s doesn’t just give the Word, he is the Word, the living Word.
And that is especially evident in today’s passage at the debut of his ministry. We’re told that Jesus began his ministry in Capernaum. He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath and began to teach and “everyone who heard him was astounded at his teaching because he taught as one with authority and not like the scribes.” Now what does that mean? What made the words of Jesus authoritative and the scribes not so?
One commentator says it’s because “the scribes would quote chapter and verse from scripture as a way of proof-texting their points of view while Jesus just spoke straight from the heart and touched them at a level where argument and debate were out of place.” Well, that sounds convincing, but who knows if it’s true! That’s speculative because Mark doesn’t explain the authoritative comment. Or does he? I wonder if the next part of this passage is offered as a way of describing the authority of Jesus’ teaching. Listen to it and decide for yourself:
There was a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue when Jesus was there teaching, and right in the middle of his lesson the man cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus realizes the man had a demon, so he exorcises the man saying: “Be silent and come out of him.” The spirit convulses the man, cries out in a loud voice and comes out of the man. And everyone there who saw it was amazed and said, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him!”
That’s an interesting response from the crowd, don’t you think? They call an exorcism “a new teaching.” Most of us would probably call it a miracle or a healing but not a teaching. Why teaching? Maybe Mark is driving home the point that the deeds of Jesus are his lessons... that he taught by example. His authority was not found in his words, in his ability to convince with clever oratory or to sway with his words. No, his authority was in his ability to touch people in life-changing ways – healing, exorcising, feeding, forgiving. With Jesus, the “proof is in the pudding” ... a living example... a lived authority.
This past week I was invited to a breakfast at Commonwealth Living Center in Hampton along with a bunch of other faith leaders. We heard two speakers on topics related to aging. One of the speakers was named Aleeques and she is the new program coordinator at Commonwealth. She talked about loneliness, a common issue for many seniors. She said most of us think that the loneliness is purely emotional – we get blue, but there are a host of physical consequences associated with it. She went on to tell us that as part of her gerontology training, she went undercover in a senior’s home as a 92-year-old lady. She transitioned into the home where she lived for seven days and nights in order to personally experience life as a senior in transition. As she told us of this experience we all leaned in a little closer to listen because she was speaking from a lived authority. Lived authority can be more powerful that academic authority because experienced truth outweighs textbook truth.
Do you remember the book from the early 60’s entitled “Black Like Me”? It was written by a white novelist named John Howard Griffin who wanted to experience first-hand what it was like to be an African American living in the deep south in the early 60’s. With the help of a dermatologist he ingested a certain drug and then exposed himself to ultraviolet light to turn his skin dark. He cut his hair short and set off to live in various southern cities to see how he would be treated with black skin. Then he would stop taking the drug, wait several days and use a skin scrub to return to his white complexion and see how he was experienced in the same city as a white person. “Black Like Me” is a journal of his experience and it sold over 5 million copies. It was an extremely popular read because it offered lived authority... speaking from the unique position of a white man in black skin. His words cut through the tangle of opinion, politics, prejudice and touched people deeply with the truth.
So, what does all this have to say to us as the church? Simply this: that the church is most powerful and most relevant when it claims a lived authority. Put another way, we are not an institution called to proclaim gospel, we are a community called to live the gospel! Jesus expects us to be agents of the gospel – to go out and feed, heal, forgive, bind up and restore. It’s not enough simply to pray “thy kingdom come;” we are expected to go out and be the kingdom and build that kingdom. Ours is a lived authority and it’s the job of every member to embrace the call.
There is a toy store called “Toys R Us.” I love their name because it’s more than their title, it’s also their mission statement. “Toys R Us” says, we don’t just sell toys, we are toys. We are all about toys and only toys. If you’re looking for a certain toy we have it, or we’ll get it. And it seems to me that the church should hold a similar title – “Missions R Us.” We don’t just have a mission, we are a mission. This isn’t just our building but a mission outpost. Everything we do here and beyond here is about executing the mission Christ has given us and if it’s not... we shouldn’t be doing it!
Did you notice how the man with the unclean spirit greets Jesus in this passage? He says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” He seems to be accusing Jesus of trespassing... stepping outside his world of influence. You see, we all live in two worlds, we each have one foot in the sacred world and another in the secular world. Yes, we’re at church today but tomorrow we’ll be in the world of business and that’s not the same place. So, the unclean spirit wants to know why Jesus has ventured into his world! What have you to do with us?
But Jesus is no respecter of the two-world model... he comes to claim the whole world for God! So, when he cast out the unclean spirit the people are surprised and say, “Whoa, this is something new!” And it is! Religion has entered the secular world – the realm of medicine, the realm of politics the realm of business. And this “teaching” is a declaration that Christ is ruler of every realm... he comes to cleanse it, to claim it, to establish it as one kingdom... God’s kingdom.
So, today’s passage ought to make us all a little nervous – especially if you have grown comfortable living in two worlds. And that’s easier to do than you might think! Draw a line between the spiritual and the business world and say – I’ll practice business Monday to Friday and practice my faith on “the Lord’s day.” But along comes Christ who declares every and day for the Lord. Along comes the Son of God who says my truth and justice shall permeate all of life, every day. So, when we pray the words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we denounce the two-world model and claim the whole world for our Lord. Jesus Christ is Lord, not just of my heart, or this sanctuary, or this congregation, but of the whole earth.
And therein lies the rub... because we are called to be kingdom builders. We are called to take the gospel into the world and claim it for God. And when we live out the gospel that way we are put at risk with the present social reality. So, the gospel call is a call to risk:
To risk being peaceful in a world where might is right.
To risk being generous in a selfish generation.
To risk being kind in a competitive society.
To risk being hopeful in an age of cynicism.
To risk being a reconciler in an age where we are deeply divided.
To risk love when it may not be reciprocated.
Last weekend Hidenwood was responsible for feeding the homeless dinner and breakfast at Tabernacle Baptist Church on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Ever since I did my sabbatical in 2014, I have made a point of going along to the dinner and helping serve. The reason being is I feel our job isn’t just to put food in their bellies... our real job is to share hospitality with them. These people get the bum’s rush all day long... keep moving because you don’t belong here. So, when they get to the church at night, I feel the message should be “welcome, you belong here.” They need a dose of humanity. So, I come to do my part because I’m not sure everyone will offer that.
On Saturday night, it was cold and the police officer checking each of them out for drugs and weapons was only letting in two people at a time. The rest had to stay outside till it was their turn. I didn’t think that was especially hospitable. But what could I do? So, I did my best to serve them once they got in the building... getting them drinks or extra desserts, etc.
One of the ladies wanted to go back outside for a smoke after dinner but they told her she couldn’t have her coat because it was already checked for the night. That’s the rules and of course there is always a Pharisee in the crowd to make sure the rules get followed. But she only had on a short sleeve top, so I loaned her my sweater to go outside. Afterwards I didn’t have the heart to take it back again. It just seemed the right thing to do... but I got in trouble for it because one of you told my wife and, apparently, I’d given away one of my best sweaters! I got in trouble, but I didn’t have to explain myself because hospitality is lived authority and it doesn’t need explaining.
Darrell Guider in the book “Missional Church” says that, “churches must revive what it means to be communities of the reign of God. Churches are called to be bodies of people sent on a mission rather than the storefronts for vendors of religious services and goods.”
In other words, we must take the gospel out of this sacred space and into the secular world and claim it all for God.
After we’re done here, we’ll sing a closing hymn and say the benediction and Geoffrey will play the postlude as we leave. Most of us think the postlude is the last act of the liturgy... but it’s not. Going home is the last act of the liturgy. We go into the world – of politics and college classes, of business and finance, of technology and research, of science and medicine, of health clubs and diets.
We go out into the real world and claim it for God. We go with authority and confidence, daring to speak up and act out... taking risks of every kind... not because you’re braver than others, but because we know our Lord goes before us. And if the Lord is with you, what is there to fear?