St. John's, Centreville
January 28, 2018
4 Epiphany B
Take my lips, O Lord, and speak through them; take our minds and think with them; take our hearts and set them on fire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"They were all amazed and they kept asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching - with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him."
In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. But the people who are there hear a different kind of teaching than they are used to hearing. This Jesus speaks with authority, not like the scribes. The scribes teach the Jews how to live the law of Moses. Their authority is derived from the texts of the past, how to keep the letter of the over 600 laws.
But Jesus comes and teaches something different. We don't know exactly what he said to the crowds in the synagogue in Capernaum that day, but we do know that it astounded the people. Perhaps he talked about God's love for them, perhaps he spoke to their fears, their anxieties, that God was with them, no matter what.
The teachings of Jesus were different. He not only taught with words but with actions. In Mark's gospel, we see the teachings of Jesus. In this story, we see Jesus healing the man with the unclean spirit. Jesus has compassion for this man who is overcome with this evil spirit. Obviously, this man's outburst interrupts Jesus' teaching in the synagogue. He could have had the man thrown out so he could continue with his teaching. But if he was teaching about God's love for each one of us, what better way to show it than to heal this man of his suffering.
It is interesting to note that the unclean spirit within this man knows exactly who Jesus is. "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." The spirit knows who Jesus is, but those in the synagogue that day do not. They are amazed at his teaching and his authority but they do not know who he is.
So Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit. "Be silent and come out of him," Jesus says. The unclean spirit convulses the man and cries out in a loud voice and comes out of the man.
We don't know exactly what is meant by an "unclean spirit". A broad definition might be whatever has taken over this man's life that comes between him and God, something that is oppressive, something that is keeping him down, something from which he needs to be set free, something that is keeping him from living his life fully. It could be mental health issues or perhaps an addiction.
But note that he is in the synagogue that day. Something brought him there. Something nudged him to go to the house of God and listen to the teachers. And there he encountered Jesus and he had a life transforming experience, an encounter with the Son of God. Had he decided to sleep in or play a round of golf instead, he could have missed this healing, missed this encounter with Jesus, missed this transformation of his life.
Jesus taught with authority. He commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man and it did. The scribes did not teach with the same authority that Jesus did. We can imagine that people wondered where this authority came from. We wonder how long it took the people in the synagogue to realize that Jesus' authority came from God.
Jesus is often described in the gospels as one who teaches with authority. Some people liked what they heard him say. Some did not. Some tried to throw him over a cliff. Others are so touched by his teachings that they drop everything - the nets, boats, livelihoods - to follow him anywhere.
Jesus spoke with authority. The prophets of the Old Testament, like Moses, spoke with authority. We heard today, in Moses farewell speech to his people, that God would raise up another prophet from among them, to lead them as Moses had. And God would put the words into the prophet's mouth for him to speak.
I think we can all think of people who have spoken with authority - Martin Luther King, Jr. Desmond Tutu. Ceaser Chavez. Katherine Jefferts-Schori. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. There are a lot of voices out there that we can listen to. Some use their power and authority for the good of humanity - for the spreading of the gospel, to fight injustice and discrimination, to fight for equal rights for all, to raise our consciousness about problems that surround us.
But some use it for their own personal gain and pleasure. Think of Hitler or Stalin or other leaders who abuse their power. On a smaller scale, look at bully's whose power can be strong enough to make a child kill herself, as happened this week in Washington, or make someone turn a gun on others, as happened this week in Kentucky.
Power and authority come in many forms, large and small. How do we know who to listen to? How do we know the truth from the deception? Do we listen to the voices that want to divide us rather than unite us? Do we listen to the voices of those who are popular, or who are the loudest, or who spread gossip and untruths? Or do we try to listen to the voice of God, the voices of those who call for justice and equality and mercy? What voices do we listen to?
Jesus uses his power and authority for good, for healing, for love and justice and mercy. Jesus came to share his ministry with us, to show us a better way to live, a better way to treat others. We are made in God's image and likeness. We need to live as though we believe it.
How do we use the authority that has been given to us by God? How can we be agents of change in our world? How can we speak out, in small ways as well as big ways, to change the world, perhaps one person at a time, to a more loving, God-centered world? How can we, with the authority given to us by God, show others God's love and mercy and forgiveness?
God calls us to not only teach the gospel but to live it. There are many, many places of darkness in this world and it is our responsibility as children of God, to bring the light of God's love to those corners. Amen.