A Sermon preached by the
Rev. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, January 28, 2018
Text: Mark 1:21-28
21They 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.
If you’re at all fan of college basketball, you’ve heard “with authority” shouted out more than once by the exuberant and excitable announcer, Dick Vitale. When is he most likely to use that phrase? When a player scores on a “slam dunk.” That is, when a player jumps in the air, rises above the rim of the basket and forces the ball directly through the net. It’s an exciting maneuver and Vitale is known to exclaim that the player stuffed the ball through the basket “with authority.” In that moment, there is no doubt about the play nor the dominance of the player. The move is so impressive that the term “slam dunk” has come into the vernacular meaning “a sure thing,” an action with a guaranteed outcome. No doubt about it. He scored, “with authority.”
So, my question for you today – did Jesus score a slam dunk when he drove the unclean spirit out of the man who cried out, interrupting the lesson that day, as he taught in the synagogue in Capernaum? I ask this because the text says the congregation was particularly impressed with Jesus. He acted with authority. What does it mean to be someone with authority? What do a 21st century slam dunk and a first century exorcism have in common?
The dictionary records that authority means “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior; convincing force; the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience; a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative,” or, in this case religious or spiritual, “sphere.” When the basketball player soars above the rim and stuffs the ball, she demonstrates power, command, convincing force. When Jesus says to the unclean spirit, “Be silent, and come out of him! …the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.” That sounds like power, command, convincing force on the part of Jesus. Those gathered in the synagogue that day were certainly impressed with Jesus’ authority. It was a different order of things than they had ever seen.
In the gospel of Mark, this is the first described event in Jesus’ ministry. Mark has told us that “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:14-15). That’s well and good, but where’s the evidence. Well, friends, let me start with this story. “They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.” To begin with, Jesus was a teacher and he had a lesson plan for turning the world around.
I said earlier that Jesus acted with authority. Actually, the text says he taught with authority. Action followed the teaching. It illustrated the lesson for the day. Now Mark says the congregation was already impressed by Jesus teaching before he ever acted. And even after the exorcism, Mark records that “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority!’” There must have been something dazzling, compelling about Jesus’ teaching. Truth be told, that was probably descriptive of his very presence. He manifested power, command, convincing force in the way he carried himself as he walked this earth. It was palpable to those present every time he entered a room. He moved with authority. Sometimes the response was amazement; sometimes fear. Some experienced his authority as good news; some as bad news, the end to their own claims to power, command and convincing force.
Regardless of the reaction, one truth I believe is important to the good news, particularly in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ teaching and his action go hand in hand. They are of one piece. Jesus both talks the talk and walks the walk – and he does it with power, command, convincing force, with authority. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
It’s interesting that Mark, the action writer of the New Testament, doesn’t tell us what Jesus was teaching that day. In Luke’s account of Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, we get the good news from the prophet Isaiah that “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). But Mark leaves us to speculate on the content of Jesus’ teaching – until he shows us what Jesus had come to share. There must be clues to what Jesus taught in how he responded.
Once or twice in my ministry, I have had a sermon interrupted by a heckler or disrupted by some sort of disturbance in the congregation. I will confess that I have never knowingly confronted an unclean spirit, but I have encountered some difficult and disturbed folk in my preaching and in my practice of counseling. In those moments, it’s not unusual to feel confused, irritated, maybe fearful. It can certainly be disorienting to be interrupted, whether you’re going for a slam dunk, wise counsel, or proclamation of the word of God.
So, one thing that is impressive about Jesus’ action is that he doesn’t miss a beat. He turns immediately and directly to the man who cried out. He stops what he is doing to attend to a pressing need. There will be plenty of time for teaching later. Right now there is a child of God, standing in front of him, crying out in pain. This man must be attended to before Jesus can do anything else. If Jesus was teaching about compassion and care for one another, the opportunity for a demonstration is put before him. How will he respond? With authority, the authority of a servant of God who has great concern for every aspect of what God has created.
In today’s Words of Preparation, Walter Wink writes, “Compassion is the hallmark of Jesus’ God. Consequently, Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, which play such a major role in his ministry, are not simply patches on a body destined for death regardless; they are manifestations of God’s Reign on earth now, an inbreaking of eternity into time, a revelation of God’s merciful nature, a promise of the restitution of all things in the heart of the loving Author of the universe” (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination). In essence, Jesus’ authority is a “manifestation of God’s Reign on earth now,” the Word made flesh living among us “full of grace and truth.”
David Lose makes a helpful observation about the importance of beginnings, the power of first impressions, when writes, “First events give insight into the larger themes and, particularly, a distinct understanding of Jesus’ mission and character in each of the Gospels.” The opening signals for us what the story is about and how it will unfold. Lose then notes that Mark begins by Jesus picking “a fight with an unclean spirit.” That seems consistent with what someone who comes with own authority might do. He is not at all intimidated by the unclean spirit or, at least, that’s how he behaves.
Lose concludes then that “Keeping in mind the importance of first events, we can read this scene as Mark’s signal that Jesus has come to oppose all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God desires for all of us. And that message matters because it is still the case: God wants the most for us from this life and stands in opposition to anything that robs us of the joy and community and purpose for which we were created” (David Lose, “First Things First, January 26, 2015,” davidlose.net). Can there be better news than that? Jesus comes, with authority, from the creator of the universe to proclaim and to demonstrate opposition to “all the forces that keep the children of God from the abundant life God desires for all of us.”
What are some of these forces that oppose God’s shalom? What are the powers we engage as we walk this world? We may not have much first-hand experience with possession by unclean spirits, at least as first century people understood them, but I daresay, the power of possession is not so foreign to us. Lose suggests “anger, fear, workaholism, affluenza, substance abuse” as possible 21st century powers, obsessions if not possessions with which we might be familiar. What might you add to the list this morning? What ideas, feelings, practices haunt you or someone you know and for whom you care? What sorts of things come between you and God like an unclean spirit? What demons doom your best intentions and keep you from being your best self, all that God made you to be? And beyond our individual selves what forces walk among us, wreaking havoc on the social order and the well-being of creation itself? Where might we, as followers of Jesus, raise our own voices to say, with authority, the power of our faith and practice, the command of our committed discipleship, the convincing force of a child of God, “Be silent, come out and get out. You’re neither needed or wanted here?”
You see, there’s a new day coming. There’s a revised order of things. If we have the courage, we can claim a new authority that is as old as time and as big as the universe. God loves the world and delights in all creation. God is, in Christ redeeming the whole of creation for God’s self. This is good news, friends. The old order of fear and distrust crumbles. “What have you to do with us, followers of Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are, you siblings of the Holy One of God.” The challenge is can we, will we learn to teach and to act, with the authority of the One who comes from God, calling us to join in bringing about God’s Beloved Community? Talking the talk and walking the walk, inseparably, as Christ’s own body. What could be a more fulfilling life for a child of God? Who knows, you might even be led to attempt a slam dunk for Jesus – with authority! Amen.