As One With Authority

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

 I have a colleague, an Episcopalian minister, who had a chaplain internship at a Connecticut mental health institution when he was in seminary at Yale Divinity School.  Part of Campbell’s responsibilities included leading a Sunday chapel service each week along with a volunteer who played the piano for hymns.  The small group of residents who attended were not always the most responsive and participatory of congregations, as you might imagine, both because of their illness and because of the medications they were taking. 

One Sunday, however, they were particularly unresponsive.  Absolutely no one was joining in the singing or prayers.  But Campbell bravely soldiered on.  When it came to singing, he stood up and with determination sang each and every verse all by himself.  Finally, as he came to the end of the second hymn singing alone, one of the young men sitting there, who had not only been silent but also who had been staring at the floor the entire time, raised his head, looked up at Campbell, and shouted out, “You’re Nuts!”

The story of that chapel service has always served as a reminder to me that sometimes ministers and other church leaders seeking to do God’s work can often look quite foolish to the rest of the world.  Of course, being human, we can also simply do foolish things without serving God!  But that encounter in that institutional chapel service also reminds us all that just because you are battling mental illness doesn’t mean you don’t notice things, or cannot speak the truth, especially truths that others don’t want to acknowledge out loud.  Indeed, I have learned a lot during the years working with, and around, those dealing with mental illness.

Here in Mark 1, we have Jesus’ own encounter with a man whom others would say is not in his right mind.  The setting is the synagogue in the town of Capernaum, the town on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee that became Jesus’ home base during his public ministry. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, Mark tells us, but he doesn’t tell us what Jesus is teaching.  Instead, Mark tells us the effect of his teaching on the people listening to him: they are “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” 

The scribes that Mark refers to “were more than copyists or secretaries…they were honored for their function of reading and interpreting the Scriptures.  The scribes were the doctors of the law, the authorized biblical scholars of their time.”[i]  The people’s astonishment at Jesus’ teaching authority is not a put down of scribes or Judaism generally.  But the scribes then, like scholars and preachers today, necessarily spoke with an authority that was derivative.  We prayerfully and humbly share what we think Jesus means and God wants.  But Jesus, of course, knows what he means and what God wants. 

Jesus’ authority is also proven in his power, the power with which he speaks and the power with which he acts.  As Jesus would prove throughout his ministry, he not only talks the talk, he walks the walk.

Here in the synagogue, his teaching is interrupted by a man who cries 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.”  Mark tells us that he is a man with possessed by demons, an unclean spirit, meaning that he should not be there in the holy space of the synagogue.

Jesus’ response is striking: he does not ask others to expel the man, nor does he turn away from the man or ignore him.  Over and over in the gospel, we see that Jesus does not exclude the outsider; instead he welcomes the outsider and removes the barriers to their inclusion.  Jesus “rebukes” the man and his demons, so that he may be healed, Mark tells us. 

“Rebuke” is a special word.  Jesus is not some offended librarian telling the man to be silent.  No, “rebuke” in the Bible is about power.  “Rebuke” is the word used elsewhere in the Bible to describe God’s defeat of foreign armies.  Jesus is showing that he is more powerful than the demons possessing this man.  Jesus opposes and defeats those demons; he drives out that unclean spirit.

Jesus has one more thing to say that may seem strange to our ears: Jesus says to the spirits possessing the man, “Be silent.”  When you continue to read Mark’s gospel, you will hear him say something similar to others he heals.  Consistently in Mark’s gospel, Jesus does not want anyone to focus on his miracles or proclaim his divinity – until they have seen Jesus on the cross.  Otherwise, they will misunderstand what it means to say Jesus is “the Son” or “Holy One” of God.

What about us?  How do we make sense of this passage in our modern world?  After all, as someone said to me once, “if you don’t want to be invited back for dinner bring up the topic of demons and unclean spirits at your host’s dinner table.”  Talk of demons makes most modern people nervous.  Some of that reluctance to speak of demons is a good thing.  We know much more about mental illness than ancient peoples did.  We understand how experiences and brain chemistry can shape things, and that talk therapy and relatively recent-discovered drugs can have a significant impact on people’s mental and emotional well-being. 

But demons are not the same as mental illness, and outside the developed world, a lot of Christians do not have a problem talking about demons.  A few years ago, college students on a mission trip to Honduras were doing a Bible study on a passage similar to this one with Hondurans in the village where they were staying.  As you might imagine, the students were ready to skip over talking about demons, but not those from the village.  One of the women from the village, speaking through a translator, told them, “I’ve seen plenty of demons, one of them took my husband from me a few years ago, another keeps infecting our water which makes us sick, and our government seems to be full of demons because all they seem to want to do is fight.”[ii] 

But there is a view of the demons and unclean spirits in the gospels that encompasses both a modern, scientific perspective and a more traditional perspective: think of the demons here as any force that opposes God’s will.  “Rather than bless, they curse, rather than encourage, they disparage; rather than promote love, they sow hate; rather than draw us together, they seek to split us apart.”  With that in mind, David Lose writes, then what happens here in Mark 1 can be boiled down this way: Jesus “comes to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth, and he does this by opposing the forces of evil which would rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for them.”[iii]

Seen this way, possession is not such a strange thing after all.  What happens when we really get angry?  I know that when I get angry, I am apt to lash out with words that I will later regret.  When I get angry, I can see things from only one perspective – mine.  My heart races, my breathing grows more rapid, my fists and teeth clench, and I just want to yell out.  It really can feel like someone or something has taken possession of me!  I wonder if you have ever felt that way.

We can be possessed by jealousy or envy.  When they take over, all we can focus on is what others have and we don’t have.  No longer are we able to recognize our blessings or be content with what we have.  No, we can only count other people’s blessings and see what we don’t have.  Or, we can be possessed by workaholism or greed.  When that happens, relationships may wither or die, to be sacrificed in achieving more, or having more, or rising higher.  But then there comes a reckoning when we see how much we have lost in the pursuit of human-made goals that are empty and unfulfilling.

We have seen the tenacity of addictions and the destruction they cause.  What about the tenacity of fear or prejudice and the destruction that such powers cause?  Mobs erupt and lash out at those who are different.  How many more injuries and killings do we have to see from peoples possessed by racism or hatred or violence before we rebuke these powers?! 

These demons are real.  However we understand demons, what Mark wants us to understand about Jesus is that he has come to oppose them.  He comes to confront all those forces that rob us of joy, or kill us of compassion, destroy our peace and hope, or lead to injustice and oppression of others.  To these forces, Jesus says, GET OUT NOW! 

Mark 1:21-28 illustrates a part of Jesus that is often overlooked.  Mark wants us to know Jesus is not just a nice guy, not just a good man, not just a wise teacher.  Most of the world, whether they are Christian or not, will concede those descriptions of Jesus.

No, Mark wants us to know that Jesus is much more than that: he is one with authority.  He teaches with authority; he acts with power.  The demons get it right: he is the Holy One of God!  He has come to oppose all the forces that would prevent us, and all the world, from enjoying the full and abundant life that God wants us to have.  He wants to be the authority, the power, above all other authorities and powers in our lives.

So, keep away from Jesus if you want to stay the way you are.  Keep away from Jesus if you want to hold on to your anger or envy, your fears or prejudices. Stay away from Jesus if you want him to be one of many authorities in your life, a part of a well-balanced life like taking your vitamins, getting plenty of sleep and daily exercise.  Stay away from Jesus if you want to him to endorse your choices, your votes, and plans. 

Because he Jesus wants more authority in our lives than that.  He comes not as a tamed cat.  He comes as a lion whom we cannot control.  But then again, neither can any demon or power or force that opposes God’s will or God’s love.  They will surrender to his power and authority.

On the other hand, if you are ready to break the hold of other forces on you and your life, turn to Jesus.  If you no longer want to be poisoned by greed or jealousy, turn to Jesus.  If you want to escape the hold that anger or fear have over your life, if you want to be healed, if you want to find the way that leads to the joy, purpose, and meaning of the abundant life that God wants us to have, turn to Jesus.

At the cross, we see the full force of this Jesus’ authority and power.  No demon, no force, no power, not our sin, not even death – is a match for the power of this one who has come.  We know who he is: the Holy One of God.  Amen.


[i] Lamar Williamson, Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1983), 50.

[ii] From a sermon by Craig Kocher preached in Duke Chapel, Feb. 1, 2009.

[iii] David Lose, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1608.