Jesus Is the Authoritative Teacher

October 1, 2017

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Gospel of Mark

17th Sunday after Pentecost

Jesus Is the Authoritative Teacher

Mark 1:21-28

          The Gospel of Mark is unfolding very quickly before us. With John the Baptist’s call for repentance, a newly baptized Jesus is called to action. Jesus was baptized and received God’s seal of approval and God’s equipment for his task. He was tested by the devil and chose the method he would use and the way he would take. He chose his disciples that he might have a little circle of kindred spirits to carry on his message. And now, Jesus had to deliberately launch his campaign. Where better to do that than in the synagogue, where God’s people met together.

Jesus’ teaching begins in the synagogue in the town of Capernaum which sits on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. In fact, if you travel to Capernaum today, the remains of this synagogue are still there, as is much of the town.

The synagogue at this time was primarily a teaching institution. The synagogue service consisted of only three things, prayer, the reading of God’s word, and the teaching of that word. There was no music, no singing, and no sacrifice. It was a place of teaching and instruction.

According to Jewish law, if there were at least ten families in an area, then there must be a synagogue for teaching. Although the synagogue had a so called “minister,” he was only responsible for taking out and storing the sacred rolls of scripture, for the cleaning of the synagogue, for blowing the silver trumpet on Sabbath, and for the elementary education of the children of the community. Therefore, any learned man could teach in the synagogue if they had something to say on the Hebrew scriptures. And many times, it was the scribes, or as our scripture says, “the teachers of the law,” who did the teaching.

And so, this is the setting into which Jesus enters to begin his ministry. He is in Capernaum on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, ready to teach. When he begins to teach, people are amazed at his authority and knowledge of the scriptures. Would you pray with me?


Several years ago, there was a terrible ferry accident in the Mediterranean Sea. The ferry, loaded with cars and vacationers, failed to shut its doors properly, and before too long, the water was pouring in. The boat began to sink and panic set in. People were screaming as the happy, relaxed atmosphere turned in minutes to something worse than a horror movie.

During the chaos, one man, who was not a member of the crew, suddenly took charge. In a clear voice, he gave orders, telling people what to do. Now the panicked people began to feel some relief as they realized that at least there was someone in charge, and many managed to reach lifeboats they would otherwise have missed in the dark chaos.

Meanwhile, the man made his way down to the people trapped in the hold. There he formed a human bridge, holding on with one hand to a ladder, and with the other reaching out to the part of the ship that was now almost completely submerged. As he reached out he was able, one by one, to help even more cross to safety. When the nightmare was over, the man himself was found to have drowned. He had literally given his life in using the authority he had assumed, the authority by which many had been saved.

The power of true authority can be an amazing thing. That is what we see in our scripture reading this morning. It says that Jesus taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. We know that Jesus’ authority is derived from the Spirit of God, who came on him at his baptism. In fact, as we later move through the Gospel of Mark, we discover that Jesus also has authority over the Sabbath, over forgiveness of sins, over unclean spirits, over nature, over the law, over the temple, and over the mystery of the kingdom of God. But the crowds in the synagogue soon realize that this man in their midst speaks for God and not simply about God, as the scribes do.

You see, when the scribes, the priests, the Pharisees, and the self-appointed guardians of the Jewish ancestral traditions taught, they always taught by saying “as Moses said,” or “as Rabbi so-and-so teaches,” or “there is a teaching that…” and then they would quote all the authorities on the scriptures. These teachers never gave an independent judgment about any of the scriptures.

But Jesus was different. He taught with personal authority. William Barclay, in his commentary on Mark writes, “When [Jesus] spoke, he spoke as if he needed no authority beyond himself. He spoke with utter independence. He cited no authorities and quoted no experts. He spoke with the finality of the voice of God.”

That day in the synagogue, Jesus spoke with authority, but he backed it up with a miracle, a sign of the power of God within him. Verses 23-24: Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!”

In Jesus’ time, the Jews, and indeed the whole ancient world, believed in demons and devils. The demons, according to Jewish belief, could eat and drink and birth children. It was thought that there were millions of them living in unclean places, such as tombs and spots where there was no cleansing water. They lived in the desert where their howling cold be heard. They were especially dangerous to the lonely traveler, to the woman in child-birth, to the bride and bridegroom, to children who were out after dark, and to those who voyaged at night. There was a demon of blindness and a demon of leprosy and a demon of heart-disease.

Folks, it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe in all this. It doesn’t matter whether it is true or not. It is beside the point. The point is that the people in New Testament times did. They believed that a person who was possessed was conscious of himself and also of the other being who was constraining and controlling him from inside.

What is amazing is this “unclean spirit,” this “evil spirit” immediately recognizes Jesus for who he is, “the Holy One of God.” The evil spirit knows who Jesus is before the people in the synagogue even make the connection. As we move through the Gospel of Mark, this is a recurring theme. Demons are able to recognize Jesus’ Lordship, even as his own disciples and followers struggle to understand.

In any case, when the unclean spirit cries out, Jesus immediately silences it. Jesus knows the evil spirit is right, that he is the Holy One of God, but he does not want testimony that is demonic. Jesus will not accept the hollow confessions of spirits that are not cleansed and transformed. The demons’ recognition of Jesus can only mislead others. Jesus’ healing miracles represent a war against demonic forces.

And with that, Jesus orders the evil spirit out of the man. Jesus, through God’s power, accomplishes the miracle of separating the sacred from the profane and sinful, the man made in the image of God from the unclean old-age spirit that has devoured him. And that’s exactly what happens, the evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. Jesus disarms Satan’s power that has been pirating human souls and sets the victims free one by one. The demons know Jesus as the victorious Son of God, not as one who must undergo suffering and death. Even though Jesus orders their silence, demons rarely go quietly and this one is no exception. It exits with a shriek, with a death roar much like the one Jesus cries when he dies on the cross.

And what is the reaction of the people in the synagogue? People who were astonished before at Jesus’ teaching authority are now amazed! What’s is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him. This was one of the first of Jesus’ many healing miracles. Time and again, people whose lives have become a total mightmare, perhaps even seemingly taken over by evil powers, come to Jesus. Jesus came to rescue people from the terrible forces that have brought them down. Whether it is a shrieking demon, a woman with a fever, or a disease like leprosy; whatever people are suffering from, Jesus deals with them by that same gentle but deeply effective authority.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we still have a lot of demons in our world today. Many times, we don’t think of these unclean spirits, do we? If this story were set in our time, how would the unclean spirit present itself? These spirits come to us and take possession of our lives in the form of obsession and fear. People around the world are paralyzed by mental illness that is completely beyond their control. Then there are all those addictions: addictions to alcohol, prescription drugs, narcotics, sex, money, and power. These addictions act in our lives today in the same way those demons of old did, harboring illness, anger, and violence. Perhaps you have experienced the horrible power of such addiction yourself. Or maybe you have been affected by the evil living in others. Or it may be that you know someone who struggles in the face of addiction.

These are very real problems that affect all of us in some form. Over 80% of the homeless population in the United States are people who have addiction or mental health problems. Their plight is a direct result of the “unclean spirits” that have taken control of their lives. But it’s not just the homeless, either. There are wealthy suburbanites who admit to addictions to prescription drugs, countless overly stressed businessmen who drink their worries away every night. And God only knows how many people in all walks of life are fueling the business of internet porn, sending marriages and relationships into sometimes irreversible tail spins.

Folks, in the midst of such chaotic possession, what these people, and perhaps many of us too, need to hear is the quiet yet powerful authority of Jesus ordering out the evil. There is a power at work in this world greater than all evil, and that is the power of God that is shown to us in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to be the human bridge across which people could climb to safety, a human bridge with outstretched arms carrying people from death to life. It cost him his life, but it made possible for all people new life. And here’s the thing, the power with which Jesus performed those early healing miracles is the same power which he gave to the disciples so that they too could heal and cast out demons, and it is the same power which now resides in the church, Christ’s hands and feet at work in the world today. We need now, more than ever, to claim that power and to offer healing in whatever way we can to those who suffer so greatly.

So, the question is, will we claim this power and use it for good? Will we, like Jesus, claim the authority that has been given to us and reach out our arms as a human bridge? When the church learns once again how to speak and act with the same authority as Jesus, we will find again the saving power of God unleashed on this world. And all the people will be amazed and ask, “What is this?”

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