(Mark 1: 21-28)
Let me ask you something: if you were launching a new initiative – a business venture, a new years resolution, or, I don’t know, three years of ministry as the son of God – if you were beginning something new, what would you want to be your first act, your inaugural speech, your debut?
It’s interesting, the different ways each gospel does this with Jesus. In Matthew, a gospel that highlights Jesus as instructor, his public ministry understandably begins with the Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s justice-minded Jesus inaugurates his ministry with a clear mission statement of good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom for the oppressed. John, the most mystical of the gospel siblings, kicks things off with Jesus at a wedding where vast quantities of wine are created and, one would assume, consumed.
And what about Mark – how does Mark have Jesus starting off? Well, in Mark, Jesus begins his public ministry by wowing the temple authorities and getting into a screaming match with a demon. Talk about leaving an impression!
Our passage today comes fast and furious, as most things in Mark do. As the shortest of the gospels, it is known for cutting to the chase. Our story today begins at the 21st verse of the very first chapter; and in the 20 preceding verses Jesus has been baptized, tempted, and called his disciples. Mark does not waste a second getting to the heart of the matter
And what is that heart, exactly? There is no deep secret what Mark wants to focus on here: it is authority. Or, if you want to get technical about the actual Greek, “new authority.” This “new authority” will be a theme throughout the gospel, with references to Jesus’ teaching authority mentioned some 26 times. In our passage alone he brings it up twice, although they come from very different sources.
The first source were those in the temple that day who heard Jesus preach and teach. They were astounded at his teaching, Mark tells us, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. It’s interesting the way Mark phrases it; that it’s not what Jesus teaches that exudes authority but how he teaches it. It’s not the content that leaves an impression, it’s something else. More on that later.
It’s also worth noting that Mark throws more than a little shade here in the direction of the scribes. Scribes were trained, educated professionals in the religious order, entrusted with specific responsibilities of the temple. And yet it’s a carpenter from Nazareth who exhibits the greater authority.
Now this may not sound like a big deal to us now – it is Jesus, after all. But it might be worth looking at it from a more contemporary angle to see what our reaction might be. Imagine someone visiting a church that’s been around for a hundred years, very established; and after just a few weeks starts showing up at session meetings and the pastor’s study on a weekly basis, offering unsolicited advice on everything from hymn selection to staffing to restructuring committees. After worship every Sunday he’s telling anyone who will listen that he has all the answers and everything would be better if folks would just listen to him. How do you think that’d go over? That sort of misplaced authority rarely goes over well in the church!
And while it’s not an exact parallel, I imagine it’s along the lines of what those scribes and other temple hands felt about this “new guy.” When Mark tells us Jesus presents himself in a way that supersedes the Scribes, he is making a pretty radical statement about Jesus. And again, we’re only 21 verses in!
And if there was any lingering doubt still about the authority of Jesus, it’s certainly put to rest with the other source Mark mentions – this “man with an unclean spirit” who comes bursting into the temple shouting up a storm. Other translations refer to him as a “demon.” We don’t know what to do with this sort of thing in our Presbyterian piety; demons are seen as the stuff of horror movies and Halloween get-ups. What we do know is this man had been overcome by something outside of himself that was not of God. Which makes the fact that he calls Jesus “Holy One of God” all the more profound.
Holy One of God. We tend to skip over that part and cut straight to the convulsing demon coming out of the man because that is the stuff of horror movies. But let’s not forget that it is an unclean spirit – something not of God – that recognizes Jesus’ new authority. Authority greater than the ones typically seen as speaking for God. Authority great enough to be recognized even by something not of God.
That is the kind of authority Mark wants us to see in Jesus in the very first chapter. The question is why? Why does Mark want this to be so crystal clear for us? And what is so important about this new authority of Jesus for you and me, right now
In his weekly email to pastors with good sermon fodder on the scriptures, Presbyterian Outlook co-editor Roger Gench asks this question: If Jesus were to come wandering into your church on Sunday, what do you imagine would happen?
Well, obviously if he were to come wandering into our church right now, he’d be greeted by our wonderful Sunday Assistant Jodi Neal for a temperature check, asked to wear a mask, and directed to sit in one of our many totally empty pews. But let’s assume for the moment that we are not in the middle of a global pandemic forced to broadcast worship online. Let’s fast-forward to that glorious day when we, once again, will fill these pews and worship God in person.
If Jesus were to wander into church that Sunday, what do you imagine would happen?
Perhaps an interesting side question would be, how would you recognize him? I doubt it would be the tired-old stereotype of long hair, white robe and sandals. I’m guessing we’d recognize Jesus not from his looks but from something else. Would we sense, as those temple worshippers did, this new authority that resides in this man we’d never seen before. Is that what would convince us beyond a shadow of doubt that he is, to quote one demon, “the Holy One of God?”
You know, in one sense, the authority of Jesus is tricky to recognize because it doesn’t come from what he does. We’re used to authority coming from what someone has achieved, the dues they’ve paid, captured in the symbols like titles, degrees, positions in a hierarchy. Jesus has none of that. No, Jesus’ authority comes not from what he does but who he is. It is embedded in him, placed there by the Holy Spirit. All the miracles, all the teachings and preaching, all the many wonderful acts that Jesus would do in the coming three years, they all point to the authority that was already there at the beginning.
And not only that, but the way Jesus uses his authority is vastly different from the way others choose to use it. Jesus lifts people up, not tears them down. Jesus restores community instead of relegating it. Jesus brings people together instead of dividing them up. Jesus contradicts the way we think of power. He turns on its head the whole idea of authority.
Now we know a thing or two about authority being turned on its head, but for an entirely different reason. One philosopher describes it as the collapse of “grand narratives,” the systems of thought that legitimize knowledge and our collective experience of reality; this transition from modernism to post-modernism. Some of the hallmarks of this transition include the onslaught of technology and endless choices made possible by it, a loss of shared experiences, and most notably – particularly in our context – the relativity of truth, where one’s own experience and understanding supersede any universal truth. There is no overarching account of humanity anymore. All of us see things our own way. Or, as homiletics professor Scott Johnston puts it: “To be postmodern is to be post-certain.”
Now I know that’s heady stuff, but I believe we feel it in our gut even if we can’t quite put it into words. We’ve been living in this transition for most of our lives, but it has picked up speed at breathtaking pace in recent years. Polls reveal again and again that trust in our institutions is at an all-time low. Just a few weeks ago we witnessed with our own eyes a literal attack on one.
And so what do we do with that as people of faith? And how do we square all of this with the “new authority” of Jesus?
If Jesus came walking into our church on Sunday, I think we’d recognize him, as long as we’re looking not with our eyes but our hearts. Not because he “looks the part,” not because we’d need him to perform mighty acts and miracles and preach of a whale of a sermon. I think we’d recognize Jesus because we would see the authority that God placed in him at the very beginning; the Holy One of God; something that others picked up on pretty quickly, something even a demon couldn’t fail to see.
I think we’d see that new authority in spite of the fact that we’re living in times when authority is questioned and outright rejected, because Jesus has something going for him that few other authorities vying for our allegiance has – and that is love. Love is at the root of who Jesus is, love for God and love for the world and most of all love for each of us. And that stands in stark contrast to the forces and authorities trying to sway things in our world today; authorities more often grounded in power and revenge and fear.
I’m convinced it was love that tipped those temple-goers off to see the authority in Jesus; what made a demon scream in agony. It was love that made Jesus’ authority far exceed what the Scribes had to offer – no offense scribes, you do great work and we learn a lot from you, but when it comes to things like doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God, when it comes to being connected with God and each other and our neighbor, we’re going to go with the authority of the One whose very soul emulates every bit of that.
If Jesus came into our sanctuary as one with authority, I would hope that it would change our lives the way it changed the lives of the people Mark goes on to talk about – Simon’s mother-in-law, who was sick; other unclean spirits cast out, the crowd of people who followed him wherever he went, the leper he healed. And that’s just the rest of the first chapter!
I would hope that recognizing the authority of Jesus would have the same impact on us. Move us in our heart of hearts, stir us to action, wake us from our slumber. I would hope it’d empower us to let go of misplaced allegiances to other authorities that have so much less to offer. I would hope we’d be blown away by his very presence, down to our core, so there was no way we could ever go back to who we were before. And I would hope it’d send anything in us that is not of God, anything that seeks to put a wedge between the human and the holy, I hope it’d send it scurrying away, screaming as it did because it knew it had met its match.
That is the kind of authority that the very church is built on. I have in my office a quote taped to the wall above my computer; a quote from Dr. Carson Brissom, professor at Union Seminary here in Charlotte and one of our previous Gilchrist speakers. The quote, as I understand, was originally directed at clergy; but in truth it speaks to each and every one of us:
I don’t think our job in ministry is to say how deep something is or how long it will be until the dawn. It is our job to say, I come in the name of someone who will stand with you through the deep and the dark.
What a great way to understand not just our calling as followers of Jesus, but the very essence of the one we follow: standing with others through the deep and the dark, with the new authority of the One who stands right there with us.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 The philosopher referred to is 20th century french philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard.