January 28, 2018 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
My preaching professor told us that there is one simple question in everyone’s mind when they hear a story like this: is it true? Mostly, for folks in the 21st century, at least, it’s a question about the science of it all. Is it true that Jesus cast the demons out of the man that day? But the question probably holds for people in other times, too. Is it true that there are demons that infest people and make them act and talk in ways that are not the way God intends for them? Is it true that Jesus walked into a synagogue and taught with authority? Is it true that Jesus has authority over all the unclean spirits in us and in our world?
It seems like the people who were there that day had a hard time believing it was true. The way Mark tells the story, Jesus and his disciples were new in the town of Capernaum. No one knew him, and the people of Capernaum probably didn’t know all the things they knew about other men and women in their town: who his family was, what they did for a living, and everything about his youthful exploits. He walked into town, and on the appropriate day, he went to the synagogue and started teaching.
What surprised everyone was his teaching. They were used to the scribes. The scribes, you see, taught about the tradition. They debated and argued about what this word meant, and what happened in that story, so that they could try to get the facts straight. But Jesus, Mark says, taught with authority. He didn’t have to argue about things; he just knew things. He didn’t have to debate the finer points of language; he could offer the truth of what God wanted them to know and to do. He didn’t only look at the past; he looked at the past to see how it showed the future: the old covenant written on the scrolls would be fulfilled by the new covenant written on their hearts; the old law of rules and traditions would be supplanted by the new law of love and relationships; the old creation would be replaced by the new creation, where mourning and crying and death would be no more, as Isaiah had promised. He preached the transformative power of God, who had already shown God’s power and Jesus’ authority at his baptism. God had taken the skies and ripped them open, God had taken ordinary water and made it a sign and seal of God’s love, and God had spoken with a voice of acceptance and pleasure in Jesus’ very being. It hadn’t stopped there, either; God had delivered Jesus through unimaginable temptations, and God had invited ordinary fishermen to follow and give them a new life of proclaiming a whole new world order.
Those people in the synagogue that day were amazed, Mark says. This strange man spoke not about the details of the past, but about God’s will for the present and the future. Given their amazement, I imagine that there were at least a few of the folks in the congregation that day whispering that ever-present question to each other: “Is it true?” Or maybe they were too polite or too pious for that; maybe they kept their doubts to themselves. It’s easier that way, isn’t it? If you just don’t tell anyone about your questions and your doubts, then you don’t have to get into deep discussions that put you on the spot. You don’t have to have your assumptions questioned, and you don’t have to admit that you want to do some questioning of others’ assumptions, either. You can just go along to get along. You can be amazed, but you don’t have to let on that you are not fully convinced, and nothing really has to change for you.
I’m not sure if Jesus knew that they were astonished at his teaching. But I suspect that he recognized some of their doubts. I suspect that he heard their whispers to one another, and I suspect even more deeply that he heard those silent questions which they were afraid to utter. “Is it true? Is he speaking with an even greater authority than that of the scribes? Is he really allowed to tell us that the old covenant and the old law and the old creation will be fulfilled by a new time when God will reign? Is he really allowed to say that it is more important to seek the will of God than to follow the traditions that we have always followed?” What he did next is what makes me think he heard those whispers as well as those doubts which no one dared to speak.
A man came in who was clearly afflicted. We don’t know if the man was someone whom everyone in the village knew, or if this was his first time there, just as it was Jesus’ first time there. We don’t know if the man had been wrestling with those demons which possessed him for years, or if his behavior was a shock to the other people in church that day. What we know is that he talked in the plural. That is, he was not just speaking for himself, he was speaking for a whole legion that possessed him. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” You are encroaching on our territory. You and your kind don’t belong here. This is where we reign supreme. We are in charge here, and we direct what happens and when.
Jesus commanded the demons which possessed the man. “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the demons submitted to his authority. They came out. They did not go peacefully; they convulsed and cried out. But they came out. Jesus taught with authority, but he also commanded with authority. Not only did he proclaim a new covenant of faithfulness and a new law of love and a new creation of the world as God intended it to be. He also had the authority to bring it in.
The story says that Jesus taught with authority, and that Jesus’ showed that same authority by casting out the demons. We are left wondering: is it true? Is it true that Jesus teaches with authority? Is it true that Jesus commands even the demons? And maybe the most important question of all: is it still true that Jesus not only talks about God’s new covenant and new law and new creation, but that Jesus has the authority to make that faithfulness and love and new world real for me and for you and for everyone around us?
This story is an invitation to us to be astounded. What if it is true? Just imagine! Just imagine if those demons which keep us down do not have to have power over us because we have a companion walking with us who is more powerful. If that’s true, then we can be honest about those demons: what they look like, when they appear, what they cause us to do. And if we can be honest about them, then we can be free from their power. We don’t have to put all of the energy we sink into hiding them or pretending they are not there or telling ourselves they are unimportant. We can be free, so that their agendas do not have to become our agendas. We can be free to have faith. Our faith does not have to be in our own ability to wrestle those demons to the ground, because we have probably tried that before and failed. But our faith can be in the strength of Jesus, because they are no match for him. The demons of depression, of fear, of addiction, of grief, of compulsions, of habits, of debilitating aches, and of nostalgic longings, are not match for him. Is it true that Jesus has authority over those demons, to silence them, and to command them to leave, especially on the days when they flare up and convulse us and make us cry out? It is tough work to deal with those demons. What good news it would be if we found out we don’t have to do it alone under our own power!
Just imagine what else Jesus’ authority would mean if it is true. What about those intransigent problems which continue to afflict our communities? What about realities like racism and poverty, and sexism and terror? What about the way we struggle to educate all of our kids and to make sure everyone can access health care when they need it? What about the fact that there are too many people in the prison system and not enough opportunity and hope for so many of our young people? What if it is true that Jesus has authority over all of those demons, too? I recognize that it does not seem that simple. Those problems have been with us for generations, and despite a lot of money, a lot of time, and the best efforts of many, many smart people, they haven’t gone away yet. They are intransigent, and they are frustrating. If Jesus could have simply cast out poverty, racism, terror, sexism, and all the rest, why hasn’t he done so already?
But what if it really is that simple? What if Jesus’ authority is the authority we need to say, again and again, however many times we have to, that such things are unacceptable? What if Jesus can free each of us from those things which we do to perpetuate our problems? What if we could be free from our impulse to judge others, as well as our impulse to be ashamed about who we are and what we have done in the past? What if we could be free from the hostility that rises up in us as we encounter people who disagree with us, as well as our fear that others are scheming to attack us or cheat us or hurt us in some other way? What if we could be free enough and honest enough and open enough to figure out together what makes those demonic forces of racism, sexism, poverty, terror, and all the rest so powerful for so many of us and our neighbors?
Friends, Jesus wants us to know that it is true: Jesus teaches with authority. The old ways do not have to hold us back; the new covenant of faithfulness, the new law of love, the new creation when God will rule is at hand. And Jesus wants us to know that it is also true: Jesus commands the demons. Jesus silences them and tells them to get out; Jesus frees us from our shame and our fear, from our impulses to judge others and our knee-jerk reactions of hostility toward others. Jesus frees us to be honest about those demons, and Jesus frees us to have faith in his authority to cast them out.
That is the good news we have to take home with us today: It is true. Say it with me: it is true. Say it again: it is true. Say it to the person next to you: it is true. Say it to the person on the other side of you: It is true. It is true: Jesus teaches with authority. It is true: Jesus commands the demons. It is true. Even the unclean spirits know. It is true.
May we know that it is so. Amen.