Jesus has a message. Jesus is an individual not with just words to fill an hour but with a message that can make the difference between life and death; a message that has the power to heal and make us whole. This is how Mark presents Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.
Several years ago I was present for the launching of a political campaign for a friend who was running for a state office. On the day of his official announcement, my friend selected certain sites that symbolized the issues of the campaign. He spoke at a college to articulate his position on education. He spoke at a factory to talk about jobs and the economy. The point he was making was that he was embarking on an important campaign and where he chose to speak was as important as what he had to say.
According to Mark, Jesus chose a special place from which to speak. Jesus went to the synagogue where the people of God came to hear God’s word for their lives. There was a lot of talking in the synagogue, but when Jesus spoke something was different. The Bible says he spoke “as one having authority.” There is something powerful about people who speak with authority—whose message is as much in their heart as it is in their mind.
Once two men recited the twenty-third psalm. One was a well-known actor, the other an old and rather unsophisticated minister. The actor’s rendering of the psalm was beautiful and commanding. Everyone enjoyed hearing the rich words of the beloved psalm spoken in his clear baritone. All the inflections and pauses were perfect.
Then the old minister spoke. He stumbled a bit and the words were broken with unnatural punctuations of silence. But when he finished there were tears in the eyes of the listeners. Something had happened and it was the actor who gave the interpretation: “I know the psalm,” he said, “but this man knows the shepherd.” That is the difference authority makes.
Have you ever noticed how, when someone speaks with authority, there will be those who hear and rejoice and there will be those who want to resist what is being said? There are always those who are invested in hearing the same old message, no matter how tired it becomes, rather than listening to something new and daring and challenging.
Jesus, speaking with authority, creates a crisis. In today’s text, the man with the unclean spirit 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.” Such is the threat of a new word that invites us to live in a different way.
I wonder if this ancient scene is not lived out in the church again and again? Jesus came to a world that was immersed in religion. But it was a very tired religion. It was a religion that had everything completely under control and that offered a God who did things exactly as they wanted them done. There was no mystery, no surprise, and no conversion. Confronted with Jesus, they felt torment. “Don’t destroy us, Jesus!” they seemed to cry out.
When Christ comes to us the doors of life are flung open to wonder and amazement. When you meet Jesus you know that great chunks of life exist that cannot be wrapped snugly inside a blanket of rational explanation. It is easy to feel disoriented by Jesus’ strange ethics, Jesus’ way of including everyone, Jesus’ dislike of religious convention.
We do not have a clinical name for the condition of the man healed by Jesus that day in the synagogue. All we know is that the man was healed and the people were amazed. And it was all so long ago.
But this text suggests that there may be times when, like the ancient man in today’s story, we too are in the grip of an evil spirit. A spirit that robs life of its joy and reduces everything to rational explanation. A spirit that keeps everything under control, tied down, neat and safe. Today I believe the gospel invites us to be healed by the authority of God. It takes the authority of God to keep our minds open to wonder, to be ready for the tug of God’s spirit on our spirits. It takes radical healing to be open to the grace of a new day or to feel your knees quiver at the sight of a mother loving her child, or have your mind confounded by the grace of forgiveness.
The authority of God commands us to imagine a new world. This imagination is so needed. Like the ancient people in today’s scripture lesson, we are tired of the same old ways of thinking and being. We have had the words with us so long that they have gone flat in our souls: “Love your neighbor”; “Care for the least”; “Show mercy to all.” We know this language well enough. But something is lacking between the words and the deeds. We need the authority of God to set us free to begin the exciting and dangerous work of imagining a new world. Perhaps it would be better to say that we need the authority of God to free us to use our imaginations in a new way. It takes imagination to create weapons of destruction and it takes imagination to create communities of healing. It takes imagination to rob people of their dignity through corrupt systems and it takes imagination to offer everyone the opportunity to live as a child of God.
The question is: Will we submit our imaginations to God’s authority? When we do, there will be resistance. Someone will cry out, “Don’t torment us!” But be of good cheer. We follow the one whose authority is such that it cannot be silenced. And, undergirded by that authority, we are invited to go forth and engage the work of creating a new day, a new world. It is the most exciting work any people could ever be asked to be about. It all begins today, in this place, before the authority of these wonderful words from Mark’s Gospel.
Adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2006, © 2005 Abingdon Press.