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Mark 1, 21-28

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TITLE:     Wow!  A New Kind of Preacher!

SERMON IN A SENTENCE:    Jesus comes to us through the authority of God, opening our eyes and freeing us from sin and death.

SCRIPTURE:    Mark 1:21-28


Jesus called his first disciples -- Peter and Andrew, James and John -- and then he took them to the synagogue in Capernaum.  That isn't too surprising.  The Gospel of Luke tells us that it was Jesus' custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath -- and Capernaum seems to be where Jesus made his home as a man. 

There was a good deal about synagogue worship in those days that would seem familiar to us today -- scriptures -- prayers -- a homily.  But there was nobody known as the preacher.  There was a ruler of the synagogue, but he was more like the superintendent.  He would choose people to do the readings and give the homily, but he didn't usually do those things himself -- unless he couldn't find anyone else to do it.

But synagogue rulers had enough headaches, keeping a roof overhead and arranging for someone to do the weekly cleaning, without having to prepare a worship service.  They were always glad to find someone who would help, although they probably had to grit their teeth when the only volunteer was the guy who mumbled -- or who said the same thing every time.  You had to expect things like that in the synagogue, because the worship leaders were all common folk -- neighbors -- butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.

Sometimes a synagogue ruler would get lucky and find someone really good -- someone who had something to say that they hadn't heard before -- someone who would, as they say, stand up and speak up.  The rest of that formula, by the way, is shut up and sit down.  Stand up, speak up, shut up, and sit down.  Finding someone who knows how to stand up, speak up, shut up, and sit down is no mean feat.  Such a person is a rare treasure, and every synagogue ruler knew it.  They were always on the lookout for someone who could stand up, speak up, shut up, and sit down.

The synagogue ruler at Capernaum probably had an inkling that Jesus might be able to do that.  We really don't know.  Jesus had just begun his ministry, and was still an unknown quantity.  He had chosen four disciples, and that was about it.  It is quite possible that nobody understood his potential. We don't know just how well the synagogue ruler knew Jesus.  Mark wrote such a short Gospel, and he leaves out lots of details that we would find interesting today. 

At any rate, the synagogue ruler must have invited Jesus to speak, because that's how it worked.  We don't know if someone else read the scriptures and led the prayers or whether Jesus did it all.  He must have given the homily, because Mark tells us that the people were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

Now the scribes would have been surprised to find themselves characterized as teaching without authority.  They were, in fact, the authorities.  They were the recognized experts in the scriptures in a time and place where people revered the scriptures.  When a scribe walked into the synagogue, people stood until he was seated -- and he would be seated right up front. 

When someone really wanted to know what the scriptures meant they asked a scribe, because nobody knew the scriptures like the scribes.  If someone wanted to know what was allowed on the Sabbath -- or how to calculate their tithe -- or any of a thousand other things -- they would ask a scribe.  Usually, the scribe would quote the scriptures from memory.  Sometimes, they might have to ask you to come back the next day so they could do a little research.  But, in the end, whatever the scribe said was IT!  So the scribes would have been surprised to hear someone say that they failed to speak with authority.  But that is exactly what happened when Jesus spoke at the Capernaum synagogue.  They people were astounded, because he spoke with authority, and not as the scribes. 

Jesus' manner of teaching was different, for one thing.  The scribes were fond of quoting the opinions of famous rabbis.  They could take you all the way around the berry bush before giving you the final answer.  This rabbi said this, and that rabbi said that.  Finally, they would tell you the answer, and that would be the end of it. 

But Jesus didn't quote this rabbi or that.  Jesus spoke with a kind of authority that didn't come from books.  Did you ever know someone like that!  Someone who obviously knows plenty, but doesn't sound like he is reading it out of a book .

I am sure that, when Jesus taught those people in that synagogue, he didn't sound like he was reading it out of a book.  For one thing, Jesus wrote the book.  Do you remember what it says at the very beginning of the Gospel of John?  It says:

"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
And without him not one thing came into being."

Now when John uses that phrase, "the Word," he is talking about Jesus.  We could substitute "Jesus" for "the Word," and it would keep the same sense:

"In the beginning was Jesus,
and Jesus was with God, and Jesus was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
And without him not one thing came into being."

That means that Jesus was, in some form, there at the beginning.  He was drawing up the plans for the universe.  He was spinning worlds into being.  He was separating oceans from dry land and night from day.  Listen to it once more:

"In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
ALL THINGS came into being through him,
and without him NOT ONE THING came into being."

When you are there at the beginning, you know things that nobody else knows.  You know the front and back of it -- the ins and outs -- the ups and downs.  You not only know that the knee bone is connected to the leg bone, but you know why.  You know how it happened.  You were there when it happened.  You MADE it happen!  And when you make it happen, you know it better than anyone else.  You can explain it better than anyone else.  You don't have to say, "Well, this authority says this and that authority says that."  You ARE the authority!  You can tell people things that they never heard before.  And, when you finish telling them, they sit in stunned silence, knowing that everything that you said rings with truth and wondering how it could be that nobody ever said it before.

That is what happened that Sabbath day in the synagogue at Capernaum.  Jesus stood up to speak -- actually, in the synagogues, people sat down to speak.  Jesus sat down to speak, and when he finished the people sat in stunned silence.  They were astounded at what they had heard!  They had been schooled in the Torah from the time that they were toddlers.  They had learned scripture after scripture by heart.  They had heard dozens of people explain the scriptures.  Everything in their lives was centered around the scriptures.  But, all of a sudden, it was as if they had moved from a bicycle with training wheels to a Harley hog!  They had spent their lives moving a few halting feet, and now they were roaring down the road -- passing everything in sight -- hanging on for dear life -- and they were ASTOUNDED!

And while they were sitting with open mouths, a man with an unclean spirit started an uproar.  He wasn't supposed to be in the synagogue.  If you had an unclean spirit, you weren't eligible to attend the synagogue -- but people with unclean spirits don't always follow the rules.  This man spoke, but it was really the unclean spirit speaking through him: 

"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."

Now the average preacher doesn't look forward to that kind of audience participation.  You don't often see that in church.  At that point, it really doesn't matter what the preacher has in his or her notes.  Prayers for guidance, please!

But it didn't faze Jesus.  He said, "Be silent, and come out of him!"  And the unclean spirit, fighting every inch of the way, came out.  And, once again, the people were amazed!  What they said at that point is interesting.  They said:

"What is this?  A new teaching -- with authority?"

Did you catch that emphasis on teaching?  "What is this?  A new teaching -- with authority?"  The teaching was more important to them than the miracle!

Mark didn't put this story here by accident.  In this Gospel, Jesus opens his public ministry in this Capernaum synagogue -- teaching and healing -- exorcising an unclean spirit -- driving out demons -- demonstrating his authority -- opening people's minds to great truths and healing their bodies of great afflictions.  That constitutes the major theme of the first half of Mark's Gospel -- Jesus' teaching and healing.

And he still does those things today.  Many is the alcoholic who struggled unsuccessfully with drink until he encountered the risen Christ.  Many is the drug addict who finally kicked her addiction only with Christ's help.  Many is the husband or wife whose family was in distress until that day when they gave their life and family over to Christ.  Many is the person who will tell you how hopeless was their illness but how faithful were the prayers of their Christian friends. 

David Frum served as a speechwriter in the current Bush administration, and recently published a book entitled, "The Right Man:  The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush."  It is a study of the presidents' character -- and of his faith.  It is worth noting that David Frum is no right-wing evangelical -- he is Jewish -- but he writes with great respect about the president's religious faith.  He tells about a meeting that Bush had with five religious leaders -- three Christian, one Jewish, and one Muslim -- during an Oval Office visit last year.  Asking them to pray for him, he said:
"You know, I had a drinking problem.

Right now I should be in a bar in Texas, not in the Oval Office.
There is only one reason that I am in the Oval Office and not in a bar.
I found faith.  I found God.  I am here because of the power of prayer."

Frum also tells of a speech that Bush gave at Yale.  He said:

"When I left here, I didn't have much in the way of a life plan.
I knew some people who thought that they did.
But it turned out that we were all in for ups and downs,
most of them unexpected.
Life takes its turns, makes its own demands, writes its own story.
And along the way we start to realize we are not the author."

Frum concludes, "That was why Bush was so confident:  not because he was arrogant but because he believed that the future was held in stronger hands than his own." 

If I were to put that in the words of the Gospel lesson, it sounds as if Christ worked with authority in Bush's life.

Christ still acts with authority today -- through the church -- through the sacraments -- through the reading of the scriptures -- through our prayers -- through the work and sacrifices of the faithful.  On every continent today, eyes are being opened and bodies healed in the name of this Christ of authority.

You can be a part of that.  The first step is to bring yourself under Christ's authority -- to become obedient to his will -- to give your life to him.  Let Christ work a miracle in you, and then you will see what kinds of miracles he can work through you.

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