Whose Voice? Whose Authority?

Audio of this post is available.

In case you want to read Mark 1:21-28 first.

Authority. Authority is a big word.

Authority speaks with confidence. Authority doesn’t end its sentences with a question mark but with a full stop – this is it, period. Authority speaks with the expectation of being heard and recognized and obeyed. But authority has fallen on hard times.

Just the other night, Nancy and I picked up a rather heavy countertop, about six feet long; we needed to figure out how to move it around the room and over and around various pieces of furniture to place it on top of a cabinet.

Having done this kind of thing a few times before, I confidently declared, “I’ll tell you what to do and you just do it.” Her reply? “Don’t make me laugh, or I’ll drop it.”

Clearly, authority isn’t what it used to be anymore. We know its abuses too well to simply let its voice or demeanor compel us to jump. Where authority puts a period, we immediately add a question mark.

The rabbis have a beautiful story about religious authority. Many rabbis of Europe were known for boasting distinguished rabbinical genealogies – the farther back one could trace his lineage, the more weight his teaching carried. Once they had a gathering, and soon each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. Then came Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce’s turn. There was no famous rabbi among his ancestors and his father was a baker. He rose and said, “In my family, I’m the first eminent ancestor.”

His colleagues were shocked by his lack of respect and humility, but said nothing. The conversation quickly turned to matters of interpretation of Scripture, and each was asked to discuss a saying of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors. One after another they delivered their learned dissertations, steeped in venerable tradition.

At last it came time for Rabbi Yechiel to speak. He arose and said, “My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning.” And with that Rabbi Yechiel sat down.

The wisdom of our ancestors, come down to us in trusted tradition,deserves our attention and respect – but any teaching that derives its authority solely from tradition is in danger of becoming stale like old bread.

When Jesus taught, people were astounded, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

The scribes, of course, had the authority to teach; they had the proper training, they had passed the necessary ordination exams, and they had been duly installed. But when they taught, the place didn’t exactly smell like a bakery.

With Jesus, there’s not the usual stale slices from a time‐honored bag, but a fresh, fragrant loaf, still warm. He could rise and say, “In my family, I am the first eminent ancestor,” but he doesn’t – he leaves that for us to discover.

Jesus’ authority doesn’t come from tradition, but directly from the Author of life. Jesus doesn’t heat up yesterday’s bread, he makes his own and freely shares it.

One fascinating detail about Mark’s account of the synagogue scene is that we’re not told one word of what Jesus actually said. The emphasis is not on what he taught, but how. Our attention is drawn not to the teachings, but to the teacher.

And we already know this is no ordinary teacher. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he returned proclaiming the kingdom of God. He came not to edify or enlighten his audience, but to free us.

"No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered," he would soon teach his disciples.

Jesus has entered the strong man’s house, and now he’s plundering his property. The Son of God is in the house, ready to redeem all who were under the power of sin and evil. It smells like fresh bread and freedom.

Jesus is in the house, and the anxiety level among demons and evil spirits is at an all‐time high. They know him, and they know his mission: to tie them up and throw them out.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” they shriek. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Jesus is in the house, their time’s up, and they know it. No matter how much they cry and whimper, trying to resist, they cannot stand against the word and authority of Christ. “Be still, and come out of him.” Period. And the unclean spirit comes out; the man is free.

This brief scene represents Jesus’ whole mission: he doesn’t just teach about the kingdom, he brings it, he embodies it. He frees human beings from the power of all the forces opposed to God’s reign.

In Psalm 33 we find words to describe such authority:

Let all the earth fear the Lord;
let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
he commanded, and it stood firm.

Jesus is not just another teacher or scribe, nor even first among all teachers of all times – he speaks and acts with the authority of God.

The evil spirits know that, and the people encountering Jesus are beginning to see it: “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”

He speaks, and it comes to be; he is the author of a new reality. He speaks, and the oppressed go free; the possessed are redeemed; the wounded are healed; and sinners are forgiven.

Jesus is in the house, the kingdom of God has come near, and the whole place smells like fresh bread and new life.

I used to think that demons were little more than an imaginative way to explain mental illness in ancient times. I used to think that talk of demons was outdated after the arrival of medical science and pharmacology.

But then I watched with horror as ancient hatred exploded in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as violence shredded the fabric of life in Darfur and the Congo – oh yes, there are historical factors and political reasons and economic circumstances, but only if you keep your distance. The closer you get, the less the learned academic explanations will do.

We live in a world where powers are at work that shape us against our will, against our best intentions, and against our own best interest. There are powers at work that laugh at the authority of our knowledge and our technology.

I got to a point where I realized that talk of demons is not only appropriate but an accurate assessment of our bondage. We need to know what we are up against, and we need to know that we are not alone.

There are people who make us feel small and powerless. There are systems that take away our names and reduce us to numbers in a data base. There are voices, many voices that tell us that to be acceptable we must be somebody else.

But Jesus has entered the house of the strong one and bound him. The demons are shrieking for they know who he is and why he has come. The reign of sin is over and the kingdom of God is near. Now the door is open and the captives are returning home, an endless stream of former slaves.

Jesus is in the house, with fresh, fragrant bread and the power to redeem, and a man in Capernaum goes home free. All around the world, communities of disciples are called, equipped, and sent to proclaim Christ in word and deed, and God’s love and truth set people free, one at a time.

It was on the sabbath that Jesus came to Capernaum. It was on the day of fullfilment when all things are made whole that Jesus came to the synagogue. Jesus didn’t tell the man who was possessed by an unclean spirit that he didn’t belong in that holy place on that holy day, and that he should leave; he told the evil spirit to leave the man. He didn’t exclude the man, but restored him to life in God’s sabbath community.

The church hasn’t always been faithful to this way of holiness. We have a long and sad history of demonizing and excluding others who did not measure up to our standards of holiness, not realizing that we had fallen victim to the evil spirits of arrogance and self‐righteousness. But through the gospel, again and again, God convicts us of our sin, frees us and calls us anew to live as brothers and sisters of Christ.

We are here together, in this holy place on this holy day, to meet Jesus, and he comes to us as judge and redeemer, as teacher and savior, as friend and Lord. He comes with the authority to call evil out of us and set us free.

The battle takes place wherever the living Christ confronts the demonic forces; it’s his battle, not ours, and he’s already won. We remember that, and no authority on earth can convince us that our struggle for peace and wholeness is hopeless. We rember that, and we speak and live with confidence, with authority. We remember that, and people will come drawn by the aroma of fresh bread.