A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 29, 2012.
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28
I don’t know much about demon possession, do you? I’ve met a few people who I thought might be mentally ill, or at least odd in the sense that perhaps some mental synapses didn’t quite connect. But demon possession? No, can’t say that I have any experience with that. In fact, the closest I’ve come to demon possession is reading about it in the scriptures… or maybe the letters to the editor in our local newspaper.
In the New Testament, specifically the gospels and the book of Acts, we see demon possession on a fairly regular basis. There are some instances in which we can easily surmise that it wasn’t demon possession at all, but mental or physical illness of some kind. And because it is the first century, they didn’t have the modern sophistication to understand what mental illness was, so they passed it off as demon possession.
You have probably heard that back in the day when Europeans began exploring parts of the world that had never before been seen by them, they would go as far as possible and draw maps of what they had explored. When they reached the edge of their experience, they would simply write, “Here be demons, here be dragons.” In those times and places, whatever constituted the unknown was often described as being demonic in nature. It is true – it is very true, even now – that what we do not know we fear. Again, I refer you to the letters to the editor in our local newspaper.
The account of the convulsive boy, whose father became irritated that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t help, comes to mind (Luke 9:37f.). It’s quite easy for us to guess that the boy suffered from epilepsy, given the description of his behavior. But as far as the gospel writer is concerned, not to mention those who were there – and that even includes Jesus – it was demon possession. But for us, this idea of demons possessing people, and speaking to Jesus out of the body of the person they are inhabiting… well, that’s just a bit hard for us to understand or believe.
But Mark doesn’t waste much time in giving us an example. Jesus has just begun his public ministry, has not even completed his band of disciples as far as we know. With his first four disciples, Peter and Andrew and James and John in tow, he heads to Capernaum. On the sabbath he goes to the synagogue, and as is often the case, he is asked to teach. Evidently, that was something of the custom in those parts, that guests were given the privilege of reading scripture and teaching. It happened again to him later in his hometown of Nazareth. Are there any of our visitors today who would like to do that?
Try to picture in your mind’s eye what it might have been like in the synagogue that day. It was also the custom of some, especially the older ones, to doze off as soon as the scroll was put into the hands of the reader. Some things, even after two millennia, never change. Nothing like church to give one a good reason to go to sleep. You don’t know how many times I’ve been tempted to yell “Fire!” in church. Truth be told, it’s a good thing I’m doing the preaching today or I might nod off myself.
In my previous congregation, one of the men came to me after worship one Sunday and apologized for dozing during the sermon. He told me he was a retired lawman and much of his work had been done late at night, primarily investigating the illegal manufacture of alcoholic beverages. He said it had been his practice over the years to take a nap every day, at 11:00, so he would be rested for that night’s adventure. And since he did it Monday through Saturday, it had proven to be quite difficult for him to refrain from having it occur on Sunday as well. He also played golf every day, but I suppose never between 11:00 and noon.
So, I can just see some of the elders in the synagogue at Capernaum begin to slip into a slumbering mode. Can’t you?
The children are restless, the atmosphere the same as it was every sabbath. There was no reason to expect anything new that day, just the same old same old. And then, when Jesus opens his mouth, slumbering heads awaken, eyes that had been diverted to other things begin to focus on what he says – and not only what he says but how he says it – full attention is given to the Nazarene who has come over with his buddies to spend some time in the seaside village.
This man is different. This man knows what he is talking about. This man has something about him that the scribes – the ones who normally teach in the synagogue – don’t have. This man is teaching them as one having authority. Who is he? Couldn’t be his accent. They’re not that far from Galilee. Even though Capernaum is a crossroads of sorts, and people from all over come through while doing business, they’ve heard and been around Galileans before. It’s not how he talks, it’s the authority with which he talks… as if, as if, he really knows what he’s talking about!
Maybe we better start with asking what it is he says while teaching in the synagogue that day. But we can’t. Mark doesn’t tell us.
Matthew does. That’s one of the things that sets the first two gospels apart. Generally speaking, Matthew tells us what Jesus said, Mark informs of what Jesus did.
The first gospel was not written first. Did you know that? The second gospel came first. Don’t ask me why Mark wasn’t put first in the rota; I don’t know. But just about everybody agrees that Mark was written first, and that the other gospels followed. Not only that, just about everybody agrees that Matthew and Luke had Mark in hand when it came time to writing their gospels, so Mark was one of their primary sources. Perhaps Matthew thought Mark was a bit too lean, did not provide enough information, so he decided to fill it in and tell us things that Mark did not.
Matthew, for example, gives us the Sermon on the Mount, Luke focuses on Jesus’ parables. But Mark majors on telling us what Jesus did.
Regardless, whether it was teaching or doing – such as commanding evil spirits to depart – Jesus did it with a level of authority that had never been seen before. Not in those parts, not anywhere, no how.
What constitutes teaching with authority? I once heard a noted teacher and preacher who had a voice that just exuded authority. You know how it is when you’re around some people? Some got it, some don’t. He had it. Still does. If I were to tell you his name, some of you would know who I’m talking about. The voice, the presence, the ability to make you think that his word was infallible. Man, he had it all. Yet, I came away troubled about what I had just experienced. Not necessarily what I had heard but what I had experienced in the hearing of it. What was it that made me feel a bit on edge about all this? It took me awhile to figure it out, but finally it dawned on me. He never asked any questions. All he had was answers.
Was that Jesus’ secret? That he had all the answers? I’m sure he did, but I don’t think that is the reason for his having such authority. After all, consider what Matthew has recorded for us in the Sermon on the Mount (thank you, Matthew!)…
$ If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?
$ If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?
$ And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
$ Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
$ Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
$ Why do you worry about clothing? But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more cloth you – you of little faith?
$ Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?
$ Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?
I think Jesus’ questions in the Sermon on the Mount give us a clue as to how and why he taught with such authority. It is obvious that he did indeed know the answers to the questions he asked. He uses questions to probe the minds and hearts of his listeners.
And that is where the demon possessed man comes in. Regardless of whether we might be able to attach some form of mental illness to the man, for our purposes this morning I think it is best that we take the story at face value and simply accept it as it is told.
Having said that, do you mind if I ask a question? After all, it would put me in good company, wouldn’t it? If the man had such an affliction, what was he doing in the synagogue in the first place? Weren’t there people responsible for seeing that undesirables were kept away? In the temple at Jerusalem they certainly confronted Jesus quickly enough when he began comporting himself in ways that didn’t conform to their way of looking at things. Why not this man?
They may have tried but lacked the authority, not to mention the know-how, to deal with a man in his condition. By being possessed of a demon, the man would have been considered, from the standpoint of religious custom, as unclean, something to be avoided at all costs. The law had specific ways of dealing with that. But we all know that when it comes to knowing something and doing something about it… well, they can be two different things.
This isn’t Jerusalem. All they have in Capernaum, in terms of religious officials, are scribes. And even the young man from Nazareth has more authority than do they. Chances are, this man has bullied his way – or maybe we should say the demon inside him has bullied its way – into the middle of the proceedings.
Yet, when he got there, he spoke the truth about Jesus. “I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” Fred Craddock says, “A demon speaking the truth is still a demon.” But I would also think that the truth, spoken even by a demon, is still the truth. And what he said was true. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus appreciated the interruption. As a preacher, I can understand that.
Immediately Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit and calls for it to come out of the man. It does so, convulsing and crying out with a loud voice. Do you get the picture in your mind? “Convulsing and crying out with a loud voice.” Jesus has killed the evil spirit, so think of it as a loud death wail. Talk about your interruptions! Can’t you imagine, it would be the talk of Capernaum… “Hey, did you hear what happened in the synagogue yesterday? You should have been there. The carpenter was teaching and this guy with an unclean spirit jumps out, points his boney finger at Jesus, and starts screaming at him! Something about him being the Holy One of God. Man, it was quite a sight!”
But no, that’s not the immediate reaction of the crowd. They were astounded, all right. There was a lot of talk in town, all right. But strangely enough it was not about the demon possessed worship interrupter. They ran into unclean spirits every day, so they weren’t really surprised by the interruption. But, they had never — never — encountered anyone who taught with such authority as did Jesus. That is what amazed them, that Jesus was able to tell them about God in such a way, using such personal authority in doing so. As far as they were concerned, his power was not found so much in his ability to rid the man of his unclean spirit. Exorcism in that day seemed to be a daily affair. No, Jesus’ power was in the way he taught. “They were astounded at his teaching,” Mark says, “for he taught them as one with authority, and not as the scribes.”
This is what I think marked Jesus’ teaching authority… I believe his personal relationship with his Heavenly Father was so evident in what he said that it literally came through in every word. I believe that Jesus had the ability to say to people, “This is God, this is God’s kingdom, this is what God thinks, this is what God does,” and say it in such a way that rather than lord it over them he came across as one who walked beside them. I believe that Jesus’ authority was found in his ability to enable people to know just how important they were to God; important enough, that when all was said and done, he was willing to die on the cross for them that their sin might be forgiven.
And, I believe that what I just said to you doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of Jesus’ authority. But I do believe it’s a start.
If Jesus doesn’t have authority over who you are and what you do, you need to understand that he will not force himself upon you. Instead, he will gently take your hand, walk beside you, and encourage you to come to increasingly deeper understandings of faith. He will do it with authority. Have no doubt about that. He will also do it in love, but with great authority.
Lord, we ask you to bring your authority to bear on who we are and what we do. And then give us the grace to live with the consequences. In Jesus’ name, Amen.