Scripture: Mark 1:21-28
In general, I am fascinated by sociology, the social sciences that explores what motivates us as a society and what kind of social pressures influence our behavior. I am especially fascinated by the way this plays out in the new frontier of social media. For instance there was a Facebook post that made the rounds last month that stuck out to me. It has a Christmas card picture of the Nativity with the caption, “Facebook is trying to get people to remove this picture from their profiles because it is offensive. Let’s band together and prove them otherwise.” This is, of course, not true. Facebook has never intentionally removed or banned a user for posting any kind of traditional religious imagery. However, similar shareable post can be found claiming that facebook is trying to block military logos, protest signs, or oddly enough bacon sandwiches. The reality is major social media sites do not ban people for their normal opinions and preferences. These sites have clearly defined terms of usage and in order to be banned behavior needs to be excessively vulgar, obscene, hateful, or dangerous. Given how monolithic social media web sites are, it is odd to think a harmless and regular image that one feels someone else might not like is worthy of being banned. I think the source of these posts that keeps popping up harkens back to an earlier era on the Internet. Fifteen plus years ago, social media was not a thing. So social interaction via the Internet came through chatrooms and forums. In those days, Admins ran the forums and they had the ability to ban people. All of these forums had rules of usages and theoretically only breaking those rules should lead to a ban. In that era of the Internet it was not uncommon to be banned for a minor offense. The liberal use of banning even created a phrase: The Ban Hammer. The admins had the ability to wield the ban hammer, and it is what established them as the ones with authority. These admins had absolute authority over their domains and some ruled their corner of the Internet like tyrants. Power it seems, even minor digital power that only existed on a small forum, can still be a corrupting influence. As a whole, people tend to be obsessed with authority. Often we keep subconscious tabs on who is in charge, who has the most seniority, and what the chain of command might be in any situation. There are also many people who desire authority, but as anyone who has ever had a terrible boss can attest a lot of people do not know how to use authority well. This morning’s scripture is all about authority, specifically the authority that Jesus wielded. The scripture can teach us what kind of authority Jesus had, how he used that authority and what we can learn from it.
This morning’s scripture begins in the synagogue of Capernaum. Now often we read synagogue as Jewish church, but that is not entirely accurate. The synagogue of Jesus day was a place of worship and prayer, but it was also the community forum. In Jesus day synagogues did not have a rabbi assigned to them that functioned as a pastor. There were synagogue leaders and they would regularly open up the synagogue to traveling teachers or to the Pharisees who had something to say. It was under the banner of a traveling teacher that Jesus taught in the synagogue. I love how Mark puts it in this morning’s scripture and it is a smart way to phrase it “the people were amazed at his teachings because he taught them as one who had authority not as the teachers of the law.”
This is really some master level snark that the gospel author is throwing here, because when it came to the Hebrew scriptures, the teachers of the law were supposed to be the ones with authority! The Pharisees had devoted themselves completely to studying and knowing the scriptures. They would memorize the scripture, they would familiarize themselves with the traditional interpretations, and they built a hedge around the law. This meant the created additional rules to follow to ensure that God’s law was never broken. If 24-hour news was a thing in Jesus day, then the Pharisees would have been the pundits brought into as the “authority” on any religious matters. Yet, compared to the teachings of Jesus these religious authorities looked like amateurs.
Now unfortunately, we do not have transcripts to compare the words that Jesus said on this day in Capernaum against the typical teachings of the Pharisees to see the difference. We cannot know for sure why the teachings of the Pharisees lacked authority compared to the words of Jesus, but when we consider the entirety of the gospels we can begin to form a good guess. Jesus talked about loving God and the Pharisees talked about following rules. We get the impression that the Pharisees loved the idea of following God more than they loved God. They elevated the rules above knowing God, but Jesus did not. Jesus spoke of God as his Father, he spoke with the authority of a son. Hearing the Pharisees teach may have been as exciting as some reading the tax code, but Jesus would have spoken with conviction and experience because he spoke from a place of deep relationship. The Pharisees tended to treat people who did not meet their strict standards with judgement and condemnation. The Pharisees said it was important to love your neighbor as yourself, but their actions did not back up what they taught. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, and he backed it up by having compassion and showing care for everyone, including those that others ignored or forgot about. Perhaps this more than anything is why people were able to pick up on Jesus’ authority. It was obvious to them that he believed what he preached, and practiced what he taught.
This morning’s scripture goes on though that Jesus did more than just teach with authority, but it established that he had real power. It establishes that Jesus wields a spiritual ban hammer as he cast out an impure spirit. In Jesus’s day traveling teachers were not uncommon. Traveling healers were rare, but not unheard of. One of the things that made Jesus unique in the time he walked the earth was his ability to drive out demons. Now today there is a lot of debate. Some people read scriptures like this morning and take it at face value, that Jesus drove demons and impure spirits out of people. Other modern day readers are quick to associate the demonic activity reported in the bible with mental illness such as schizophrenia. On one level though it does not matter which interpretation we go with. It does not matter if what torments these people is a demonic influence or a chemical imbalance, the result is still the same. A miracle is still performed. Jesus heals and restores the afflicted person back to their normal selves.
This morning’s scripture clearly establishes that Jesus is a person of authority, and this a common theme throughout the gospels. Even though the people of Jesus day did not always acknowledge the authority Jesus held, we do today. When we gather in church we sing proclamations about how majestic the name of Jesus is. We declare him the king of kings and the Lord of lords. To tell you all that Jesus has authority is a pretty much preaching to the choir. So given that, what do we do with scriptures like this morning, scripture that’s main point seem to be establishing the authority that Jesus has?
To properly answer that question we have to turn to a different scripture. In John 14 when Jesus is giving his final words to his disciples he says this in John 14:12,”Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father.” Let the full weight of that scripture sink in. Jesus taught and acted as one with authority, and he said that people who believe in him will do the work that he has been doing. That means that this morning’s scripture is less a display of power for us to be in awe at, and it is more of an example for us to follow.
The Pharisees knew their stuff, but they did not teach with authority because they did not put their knowledge into practice. Jesus taught from a place of authority because he knew God and he lived out what he said. We can absolutely follow that example. Because of the salvation offered by Jesus we can know God as our heavenly Father. We also can practice what we say we believe. We do ourselves a dis-service when the way we live and the way we believe do not line up. Brennan Manning once said, “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” In other words, they will see us like the teachers of the law who are all talk but whose words have no real authority. If we say that everyone is created by and loved by God, then we treat everyone as if they have sacred worth. If we say to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we show as much care and concern for their wellbeing as we show for our own. If we say Jesus is Lord, then we treat him like the number one priority in our life. When our actions, words, and beliefs are aligned then we have a faith that radiates authority. Even if someone disagrees with our beliefs they will listen and respect our viewpoint because they know it is authentic and comes from a place of deep conviction.
Of course, Jesus in this scripture Jesus then goes on to heal the man with impure spirit as a further display of authority. If Jesus, stated we will do the works he has been doing, does that mean we will do that? I imagine most of us have a hard time picturing ourselves doing exorcisms. However, if we dial it back a degree, then we can state what Jesus does in this morning’s scripture is a miracle where he restored health, he returned dignity, and he gifted a new lease on life. I do not know about you, but I absolutely believe that miracles still happen today, and I believe that through the indwelling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit God can absolutely work through us to make those happen. When we faithfully seek to follow and serve God, when we make it our life mission to join in God’s mission to transform this world, then the miraculous can happen. Just like in this scripture people can be renewed and restored. Dignity can be restored to those who have been stripped of it, and we can gift people who feel doomed and condemned to a second chance and new life.
Back in the heyday of internet forums, the admins who wielded the ban hammers were often volunteers. They were users that the site’s webmaster invested with authority. In the same way as followers of Jesus we have been given authority by God through the empowerment and workings of the Holy Spirit. May we claim that authority, and may we live authentic lives of real faith; lives where our beliefs, our words, and our actions are in sync. In doing so may we live out our lives, trusting that God can and will use them. May we believe that miracles are possible, and that God can use us to bring those miracles about. May we follow the example set forth in this morning’s scripture. The example of Jesus, our ultimate authority.