Deuteronomy 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28.
Authority. It can be one of those trigger words, can't it?
Some people hear authority and think of police and safety and law and order. Some people hear it and feel repressed, as though they are having flashbacks to that really strict teacher in middle school. Other people hear the word authority and automatically want to rebel against it. And then there are the people who love authority, but only when they are the ones who have it.
But we all know when someone has authority, right? You can tell by the way they speak and the way they carry themselves. Perhaps its in the uniform they are wearing, or the role they play. It may be from the experience they've accumulated or the depth of someone's knowledge over any given subject. But the point is, we tend to know authority when we see it.
Once two men recited the twenty-third psalm. One was a well-known actor, the other an older and more earthy pastor. 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 pastor 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 explained it: "I know the psalm," he said, "but this man knows the shepherd." That is the difference authority makes.
The experience of that old pastor, the life he had lived and the scripture he had studied had given him the authority in this situation.
And in the scripture today Jesus gets in front of that congregation at Capernaum and teaches them with authority. What authority did Jesus have? He had the authority of his Father backing his words. He was the Authority.
Now, the definition of authority is the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience. We expand that to cover knowledge of a subject or depth of experience.
At that time of our scripture lesson this morning, scribes in the temples relied on quoting rabbis and others of the time to back up their teaching. Scribes are scholars who interpret and teach Torah and render binding judgments regarding its application. They showed they knew what they were teaching by quoting others who had done the same thing. Basically, if enough people all taught that the scripture meant this, then it must mean that, right?
Jesus didn't do that. He just came in and taught. And the people were astounded. He knew all on his own. He didn't need to rely on anyone else for the Word because he was the Word.
To look at it another way, a literature class can spend days or weeks discussing an author's intent. I was an English major. I have first hand experience with this. The class will develop theories and supporting arguments. They can debate endlessly. Or they can invite the author to visit and tell them his or her intent. Nobody can interpret a poem as authoritatively as the one who wrote it. Which is why Jesus could interpret scripture the way that he did. And the people were amazed.
Because the people in that synagogue knew what the scribes had written. To them, no one was as important, as authoritative a prophet, as Moses. Maybe, hearing the young man from Nazareth on this day, they are remembering the words of Moses concerning true prophets that we heard from the first lesson this morning: "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people: you shall heed such a prophet."
And the people were astounded. And one of them called out.
This is the part of this passage that tends to make people today uncomfortable. "A man with an unclean spirit." Some translations still call that a demon.
Unclean spirit. Now there are many ways people read that phrase. Some people read it as a literal unclean spirit, a demon that exists in the lives of people, tempting them to do evil. Others point out that when the texts talk about people with demons inside of them, there is a good chance they are referring to people with mental illnesses, epilepsy or depression for instance. Still other people look as unclean spirits as things like addiction or alcoholism. This demon is anything that has power over a person that is not of God. So it could be an addiction to gambling or a love of the pursuit of money or an obsessive affair.
This is why one of the first steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and many other addiction programs, is to admit you are helpless in the face of your addiction and to surrender yourself to a higher power. Addiction is a disease. Willpower just doesn't cut it when it comes to addition. But God can.
Regardless of your interpretation of the unclean spirit, the point of today is that Christ has the authority to order it to leave. Indeed, Jesus' authority is so great that the spirit recognizes it just from Christ's teaching. He cries out in temple "What would you have of us?!" probably causing quite a stir amidst the congregation. That unclean spirit knew you Jesus was, "Holy one of God." Jesus wore that authority like a mantle and used to to heal the man.
And the congregation was further amazed at his authority and teaching. This passage so early on in the beginning of Mark's gospel is one of Jesus' first acts of healing and teaching. The authority he wields here, sets the tone for the rest of his gospel
The people who were present to hear him teach that day in Capernaum were overwhelmed by the truth of what he spoke. Our passage ends with: "At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee." And they weren't even talking about the casting out of the unclean spirit. "What is this? A new teaching—with authority!" they said. The casting out of the spirit was just to underline the authority of Christ. The teaching is what people focused on.
So Jesus taught and healed with authority. Of course he did. But you may be asking yourself, "what does it have to do with me today?" After all, we don't usually have a large call for exorcisms in our sanctuary on any given morning.
I think this scripture asks us a question. I think this scripture asks us where do we put Jesus' authority over our own lives.
Do we really treat the teachings of our Lord as authoritative? Or do we see those teachings as ideals, things that it would be great if we could live up to, but not ideas that have much impact on the way the world really works today?
After all, there are many sources of authority in our lives today. Governmental authorities. Economic authorities. Legal authorities. There are even sources of authority in our social and recreational lives. Ever try to pick a fight with your child's coach?
So among all these voices of authority, where does Jesus stand in our lives? What do we do when our Lord and our faith call us to stand in opposition to a soccer coach, or a social convention, or a religious tradition, or an economic reality, or a governmental edict? Whose authority to we follow?
"They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes." Are we astounded at the words of our Lord today? Are we willing to grant him authority in our lives, even over the many other sources of authority that we recognize?
So you have to ask yourselves, who is the authority in your own life? Who will you listen to? Amen.