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One with Authority

A sermon by Senior Minister John B. McCall, February 1, 2009

Mark 1:21-28

We can see the importance of this story because Mark places it right near the beginning of his account: the preaching of John the Baptist, the baptism of Jesus, temptations in the wilderness, the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, calling the first four disciples and now this healing of a man with an unclean Spirit.

“He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” That’s an interesting turn of phrase, isn’t it? The disciples and the crowds listened to Jesus because he spoke with authority. The scribes, on the other hand, had power but had lost their authority.

We may think of power and authority as interchangeable terms – or at least that there’s no need to try to distinguish one from the other. But here in our lesson today, there’s a meaningful distinction.

Power means the ability to get something done. It may be by brute force, like that of an army, or it may be by influence, like that of a politician. Power speaks of a particular place in a system; and often power is taken.

Authority, on the other hand, is given. It’s the position and role you have because of influence that you’ve gained and used appropriately. When one is authorized by others, they, too, can take your authority away.

A simple story clarifies the difference:
Over lunch, British writer G.K. Chesterton once expounded to fellow writer Alexander Woollcott on the relationship between power and authority. “If a rhinoceros were to enter this restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here. But I should be the first to rise and assure him that he had no authority whatever.”

Former Governor Rod Blagojevich had a lot of power but over time his authority evaporated and he became the laughingstock of national politics.

Israel certainly has the military power to pound Palestinians in the Gaza strip, but more voices in the global community question the moral authority by which they do this.

On the other hand, think of Gandhi who was powerless in the politics of South Africa and India, but who had tremendous moral authority that, in turn, gave his movement the power to throw off British domination. So, too, with Martin Luther King, Jr.

And so, too, with Jesus.

As we hear from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was in Capernaum on the Sabbath and went to the temple to teach. (A few years ago several of us stood in the ruins of that very temple.)

People listened to him; he taught with authority – not like the scribes. A man with an unclean Spirit (scripture often uses the term “demo¬niac”) was in the temple. The evil spirit recognized Jesus of Nazareth and cried out. Jesus demanded that the evil spirit be silent and come out of the man. It did.

Of course, this stirred up the congregation even more. They said to each other: “What is this – a new teaching with authority? Even the evil spirits obey him!” They’d seen their share of charlatans and pretenders. Those who promise quick fixes, easy answers, weight loss without exercise, all the purveyors of snake oil, will happily sell their product to any fool who’ll pay the price.

This man was different. He confronted evil, he earned respect. He used his power for loving purposes. Clearly this is the beloved of God. They just couldn’t keep quiet and they began to spread the word.

Reading this passage in our enlightened age, we may balk. We see the world very differently from those of the first century. When they had a headache they blamed a demon and prayed. Today, only the most pious Bible believers will speak of demons and evil spirits. Modern medicine and sciences have taught us a lot about understanding illnesses of body, mind and spirit.

But still… there is deep truth here. The unclean Spirit was the first to recognize Jesus’ authority.
• The troubled soul that can no longer hold the pieces together is the one who finds release by tumbling safely into Jesus’ waiting arms.
• Anyone who’s wrestled with a demon knows the freedom that Christ can bring.
• Anyone who has felt unclean knows the joy that comes with the assurance of God’s forgiveness.
• Anyone who’s wandered alone while struggling toward faith knows the joy that comes from belonging to the community of Christ’s people.

We can give authority to all sorts of different powers in our lives. We can let politicians, or the economy, or our lousy childhood, or another’s misbehavior define us. It’s a good idea to examine all the things in our lives that seem to have authority over us; and to ask yourself whether you’ve let God get pushed aside by too many other matters that will fade and fail you.

Scripture makes the case that Jesus has both the power and the authority to guide us on a new path toward abundant life. He spoke as one with authority. He still does. People listen to his message and pay attention to his wise counsel.

Together we try to imagine the awe and amazement of those who saw Jesus at the temple in Capernaum. Here was one who taught and lived with authority – trusted by each one whose life was touched by his. We can discover what they did.

It’s really quite simple: Give Jesus authority in your life. Read the Bible, learn his message, pray for faith, and insofar as you’re able, live as he would live. And in all things giving thanks and praise to God – the only true and lasting Power in creation. Amen.

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