Mark 1:21-28 (New International Version)
Jesus Drives Out an Evil Spirit
21They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil[a] spirit cried out, 24"What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"25"Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!" 26The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him." 28News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
Authority is not a particularly positive word. It is generally associated with over-powering leaders, dictators, and stern teachers. It is a word that is associated with military discipline, law enforcement and punishment. It is a word that can be used as an excuse for inaction – “I don’t have the authority to do that”, or as a means of denying responsibility for our deeds “I was under authority”.
In this age, we do not welcome hierarchy – everything should be democratic and achieved with consensus. Everyone should be free to do whatever they like, follow their own rules and bow down to no-one. “I’m the boss of me”, is the independent cry.
And yet authority is much needed. In Haiti, we see chaos when no-one takes authority or responsibility. A teacher would achieve little if she had no authority in the classroom and our society would collapse into a free-for-all anarchy if we did not submit to the authorities.
In the synagogue at Capernaum, I suspect, from reading between the lines, there was an absence of authority. Teachers would come and go and say their piece. They might be harangued for their new ideas, they might receive abuse. Those who taught the law were possibly not well-respected – perhaps they were obviously hypocritical or were running up large expense accounts!
Into this melee, came Jesus. Jesus, we read, taught as one who had authority and people were amazed. As well, a man with an evil spirit named him as the Holy One of God, challenging his authority. But Jesus had control of the situation and showed his authority. His was not just a new teaching, another made up story that had no substance, like so much of the nonsense that I mentioned last week. He had authority.
People have since misused the authority of Jesus to justify their own behaviour. It has been misused to justify liberal behaviour and misused to justify narrow attitudes. We have been slow, or afraid, to accept the authority of Jesus in our own lives, governing our attitudes and behaviour. We have recognised Jesus as the Holy One of God, the Messiah, but we have not knelt down under his authority. We can quote his instructions to love God, love our neighbour, to repent, to be thankful, to be humble, to be childlike, but yet we qualify his words and adapt his teaching to suit ourselves. “Judge not” is a clever phrase to use when we feel others are judging us, but conveniently ignored when we make a judgement on others.
In our worship, in our prayers, we do not tell God what to do. We do not tell him who he is, or who he should be. God is not made in our image, but we in his. Our worship, our prayers, are about acknowledging his authority in our lives – Thy will be done – and taking up the responsibilities that come with that.
For the confirmation candidates, that may mean considering service and vocation in their career choices; for others it may mean righting wrong relationships, abandoning wrong attitudes, releasing love and generosity, giving up old grudges.
If we claim that Jesus teaches with authority and speaks with authority, then we must also let that authority speak into our hearts. Words like “My peace I give you”, “Fear not”, “do unto others what you would have them do unto you”, take on greater urgency and weight when we saturate them with the authority of Jesus rather than see them as mere quotations.
Let Christ, the Holy One of God, rule in your heart.