Under New Management
Pastor Chuck Kaliszewski
Mt Pleasant FUMC
January 28, 2018
Today’s gospel reading is from the first chapter of the gospel of Mark. The Evangelist Mark chose this particular story as Jesus’ first public miracle here in the middle of the first chapter. But the passage is not so much about healing as it is about authority.
In 1903 Orville and Wilbur Wright sent a telegram from Kitty Hawk, where they were carrying on their flight experiments, to their sister in Dayton, Ohio. The telegram said: "FIRST SUSTAINED FLIGHT TODAY, FIFTY NINE SECONDS. HOME FOR CHRISTMAS." Their sister took the message to the Dayton newspaper, and the next morning a brief news item appeared under the headline, "POPULAR LOCAL BICYCLE MERCHANTS WILL BE HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS." The Dayton newspaper missed the point. Jesus made the point in our gospel lesson that he was the authority. The unclean spirit knew it, but the others gathered did not.
My sermon title is “Under New Management” but that’s a misnomer because God has always been in charge – it is we who don’t recognize him as such. We tend to put ourselves in charge – or at least we think we do, until things go terribly wrong. It is the American Way after all. You and you alone are in charge of you. You can succeed with hard work and proper attitude.
When Solomon’s Temple had been destroyed and the Jews were in exile, they survived by gathering together on the Sabbath to learn about their law and traditions. This was so useful that when they had returned from exile to Israel and Judah, they wanted to continue this practice so they began to build places where they could gather together. They called these places synagogues. They would build a synagogue wherever there were at least 10 married men in that community. These synagogues were always either the highest building or placed on the highest ground.
In Jesus’ day there were synagogues all over the place. They were all built around a similar pattern. Only the men entered the main door of the building; women entered through a separate door and sat in the gallery at the back. At the end of the building, opposite of the entrance, was a curtained alcove where the cupboard containing the synagogue scrolls was kept. In the center of the building was a stage with a lectern (pulpit) where the prescribed portions of the law and the prophets were read and the sermon was preached. Those called to read ascended by the stairs nearest to them and descended by another set of stairs. The more important scribes and Pharisees sat in what were called “Moses Seats” which faced the congregation from the end of the synagogue by the cupboard.
In a typical service, psalms were sung, the Scriptures were read, and the sermon was preached. A time of questions and discussion followed. But, on this particular day that Jesus was preaching, he had an interruption. But both before and after this interruption Mark mentions the amazement shown at Jesus’ authority. Why? What was different about how Jesus taught? To understand what was different you need to know how the Scribes taught. First, they believed that the Law of Moses came directly from God. They wanted to be certain that they obeyed the Law completely, so the Scribes built a fence of strict regulation around each Law which Moses had set down. For example, the Law commands that one should keep the Sabbath holy by doing no work on the Sabbath. So the Scribes defined what constitutes work. They could tell you how many miles you could walk on the Sabbath, and how many pounds you could carry and not be considered as having done work. They believed that following their regulations ensured the Law was being kept. Think about today… flipping a light switch, checking email on your phone, making coffee, driving your car… How about ice fishing – drilling a hole in the ice.
So it was out of this body of regulations that the Scribes taught. By the time of Jesus, the volume of regulations was vast. And when a Scribe taught the Law, he made no statement without backing it up by quoting Scribes who had gone before him. So the lesson of the day was never based on the Scribe’s own authority as an interpreter of the Law, but rather on the authority of all who came before him. A Scribe’s sermon was most likely a series of quotes from the great Rabbis of the past. So the Scribes had very little new to say. And why would they? The Law was the Law, and it had been properly interpreted by these rabbis of past generations. Why would they presume to teach anything new?
In my preaching classes in seminary, I was taught to sit down with the text and let it speak to me before I read anyone else’s interpretation. It can be very tempting to jump right away and start reading commentaries written by biblical scholars. Who am I to think I can come up with anything new? There was one time in seminary when I thought I did find something new in the text. I remember it very well. It had to do with the passage about Jesus calling the fishermen as his first disciples that immediately precedes today’s reading. I won’t go into detail here of what I thought this passage said – it would detract from today’s message. To make a long story short – very short, my professor told me no – I had it wrong. And it wasn’t that I was being kept from thinking on my own, we were in fact highly encouraged to do so. But there is a fine line between preaching something new and preaching something wrong. I know that my professor was pleased that I was translating the Greek passage each week and thinking about alternate translations. She just didn’t want me to stray too far from the truth. She had written her thesis on the Gospel of Mark so I wisely chose not to argue the point – I was wrong – period – move on.
There’s a story about a young minister who was just getting well into his Sunday sermon when a baby started to cry down in one of the front pews. The mother, very much embarrassed, snatched up the baby and started down the aisle. The pastor stopped his sermon and said, “Madam you don't have to take that baby out; he isn't bothering me.” She said, “No? Well, you're certainly bothering him.” And off she went. Sometimes it isn’t just the message, but the delivery, too. I hope I’m not disturbing too many of you, although there are those who feel it is the preacher’s job to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. That bears repeating. It is the preacher’s job to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. So which are you? Let’s save that question for another sermon and let’s get back to Jesus, who in fact, did show both comfort and affliction.
So Jesus was invited to speak. What wasn’t expected was how Jesus spoke with such authority. He didn't quote any past learned men; he was the sole authority for his words. Jesus had true authority, for he had the authority of God. Think about the times reported in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus said, “You have heard it said…but I tell you…” This relates directly to this contrast between the Scribes and Jesus. The Scribes relied on the words of others. Jesus knew that what was being taught to the children of God wasn’t the good news of God. In all fairness, the good news of Jesus Christ wasn’t totally revealed, for Jesus had not yet begun his journey to Jerusalem. But Jesus also realized that the Scribes had totally missed the point. They had strayed too far from God’s intent for the Law, that instead of helping people draw closer to God, it did the opposite.
So on this and on subsequent days, Jesus taught words of comfort, of liberation and of pardon. Jesus taught a message of God’s love. In chapter 1, verse 15 Jesus said: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” His message never changed.
The healing of the man with the unclean spirit was more of a teaching moment than a mere healing. The authority of Jesus extended to the spirit world. In fact, not only did Jesus approach evil spirits with no fear, but the spirits feared and respected him. The evil spirits knew him and knew that he was the Son of Almighty God.
Now someone possessed with an evil spirit was considered unclean, and would not be welcomed in the synagogue. In fact he would be shunned by the community. So how does someone get healed if no one will care for them? How was it that this man was in the synagogue on this particular day? I think like many of us gathered in churches today – I’d venture to say at least one or two if not more of us here in our sanctuary this morning carry our demons quietly. We’re not always good at sharing the trials and tribulations we’re going through, are we? So it may have come to be a surprise for many gathered that Sabbath day that this particular person was demon-possessed. But Jesus did not worry about this man being unclean. Jesus simply commanded the spirit to leave and he was able to restore this person to cleanliness; to wholeness. The same is true today - Jesus cares more about us and our connection to God than whether our religious practices are correct.
In verse 27 it says the people were amazed. What the people reacted to was not just that this man was healed, but that it was a new teaching with authority. That’s the whole point that Mark is trying to make here. We aren’t given the details of what Jesus was teaching that day but it doesn’t matter. What does matter was – and is his authority – his authority as the Son of God and the Son of Man.
As is typical in a small town, the word spread out immediately. Soon hundreds will come to Jesus for healing and to hear the good news. Oh that hundreds more would come to hear his good news today. I hope you agree that we’re in need of revival, aren’t we? The truth is, every generation has been in need of revival and we are no different.
So what should we take away this morning? Jesus’ gospel is a healing word and action. Jesus’ powerful teaching is fresh to the ears of the faithful and it disrupts the undisturbed presence of evil. When Jesus said, “Silence!” the word implied “put on a muzzle” for you see Jesus’ word is effective and powerful. His word is action, and his action is embedded in his word. His authority comes in both word and deed – in word and action. Through Jesus the boundary between heaven and earth has been pierced and the reign of God is at hand, not “out there” [motion out] but rather in here [motion to heart]. Once we are transformed by God’s love through Jesus, he expects more out of us than mere amazement. Jesus’ teaching is more than information – it is transformation. We have an opportunity to become a new creation through Jesus. And that transformation is a life-long process.
So I ask you, are you sufficiently astonished at Jesus’ teaching? What is vital for us to realize is that life and power begin not in the active, but in the passive voice. It is not that we love, but that we are loved – loved by a great and awesome God who sent us Jesus. Our action is to follow God’s action. Our action is to be our response to God’s action. We can do nothing to earn God’s love – his love for us has always been there. “While we were yet sinners, God sent his Son to die for us.” So let us sit back and experience the sheer wonder of God. Let us accept that he is our Lord and Savior regardless of our thoughts or actions. Truth is, God doesn’t need us – but we certainly need him. So accept Jesus in your heart, and know that God loves you just as you are. But understand that God doesn’t want you to stay as you are. God instead wants you to be transformed by his love into a new creation, so that his love can be shared through you to others. God bestows each of us with spiritual gifts and talents. It is our job to discover these gifts, and then it is our duty to use these gifts to the greater glory of God.
Remember how Jesus translated the Law: love God with your whole essence, and love your neighbor as yourself. Nothing else matters. Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!
Let us pray…