(Mark 1:21-28)

John the Baptist said that the one coming after him was more powerful. His ministry would do more than just preach - the preaching would change the world.
Just as John said, Jesus does come with a powerful message. He announced the kingdom rule of God. There's a hole in the heavenly realm and God's spirit is pouring through it onto earth. Things are going to change.
Jesus is calling us to change and to believe the good news. Of course he is more than just a messenger. Jesus is the Son of God. He is the one who teaches and preaches with a heavenly authority. Like the heir to the throne, when Jesus says it, it is done!

Read Mark 1:21-27

The situation and setting: It is the Sabbath in the synagogue. In a holy place at a holy time, evil is present. How long had this man possessed by the unclean spirit attended the synagogue? How long did he maintain the evil spirit - or find himself troubled by it?

Perhaps he went to the synagogue often and was never challenged or given relief by the teaching of the scribes and scholars. Instead of hearing a word with authority he sat through their debates and arguments: What cannot be done on the Sabbath day, when one should pray, how long ones robe should be, when to swear and when not to swear. In their attempt to be "biblical" they had lost sight of what it means to be godly. The scribes and scholars had become less interested in BIBLE and more interested in BARRIERS.

According to Mark, their teaching had no authority. Their teaching started with "When is it right to . . ." or "What do the great teachers say about . . ." and you never got a clear answer. They could apply the law to hundreds and thousands of specific situations - really exceptional situations and conditions. But they could not speak with authority. Why? Because there was always an exception or their answer on one subject would undermine their answer on another. When you are faced with this sort of complexity you take the best option which is "Better safe than sorry." In other words, do everything you can to avoid doing what is wrong. So, is healing on the Sabbath wrong? Well, you could help someone in an emergency on the Sabbath, but what if the sickness isn't life-threatening? Well, perhaps we should just pray and wait until Sabbath is over - after all, we do not want to offend God and healing just might be considered work.

If you help a leper, do you become unclean? Well, it is right to help people. But it is also true that leprosy makes someone unclean before God and his holy things. You should try to find a way to help without being contaminated by the leprosy. It is a risk and you certainly shouldn't help a leper on the Sabbath because it would be wrong to be unclean on the Sabbath and leprosy is not life-threatening.

Isn't it blasphemy to claim that someone's sins are forgiven? Oh of course. Only God can forgive sins and who are we to presume that he has forgiven any of us. I mean we just do not know. In fact we may have even committed a sin and we do not know it. Well, then why do we offer people cleansing or healing? Isn't that sort of like forgiving their sins because sometimes their condition is a direct result of their sinfulness. Well, we should help but we probably ought to make it clear that our aid is no guarantee that God forgives them and maybe we ought to always say "May God forgive you - but don't assume it."

Can you imagine how this man whose life was invaded by an ungodly spirit could not find any help from this sort of dialogue? How disappointing to think that a man with evil dwelling within him and making a wreck of his inner life can enter freely into a sacred time and sacred space and not be challenged by the word of God. It is so unauthoritative. As long as one doesn't offend the "barriers" one can live an unchanged, unredeemed life.

Jesus has authority and the crowds are amazed at his teaching. Every word he spoke had the razor's edge of the Holy Spirit. I am weary of commentators who say that Mark doesn't give us the teaching of Jesus. Of course he does. He tells us in a nutshell what Jesus was teaching:

The Kingdom of God Is Near! In other words, God isn't up there disinterested or waiting to be offended when we take a wrong step. He is not an old doddering fool that we can manipulate with words. His authoritative rule is busting through the barriers of heaven and earth and he is getting involved! You cannot contain him or cage him. He is breaking in and every other rule that sets itself up will have to give way for the way of the Lord.

Jesus' authority is real. His teaching is not just ethical or conceptual. He heals sicknesses. Sicknesses that lead to death (Simon's mother-in-law) and exclusion (the leper) And Jesus is concerned that the leper enter into community. He commands evil spirits because he is the one who is stronger than the evil one. He is the Holy One of God. And he has authority!

He even forgives sins and in doing so risks the charge of blasphemy. He does not pay attention to the barriers because he has authority. He has privilege. He has the master key. (How would we counsel Jesus? Take your time, change things slowly)

Repent and Believe the Good News! Before he ever displayed any power, they were amazed at the authority of his teaching. His message calls for a change in light of the good news being announced. It is a demanding word. If we believe the good news, then the response is to repent! When confronted with such authority, we cannot help but respond.

Repent: Not the old gloomy and frightening definition of repent. Jesus is not saying changing your ways or you will end up roasting in hellfire. Jesus is saying turn and experience something better than hell. This is a word of hope. It invites us to a new option and a new reality. Rend believe is an invitation to trust in the one with authority. We are not stuck forever living with the evil spirits. Now there is a new authority! We can repent and Be amazed! Be amazed by news - good news.

Mexico 1991: I don't claim to be an expert on evil spirits. I have difficulty with stories about actual demons that haunt and possess people. It just doesn't appeal to my scientific mindset. (A woman once told me that she was visited by a demon. He was a short squat figure that stood on the edge of her bed and counted backwards from 10 - that doesn't sound like a demon. It sounds like a muppet.) Despite my scientific mind set I know it would be falling into the enemies hand if we decided that there was no such thing as evil and spirits. The devil's greatest weapon is convincing us that he is not real. I don't claim to understand how evil works, but I do know that it wrecks lives. My scientific mindset was challenged by the man I met on the streets of Mexico. He was hungry and wild eyed. He came up babbling in Spanish and asking for food. I was there with a mission group and our translator Sam and I began speaking to this man. When he found out we were Christians he began telling us his story. He went so fast that Sam couldn't translate it all for me. Sam had a stunned look on his face. Then the man pulled up his sleeve to reveal a horrible scar that gouged his meaty arm from wrist to elbow. What is it Sam? I asked. "He says that he has been possessed by demons and he cut his arm open to release them but he is afraid they will return. What do I tell him?" Sam asks me.

Here I was two years into graduate studies. I knew Greek and the historical critical method. I had read sociological studies and missiological reports about animism and cultural beliefs. What do I say. What do we say? Oh, this is just mental illness. This is just cultural superstition. Maybe it is. And maybe the 12 inch scar on this man's arm is a figment of my imagination.
Years later a young man selling magazines came to our church office in Texas. I could tell he was troubled so we sat in the hall and talked. He looked at me with eyes that were tinted with an angry gleam and he got a far away look on his face. As if his personality changed. Sometimes, he said, I just hate people. Sometimes I get the urge to load my pistol and turn on music and just shoot people. But I don't want to. How do I make the feelings stop? What do I say? What do we say? Oh this is just the product of poor parenting. This is the failure of our school system. Maybe he needs counseling. Maybe he does. And none of that made me feel any safer if this scrawny kid had pulled a 9mm out his pocket right then.

However you describe these problems and explain them, they are part of the same thing - evil. I told the kid what I told Sam that night in Mexico. "Tell this man that Jesus is stronger!" Tell him that Jesus has authority. Tell him that Jesus is stronger and more powerful than any evil and not even death is more powerful than Christ! Sam told the man with the disfigured arm and he started to cry. We introduced him to God's people in Mexico.

I will say to all of you what I said then and what John the Baptist proclaimed - Jesus is more powerful. Whatever power, unclean spirit, sociological development or cultural baggage has you in its grip - Jesus is more powerful. He is one who has authority. What ever illness or weakness tortures you makes your life unbearable - Jesus is more powerful. Listen to what he says - The Kingdom of Heaven is near! The rule of God overrules evil and death! Hear his invitation - Repent and believe the good news. Do you believe that he is able to handle what concerns you today? Then make a change.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 12 June 2005

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