[Jesus and his disciples] went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.Mark 1:21-22
In our modern world – or as some would say, our postmodern world – today’s gospel reading must seem old-fashioned and hopelessly irrelevant. Jesus rebuking unclean spirits? We don’t believe in unclean spirits anymore, do we? Exorcisms are for the movies, not for real life.
How about Jesus teaching with authority? In our postmodern world, nobody can teach with true authority anymore, can they? We’re taught from a young age to question authority, and not to trust everything we see or read. And with good reason! Because not everything that we see or read is true! Advertisers stretch the truth. Politicians twist the truth. And the news media all seem to share different versions of the truth. We have good reason to question authority, and any claim to the truth.
But here we are, with an old-fashioned reading that I think is more important than ever. Because in the midst of a world without any clear and certain truth, Jesus continues to offer a clear teaching, with authority – eternal truths that we can trust and believe, and even build our lives upon. And then, Jesus helps us to live these truths, by driving away anything that would prevent us from living as he teaches.
This gospel reading (Mark 1:21-28) picks up right where we left off last week. Jesus has come to Galilee, proclaiming the good news. He has called his first disciples to follow him. And now, on the sabbath day, Jesus enters the synagogue. And he begins to teach. We find out quickly in Jesus’ ministry that teaching is crucial to Jesus’ mission. He didn’t come just to proclaim the Kingdom of God. Or simply to call disciples to follow him. Or merely to heal the sick. Or even to die on a cross for the sins of the world. He came to do all those things, of course. But he also came to teach.
There are clearly some important truths about this world that Jesus wants us to learn. But he is not going to teach in the same way that everybody else does. He is not going to quote one person, and then another – some say, others say … – he’s not going to ‘beat around the bush,’ as they say. No, he is going to teach with authority. Not as the scribes. Not as the other teachers of his day. Why can Jesus do this? Very simply, because he is the Son of God. That is the source of his authority. And the reason that he can teach in this way. And only he can teach in this way!
The Teacher Who Is the Son of God
If Jesus was not the Son of God, then his teaching would be just like any other teaching, and we would be left wondering whether it can be believed. We would be right back at square one. That is why it is so important to realize who this teacher is, and why we can believe him.
As Christians, we accept Jesus’s teachings not because we like them, or even agree with them; not because he is a great teacher, or because he makes a great point. We accept his teachings, all of them, whether we like them or not, simply because he is the Son of God. That’s why he can teach with authority, and that’s why we can believe him without hesitation.
C.S. Lewis, in his famous book, Mere Christianity, speaks directly to those people who claim that Jesus is a great teacher, but nothing more. In a very famous passage, Lewis puts it this way:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about [Jesus]: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say.
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.
You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Jesus is, quite simply, the Son of God. Or everything that we have built our lives upon is a waste of time. But because Jesus is the Son of God, there is no teaching that is more important for us to pay attention to, and to trust, than his.
What Does the Son of God Teach?
So, what exactly does Jesus teach? Well, we have a lifetime to discover that, don’t we?! But a good place to start might be the one sentence sermon that he preached when he first came to Galilee:
The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.Mark 1:15
Jesus teaches us, as clearly as he can, that when he comes into this world, the kingdom of God comes into this world. And now we are invited to repent and believe this good news. We are invited, in other words, to change the way that we look at the world, to turn from our selfish ways, and to embrace the good news that Jesus came to teach and proclaim. And then, we are invited to follow him.
That is Jesus’s teaching, the teaching of the Son of God. It is a teaching that we can trust, because it is taught to us with authority. And it is also a teaching that we are called to accept, because of who teaches it.
But what if we struggle to accept Jesus’ teaching? What if we doubt? What if we find it difficult to repent and believe this good news? What then? The truth is that if Jesus only taught with authority, we would not have much reason to hope. But he not only taught with authority. He also consistently acted with mercy. And his life, death, and resurrection shows us that he not only came to teach us, but also to help us to live by his teaching.
Helping Us Live His Teaching
Go back to today’s gospel reading. Jesus is busy in the synagogue, teaching with authority, when a man with an unclean spirit comes in and starts shouting:
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”
And Jesus immediately sends this unclean spirit out of the man. And the crowd is amazed again. Jesus not only has the authority to teach us. He also has authority over the unclean spirits.
Now, putting aside what it means that this man had an unclean spirit for a moment, think of what Jesus did, and who he did it for. This man did nothing to earn Jesus’ favor. He came into the synagogue, and totally disrupted what Jesus was doing. He didn’t ask Jesus to heal him. In fact, through the unclean spirit, he accused Jesus of coming to destroy him. This man clearly could not “repent and believe the good news,” as Jesus was teaching, because he was being controlled by this unclean spirit. So how did Jesus respond? By immediately rebuking the unclean spirit, and healing this man.
Do you see? Jesus is going to do whatever it takes, to help people live by his teaching, to repent and believe the good news. And what Jesus did for that man with the unclean spirit, he would eventually do for all the world, when he went to the cross and died for our sins. Not because we asked him to. Not because we deserved it. But simply because he chose to. He went to the cross to set us free from our captivity to sin. That is why we can live by Jesus’s teaching.
Renouncing Sin, Death, and the Devil
This makes me think of one of my favorite parts of the Rite of Holy Baptism, which is probably the most old-fashioned and irrelevant part of all: It is the renunciations. Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
And only then are we asked: Do you turn to Christ as your Lord and Savior?
The order here matters: First, the unclean spirits in our lives are cast out, those things that draw us away from God. And only then are we invited to turn to Christ. This order teaches us that we have the power to rebuke the unclean spirits in our lives, because Jesus has given us this authority. He went to the cross to take away the power of all the unclean spirits in our world.
Now, we can renounce them. We can turn away from all the dead-ends in our lives, in other words, and turn back to Jesus, because Jesus sets us free to. We can fight against evil and injustice in our world, because Jesus helps us to. We can live our lives without fear, because Jesus died to give us the promise of eternal life.
This is what Jesus teaches us today, and offers us: The power to say no to sin, death, and evil in our world. And the ability to repent and to believe the good news that he came to teach us. In this postmodern, sophisticated world of ours, we are reminded that this is all that will ever save us – What Jesus teaches us, and what he died to give us. We can believe this, and trust this, because Jesus is not just a teacher, but is, now and always, God’s beloved Son. Thanks be to God. Amen