Amazing Authority

by Anne Grizzle

This sermon is based on Mark 1:21-28. Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 


Imagine yourself in this scene. You have gotten up and walked this Saturday to the stone synagogue by the shores of the Sea of Galilee, as you do every Sabbath to hear the Scripture and teaching. Admit it, you are also thinking about whether there is sufficient hummus and bread for lunch, maybe about the holes in your nets from the past week of fishing. But as you sit listening, your mind is suddenly alert — MAN speaking the message is not boring, not just another interesting rabbi. He has a powerful, almost supernatural sense of AUTHORITY. And then even more strangely, this man is spoken to by an evil spirit in your neighbor who has always seemed a bit crazy to you. The man sternly tells the spirit to come out, and with a shriek it comes out, leaving your neighbor at peace for the first time in his life. This is no ordinary man. This is a man who speaks and acts with AUTHORITY and you, as well as all those around you, are AMAZED.

This is the story we read from the gospel of Mark today, and even with Mark’s typical brevity two words are repeated: AUTHORITY and AMAZEMENT. Have YOU ever had such an experience of being AMAZED at a person who spoke and acted with AUTHORITY? Have you ever sensed such AUTHORITY from Jesus and been AMAZED? A few experiences of my own come to mind: .

I am a cradle Episcopalian, baptized at St. John’s Waynesboro, confirmed and married at Emmanuel here in Staunton. I always appreciated church and enjoyed singing along with my father who would particularly belt out “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”. But I must admit I sometimes wished I had lived in Jesus’ day when he was really alive. Then during my senior year at Robert E Lee high school, I met some friends who believed and acted like this Jesus was still alive and they invited me into Bible study. I began praying personally to God with faith. I vividly remember the Christmas Eve service that year. Of course I had been to that service for years, as many of you probably have, but this time it was as if black and white had turned to color, as if the prayer book that had been wooden to me became like Pinnochio when he came to life. Prayers, Scripture, Eucharist – yes Jesus whose birth we were celebrating – was alive with AUTHORITY in our midst and I was AMAZED.

In 1999, my identical twin sister Beth learned that an earlier breast cancer had metastasized all through her bones and she had limited time to live. Thus began an arduous journey that took much time away from parenting two small children and teaching graduate psychology classes. A friend of hers, Theresa, was praying for her one day and a strange phrase came to her. Theresa had learned not to tell someone, “Thus saith the Lord!” but rather to share an image from prayer in the context of ordinary conversation, trusting that if it was of God, the Spirit would make that clear. So she had lunch with Beth and mentioned perhaps this cancer had thrown Beth’s life not OFF COURSE but ON COURSE (God’s course). Now this is NOT something one should typically tell anyone suffering from a terminal illness. But after the lunch Beth kept thinking about this phrase – it had an AUTHORITY and she was AMAZED because it was not what she would have wanted but became a guiding grace as she lived out 14 years with cancer in which she touched hundreds with the goodness of God amidst suffering.

In October 2010, I was in Cape Town, South Africa for a gathering of over 4000 Christians from around the globe – there were lots of speakers over many days but one morning, after a particularly loud, insistent preacher, a petite graying woman came up and quietly told a story with such authority that it

is almost the only thing I remember. Libby Little spoke of how she and her husband, Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist, had spent years serving in Afghanistan with their family. Just a few months earlier Tom and a team of fellow aid workers had backpacked 120 miles into the remote province of Nuristan to serve people with no access to medical care. As he and his team were close to solid roads returning to Kabul, they were ambushed and murdered. Libby read from a blood stained paper that the FBI had returned to her on which he had scribbled – tell the Nuristani goat cheese story. That’s the story of the acquired taste of grace in a rugged land. Libby spoke with such AUTHORITY, not by volume of her words but out of lives lived without fear of even death because of the surpassing grace of God. I was AMAZED and still am.

We all have times when our faith is wooden and rote, but I think our gospel passage today is inviting us to wake up, take notice, enter into God’s story with His son Jesus who is our LIVING Lord and speaks with AUTHORITY even now. Jesus has AUTHORITY to speak powerful messages of God to us as we read Scripture and pray and AUTHORITY, yes even over evil. The evil spirit in our gospel lesson recognized Jesus as God before the people. Whatever you think about casting out demons – which is not so common today, and I as a psychotherapist have worked with a lot of people and never cast out a demon for their healing – most of us do recognize there is evil in this world. Just look at ISIS beheading people, the killing of school children in their classrooms. Look at our own hearts, our own temptations to lie, betray those we love, drink-eat-rage-gossip more than God calls us to. Whether this is from an evil one or our own selfish human nature, we all need a power greater than ourselves to set us free, like the man who encountered Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum. And every time we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we promise to “persevere in resisting evil,” and whenever we fall into sin, “repent and return to the Lord.”

Our good news is that our Lord Jesus whom we worship here each Sunday has AUTHORITY over all things, even worst things. This does not mean everything goes according to our plan – or course. Beth’s course was a hard one, miraculously 14 years longer than the single year she originally thought she had with cancer, but she died a year and a half ago. And I have to figure out what being a twin and communion of saints means with my wombmate now on the other side of the veil. We are not alone in our suffering – each of you likely has your own story of glory and of suffering – just like Libby Little. The authority I heard from Libby Little was her total realization of what Jesus said to his disciples after he rose from the dead and before he ascended, “Lo, I am with you always.” Always, everywhere.

I wonder if you have ever been in a synagogue in Capernaum or maybe a Christmas Eve service or Wednesday morning healing service or beach at sunrise or hospital room with someone you love dying or walk in the park and you KNEW SOMEONE WITH AUTHORITY WAS THERE. Probably you did not see a face, hear audible words, but perhaps you have had a taste of what those Jewish listeners experienced that day in Capernaum.

What is our response to this AMAZING AUTHORITY?

Our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy has some wisdom about how to respond to someone with authority – we read, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet…. You must LISTEN to him.” A few chapters later in Mark 9, we will read about the transfiguration when the disciples were busy imagining shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah when the spirit said powerfully, “This is my Son, whom I love. LISTEN to him!” We can ignore authority or we can listen and obey. I was once driving on a Texas freeway at 70 miles an hours when I noticed a police car which everyone was passing and as I passed too I realized he was signing 5 -5 for 55 miles an hour – but no one was paying any attention – this was Texas and we all did as we pleased. Another time I was driving and my two older sons were both talking loudly. Then from the back I heard a voice, a little but authoritative three year old voice, “Listen to Andrew! Andrew is talking!” In our family, we still use that phrase to mean stop and listen to someone else! The root word from which we get listen is obedire from which we also get obey. When your mother or teacher wants you to listen it is not casually or without response. This listening we learn about today is the real serious business of paying attention and then acting on it.

And how do we act on our listening to God? Our reading from Corinthians describes a good practical example. Paul writes that knowledge puffs up but LOVE builds up. He describes their quandary of whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Some of those present thought they were so free as followers of Christ they could eat whatever they wanted, while others still felt constrained by Jewish dietary laws. Paul says those who thought they were free should be constrained , not by rules but by LOVE so as not to offend a brother. Love, thinking of the other – that is the obedience from listening to God. For us that might mean cooking vegetarian for a friend even though we love barbecuing meat. Or not drinking when we have friends who wrestle with the demon of addiction. Or turning from a scintillating intellectual discussion to ask interests of a shy bystander. Or going to Haiti or Honduras or daily Trinity lunch to learn from brothers and sisters who are different from ourselves.

In this season of Epiphany, may we have a breaking in of light that allows us to recognize the AUTHORITY of Jesus so brightly that we in AMAZEment listen to Him and follow in love. May we be aware that here in our sanctuary – as well as moment by moment in the sanctuary of our soulsa very alive Jesus is still teaching. Let us call out more loudly than any evil spirit with our clear voices,

Jesus, teach me. Jesus, free me. Jesus, use me.