(A sermon for Sunday, February 1, based on Mark 1:21-28)
Back in the Dark Ages when I was an elementary school student, we would gather outside the friendly buildings that housed the Gordon Grammar School and engage in the daily hour of torture known as “P.E.” Presided over by our drillmaster Coach Tenney (who would later go down in history as the architect of one of the most stunning victories in the annals of the Barnesville Little League, namely, the win by the previously winless Red Sox, who featured a ten-year-old up and coming star at third base named Mike Ruffin, over the then first-place Braves) we would progress through the required deep knee bends, toe touches, and side straddle hops, the joy we felt in our hearts over our knowledge that we were maintaining our good health steadily increasing to a degree that only barely matched the swelling love we felt for our beloved Physical Education instructor.
Those were the days.
Usually, Coach Tenney would begin our exercise routine by causing us to participate in what he called our “deep breathing exercises.” He would command us to inhale deeply and then to exhale forcefully. I can still hear his soothing voice as it barked at us, “Breath in—breath out. In with the new—out with the old. In with the good air, out with the bad air.” Mr. Tenney wanted us to get rid of what was bad inside us and to allow what was good to come into us.
That, in essence, is what Mark tells us Jesus was up to in his ministry. Mark pictures Jesus and his four newly called disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, going to Capernaum where, on the Sabbath day, Jesus went to the synagogue, the place where people would gather to worship, and began to teach. In response, the people who heard Jesus “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (v. 22b).
Jesus’ ministry was all about “in with the good” and here was the “good” that Jesus offered that people could take into themselves: he had the words that could make all the difference; he had the words that carried with them the opportunity for life and for life everlasting—there was just something about his words.
Then, Mark tells us, a man who was under the influence of an unclean spirit confronted Jesus and in response Jesus caused the spirit to come out of him.
Jesus’ ministry was all about “out with the bad” and here was the “bad” that Jesus could cause to come out of the people whom he encountered: he could overcome and defeat whatever had control of them that was draining life and love from them and that was keeping them from living the life that God meant for them to live.
“In with the good”—in with the words of Jesus. “Out with the bad”—out with the things that control us and hurt us. That’s what Jesus Christ offered when he walked on earth and that’s what he offers even now through the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit and through the continuing presence of the grace of God.
The question is, what will we do with what Jesus offers?
The presence of Jesus is at its heart confrontational; he compels a decision. The picture that Mark paints makes clear that in Jesus the kingdom of God was present and that in Jesus the forces of evil that beset the world and the people in the world had been defeated. In the face of Jesus people gave in to amazement and evil gave in to his authority. In Jesus something new and powerful and amazing had appeared and everyone and everything that he encountered faced a confrontation that compelled a decision. What would they do in the face of Jesus?
That question is for those of us who have never accepted Jesus as Savior and who have never given their lives over to him and who have never become his disciples. What will you do? You need to know that, in the words of the old hymn, “His pow’r can make you what you ought to be; His blood can cleanse your heart and make you free; His love can fill your soul, and you will see ‘Twas best for Him to have His way with thee.” You need to know that the evil thing that has control of you will come out before him—it may be an addiction, it may be a devastating secret, it may be a stubborn refusal to see how lost you really are—but it will submit before him because it has been defeated by him.
It will be replaced by his word which is a word of grace, a word of love, a word of forgiveness, and a word of mercy. He will fill you with the good and he will drive out the bad—if you will but give in to him.
That question is for those of us who have accepted Jesus as Savior and who have given our lives over to him and who have become his disciples but who have stopped making progress or who have even experienced regress. What will you do? What is there in you that is holding you back and that is keeping you from having the kind of relationship with God and with others that you should have? You need to know that the evil thing that has too much influence over you will come out before him—it may be someone you need to forgive that you have not forgiven, it may be a habit of sin to which you have given way of which you need to repent; it may be a grief that you have clung to and nurtured to the detriment of your life and your relationships; it may be a bias or a prejudice that blocks the expression of the love of Christ, a love that after all is extended to everyone, in your life; it may be an unwillingness to admit that you have been wrong; it may be an unwillingness to say that you are sorry—but, if you will but turn to him, that thing will submit to him because it has been defeated by him.
It will be replaced by his word which is a word of grace, a word of love, a word of forgiveness, and a word of mercy. He will fill you with the good and he will drive out the bad—if you will but give it to him.
Did you notice the interesting fact, though, that Mark does not here report any of the actual words of Jesus? He just tells us that people were amazed at his teaching because it struck the people as being authoritative and not like the teaching of their scribes. What was the difference? The difference was that the scribes, while they for the most part probably did a good job of knowing what Scripture said and of teaching its meaning, were lacking in authority because they had for whatever reasons lost the personal and intimate connection with God that gives a life the authority born of integrity. We have all heard it said that sometimes people cannot hear what we say because our actions drown out our words; we should add to that the truth that sometimes people cannot take our words seriously because we don’t have the kind of integrity in our lives that leads to authority. We are not, in other words, living close enough to God.
Carlo Carretto once said, “We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit. That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God” (The God Who Comes). Similarly, I do not believe in Christians who do not pray and who do not stay in humble and loving communication with God. Only in such living can we find integrity that people can see and sense.
What I’m dealing with here is the principle of embodiment. Jesus’ teaching amazed people not so much for what he said, which would have been amazing enough, but because somehow he embodied what he was teaching. He was after all, as the Gospel of John tells us, the Word made flesh; as Jesus walked the earth he literally embodied the love and grace and saving activity of God. There was no gap between who he was and what he said; he was the essence of integrity.
We who are Christians need to reflect the principle of embodiment in our lives in the world. Now already some of you are thinking, “Now, wait just a minute—Jesus was the Word of God incarnate and we are not capable of having the same kind of integrity that he had.” Indeed. Still, we who are the Church constitute the Body of Christ in the world and God does intend, through his Holy Spirit, for his word of grace and love and truth and mercy to be fully reflected in what we say and do and in how we think, talk, and live. Are the people around us ever amazed at our integrity, at how closely our lives reflect the grace and love of God? Are they ever amazed at how our lives confront their lives with the good news of Jesus Christ? Do they see Jesus in us?
This week I plan and hope to attend the Winter Pastors’ School at Stetson University. I went to this same conference a couple of years ago and Debra was with me although she didn’t attend the sessions. I told her, though that I wanted her to meet one of the leaders. So I invited that teacher to have dinner with us. Now, that lady would be embarrassed and appalled to know that that I am drawing any comparisons between Jesus and her. Still, Debra bore witness to what I had felt myself. “There’s just something about her,” Debra said. Now this lady is not an impressive figure as most people count impressiveness. She is soft-spoken; she is small; she is gentle; she has some physical limitations. But she exudes peace; she exudes love; she exudes grace; indeed, she exudes Christ. Debra was right—there’s just something about her. It was almost scary to be in her presence.
Now, I said earlier that Mark does not tell us what Jesus said in this visit to the synagogue of Capernaum; he only tells us that the people were amazed that he taught with authority and that they were also amazed that his teaching authority was seen also in his power over evil. As the Gospel story will unfold, we will find that Jesus’ words were words of grace and love and mercy and forgiveness. We will find that his way of ultimately defeating evil was to give of himself until finally he gave all that he had by dying on the cross.
If we are going to embody the message of God, we will live lives that are endowed with that kind of integrity: we will live lives of grace and love and mercy and giving and sacrifice.
People need the Lord; they need to take in his good and to get rid of their bad. Will we live lives that will point them that way?