A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany February 1, 2015
They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
As a librarian and seminary faculty member I have something in common with the scribes. We all spend a lot of time working with texts, organizing, preserving and interpreting them. The particular scribes who are referenced in this passage interpret holy texts, as I do. So they can’t be such bad guys. Indeed, that is not what it says. It was not that what the scribes taught was bad, or even that it was boring. They were astounded at Jesus’ teaching because he taught with authority, and it was a very different thing.
Let’s not be confused about this—sometimes we think of people, usually men, “speaking with authority,” and we mean that they are strong and powerful, and make everybody do what they want. As if the one with the most money, the biggest army, or the biggest muscles; the one with power; is the one who has authority. That couldn’t be farther from what the Gospel is saying here. Jesus was this guy, a stranger with no status, from a little town off in the hills. And he taught. And they were astonished. Not because he said outrageous things, or new stuff that no one had ever said before. They were astonished because when he taught, it was different from the scribes, the authority of the text came from him and not the other way around. Not that he played fast and loose with the text, but nonetheless the holy words came authentically from him. We listen to him, and we are changed.
Now this incident happened. A man stands up, spirit possessed, and says: “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Pretty disturbing. I’ve seen similar things happen sometimes. Mostly at annual parish meetings. But not here in the Bronx. The demonic spirits in this man recognized the power of Jesus and his teaching. They even described him pretty well. “You are the Holy One of God.” But somehow this man was not receiving Jesus as the bringer of Good News. “Have you come to destroy us?” By bringing the truth to that place, Jesus changed things, and that change was a big threat. That unhappy, evil spirit in that man was overcome by fear and lashed out in anger.
You see, Jesus is alive, and brings us the Kingdom of God, who is very much alive. As such, Jesus and his message are not under control. You could lose everything if you get too close to the Holy One of God. We often want God to be under our control, well behaved, and to stay in his box until we need him. We like the Bible, especially when it’s closed. But Jesus is the living word of God and speaks with authority, and that is scary. Instead of keeping God cooped up in church, only to come out on Sundays, Jesus inserts himself at home, and at work. “Have you come to destroy us?” That’s crazy. Jesus’ authority changes the way our lives run. His peace runs counter to our ordinary struggle in our lives. His honesty trips up our manipulation. Jesus disrupts our patterns.
All too frequently, the church tries to change Jesus to fit the latest fashion. In our world that admires the success of those who become extremely wealthy, there are those who say the gospel is all about prosperity, and others who say that expecting people to work for the common good is old fashioned and couldn’t have anything to do with anything Christian. Just as Jesus frightened the man possessed by demons in Capernaum, he disrupts the expectations of a church that tries to base itself on worldly patterns.
Jesus said, “Be quiet, come out of him.” His quiet, calm authority made things different. Of course, it wasn’t so easy. The text says the man went into convulsions and cried with a loud voice. But that spirit of fear and anger left. The man was healed.
What is this? –A new teaching! He commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him! Lots of people respond to Jesus like it’s a magic show; that somehow it’s about superpowers used to control the world and impress people. But Jesus’ authority is himself. He is the Word of God, in him is compassion that disrupts all our pride and all our fear. He brings us to knowledge of God and to real love and caring for one another. As St. Paul says in today’s Epistle reading: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” It is in God with us, that we are able to live as generous and happy people.
He sent redemption to his people;
he commended his covenant for ever;
holy and awesome is his Name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
those who act accordingly have a good understanding;
his praise endures forever. (Psalm 111:9-10)