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Almighty God, by the power of your Holy Spirit, remove any obstacles from us
that would prevent us from hearing your Word this day, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Before reading our Scripture for today, note that “There are two kinds of authority leaders possess:
positional authority and relational authority.
Positional authority is the authority that comes from title, rank, and status.
This is the authority you receive from an institution’s organizational chart
(like officers in the military or scribes in a synagogue or pastors in a church).
Relational authority is different. It’s the authority that comes from the trust and respect of others.
This authority cannot be demanded, but is given freely (or not) by your followers.
(Many) people have positional authority without relational authority.
(You may) have worked for someone like that, and it (can be) painful.
(Some people with throw the weight of their position around
without much regard for the people with whom they work).
(Other persons) have relational authority even if they don’t have positional authority.
This is the person in the office that everyone goes to when they need to get something done.
(This is the person whose advice people seek.
Those with relational authority tend to care genuinely about other people
and they are often those who seek the greater good.)
This person appears nowhere in a formal chain of command,
but their influence is felt everywhere.” (billzipponbusiness.com/authority-as-a-leader)
Jesus steps into the synagogue in Capernaum and almost immediately
is recognized for his relational authority.
As far as we can tell, Jesus had no positional authority at any point in his life.
His entire influence was based on who he was, on what he said and did,
and not on any position or title he held.
The New Testament reading is from the first chapter of the gospel of Mark beginning in the 21st verse and continuing through verse 28. Hear the word of God:
They went to Capernaum and when the sabbath came he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teachings for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. Just then there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “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.” But Jesus rebuked him saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit convulsed him and crying out with a loud voice came out of him. They were all amazed. And they kept on asking one another, “What is this, a new teaching? With authority he commands even the unclean spirit and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread the surrounding region of Galilee.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
In the Gospel of Mark, the story of Jesus’ authority over the unclean spirit
comes at the very beginning of his ministry.
Jesus has just called disciples on the shore of Galilee to drop their nets and follow him,
then, upon the Sabbath day, Jesus and the fishermen go together to the local synagogue.
Capernaum, or “kephar nahum”, or “farm or place of comfort”,
is the small, lakeside village where Jesus based his ministry.
This is the hometown of Simon and Andrew, of James and John.
The synagogue was only a hundred yards or so from Simon and Andrew’s home,
the home where Jesus established his base for his ministry.
There were many persons in the synagogue that Sabbath day.
People would gather to listen to several rabbis read from the scrolls,
and then hear them offer interpretation and address questions.
Jesus, an itinerant rabbi, also read from the scroll, then sat down and began to teach them.
Mark reports that the local crowd was astounded at his teachings!
“He taught them as one with authority and not as the scribes.”
Just then, an unnamed man disrupts the Bible study.
Most likely, everyone there knew him or knew of him. He was disturbed in spirit.
The locals knew some of the crazy things he had said or done in the past,
and here he was now, disturbing their worship by crying out with a loud voice.
“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth; have you come to destroy us?”
When a person had been deemed “unclean” according to Jewish ritual law,
when they had an unclean spirit,
that person was no longer allowed to participate in regular community life, including worship.
Some may take the literal view and talk about demon possession and evil spirits, while others
will take a rationalistic, scientific approach and talk about schizophrenia or manic depression.
It may not matter much which direction we choose in deciding what was wrong with the man.
What matters is Jesus’ authority over his condition.
The man had engaged in certain behaviors that rendered him unfit to be a part of public life,
unwelcome to participate in community activities.
We do not know what his behaviors were; we don’t know how he acted out,
but the poor man had been deemed “unclean”, expelled from full community participation.
After the man disturbs the whole scene, Jesus rebukes him. “Be silent, come out of him!”
Convulsing, the man cries out in a loud voice and, as Mark simply reports,
the unclean spirit came out of him.
Everyone in the synagogue that day was amazed!
And at once, the knowledge of this new rabbi began to spread throughout the countryside.
Whether some dysfunction of brain chemistry or some evil spirit,
Jesus removes the obstacle; Jesus takes away his “uncleanness” so that the man could be free.
We spoke last week of how this building renovation removed obstacles to ministry.
Over time, the way the buildings themselves were configured had become a hindrance.
We spent great effort and resources in order to make our facilities hospitable and accessible,
to make the various spaces work well for children and youth, and to upgrade the infrastructure
so that we would be safe and dry.
The truth is, most everyone in the synagogue that day had some kind of obstacle,
some uncleanness, that needed to be removed.
We all have habits or attitudes or behaviors that, over time,
can become real hindrances to faithful living.
When Jesus shocked everyone by freeing the most disturbed person in the room,
it became clear that Jesus would be able to heal and make new every person in the room.
From the first time this story was told throughout the Galilean countryside,
the good news of the gospel is that if Jesus of Nazareth could do this for that disturbed man,
he can also do the same for me and for you!
That very evening, practically everyone in Capernaum crowded outside the doorway
to Peter’s mother’s home, waiting for their chance to healed by Jesus.
The story of the man with the unclean spirit is the story of us all.
The story does not need to give any details about particular foibles or obstacles,
it does not need to describe the many failings of humankind,
it is not so much about the peculiarities of whatever “evil spirit” may assail us.
At heart, this first act of Jesus’ ministry is about the authority of Jesus,
about his power over anything that might get in the way of faithful living with God and others.
Is there anything standing in the way of a more healthy relationship with others at home or at work?
Is there anything standing in the way of a more healthy relationship with your spouse or child or sibling?
Is there anything that is preventing you from fulfilling your true vocation, your calling in life?
Is there anything that is hindering you from more full and faithful participation
in the ministries of the church, or in the activities of the local school or community groups?
What might be standing in the way of a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with God?
Human beings often fail to participate fully in the life God has to offer us
because some obstacle stands in our way.
Obstacles to faithful living do not have to be something evil or immoral.
Obstacles can be something good that is competing with something that is better –
like spending too much time working and too little time with family,
or spending too much family energy on sports
and too little time sitting at the dinner table together.
Anything, good or not so good, that requires an inordinate amount of your time
and an unreasonable amount of resources can become an obstacle to faithful living.
Obstacles do not have to be the presence of something.
They can also be the absence of something, like lack of forgiveness,
or lack of compassion, or lack of respect.
A lack of reverence for nature, even, or a lack of appreciation for what others deem holy,
can become an obstacle.
Certainly, we should mention addictions.
Addictions of various kinds can become serious obstacles to faithfulness to God and others.
Some are addicted to substances, legal or illegal.
Others are addicted to behaviors, like gambling or pornography.
Addictions can quickly take over one’s life and seriously hinder full participation in family life,
healthy participation in the community, and, certainly,
a right and ordered relationship with God.
Attitudes that close one’s heart to other human beings –
like racism or sexism or homophobia – hinder love for God and neighbor
and break down the possibilities for peaceful human life.
Three subtle, but very common obstacles – we might even call them “evil spirits”, if you will –
are: trying to do it all; trying to please them all; and trying to have it all.
In the wonderful little book, Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis,
an arch, evil angel named Screwtape writes a series of letters to his nephew, Wormwood.
Wormwood’s job is to assail a common man who has recently become a Christian.
It’s an engaging and humorous look at potential obstacles to faithfulness.
Screwtape writes to Wormwood that one of the most powerful tools the devil utilizes
for someone engaged in the life of the Church is to fill him or her to overflowing
with many good and worthwhile things to do.
The poor soul will give their all trying to do it all, but will eventually burn out
and become frustrated and even angry.
Trying to do it all can quickly become an obstacle to faithfulness.
The second obstacle is trying please them all, seeking to be a “people-pleaser”.
Many fall into that trap, and ministers rank high among them.
We tend to want to help everybody, to give everyone what they need.
We don’t want anyone to suffer. We don’t want people to be unhappy with the church,
so we try please everybody.
Anyone in a caring profession or anyone who has children at home knows what I am talking about.
There is a great temptation to please others.
We say to our children, we just want you to be “happy”.
But you cannot please everyone all the time, especially not your children!
We should not try to please everyone or make everyone happy.
The focus of our lives, no matter our profession or our family situation,
should be on pleasing just One – the one and only God.
Third, trying to have it all.
As the scripture says, you cannot worship God and mammon. You cannot serve two masters.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things shall be added unto you.”
We fill ourselves with things and experiences that make us feel better for a little while,
the fruits of the “good life”, but what God wants us to have is abundant life,
evidenced by the fruits of the Spirit:
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, self-control…..
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to set us free.
He came to liberate us from every obstacle that would get in the way
of the life God would have us live.
Jesus removes what is blocking the movement of the Spirit so that the good can flow,
so that we can be filled with the very Spirit of God.
Jesus wipes away apathy so that become more able to love.
Jesus removes our anxiety and fearfulness so that we can be joyful again.
Jesus brings order from our chaos so that we can know deep peace.
Jesus relieves our frustration so that we can be patient.
Jesus overwhelms our mean-spiritedness and nurtures kindness within us.
Jesus turns our selfishness, our self-centeredness, to generosity.
And he encourages us to trust him, to place our lives in his hands,
so that we can learn to trust others, and become trustworthy and faithful ourselves.
The Apostle Paul, realizing his own inability to save himself from the obstacles, declared,
“Wretched man that I am! Who will save me, who will deliver me, from this body of death?”
Paul knew and experienced that we cannot simply decide to be filled with the fruits of the Spirit.
. We need help. We need strength beyond our own. We need hope and healing.
“Thanks be to God,” Paul writes, “through Jesus Christ our Lord”.
Thanks be to God for the authority of the One who can remove the obstacles from us.
Thanks be to God for the One who came down from heaven for no other reason
than to enable a reconciled relationship with God and right relationships with those around us.
As someone said recently, the world is too dangerous for anything but truth,
and too small for anything but love.
The crowds in the synagogue that day were amazed and astounded by what Jesus said and did.
The irony of this story is that the disturbed person was the one who first recognized who Jesus is.
All of the others just kept asking questions about him. It would take the disciples a long time,
perhaps even to the cross or beyond to the empty tomb, to understand.
The man who most needed Jesus’ healing recognized the power at work in that room.
Powerful obstacles recognize their competition and will fight like hell to keep Jesus at a distance!
Powerful obstacles will deny and isolate and seek to ruin a troubled and confused soul.
But, ultimately, the power and authority of Jesus will not be denied.
The community of his Church can break through the isolation.
The grace of God can and will become “a balm to make the wounded whole, to heal the sin-sick soul.”
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. J. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 28, 2018
Barclay, William. The Gospel of Mark. Westminster Press, 1975
Eerdman, Charles. The Gospel of Mark. Westminster Press, 1917.
Oden, Thomas C. and Christopher A. Hall, editors. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture,
New Testament II: Mark, InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Perkins, Pheme. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Volume VIII. Abingdon Press, 1995.
Williamson, Lamar. Interpretation: Mark. John Knox Press, 1983.
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030