Rev. Julie Yarborough
February 4, 2018
“As One with Authority”
There was something special, something unusual about Jesus. Time and time again, the gospels tell us that people noticed something different when they encountered him. Some wondered with awe, “Who is this man?” Others scoffed, “Who does he think he is?” Either way, it is clear that there was something about Jesus that set him apart from others, even from the other religious leaders of the day. Whether you want to refer to it as moral authority or as an aura about him – there was a spiritual component to him – a confidence and a demeanor that commanded attention – even from the “demons” of his day.
Let me say a word about the demons in this story, lest we get sidetracked with our rational 21st century minds. If we read this story literally, we might miss the truth inherent in this passage. Let’s read it metaphorically instead. For demons, we might substitute the word addictions, mental illness, evil intentions or even simply things that block spiritual progress. The first demon Jesus encounters in this passage is in the synagogue – even in the midst of the faith community, demons exist – those powers that be that want to block spiritual progress and transformation. The demons recognize the spiritual power and authority of Jesus and want to put a stop to it, but he silences them with a word and a glance. He won’t even let the demons say who he is, which means that the demons don’t hold any power over Jesus.
Jesus’ authority came from a source of deep inner strength and moral fortitude. It wasn’t conferred upon him by anyone or anything. He wasn’t given an official title, he didn’t have a high-ranking position. He didn’t earn his authority through education, financial wealth, privilege, political maneuvering or any external source. His authority came from an inner confidence and knowledge that he was on earth to do the work of God – to teach, to preach, to transform, to heal and to cast out demons. Jesus’ authority was palpable and powerful – and many would say it was unique to this Holy One of God – but others are able to exude spiritual and moral authority in their daily lives. There are people with deep internal strength and fortitude that comes from serious spiritual practice and from knowing that the work they are called to do is the work of God.
One that comes most immediately to mind is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose prophetic preaching encouraged non-violent actions that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
I also think of Ruby Bridges, who even as a young girl of 6 years old, prayed for the white adults who yelled racial slurs and spit at her as she walked into the all-white elementary school, when a judge ordered that the schools should be racially integrated in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1960.
I think of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. Her actions led to real changes in Jim Crow laws in the American South, but as a result, she lost her job and received death threats for years to come.
I think of Nelson Mandela – known lovingly by his many followers as Mandiba – who spent 27 years imprisoned in South Africa. Following his time in prison, he led the movement to bring about the end to Apartheid there. He was elected President of his country in 1991 and later established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to bring about true healing where so much violence and oppression had occurred.
These examples may seem extraordinary, but when grounded in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, ordinary people are able to do extraordinary things. People are healed, demons are exorcised, transformation takes place – both personally and politically.
In his new book, Barking to the Choir, Father Greg Boyle tells a story about Lefty – a resident of a juvenile detention center in Los Angeles, who is late to confession one day:
“He arrives later than I would like but he is quick to explain why: I was Walkin’ across the field. Everybody’s at rec time, but this one vato who is always looking for a beef with me stood right in front of me. He called me leva, chavala, lame. The crowd circled around us because they wanted us to fight. I told the guy I wasn’t going to fight him. I told him I was going to make my First Communion today. So I put my hand out to him and I said, ‘Peace be with you.’ And damn… he shook my hand back.”
Ordinary people, transformed by grace, are able to heal and transform the world.
How do we ground ourselves in the transforming power of the Spirit? We follow Jesus’ example.
Have you ever noticed that Jesus never asked to be worshiped? He wasn’t interested in fame or glory. What he asked of his disciples was to be followed. When he meets James, John, Peter and Andrew and calls them to leave their boats and fishing nets, he says, “Follow me – do what I do – and I will make you fish for people.”
Following Jesus means spreading the good news of God’s love, healing, casting out the demons of our day, transforming lives – but first and foremost, it means spending time with God in quiet meditation or prayer, and surrendering our lives to the work that God would have us do.
In order for Jesus to be able do the work that he needed to do, he went off early in the morning to a deserted place to pray. This is a pattern for Jesus that we see over and over in the gospels: as the crowds encroach, he withdraws by himself to pray.
Jesus wasn’t interested in external fame or fortune, he didn’t care what others thought of his actions. When the disciples come to him with excitement, saying, “The crowds want to see you!” Jesus doesn’t get caught up in the hype. I imagine that he might have shaken his head, or even rolled his eyes as he said, “Come on, let’s go to the next town. I have work to do.” He was not interested in applause or in appeasing the crowds. He had a mission and would not be distracted. And in order to stay focused, he spent time in prayer.
In fact, in the gospel of Mark, Jesus begins his whole ministry – his first act after being baptized by John – by spending forty days in the wilderness, preparing his heart, his soul, his mind and his body for the work that lay ahead of him. And it was that grounding in the Spirit, that inner moral authority, that people noticed when they heard him preach and exorcise the demon in the synagogue, and when he healed Simon’s mother-in-law from her fever (which, by the way, would have been seen as a sort of demon in that first century pre-scientific world. Mark writes that the fever “left her” just like the unclean spirit left the man in the synagogue.)
It was also that grounding in the Spirit that people witnessed when they heard Martin speak, saw Ruby walking into that school, witnessed the quiet strength of Rosa and were swept up by the moral courage of Mandiba.
As we look closely at the life of Jesus, who wants us to follow him, we realize that Jesus preached, not to impart wisdom, but to heal, to forgive, to transform lives. His message was one of transformation, not just information – he wanted to provoke changes in people’s hearts, not just their heads. Believing in God is the first step, but it’s not the end goal. Believing in God is something that takes place in our heads, not our hearts.
Marcus Borg makes a distinction between believing in God and being transformed by God: “You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”
Even the demon in the synagogue recognized and believed in Jesus!
Having faith is more than believing in God. Faith is a relationship, a surrendering, a sinking into, a release, a profound transformation within us that can lead to change in the world as well.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines transformation as, “a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone, especially so that that thing or person is improved.”
Having this kind of faith does change us for the better. It lightens our load, it relieves anxiety, it offers a way forward on the spiritual path. As Marcus Borg explains, “At the heart of Christianity is the way of the heart – a path that transforms us at the deepest level of our being. At the heart of Christianity is the heart of God – a passion for our transformation and the transformation of the world.”
May our faith transform us, so that we may be agents of transformation in our world, exuding quiet moral strength and authority that comes from the heart of God.