Page last updated



A New Teaching
a sermon based on Mark 1:21-28
by Rev. Thomas Hall

I love teaching. Each Tuesday and Thursday I hustle down to a Christian college to stand in front of twenty-five students for an hour and a half to teach them something about preaching-of course, I won’t have much to say this week about that subject. "You shall know the truth," Jesus once said, "and the truth will make you free." Teachers are truth-tellers, truth-instructors. Remember that bumper sticker that reminds us about the worth of teachers? Goes like this: "If you can read this bumper sticker, then thank a teacher." How many among us are teachers? Please stand. Thank you, teachers. You have given us power. Power to read, knowledge how to tie our shoes, how to count beyond our fingers, power to be freed from ignorance by thinking on our own.

Teaching is really at the core of this strange story in Mark’s gospel that you heard earlier this morning. Teaching. I hope the way you heard this story helped you to enter into the strange world that it came from. The story begins with Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. It’s the Sabbath--roughly equivalent to our Sunday morning worship service--and the four disciples, whom we met last week, have followed Jesus from the beach right into the fishing town of Capernaum. Jesus has probably been teaching his newly called disciples non-stop as they have walked along Lake Galilee’s shore line. He walks through the doors and right up in front of the congregation. The worship leader hands him the first lesson reading and then Jesus sits down to teach. I wonder what his lesson plans were on that morning. He’s probably finished taking roll, opened the seminar with the traditional berakah, or blessing. He has even gotten past the part where the preacher says, "if you have your Bibles, please turn with me to . . ."

Probably not more than fifteen minutes into his lecture, it happens. Just when the students are starting to notice that the notes on his legal pad have not yellowed from years of tenure. Just when they pick up on something being different about this visiting professor. Same old stuff maybe, but freshly packaged. Just when they discover that this visiting professor has fire in his eyes--talking as if he really believed the stuff. Just when the lights are going on in their heads--always a hopeful sign to professors. Just when folks are buzzing to each other about how good the sermon was, it happens. All hell breaks loose in the congregation. A raving man in the middle of church shouts vague threats at the young preacher who had just done such a fine job with the sermon.

"I kno-o-o-o-owww who you are," the man growls. You’re God’s holy messenger, come here to destroy us."

That’s enough to mess up anyone’s train of thought. But things get even messier. "Be muzzled, you evil spirit" Jesus yells back, jumping up from his chair, "Leave him alone! Stop hurting that man."

The ushers, understandably, are dumbstruck. "Maybe we should forget about the offering this morning." Things get curiouser and curiouser on that Sabbath day in Capernaum. The man then falls to the synagogue floor, his arms beating erratically in the air, his legs thrashing out in wide circles so that people move back to give him wide space. Froths of foam and strange, eerie cries come out of his mouth. After a very long silence, the man becomes strangely calm and lays very still. Slowly, very slowly, he picks himself up off of the floor, his face now tranquil, his eyes clear, his voice measured and composed, he quickly finds a seat in the congregation.

How would you respond to that kind of service? Wild, weird, crazy, perplexing. I think, if they had given an invitation for recommitment I would have been the first up at the front of the church, asking God to cleanse me from all of the demons that lurk in the recesses of my mind. Most of us would have been so shocked by this, that we would just have sat stuptified in our pews, perhaps, for hours. Maybe some of us would have rushed out of the church in terror or leapt out of the Elverson window. So call this story what you will wild, weird, crazy, perplexing. But one thing you probably would not hear after the service as the young preacher shakes hands as folks were leaving. "Why, that sure was a great lecture. Thanks for the great teaching." That’s the last thing I would think to compliment the preacher for. For how wonderful the teaching was this morning. Yet, that is what struck these folks at Capernaum. They walk out of church commenting about how wonderful the teaching was. What has teaching to do with expunging a demon?

Mark has two little words that ties this story together. The first is teaching, of course, but the second word is authority. More than flailing arms, demons, or foaming mouths, Mark wants us to see that in Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God is among us to confront our demons, to take charge of our confusion and chaos, and to heal our broken hearts. Jesus teaches with authority. When Jesus is the teacher, teaching is not lecture as usual--it is an event! When Jesus is the teacher at EUMC, we all are faced with a choice each Sunday--to let Jesus drive from us

those tyrant voices,
twisted thoughts that grip and bind.

I received a call this week from another minister. I’ll call her Reverend Joan. Called to tell me that her congregation has been doing so well-doubled in attendance, new innovative ministries begun, a lot of new folks have come in. "But . . ." I knew that a broken heart was in that conjunction, "but . . . "

"New folks have come in, but our worship leader has been spreading untrue, hurtful, rumors around the congregation about me and my family." People are confused, distressed, some are talking about leaving the church." Joan discovered that the same pattern occurred with other ministers that had preceded her. In the midst of growth and stability, rumors would begin and seek to undermine the pastor. "What do I do?" My response frightened me.

"Confront that person in the presence of responsible leaders in the church. And let your worship leader know that this behavior is not appropriate for persons who are called to be servant-leaders. Tell that person that because they are unhappy with the vision and direction of the congregation, this church has decided to let them seek employment in a different congregation."

For three decades this church has been dealing with problems through the rumor-mill instead of lovingly confronting evil in the life of the church. As a result all energies had been turned inward to fighting and blaming. And the church had long-ago ceased from staying in mission. Joan has continued to preach the same gospel--but there is a difference. It does have authority. Martin Luther once said, "When the gospel is preached, devils are set loose and start to roam among us." Joan knows what he was speaking of.

Could it be that we preachers have lost our nerve? Our voice? That we’ve listened too long to what is politically correct that we no longer know the sounds of the gospel? Could it be that this story embarrasses us? Not so much the demons and confusion, but the fact that anything at all transformative happens at 11 o’clock on Sunday mornings?

I am embarrassed this morning, because I’m staring into the face of an unsophisticated church in Mark’s gospel that believed that evil powers existed that were bent on devastation and destruction. Yet in my attempt to make Mark domesticate Mark and make this gospel more palatable, I have not heard this story where it intersects my life. Maybe our embarrassment is exactly where the story speaks to us.

One songwriter who refuses to let the dust collect over this story writes these lyrics,

Lord, the demons still are thriving
in the gravy cells of the mind:
tyrant voices, shrill and driving,
twisted thoughts that grip and bind,
doubts that stir the heart to panic.

Last week as we literally danced and praised and celebrated God’s healing of our brokenness at the Bishop’s retreat, a man in the next hotel over, stood on the banister of his patio and jumped 15 floors down. They were spraying the paving to clear the blood as I looked down from my hotel window. Call it what ever you will, but there are forces that rob us of hope, joy, forces that seem bent on our distortion and guilt. We need to hear the Teacher more than ever.

This week four small groups will gather, honestly and authentically naming that evil has left us less than glorious. Through these opportunities, we ask Jesus of Nazareth to come to change us, heal and encourage us to reclaim our voice and authority. Will you join us? Will you consider ways that Jesus can once again speak words of authority and healing to your life and mine? And the people said, "What is this? A new teaching-and with authority! Amen.