I can’t be the only one who has noticed that the more we seem to control the world, the more we want to escape it. We will go to almost any lengths to visit another world - even if that world terrifies us - just so long as that world provides us a moment to be astonished.
Some of you saw the sermon title and you already know that I’m pulling us into the world of Stranger Things, the science fiction-horror-fantasy-nostalgia trip television show that took everything that has taken anyone ever liked about Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter and stuffed it into two seasons of pure money-making gold for Netflix. In Stranger Things, as in so many of our modern myths, the central question is what happens to young children who love to imagine a different world, but then discover that there is such a world when one of the boys slips from this world to the Upside Down While the little boys loved ones are trying to enter the alternate world to bring him back, all of the monstrous evil of the Upside Down is trying to enter our own world. And of course, there are some bad guys - scientists, of course - who are aiding and abetting the Upside Down, trying to tear down the buffers and the barriers that separate the Upside Down and the real world.
I don’t know about you, but this seems like a perfectly sensible strategy for dealing with evil and mysterious forces - keep them somewhere on the other side of a nice, wide demilitarized zone. It makes me think that today’s gospel lesson should never have happened. If the synagogue had had better security, there never would have been a demon-possessed man in that place. I don’t know how you picture this scene - but I am pretty sure that my own imagination of it comes from a bible miniseries I saw on TV as a child. In my mind, I can still see the shrieking, raving man running in from outside, messing up a well-planned worship service. Everything is calm, and then suddenly, immediately the doors are flung open and everything is turned upside down. That’s the danger of allowing the Bible to become too familiar, of reading too quickly through it. You may find that you are not reading the scripture itself, but just casually remembering what you heard in it last time.
Because Mark does not tell us that the man suddenly he appeared. The interruption was sudden, but the man had been there. The Greek verb “to be” in Mark 1:24 is in a tense called the imperfect, which refers to an ongoing action that is in the past - this man was being in that synagogue. He didn’t come bursting in the door; he was there in the congregation. For all that we know, he was one of the regulars. And maybe he had addressed other preachers like this before - but Mark says that this happened “euthys” suddenly, immediately. Most likely, the spirit that troubled this man had been quiet, unobtrusive - hiding in plain sight.
Jesus has a way of drawing out what is hidden. From the moment Jesus steps into the pulpit, the people realize that his teaching is different. He teaches with “authority.” You know what authority is, don’t you? It’s a word that makes something happen. When a duly vested authority says to two people “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” it’s done. When a judge looks at the defendant and says “guilty” or “innocent” it becomes legally true the moment the words pass their lips. When a group of soldiers sits around talking about what we oughta do, it’s just an idea. When their commander walks in and says “here’s what we are gonna do,” it’s an order. Authority is a word that makes something happen.
In that synagogue, in Capernaum, the people had the word, but no authority. They synagogue system in Jesus’ day was not meant to reconcile the people with the wild, and living God. In the local synagogue, there were no sacrifices, no rituals of flesh and blood where the glory of God would shine on the people and judge them with a refining fire that purified what was precious and consumed what was false.
And it turned out to be an ideal place for that torturing spirit to hide, sitting silent under all the right words spoken in all the right order. But when Jesus comes teaching, he brings more than the memories of long ago stories, more than the memories of how it used to be, and how it could have been. Jesus teaching came with the authority to say and to be what God is doing right now. Jesus came with an authority that unsettled everything that had been so perfectly arranged, an authority that speaks into every silence and shines a light in every shadow. Jesus took all the hiding places away.
When Jesus spoke with authority, the spirit screamed, the man convulsed, and the people themselves were shaken. They turned to themselves and said, “that’s not what I came here for.” They said “what is this new teaching?” and “how is this going to change everything we had going on?” The evidence was right in front of them, but it wasn’t a great comfort. It turns out it was a little scary to discover the power of God, right in the middle of them.
I can’t help thinking this morning of Rachael Denhollander. If you haven’t seen her name, Denhollander was the first former gymnast to give witness to the horrific abuse inflicted on over 150 patients of one man, who hid in plain sight, protected by the systematic silence and deflection of a host of coaches, administrators, and other colleagues. Denhollander first went public in 2016, and she says nothing could have prepared her for the price she would pay. About a year ago, in an interview with her hometown newspaper, she said:
“Everyone says they support what I'm doing. But when I start talking about their community, "Well, that's different." I've been told to shut up when talking about Joe Paterno. I've been told all kinds of things when talking about the Catholic Church or evangelical cover-ups. Everyone is willing to talk about it when it's their political opponent, but not when it’s their candidate.” In another article she wrote herself this week, the said that her work on behalf of victims had cost her friends, her privacy, and even her church.
When you speak with authority you’ll find someone saying, “You are the Holy One, you speak the truth. Have you come to destroy us?”
But last week, at the sentencing of her abuser, Rachael Denhollander also spoke a word that astonished and amazed, and caused more than a few people to say “What is this she is saying?”
After years of preparation, she stood before her abuser and said:
"Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.
I pray you experience the soul-crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me -- though I extend that to you as well.
Larry, I can call what you did evil and wicked because it was. And I can call it evil because I know what goodness is.”
I can call it evil because I know what goodness is.
A word with authority is when the overwhelming light of Jesus Christ shows us the things that have been hiding, that have been secret, that have been minimized and treated as just the way things are. and the greatest threat to us is not to be found “out there,” but it is often to be found in the things we have tried to manage or hide within us. A word with authority shows us that “the way things are is upside down”
And when God gives you authority over all the spirits that would possess your mind and soul, you may find yourself shaking. You may find old friends saying “Hey, this is more than we asked for." You may find yourself wondering whatever possessed you. But do not fear. The tremors are nothing but the death throes of the spirits that must be come out. They are the aftershocks of a world that must be turned over in order to be made right-side up. If you have glimpsed the goodness of God, then you go on and speak. And speak it with authority.