Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
This is Jesus’s first public appearance in the Gospel of Mark. He has just called his first disciples—fishers from the Lake of Galilee—and now he leads them back to Capernaum, a small fishing village along the lake, with about 1500 residents. It was probably the town they worked out of. They go into the synagogue on the Sabbath, and Jesus begins to teach.
Right away, the people notice that there is something different about this Jesus. There is something different in the way he teaches. He doesn’t teach them like the scribes do. Remember, in the ancient world, not many people could read and write. Scribes were literate biblical scholars who lived in local villages and taught the people about religion. But Jesus doesn’t teach the same way that he do. He teaches like he has authority.
While he is teaching, someone in the crowd screams out, “I know who you are! Have you come here to destroy us?” It is a man with an unclean spirit, that is, a demon. Most modern people don’t believe in spirits or demons. The ancients did, though. They believed that spirits inhabited all parts of the world, and that they were responsible all kinds of things, both good and bad. We don’t exactly know what this unclean spirit was responsible for, but some way or another, it is possessing this man in the synagogue. It recognizes Jesus. It calls him the holy one of God. It knows that Jesus has the power to destroy it.
And that is precisely what Jesus does. He commands the spirit to be silent and to come out of the man. After convulsing him, the unclean spirit comes out.
The crowd reacts again. Again they comment on how new and different his teaching is. And again, they say that he has authority. There is something about Jesus that is different than anything they have ever seen before.
When they hear his teaching, they say he has authority. When they see him exorcize a demon, they say he has authority. So, what is it that they mean when they say this? What does it mean to have authority?
The Greek word they use both times is ἐξουσία. It has a fairly broad range of meanings, all of which are related to power. It can be the power to choose, the liberty to do as one pleases. It’s a sort of libertarian power, to do what one wants whenever one wants. It can mean physical or mental power, the strengths with which one is endowed. It can mean power related to authority, that is, power that one has as a function of holding a particular office. It can mean the power to rule or command, like a king or a general whose orders must be followed.
Jesus demonstrates all of these kinds of power. First, he goes into a synagogue where he is a stranger and just begins to preach. He does what he wants when he wants. Second, he has mental power. He is able to interpret the scripture unlike anyone they have ever heard before. Third, he has power by virtue of being the holy one of God. The unclean spirit recognizes it. Fourth, he has the power to give orders that must be followed. He orders the unclean spirit to be silent and to come out, and immediately it follows his command. Jesus has power. He has authority.
So, do they know who Jesus is? The unclean spirit says that it does. It says, “I know who you are. The holy one of God!” The crowd thinks they know something about who Jesus is. He’s the one who has authority. Are they right? Do they know who Jesus is? And how is it that they know whatever it is that they know?
We aren’t told how the unclean spirit knows about Jesus. The demons always seem to know who he is before he introduces himself. Maybe they have special insight because they are spiritual beings. They say he is the holy one of God. He’s God’s saint. As he does throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is quick to shut them up. Anytime anyone figures out anything about who Jesus is, he quiets them. He orders them not to tell anyone. And when he orders the demons, they must obey.
The crowd knows from their own senses. They hear his words, they see his actions, and they figure he must have authority. The spirits obey him. His words have a special power. They can tell there is something different about him.
But do they really know who he is? He isn’t just a compelling preacher. He isn’t just a powerful exorcist. He isn’t even just a holy man, like the spirit says, “I know who you are.”
But we know him as more, don’t we? We know him as the only Son of God. We know him as the savior of the world. We know him as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed. We know him as the redeemer of humanity. We know him as the prince of peace. We know him as the just judge. We know him as our model for living. We know him as the incarnate Word of God. We know him as the creative force of the universe. We know him as the light which no darkness can extinguish. We know him as the Lord of Love. We know him as the healer of our souls. We know him as the risen one, the first born of the dead.
We know him as all of these things. Some of them we know because we have read about him, we have heard the stories. Some of them we know from own experience of him. We have had two thousand years of human experience to figure who this Jesus is. We should, by now, be able to say with confidence, “I know who you are.”
But in truth, we can’t. We still haven’t figured him out. We have all the stories. We have the experience of our lives. And yet Jesus still remains a mystery to us. We may think we have him figured out, and then we read one more bible story and it doesn’t quite seem to make sense any more. He always seems to be doing something that we don’t expect. He always seems to be surprising us. He is getting angry when we expect him to be calm, or staying calm when we expect him to be angry. He is forgiving when we expect him to judge, and judging when we expect him to forgive. He is accepting those we expect him to shun and shunning those whom we expect him to accept. We can’t ever seem to figure him out.
And that is part of the point. Jesus isn’t some robot or computer program that we can always predict. Jesus is a real living being, and Jesus can surprise us. That’s why we have to keep reading, we have to keep praying, we have to keep searching for him. Because we never know what he might do next. “I know who you are,” the demon says. But do we know? Only in part. We cannot speak for Jesus. We cannot speak for God. We don’t know all that there is to know, and we cannot know. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a life-long pursuit. It is never enough for us to say, “I know who you are.” There is still more for us to learn. There is still more for us to discover. And that is the frustration and the joy of a relationship with God—no matter how long we pursue it, we never have it all. We never figure it out completely. There is always more for us to learn about the greatness and grace of our living lord. Thanks be to God.