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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Speaking with Authority

Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    


Invite a bunch of pastors to sit down together, and eventually they’ll get around to a familiar question:


Now that you’ve spent a few years in church leadership, what’s the one thing you wish you had learned back in seminary? 


The answer I’ve heard most often is conflict management – an admission that from time to time church members can see things, well, somewhat differently.  Then there’s leadership and strategic planning.  Clergy may excel in pastoral care but have no idea how to help a governing board prepare for a new phase of ministry down the road.  It’s wonderful to delve into both Greek and Hebrew, but most pastors I know wish they had learned a great deal more about family counseling or how to lead a high-integrity stewardship campaign.   


As I look back, I wish I had learned something about exorcism. 


It never occurred to me that I would ever come face-to-face with spiritual evil.  After all, churches are where spiritually healthy people are supposedly to hang out, right? 


As it turns out, the average church is one of the best places in the world to hide.  Churches are places where people can avoid faith and avoid God by becoming religious.  Congregations are often filled with respectable people or people who are doing their utmost to look respectable.


And it was the respectable people of Jesus’ time – the Bible scholars, legal experts, theologians, and “senior pastors” – who made sure he ended up on a cross. 


Ironically, it was the socially disrespectable people – the lepers, prostitutes, embezzlers, and heretics – who loved him.


In his 1983 book People of the Lie, psychiatrist M. Scott Peck suggested that people who are afraid to face their own frailties and failures often find faith communities to be great hideouts.  Such individuals can hate while pretending to love – and often find spiritual language (and Scripture verses) to back up their actions.


The congregation I pastored made a serious effort to reach out to unchurched and “de-churched” people – individuals who had given up on the idea that Jesus was someone special.  As a number of them began attending our gatherings, they brought with them what can only be described as the spiritual detritus of a post-Christian culture – including experimentation with witchcraft, spiritism, and Satan worship.


Several individuals, having made previous personal commitments to “spirit guides” and pagan deities, were so spiritually paralyzed they needed deliverance.


It was about that time that I began to wish I had learned something about exorcism. 


I also began to zero in on the biblical accounts concerning spiritual evil and demonization.  One of Jesus’ earliest miracles concerns just such a confrontation in Mark 1:21-28:


They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, "What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!" "Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.


The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching — and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him." News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.


It’s not easy for modern people to make sense of such texts, for at least three reasons.


First, the reality of the spirit world – including the existence of fallen or impure spirits – is simply assumed on the pages of Scripture. 


There is no defining chapter on demonology.  No one knows precisely how such entities came to be, and thousands of books – many of which contradict each other – have been written in a vain attempt to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.


Second, significant advances in science and medicine in recent centuries have helped us demystify some of the frightening behavior we sometimes see in our fellow humans.  In the ancient world, any condition that caused someone to lose control – such as epilepsy, delirium, convulsions, or various nervous disorders – was assumed to be caused by invasive spiritual forces.  Today we can diagnose and treat many such conditions. 


This is not to say, however, that science has proved that demonization is just an illusion.  Jesus, in a holistic way, seems to have grasped that spiritual and physical afflictions are closely related.    


Third, Christians from time to time have done untold damage by attributing demonization to men and women suffering from various kinds of mental illness.  This is truly dangerous ground.


So, how can we read the Gospel stories about Jesus’ confrontations with evil in such a way that takes them seriously, honors God, yet avoids bringing harm to others?  Let’s set aside several days this week to consider in greater detail some of these challenging texts. 


We can begin by noting what the crowd notices in Mark chapter one: Jesus heals the man in the Capernaum synagogue by speaking with authority. 


When it comes to defeating evil, Hollywood is fascinated with power encounters.  The only way to take down supernatural entities is by utilizing silver bullets, stakes to the heart, or by crossing the streams of proton packs in the presence of a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. 


But Scripture is all about truth encounters.  Jesus may be the living embodiment of all the power in the cosmos, but he acts with authority instead of force. 


If you’re driving down the street and a police officer steps into the middle of road, raising his hand and ordering you to stop, you hold all the cards when it comes to power.  You can do a U-turn and speed away.  Or you can accelerate and aim directly for the cop.  Neither of these strategies is highly recommended.


That’s because the police officer holds all the cards when it comes to authority.  The reason he can signal your car to stop, and expect you to obey, is that he is the authoritative representative of the overwhelming power of local government officials.   


Because Jesus has the authority to do so, he simply muzzles the afflicted man in the synagogue.  “Be quiet!”  The unclean spirit is compelled to obey.  Then he gives a direct command: “Come out of him!”  The spirit departs.


The onlookers are astonished.  This is not how their synagogue leaders generally do things.  When rabbis choose to speak with authority, they quote other rabbis. 


But Jesus speaks with an inherent authority.  With just a few words, he changes this man’s life forever.


As a pastor, I gradually came to understand that truth encounters, not power encounters, provide the pathway to freedom for those who are spiritually afflicted.


Tomorrow we’ll take a closer look at that claim.    



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