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Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:21-28 Part 2

"Taking control" is a popular theme these days. In counseling rooms, management seminars, and advertising, we are encouraged over and over to get in control of ourselves and other people who affect our lives. Being "out of control" is interpreted as defeat, and the phrase itself is used to express feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Many people return to their pews each week and look to the sermon for a word of encouragement and an avenue to getting back in control of their lives.
Such may have been the case with the man with the unclean spirit who is recorded in our lectionary text. Out of control was he indeed! And the question in his mind, no doubt, as in the minds of others, may well have been, "What is Jesus able to do in the face of such chaos as this?" After all, Jesus had just been teaching "with authority" there in the synagogue. What becomes clear immediately in the events that follow is that Jesus' authority is power. What Jesus teaches, he does!
But what are the pastoral implications here for the preacher? Certainly it is not the case that the sermon should encourage persons to become more authoritative and take control of their lives in an absolute sense. Nor is it advisable to teach a naive "let go and let God" interpretation, either.
The passage is not properly used to make a recommendation about "taking charge." On the contrary, the passage provides us with an implicit acknowledgment about our human condition. We human beings are more typically out of control than in control. The passage is drawing a clear distinction between us and God. The invitation to us is that we can, with relief, become more discriminating and often give up many of our attempts to gain control and, instead, give over control.
W.C. Fields is given credit for coming up with the slogan, "If at first you don't succeed, try again. Then, quit. There's no sense making a fool out of yourself!" That might well be a pastoral slogan to be drawn from this passage. Just as the scribes were puzzled by what had happened, so are we in many situations. Puzzlement and confusion, as in the case of those who saw Jesus rebuke the spirit, are occasions for us to step back and relinquish our attempts to overcontrol and concoct adequate explanations. The implication is not that we stop all attempts to bring order, of course. Rather, it means that there are situations we just can't handle. Our trust in authority often needs to move out of trust in ourselves to trust in the one who holds ultimate authority.
All the lectionary texts for this day, in one way or another, point to the authority and power of God. Healing events, such as this one in Mark, point us beyond the miracle to the source of the miracle and the authority that is so powerful. It also invites us to reflect on the implications of what authority and power we may have. In the 1 Corinthians passage, we are reminded that even though we may have the authority to eat what we please, we are also responsible for the effects of our authority. Jesus, too, faced such responsibility in the aftermath of his encounter with the unclean spirit. One consequence of Jesus' actions in this healing event in Mark was the spread of his fame. But, what did he become famous for? Was it his authority? Or was it his miraculous act? The latter complicated in many ways the former. And, such would be the case with us.
Jesus' power was subservient to his authority. But just the reverse was perceived by many of those in the region in which he had acted. We, too, are tempted to exercise power, get our lives under control, become miraculous managers of our lives and the lives of others. But, in the final analysis, such control is far less important than "getting our heads straight" about the true authority in our lives.
This text, and the ones accompanying it, offer the preacher an occasion to invite people into a wrestling match with the meaning of control in our lives. It is tempting, of course, to focus on the exorcism, but is that what the story is really about?
The rebuke of the unclean spirit is another occasion where Jesus' authority is called into question. His response is to demonstrate that his authority is clear. We may be tempted to remain fascinated with "the magic show," as did so many in the crowds of Capernaum. In fact, it is interesting to note that Jesus had two adversaries in the synagogue that day: the unclean spirit and the scribes who were trying to interpret his authority. We, by our fascination and attempts to explain things fully (thus remaining in control!), may join unawares that list of adversaries.
But we are invited to move beyond the exhibition and probe more deeply into who Jesus is, who we are, and how authority and power play a part in our relationship with him. "Giving up" may be the most powerful thing we ever do!
William V. Arnold Union Theological Seminary Richmond, VA