Former US President Jimmy Carter was on a speaking tour of Japan. He told a little joke and, after the interpreter had finished translating, the room erupted in laughter. Carter was both surprised and pleased. After the speech an old friend of Carter’s who spoke Japanese told him why everyone had laughed so loudly. The interpreter had said, “President Carter has told a very funny story. Everyone should laugh now.”
Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus “taught as one having authority, not as the scribes.” In this case, the scribes were like President Carter’s interpreter, telling people how they should feel and respond rather than making clear what God had said. Many of us, perhaps without realising it, have grown accustomed to be told what the truth is from people and media who interpret it for us, telling us how we should feel, and how we should respond.
From parents to pastors to politicians; from teachers to TV talking heads; our ears are bombarded by the voices of interpreters telling us how we should feel, how we should respond, to everything from eating our five portions of fruit and veg to the latest trends in the stock market. And most of us, most of the time, have learned to listen to our interpreters with a pinch of salt, sort of half-listening to what is said.
And this is what makes an authentic and true voice so startling. A voice like the voice of Jesus, who “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (the interpreters)”. When Jesus preached at Capernaum, the Bible says that the people were astounded and amazed. They didn’t know what to do, nobody was telling them how to feel or what to do, whether to laugh or not.
Genuine freedom is a very frightening thing. And emotional freedom is the most frightening freedom of all, as the casting out of the unclean spirit shows. Without getting into spirits and demons and mental illness and emotional compulsion and all that tonight, what I’d like to suggest tonight is that the unclean spirit is that which is in all of us that resists genuine freedom and responsibility in our lives.
Upon hearing the voice of authority, a voice declaring our freedom, our unclean spirits immediately resist because our unclean spirits recognise in that voice of freedom the call to change. Indeed, the unclean spirit is correct when it accuses Jesus of having come on a mission of destruction, “have you come to destroy us?”
Jesus does indeed come into the world and into our lives with an agenda of anarchy. Jesus came to tear down any and all walls of separation that keep God’s people apart from one another. Jesus came to erase the structures of slavery to sin which keep us in bondage to our own badness. Jesus came to wipe out the diseases of the soul that keep us from knowing God’s love and hold us back from loving one another. Yes, Jesus came to destroy.
But, he came to destroy in order to rebuild, to reconstruct, to recreate. Jesus came to remake us in the image of God. To make of us new creatures in Christ. It is no wonder that unclean spirits, past and present, are afraid. They know that the coming of Christ spells the end of their reign of fear in the human heart.
In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the children are somewhat afraid when they learn that the saviour of the Narnians is Aslan, a lion. “Is he safe?’ they ask.
“Safe!” the beaver responds, “of course not. He’s a lion. But he’s good.”
Just so, Jesus is not safe; he did indeed come to destroy. But he is good, because he also came to remake us into the wonderful and loving human beings God made us to be in the first place. And it is no wonder that the people were both astounded and amazed. In the clear, un-interpreted, un-translated, rural accented voice of Jesus they heard a call to freedom, a call to shake off all the interpreters that they’d been hearing all their lives.
In that voice, they heard a call to respond to the love of the one who loved them. In that voice, they heard a call to leave fear behind and to step out in freedom to do God’s work in God’s way in the world. In that voice, they heard a call to love the unlovely, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to cry out against unclean spirits of war and oppression, injustice and indignity wherever they have a stranglehold on human lives. In that voice they heard the voice of God say, “I love you, come follow me.”