A Sermon from Sherborne

Real Authority

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 28 January 2018 by the Reverend Lesley McCreadie, Team Vicar


At the beginning of Advent the lectionary moved us to Year B and the gospel of Mark for most of our readings Sunday by Sunday. Mark is usually thought to have been the earliest of the gospels to be written. It is short and succinct. Mark doesn’t have great literary style, he gets on with the job, and that job as his opening sentence tells us is to tell the good news of Jesus Christ. He doesn’t stop to tell us about the birth of Jesus, he is straight in there with his baptism, his time in the wilderness and the call of his disciples. Mark is in a hurry to get to the point; he wants people to read about the difference Jesus made to the lives of ordinary people and the difference he can make to the lives of those who read his gospel.

Our gospel reading today is the beginning of what might be termed ‘a day in the life of Jesus’. If we had more Sundays between now and the beginning of Lent we would hear the second part of the day’s events on another Sunday. Perhaps it was typical of many days Jesus spent teaching and healing. Jesus had taken his raw recruits, his new disciples, to the town of Capernaum, beside the Sea of Galilee, where many of them came from and they went to the synagogue. Let’s not forget that Capernaum was a very busy town situated on the Via Maris, or way of the sea, one of the great trading routes between Damascus and Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast and then on to Egypt. It was a crowded place and there were people moving backwards and forwards from many parts of the world: an excellent place for Jesus to speak to people and for them to take his teaching with them wherever they went on to.

All good Jews attended the synagogue on the Sabbath but to be called to teach was a real privilege. Perhaps Jesus was already known in this town or perhaps he had friends in the leadership of the synagogue. What impressed people was his authority; Jesus is different to other teachers he is bold, dynamic, demanding and exhilarating. The scribes deferred to the authority of the law, Jesus has authority in himself. When he called the disciples there was no hesitation; ‘follow me’ and they did.

I cannot help but take a moment to mention the film The Darkest Hour which we have seen recently. I am sure you know the background to the film – it is set in May 1940 when our nations back was to the North Sea and our army was retreating to the beaches of Dunkirk. We needed a miracle to save them or a flash of inspiration that would make something happen to stop the inevitable slaughter or capture of our army.  That ‘something’ came from Winston Churchill who ordered a flotilla of small ships to be assembled along the south coast. Some 900 craft supported by the RAF and the Navy, were sent to Dunkirk where more than 300,000 men were rescued.   Against significant opposition Churchill was able to get his way because he spoke with the authority of a man who believed his plan would work. His speech in the House of Commons left everyone believing that we would never surrender.

The difference between Churchill and Jesus of course, is that Churchill won through on a wing and a prayer, able to convince people with his gift of oratory, when Jesus spoke with authority it was life changing. In our society today authority can be a problem. We do not have to look too far back in European history to find the abuse of authority and power. We may think that we find the abuse of authority closer to home; in the financial world and the world of big business or even in the media. The truth about the authority which comes from God of course is that it is liberating. This new teaching with authority comes to announce the presence of the living, life-giving God.

It was this authority which was needed for the second part of our gospel reading; to rid a person of an evil spirit. Firstly let us just be reminded about the view of evil spirits in the world of Jesus. Evil spirits were part of Satan’s forces but would be afraid and flee in the presence of a righteous person, and where to know the name of a person was to give that person an advantage over another. As soon as the people recognised the authority of Jesus an unclean or evil spirit challenges him and tries to take control of him by the use of his name, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’ Radical evil has encountered radical good and is afraid. He calls Jesus ‘the Holy One of God’, recognising his divinity. Jesus quietly rebukes the spirit and calls it out of the man. It leaves with great noise and drama. The watching public are astonished. All eyes are on Jesus not the man now free of his terrible affliction. Impressive though miracle was, the people are more impressed with the authority of Jesus and all that he comes to teach them. In the bigger picture, for Jesus there is no going back; no creeping away back to Nazareth; no hiding away in the hills. He is now centre stage with all eyes and ears on him for the next three years. His ministry has started, and not with a whimper but a bang.

We don’t hear much about demon possession today, although in other cultures the belief that this still happens still very definitely exists. Today in our society we still have demons or evil which affect us, from people trafficking to child soldiers, from the abuse of our planet with plastic, to the systematic eviction of the Rohingya people from Burma; these things are evil and it is hard not to call them so. But there are other evils we might find it harder to call evil; the abuse of women by men, although thankfully for many since the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Time’s Up campaign, people are more aware of this issue, but as we have only seen this week it is still something we need to confront; our love of consumer goods which encourage sweat shops in developing world countries is another demon; gender based violence which the MU have highlighted and which destroys the lives of so many is certainly another; the rise in homelessness, higher now than for many years and which brings shame on us all is another evil for us to confront. These and many more are just as oppressive of their victims as the unclean spirit that Jesus cast out.

In the Collect this morning we prayed that light might conquer darkness; that goodness might overcome evil. And as we will pray in a few moments in the Lord’s Prayer, deliver us from evil; so we should be asking ourselves how we respond to the evil in the world which oppresses people today. Those who listened to Jesus were astounded by what they heard and by what they saw; for many it was life changing and so it should be for us today. The authority of Jesus to show us the love of God should be changing our lives and through us the lives of others.

As we move closer to Lent and we explore ways in which we might use Lent to deepen our spiritual lives, we might do well to consider how much we can do to bring some goodness to the darker places of this world.

The Reverend Lesley McCreadie 28/01/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne