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Powerful Teaching

A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on January 29, 2012.
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:21-28

As a grad student at UVa, I studied under a lot of wonderful and powerful teachers.  Ironically, one of the most amazing teachers I met at UVa was a professor from whom I did not take a single course.  I got to know Dr. Raymond Bice, Jr., not as one of his students, but as his deacon at University Baptist Church.  By the time I got to Charlottesville, Dr. Bice had already retired from teaching, but around the church and around UVa’s lawn, stories of his prowess as a teacher continued to circulate.  Dr. Bice taught Psychology 101 for ninety-one consecutive semesters at UVa.  His 500-seat lecture class at times had a waiting list of more than a hundred students, some of whom sent flowers, poems and other treats to attempt to gain entrance to his course.  So what was the secret to his success?  An inventor and self-described tinkerer, Bice developed a gadget, a “Bice device,” for every lecture in his course.  He combined household items and off-the-shelf parts to illustrate some of the more difficult psychological concepts.  One such “Bice device” demonstrated how the human pupil responds to stimuli.  Bice focused a magnifying glass on the eye of one of his female students.  First, he showed her an inanimate object. Next he had a male student remove his jacket and saunter in front of the young woman. “Her pupil opened 200 percent,” Bice said, in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article in 1994.[1]  In a lecture about how the brain localizes sound, Bice made an “electronic pseudophone” concocted from a pair of rubber plungers and headphones, which altered the location from which noise seemed to originate.  As Bice described it: “It’s what would happen if you could place your right ear on the left side of your head.”  Dr. Bice made psychology come alive and memorable to some 27,000 students during the span of his teaching career because he believed that “a demonstration is worth a thousand words.”[2] 

I would not have been surprised if Dr. Bice, who passed away this past December, had adopted his belief in the power of demonstration by taking a page right out of Jesus’ teaching method.  In all four Gospels, we see that Jesus almost always accompanied his teaching with a demonstration, especially at the beginning of his ministry.  In the opening chapters of the Gospels, Jesus did not give complicated lectures or drawn-out explanations of what it meant that the Kingdom of God was near.  He demonstrated the nearness of the Kingdom of God by healing disease, relieving suffering, and turning water into wine at a wedding feast.  In our reading from the Gospel of Mark, we see Jesus beginning his ministry by taking his disciples to the local synagogue in Capernaum to teach.  Right in the middle of his teaching, a man possessed by an evil spirit interrupts his Sabbath School lesson, and Jesus used that occasion to give a demonstration of His authority and power. 

At first glance, it is hard to see how this incident has any application to our lives today.  I imagine you won’t find many worship gatherings this morning that have scheduled a service of exorcism–accompanied by voices, convulsions and shrieks–as depicted in this morning’s scripture.  I’m very grateful that in this sanctuary today, we don’t have people (who I know of) rotating their heads three hundred and sixty degrees and spewing out green vomit like the character Linda Blair played in the movie The Exorcist.  I certainly don’t claim to have either the authority or power to cast out evil spirits.  So what’s a preacher to do with a passage like this?

As I wrestled with this conundrum, I reflected on the times when I was in the presence of powerful teaching. Powerful teaching is always challenging, sometimes threatening, and on rare occasions, it is downright anger-producing.  That’s because powerful teaching delves straight into the heart of the matter.  It cuts to the quick; it steps on toes.  When that happens, I often find myself reacting with defensiveness and with resistance.  My heart rate goes up and I get all tense and convoluted as I argue with the teacher, almost always just in my head, but sometimes verbally, and on rare occasions, I want to argue physically . . . if you know what I mean!  Powerful teaching challenges my most cherished assumptions, and in so doing, it challenges my identity, my values, and my sense of self.  So when I am confronted by powerful teaching, I often mentally ask the teacher, “What do you want from me?  Have you come to destroy me?”

Several months ago, I was personally confronted with powerful teaching.  Alan Hirsch was main teacher at the Virginia Baptist General Assembly meeting last November.  Hirsch is a missiologist, and he noted that churches are declining all over western societies.  He argued that most of the problems in the church today are a result of a failure in discipleship.  As we study the scriptures, we see that a big part of Jesus’ earthly mission was spent making disciples.  Jesus then gave the Great Commission for his disciples to make disciples.  And out of this mission of disciples-making, the church came into existence.  In the Gospels and the book of Acts, the mission of disciple-making set the agenda for the church.  But today, we’ve got it backwards.  Today, the church (its programs, buildings, and staff) has pre-eminence over following Jesus, and “mission” is not something that the whole church does, but it is relegated to a committee who do these things in a few places.  Hirsch looked at us pastors and said, “Your leadership in church is proportional to your ability to make disciples.”  Making disciples means inviting others to come and see your life up close and personal, and investing in their lives.  It means teaching the scriptures and living the scriptures in community.  It means trusting in God’s Spirit to do the convicting and converting.  Jesus’ disciples were converted on the journey when they heard Jesus’ teachings and saw what Jesus did and then imitated Jesus.  When it comes to discipleship, here’s the six million dollar question: “When people see your life, will they see anything Christ-like worth imitating?”

At this point, I was squirming in my seat and getting resistant and defensive.  Parts of me became agitated.  The professional part of me was threatened because my salary package is one-third of the total church budget, while last year, the church contributed less than five percent of that budget toward missions.  Was Hirsch saying that I’m part of the problem?  The intellectual part of me was angry because all my life, I thought I knew what it meant to be a good pastor: fill the pews, increase the budget and add exciting programs to draw more people into church.  But Hirsch was telling me that I had it all backwards: leading like Jesus was about making disciples first, participating in God’s mission second, and then letting God’s Spirit build God’s church.  The emotional part of me was getting scared.  All my life I’ve kept people at arm’s length, and now Hirsch is telling me that I have to open up my life?  Why can’t I just tell church members to “Do as I say, not as I do?”  The people-pleasing part of me was getting depressed, because recruiting disciples the way Jesus did it would open me up for criticism that I’m just playing favorites and choosing my cronies to be part of my discipleship group and rejecting others.  Those voices were shrieking in my head like evil spirits, and they were all screaming, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”

In that kairos moment, I realized that I was possessed.  I was possessed by the power of professional ambition, by the power of intellectual pride, and by the power of approval-seeking from others.  I realized that I needed a Teacher with the power and authority to perform an exorcism on me.  Walter Wink once said: “Exorcism . . . [is] the indispensable prerequisite for getting a “new mind.”  Jesus’ teaching is itself a kind of exorcism, a cleansing of the mind of the misinformation that enslaves people to the Powers.”[3]  I needed that kind of exorcism, a cleansing of the mind, which is another way of describing repentance.  I needed to unlearn old ways and habits so that I can be freed to learn from and imitate the Holy One of God. 

On that day, I believe that Jesus did exorcise me from those evil spirits.  Now, I would love to say that I’m totally free of them, but the truth is, I am not willing to totally let them go.  I like to think that they have less of a grip in my life, and I hope naming them in front of you today is another step for me toward complete freedom.  But here’s the truth: the more Jesus’ powerful teaching penetrates my life and my identity, the less power those other spirits will have over me.  The more I actually live out Jesus’ teachings, the more authority I will have when I teach them.  The Greek word for “authority” is exousiaEx meaning “out” (like “exit”) and ousia meaning “essence.”  Jesus taught with a power that came out of his very essence, instead of relying on outward credentials, reputation, and status.  A person’s authority comes from living out their message, living an authentic life, people like Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I pray that the power of the Gospel will not only be communicated by the words I say, but just as importantly, it will be demonstrated by the life I live.  As Dr. Bice says, “A demonstration is worth a thousand words.”   

So enough about me.  I’m eager to get to the fun part of the sermon.  I’m going to stop talking about my life and briefly start meddling in yours!  What would it look like if Jesus were to show up this morning and interrupt my ramblings, in order to speak a word of power and authority into your life, today, right now?

What would Jesus address in your life that has a grip on you like an evil spirit?

What voices need to be quieted and silenced?

What damaging behaviors need to come out?

What needs to be exorcised from your life today?

May the words and demonstration of Jesus’ powerful teaching release us out of our bondage and into the freedom of God’s glorious grace!  Amen. 

[1] http://www.virginia.edu/uvatoday/newsRelease.php?id=5776.

[2] http://www.virginia.edu/uvatoday/newsRelease.php?id=16957.

[3] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1992), pp. 134-135.