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They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! Mark 1:27
by Chuck DeGroat
There is a stunning moment in the first chapter of Mark where Jesus confronts a man with an unclean spirit and those witnessing can barely fathom what they’re seeing. “What is this?” they say. He speaks with authority! Authority.
Oooh! That’s a tough word—authority. When we hear it, we often think of power, and when we think of power we think (quite often) about its abuse. No doubt that the early witnesses to Jesus saw authority abused time and again, from political and religious leaders alike. And we do too—from recent cases of law enforcement who seemingly target young black men to scandals involving respected pastors to the continually low confidence numbers in government authority. In fact, Gallup asks every year the question, “How much of the time do you think you can trust the government to do what is right?” And for only one year in the last 25 (the year after 9/11) did the number exceed fifty percent. Authority stirs suspicion. But the onlookers say about Jesus—What is this? Clearly, they saw something different. Someone different.
In Epiphany, we’re invited to ask this question—What is this? Even more, I find this to be prime time to engage skeptics on that question. Skeptics to Christian faith are often suspicious of faith, not least because they see our scandals and hypocrisies and pretense. But, Epiphany is prime time to engage the question “What is this?” in a fresh way. You see, many skeptics only see a punitive God. And sadly, many people of faith see this same God, a God who waits to pounce when we do something wrong.
Epiphany invites us to take a close and careful look at Jesus. His compassion. His self-giving love. His scandalous embrace of those who are considered outsiders. His strong critique of the moralistic religious types. His courage to suffer. His empathy. His death-to-resurrection path to our (and the world’s) ultimate liberation.
If you look closely, you might ask the question, What is this? And perhaps those who remain skeptical might do the same. The authority of Jesus does not demand, it invites. It does not demonize, it embraces. It does not enslave, it liberates. And so, take some time to consider this afresh during Epiphany. And invite a skeptic to join you in the journey.
Chuck DeGroat teaches pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.