February 6, 2021

MESSAGE – Sunday 31st January Epiphany 4

Two themes: Knowledge and Authority

Knowledge — not just what we know, but who we know (Jesus Christ and others) — focuses today’s readings.

The danger, as these texts make clear, is that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable” (Deuteronomy 18:19).

How do we know when a prophet is speaking in God’s name?

How do we distinguish true from false prophesy?

Psalm 111:10 offers a clue: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”

Paul expands this theme, noting that knowl- edge can be both good and bad, so be careful how you use it.

This leads us to think: What we do with knowledge of God’s purposes, and how we respond once we come to know Jesus, makes all the difference.

Now, what comes to mind when you hear the word ‘authority’? This week the question of authority—whatit is, who has it and how to use it—
The freedom to care for others

Knowledge — not just what we know, but who we know Jesus has a message. Jesus.

Jesus is an individual not with just words to fill an hour but with a message that can make the difference between life and death; a message that has the power to heal and make us whole.

This is how Mark presents Jesus at the beginning of his ministry.

As this episode of the Gospel of Mark opens in Capernaum, Jesus arrives in town, gets to the sabbath, then simply enters the synagogue and teaches.

There’s no setting the scene, no detail about him being invited to speak, no background about being a son of the congregation.

Jesus just enters the synagogue and teaches. Boom!

Listen to the description of the reaction to his teaching: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
Like our congregations, I suspect, the congregation in Capernaum was full of people who’d heard it all before yet gathered faithfully to hear it again.
On this day, they’ll hear something new. Yet what strikes them is less what they hear than the way they hear it.
They are astounded at Jesus’ teaching, because of the way he teaches: with authority.
Have you ever noticed how, when someone speaks with authority, there will be those who hear and rejoice and there will be those who want to resist what is being said? There are always those who are invested in hearing the same old message, no matter how tired it becomes, rather than listening to something new and daring and challenging.

Jesus, speaking with authority, creates a crisis.
In today’s text, the man with the unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Such is the threat of a new word that invites us to live in a different way.

Their astonishment at Jesus’ authority comes before the moment of high drama when even those in the realm of spirit recognize that authority, recognize Jesus’ true identity.

Even as this episode closes, that power over the unclean spirits remains secondary to the astonishment at Jesus’ teaching and its authority. He is so unlike their scribes.

In Church today Sunday, you would have heard a promise from Moses (Deuteronomy) that was treasured by the Israelites for centuries –one day a prophet would come to God’s people who would be “like Moses”.
This is why some people thought Jesus was “the Prophet” (John 7:40). But, when Jesus taught, healed and cast out demons (as in Mark 1:21-28), the people exclaimed that he had a greater authority than the religious leaders.

They soon began to realise that this was not a “prophet like Moses” but one far greater! Jesus’ authority amazed people, largely because it was a different kind of authority than any they had known.

It was the authority of liberation—setting oppressed people free.
It was also the authority of service—healing, forgiving, restoring service.
For Jesus authority is not domination or “power over”. Nor is it manipulation or “power under”.
No, for Jesus authority is collaboration or “power with”. It is an authority derived from God’s Reign, and it’s one in which we are invited to participate.

Paul writes to a congregation of people at Corinth as committed to freedom as are so many in our pews, a people who know their rights and want to exercise them.
Paul’s letter has just advised people to change their relationships with possessions, wealth, the culture, even other people.
Living by the priorities of the coming reign of God, such relationships are secondary. Paul turns now to stress a relationship that is primary—the relationship with others in the community of faith.
Paul is discussing food sacrificed to idols, but he could as easily be discussing face masks and social distancing. Just as it is the Corinthians’ knowledge of their faith-found freedom that is the problem in Corinth, so we have seen this in others of their knowledge of the lore-loving liberty of their constitutional rights that is the problem in the mask wars.
Paul turns such knowledge on its head, saying that those who use it to justify their actions don’t really have knowledge—aren’t really exercising liberty.
Instead, Pastor Paul might say, we know that individual liberty puffs up, but love builds up. He goes on to describe how voluntary sensitivity to the neighbour in love is the experience of true freedom.
Given the free choice to practice precautions, even those whose necessity we question, choosing to practice them for the sake of the neighbour is the truest exercise of freedom, the most powerful expression of authority.
What of those who are bound and not free: What this text suggests that there may be times when, like the ancient man in today’s story, we too are in the grip of an evil spirit.

A spirit that robs life of its joy and reduces everything to rational explanation.

A spirit that keeps everything under control, tied down, neat and safe.
Today I believe the gospel invites us to be healed by the authority of God.
It takes the authority of God to keep our minds open to wonder, to be ready for the tug of God’s spirit on our spirits.

It takes radical healing to be open to the grace of a new day
or have your mind confounded by the grace of forgiveness.

The authority of God commands us to imagine a new world.

This imagination is so needed. Like the ancient people in today’s scripture lesson, we are tired of the same old ways of thinking and being.

We have had the words with us so long that they have gone flat in our souls: “Love your neighbour”; “Care for the least”; “Show mercy to all.”
We know this language well enough.
But something is lacking between the words and the deeds.
We need the authority of God to set us free to begin the exciting and dangerous work of imagining a new world.

Perhaps it would be better to say that we need the authority of God to free us to use our imaginations in a new way.
It takes imagination to create weapons of destruction and it takes imagination to create communities of healing.
It takes imagination to rob people of their dignity through corrupt systems and it takes imagination to offer everyone the opportunity to live as a child of God.

The question is: Will we submit our imaginations to God’s authority?
When we do, there will be resistance.
Someone will cry out, “Don’t torment us!”
But be of good cheer. We follow the one whose authority is such that it cannot be silenced.
And, undergirded by that authority, we are invited to go forth and engage the work of creating a new day, a new world.
It is the most exciting work any people could ever be asked to be about.
It all begins today, in this place, before the authority of these wonderful words from Mark’s Gospel.
What is this? A new teaching?
No. It is the old, old teaching of the way of the cross, the path to resurrection. It is nothing less than the authority, the liberty, of the gospel.