SERMON FOR SUNDAY, JANUARY 28, 2018 (Fourth in Epiphany) Authority

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TEXTS:  1 Corinthians 8:1-13;  Mark 1:21-28

“And they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority and not as one of the scribes.”  For the past several weeks I have been studying up on this particular sentence from Gospel reading.  I have appreciated discussions with my colleagues and with our own Bible Study group around exactly what Mark meant when he noted that Jesus taught with authority and not as one of the scribes.  In those days and in Jewish society and religious culture at that time scribes were the very people that were supposed to have authority, for in the midst of a largely uneducated populace they were the educated ones; they were the ones who, from childhood, studied the scriptures of their faith in minute detail.  Yet you know and I know that knowledge alone does not impart authority; that speaking with authority is an elusive mixture of knowledge and comfort with the topic, of charisma and passion, and even of vocal inflection and tone.

I have known many people over the years who I believe spoke with authority, and they were all very different people, one from another, and the mixture of qualities which allowed them to speak with authority were not at all the same across the board.  And yet, in nearly all cases, it only took them a few sentences before I knew that there something about the words and about the speaker that was different, that carried a power that just drew me in, something that said deep down inside me, “You had better listen to this person!”

Jesus, Mark proclaims, spoke with authority and not as those who were the leaders of their community, those who we must assume were supposed to speak with authority but didn’t.  And the people sat up and took notice of this authority, even though they had no idea who this itinerate preacher really was.  And when an unclean spirit, some infesting being which existed on a level somewhat above humanity but somewhat below the divine realm of heavenly beings, made itself known in that synagogue, it knew what the people did not know; it knew that Jesus  was the Holy One of God.  It knew that Jesus not only spoke with authority but actually had within him the authority to command unclean spirits in such a way that they must obey.  “Have you come destroy us?” were its words to Jesus.  It not only recognized the authority of Jesus, but feared it as well.  It was not until after this fact was made known, after Jesus spoke to the unclean spirit and it obeyed, that the people began to grasp the depth of the authority that Jesus possessed.

The Apostle Paul must have understood that sense of authority, must have known how to speak and even write with the kind of authority that did not come only from education.  Yes, Paul was a learned man, but he also knew that many people in his age mistook knowledge for authority, allowing them to give praise to those who possessed knowledge, allowing those knowledge possessors themselves to become “puffed up” and full of themselves.  This was a big problem in the early church at Corinth, for if we read Paul’s letters to Corinth carefully it is obvious that there were some in the Christian community there who felt themselves superior and even in some cases above the law, above even the strictures of the Gospel.  While Paul pandered a bit to those who could see no need to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols in one of the local Corinthian temples, agreeing with them that idols didn’t truly exist and therefore to eat meat ritually attached the worship of an idol carried, in and of itself, no weight, Paul also knew that there would be many in the community who wouldn’t fully grasp the theology and concept of one God and who might struggle with the possibility of other gods. These people just might, when they observed their brothers and sisters eating meat associated with idol worship, believe that they were doing so for the sake of that idol.  In offering his words of caution, the Apostle Paul stepped into the arena of how we might, through our actions, influence others unwittingly, especially if others were to view us as people of authority or knowledge.  In other words, “With authority, either true authority or perceived, comes responsibility.”

I have seen this struggle with authority throughout my life and especially throughout my career among my colleagues in ministry, and I have seen it handled very well and seen it handled poorly.  I have, I am sure, mentioned to you in the past that I myself have struggled mightily with the whole business of pastoral authority.  Preachers are supposed to preach with authority and great preachers do, but there is a fine line between preaching with the authority of God and getting caught up in preaching from what you perceive to be your own authority; preaching from nothing but pride.

I always found it funny that one of the greatest preachers of the 20th century, Rev. Dr. Fred B. Craddock, wrote a book on preaching which became  the standardized text on homiletics ( the art of preaching) for just about every seminary in the country and then titled the book As One without Authority!  Of course what Rev. Craddock was trying to get at is that a great preacher, in and of herself or himself carries no authority whatsoever, but rather allows the authority of the scripture to shine through their words.

One of the things that I try best to hammer into the heads of my confirmands and Bible study groups is that true prophets are not fortune tellers, not visionaries, not predictors of future, but rather are simply those who speak the word of God to God’s people.  Had we included the Old Testament reading from today’s lectionary in this service, we would have heard the word of God to Moses proclaiming that God would, from time to time, raise up prophets from among the people to speak the word of God to them, since the people seemed to feel that receiving the word of God directly from God was too much to handle, that such intimate interaction with the divine could lead to their deaths.  Those who spoke the true word of God throughout ages could not help but to speak with authority, for their words were not their own but were rather the words of God almighty.  In the same manner, many preachers were and are also prophets of God; many of those who are not necessarily preachers are prophets of God.  The word of God can come to powerful people, educated people, charismatic people, passionate people.  The word of God can come just as often to uneducated people, unskilled people, and even to those who lack any sense charisma or passion at all.  I have heard some very powerful prophetic statements come from the mouths of youth and the mouths children.

Friends, God’s word will come to us.  In ways and from sources that we expect and in ways and from sources that will surprise us to no end.  God has never chosen a specific or particular kind of person to deliver that word.  Prophesy is not exclusive to a special group.  You have within you the power and ability to be a prophet of the Lord, as do all your neighbors.  If you find yourself prophesying, speaking with authority, most likely it will happen without any work on your part.  In other words, you cannot train yourself to become a prophet of the Lord.  My suggestion then to all of you is the same suggestion that I find myself constantly making to myself.  Don’t worry so much about being a prophet yourself, but instead “listen”.  Listen carefully to everyone.  Listen with the intent that somewhere in the midst of all the words that fill the world around you, there is somewhere a voice of authority, there is prophesy.  Listen for words of kindness and compassion, words that build up community rather than words that tear it down, words that have a natural ring of truth to them.

One of the things proclaimed boldly by John Robinson, the leader of the group known as the Pilgrims, as they sailed to what is now America on the Mayflower in 1620 was this, “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Holy Word.”

My friends, God is still speaking; speaking through the lips of God’s children throughout the world; speaking in every time and in every place and in every life-situation; speaking wisdom, speaking truth, speaking justice, speaking love.  God is still speaking, and with authority, authority such that even the unclean spirits hear and obey.                                                 Amen.

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