Sunday, January 28, 2018

Speaking with authority

A Sermon preached on 28th January 2018, Epiphany IV at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Deuteronomy 18: 15 – 29; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1: 21 – 28

I wonder how often you are “astounded at my teaching,” because I teach as “one having authority.” You don’t have to answer that question! The people in the synagogue in Capernaum on the other hand, were genuinely astounded when Jesus preached. Why and where might his authority come from?

There are two aspects of authority, its source – where does it come from - and its content. So, a person can have authority because of who or what they are and because of what they say. I have “authority” to preach and teach by virtue of my ordination, itself a result of my training and me first having to convince a large number of people that I was following a calling from God, and not a desire of my own. And I have “authority” here because you called me to be your priest.
According to Deuteronomy (18:18), God promises Moses to “raise up for (the people of Israel) a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” Based on this definition, an authentic, authoritative prophet or preacher is someone: 

  1. Appointed, called, or raised up by God. In Jesus’ day there were many self-appointed prophets, but they would not usually be invited to speak in the synagogue. That was right restricted to the appointed elder or leader or to scribes, people trained to read and interpret Scripture. We know from a few verses earlier that Jesus was called – very publicly – by God at his Baptism: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:11) I think we can assume that at least some of the people who invited Jesus to speak in Capernaum will have heard of this event.  
  2. The second criterium is to be someone like Moses, that is a spiritual heir, someone who acts in his tradition. Moses was faithful and obedient to God, though not slavishly. He was willing to push back and to question. Moses was also compassionate, intervening with God for his people. Moses was a savior: with God’s help and guidance saving the Israelites from the Egyptians, from death by starvation or thirst, and bringing them in the end to the Promised Land. Jesus is all this, and more.
  3. Finally, this prophet will be raised up from their own people. In a narrow sense this means that the prophet will be a Jew, in a wider sense a human being. Someone who understands, who feels, who sympathizes. Someone we do not fear but trust.

Jesus certainly ticks all these boxes. What about the content, the words? In Deuteronomy God says, “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet.” That does not mean that the prophet is just a puppet. Or even worse, like someone possessed, as we heard in the Gospel. No, it means that whatever someone claiming authority from God says, must have its basis in God’s word as recorded in Scripture. 

Mark does not tell us what text Jesus used when he preached. But as I said in a sermon at the end of Advent, I assume this is the same event recorded in more detail in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, and that text Jesus used and preached on was probably from Isaiah. In Luke’s version (Luke 4:18-21), Jesus first recites: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Before telling the congregation “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus took the words of God, words of liberation, words of healing, and words of salvation, as recorded in Isaiah, and made them his own. In his ministry Jesus often quoted from Scripture, what we call the old Testament, but even more often he used his own words – parables, sermons – and actions – to get the message across. 

Actions speak louder than words – and in the passage we heard from Mark’s Gospel, an act of healing immediately follows Jesus’ words of healing when, just by the power of his words, Jesus releases the man from the “unclean spirit,” from whatever demon had possessed and tormented him. The crowd were already astounded by his words, now, “they were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (Mark 1:27)

What about today and what about us? On the one hand we do not need the sort of prophet who is described in Deuteronomy anymore. His role was to act as a human intermediary, protecting the people of Israel who out of fear did not want to hear or encounter God directly anymore: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” (Deut. 18:16) We have nothing to fear. In Jesus, we can both see and hear God and not die, but live. 

On the other hand, this is the message we need to get across. The world needs the liberating and life-giving word of God. By virtue of our Baptism, we have the authority to speak God’s word to our own kind. What we say and do is authoritative when it has its basis in God’s word, Jesus Christ, in what he said and did and in how he still acts on and in us. Our words have authority when they have their basis in authentic living. We are not puppets, we are living, breathing human beings with lives and ideas and minds of our own – that we choose to put at God’s service because it is best for us and for the world. Or as the American Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God's sake.”[1]

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith

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