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“As One Having Authority”
Sermon on Mark 1:21-28, Deuteronomy 18:15-20
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
I was a college student in the 1970’s, so that makes me part of the generation that lived by the words, “Question Authority.” By the time I got to college, the student protests against the Vietnam War, the sit-ins and takeovers of academic buildings of the late Sixties were over, but the students of my freshman class had already been shaped by the watchwords of our predecessors: “Question Authority.”
“Authority” for us meant all that was oppressive or repressive in society: those persons and institutions that were in the business of maintaining their own power or establishing their ideology. “Authority” meant those in charge of things who perpetuated white privilege, male privilege, and the privilege of the wealthy. “Authority” was what suppressed human life and spirit, imprisoned rather than set free. We could be pretty self-righteous, I have to admit, but this questioning of authority has shaped the world we live in today in profound ways. All of us, in one way or another, have become questioners of authority.
And yet we Baby Boomers, who were once told not to trust anyone over age thirty, did have people in our lives whose voices were authoritative for us. There were certain teachers or professors, trusted relatives and family friends, maybe even pastors, who gained our confidence and respect. They were the ones who told us the truth and loved us while they did it. I have a special memory of Mrs. Cameron, who taught creative writing and journalism at Westport High School in Louisville, Kentucky. When you are in high school, every teacher and principal is an authority figure, but for me, as for many of my classmates, Mrs. Cameron’s teaching and guidance were authoritative. She didn’t teach like the other teachers, “but as one having authority.” She stood above the “scribes” of the school faculty and administration, capturing our hearts and imaginations, and making the world a little less confusing for us.
Mrs. Cameron taught us to look past the surface of things in the world around us and in our own souls. She was unsparing in her critique of anything that sounded false or self-serving, either in the public media or in her students’ writing – but she also believed in what was best in us, and knew how to bring it out. I remember her today as someone who opened doors for me that I would not have had the courage to walk though without her prompting.
My guess is that most of you have had someone, perhaps several people, like Mrs. Cameron in your life: people whose teaching or counsel was authoritative for you because of who they were and how they cared about you. These are people who can give us a whole new understanding of ourselves; who can tell us the truth in such a way that new possibilities of thought and action open up before us. We trust them not only because of what they know but also because we sense they have our best interests at heart.
When Jesus walked into the synagogue of Capernaum, the people there recognized his authority by the way he taught. We are not told the content of his teaching – Mark is always sketchy about details – but we can assume Jesus read a portion of the Torah and drew from it a proclamation of the kingdom of God. Whatever he said, it was something people had not heard before from their usual authorities. Jesus’s teaching appears to have provoked both excitement and alarm.[i] It wasn’t just his words that astounded the people, it was that he backed up his words with action. He restored the “possessed” man in the synagogue to sanity, liberating him from chaotic and uncontrollable forces that had taken over his life and were destroying his personality. Jesus didn’t just talk about the kingdom of God, he demonstrated its liberating power. His announcement of the kingdom heralded his own mastery over all the forces that make human lives less human.
Jesus’s authority is not just a display of power or a dispensation of wisdom from on high. He is what he teaches, and he has concern for those he teaches. He has the kind of authority that is not just about making decisions – it is the kind of authority that compels decision in other people.[ii] Mark gives us this story of the teaching and healing in the synagogue right after Jesus has summoned his first disciples out of their fishing boats and into a life of following him.
People recognize Jesus as someone who reliably speaks for God. Before anything else, he is a prophet. However disturbing his words may have been to his audience in the synagogue that day, no one seems to have questioned their authenticity. “He speaks as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”
The Bible addresses early on the problem of distinguishing true prophets from false prophets. How do you sort out those who speak for God from those who merely pretend to do so? Our reading from Deuteronomy spells it out rather starkly: If a self-proclaimed prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, but the thing proves untrue, he’s not a prophet at all, but a presumptuous impostor deserving of the death penalty. These are sobering, cautionary words for preachers everywhere, who are charged with bringing the Word of God to the people -- and they should serve as a caution for everyone who presumes to speak for God: televangelists, prosperity gospel preachers, motivational speakers who pull the mantle of religion around an appeal to basic human greed, and all the rest who claim divine warrant for their speech. It may not always be easy to tell a true prophet from a false one, but we can safely say that true prophets do not promote themselves or their interests. They do not curry favor with the rich at the expense of the poor, with the powerful at the expense of the weak, or with racial and ethnic majorities at the expense of minorities.
The test of the reliability of someone who presumes to speak for God is this: Are the speaker’s words consistent with what we already know about God, the God revealed in Jesus Christ? Do the words that are spoken point to the love, justice, and mercy of Christ? If they don’t, we may question the speaker’s truthfulness, and therefore their authority.
The authority of Jesus Christ is the authority of one who tells us the truth in a way that commands our attention, and then our obedience. It is the authority of one who compels a decision. And it is the authority of one who liberates us from the things that would destroy us: those demons of fear and denial, of helpless passivity, the preference we all have for living with comfortable illusions rather than uncomfortable truth. To these demons, Jesus says with authority, “Be silent!” Shut up!
The world today is no less confusing than it was back when many of us were told to question authority. We still have lots of difficult decisions to make in life, but once we have made the decision to submit our lives to the authority of Jesus Christ, certain choices become clear.
We’ll never know exactly what to do in every situation, but we know that if we are submitting to the authority of Jesus certain choices are clear.
We can make a decision for generosity: toward God, toward each other, toward those in our world who always get the short end of the stick.
We can make a decision for honesty: to speak with the clarity combined with love that we have seen in those other lesser but good authorities in our lives who have used their influence with us to help us find our true selves.
We can make a decision for courage: not to settle for living in a way that makes us less human by keeping our good gifts of love and faith and imagination locked up inside us.
We can make a decision for God. When we make the kind of decision that knowledge of Jesus Christ compels, we commit ourselves to living under a new teaching, a different kind of authority. It is a decision to live a more liberated life, with lots of open doors for us to walk through.
Jesus has an authority we never have to question. Under his authority we may find the way to life and peace.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
January 28, 2018
[i] William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 1974), p. 71.
[ii] Ibid., p. 72.