A Question Of Authority

CALL TO WORSHIP: Look around you! We are all God’s people, gathered together in this place. Let us worship Him here and now.

Gracious God, in one of the Bible readings for today, we are reminded that many people listened to Jesus, because His words had real power and understanding. Today, once more, we shall be listening to Your word, and sharing in worship together.

Your words still carry real power; and You understand our needs better than we know them ourselves. Help us to remember that You may have something to say to each one of us. May we listen attentively, so that we don’t miss anything. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen

HYMN 624: CALL ME LORD -StF.

PRAYER OF ADORATION:  Let us praise the Lord. With my whole heart I will praise His holy name.

Lord, Your deeds are amazing. Everyone who loves You should think about them. Your glory and majesty can be seen in everything You do.

Let us praise the Lord. With my whole heart I will praise His holy name.

Your goodness never fails. When we look back at all that has happened, our memories are full of the good things that You have done.

Let us praise the Lord. With my whole heart I will praise His holy name.

You delight in showing mercy; You provide all that we need for life. You remember Your promise to be our God. All that You do is just and good. You know what is best for us, and Your laws are wise.

Let us praise the Lord. With my whole heart I will praise His holy name.

You have kept Your promise by sending Jesus to be our saviour. Your promise of loving care will never end. What a holy, awe-inspiring name You have! To honour and respect You is the wisest thing we can do.

Let us praise the Lord. With my whole heart I will praise His holy name. Amen

TALK FOR ALL: THE BEST TEACHER MARK 1: 21-28

Suppose you want to learn to build things out of wood. Who would be the best teacher? Yes, the best teacher would be an experienced carpenter. A carpenter spends many hours measuring, sawing, and nailing pieces of wood together.

Many of us, when we try to hammer a nail into place, will bend the nail so it doesn’t go in straight or miss the nail altogether. When you watch a good carpenter work there is no doubt he knows what he is doing. He swings the hammer with power, hits the nail squarely, and drives the nail easily into the wood. He is an authority in working with wood and is able to show others how to do it.

When Jesus lived on earth he was a teacher, and the people who heard him “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as having authority…” (1:22).

Jesus taught people about the love of God. They could see by the things he did and the things he said that he was an authority. They watched as Jesus healed a man who was sick in his mind. They saw the power of God’s love.

The best teachers are the ones who really know what they are talking about. Jesus is the best teacher to teach us about love.

HYMN 507: O FOR A HEART TO PRAISE MY GOD – StF

PRAYER OF CONFESSION AND THANKSGIVING: The bible reading from Corinthians reminds us that people notice what we do and sometimes follow our example. Let us say sorry to God, for not considering them when we act.

Let us pray.

Loving Lord, it is not hard for people to discover that we go to church. They see us set off on a Sunday morning, and watch us return a little while later. They know where we have been. They judge the church and even You by the things that we say and do during the week.

Forgive us when we do not set good examples. Forgive us when our behaviour gives others the chance to say that Jesus makes no difference to someone’s life.

We thank You that Jesus does make a real difference by forgiving us and giving us a new start.  Show us how we can be good examples, by not just believing in You, but by living lives that pleases You.

We ask this in the name of Jesus, who always said and did what was right. Amen

READINGS: MARK 1: 21-28

HYMN 342- ALL HAIL THE POWER OF JESU’S NAME!– StF

SERMON: A QUESTION OF AUTHORITY

When I think of teachers I don’t think of people who are particularly powerful, at least not by the world’s standards.   I think of Miss. Lamb my high school teacher who helped me memorize Mark Antonio’s Address from the book “Julius Caesar”, by William Shakespeare, and then clapped for me when I successfully recited it in front of the class.  I think of Mr. Davies, one of only a few male teacher role models, who actually made learning Maths fun.  I think of Dr. Brian Beck, my favourite Methodism lecturer at Wesley House in Cambridge, who help us know Methodism in old and new ways.

I think of teachers like these and I’m amazed at the impact they’ve had on my life and the lives of so many other students.  I’m amazed at the way good teachers continue to feed us long after we’ve left their presence.  They were poorly paid, they spent long hours in school, they had to deal with some kids that didn’t want to learn, they won’t ever be famous, yet what power they had.

But I also had some lousy teachers too.  You probably did as well.  They also had power and often used it the wrong way.  Teachers are powerful.  They can change lives.  They have the power to brutally wound or wonderfully heal young lives.

It is into this world of powerful teachers that our Gospel lesson calls us to enter.  It is early in the ministry of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.  Mark has no birth narrative, no childhood stories.  Mark begins with John the Baptist preparing the way with his preaching, and with the baptism of Jesus, and then jumps immediately into Jesus’ calling the disciples and the beginning of his ministry.  And that’s where we are today — the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  And how does it begin?  With teaching.  But not just any kind of teaching, it is teaching unlike that of the scribes, it is teaching with “authority.”

What’s interesting is that we don’t hear the content of Jesus’ teaching.  It’s almost like Mark is saying, “the content isn’t the important part.”  In the gospel of Mark what makes Jesus’ teaching authoritative is his person; his teaching is authoritative because of who he is — he is “the Holy One of God.”

It’s kind of like those good teachers in our past.  We don’t remember the details of what they taught as much as we remember the power of their person.

The people automatically contrast Jesus’ teaching with what they know, with what they have experienced, with the teaching of the scribes.   And, unlike the scribes, the people perceive Jesus to teach with “authority.”  In other words, Jesus brings something extra to the table, Jesus’ person has something the scribes don’t.  What is that something extra?  Well, look at what happens next — Jesus heals a man with an unclean spirit.  In the gospel of Mark, there’s no differentiation between Jesus’ teaching and his healing.  It’s all part of the same package.  So, when the people hear Jesus teach with authority and see Jesus heal with authority, they’re “astounded/amazed” because this is something new.  This is not at all like what they’ve experienced with the scribes.  This teacher is different.

Now, in today’s world, we often use the words “power” and “authority” interchangeably.  But for our purposes, I want to make a distinction between the two.  If we peer into the world in which Jesus lived, the scribes, along with Pharisees and the Sadducees, had the “power.”  They were the interpreters of the law.  They decided what and who was acceptable, and what and who was not acceptable.  They were part of the “cultural power structure” of the day.  Their “power” was simply a given.  However, they did not necessarily have the support or confidence of the people, so they lacked “authority.”   Dictators, for example, may be powerful because they have an army behind them, but they lack genuine “authority” in the hearts and minds of the people.   The Apartheid government may have had the power in South Africa for many years, but a jailed man named Nelson Mandela had the authority.

It’s a similar situation for the scribes.  The scribes are often presented in the gospels as oppressors of the people who lack a genuine understanding of the law and who possess no understanding of grace.  In other words, they’re lousy teachers — but they’re still powerful because of their position in the society.   They may be lousy teachers but they still get to call the shots.

I want to argue, on the other hand, that genuine “authority” comes not from one’s position in the society but from somewhere beyond one’s self.  “Authority,” I want to argue, is embodied through a sense of call.  Good teachers, for example, have authority, their teaching is authoritative, because of their God-given gifts, because God has called them to be teachers.  Good teachers are teachers for the right reasons.  They teach not for the money (what money?), not for the prestige (what prestige?); they teach because they’re called, because it’s who they are as compassionate, caring, gracious people.  And it’s those God-given, God-blessed aspects of their person that gives their teaching authority.

So, to have “power” does not necessarily mean one has “authority.”  Especially when we think in terms of “moral authority.”  Just listen carefully to the questions being asked today and you can hear hints of this subtle difference between “power” and “authority.”   People are not asking, for example, whether our government has the “power” to do certain things, of course it has the “power,” they’re asking does our government have the “authority.”

The opposite is true as well.  Just because someone has “authority” does not necessarily mean they have power.  Jesus had the authority, but in the end it was the scribes and the Pharisees that had the power to call for his crucifixion.  “Authority,” in the best sense of the word, is persuasive, it doesn’t need nor does it depend on threats of force.  People gravitate toward genuine authority because it is persuasive, because it speaks to the heart, because genuine authority is recognized as being different, it’s recognized as having come from above.

So, Jesus is different from the scribes, because Jesus is said to teach with “authority.”  Jesus’ authority comes from above.  He is rightly identified by the demon as, “the Holy One of God.”  Jesus’ authority is a derived authority, it comes directly from God.  And it’s this divine authority that we see unfold in the gospel of Mark.  It’s this divine authority that is constantly being critiqued by those in power because they feel threatened by it; it is this divine authority that is constantly being challenged because they fear losing their power.  And they’re right to feel threatened and afraid because it is Jesus’ divine authority that ultimately trumps all worldly powers.

We’re given a clue about just how all encompassing Jesus’ divine authority is when he heals the demon possessed man.  Now we could get all hung up on the question of how to understand demon possession in the Bible.  Talk of spirits and demons seems primitive and makes us uncomfortable today.  However, I don’t think there’s any argument that evil is still a problem.  Well known preacher Fred Craddock puts it this way, “No service is rendered simply by announcing that we no longer believe in demons.  Although that is true, for most, not believing in demons has hardly eradicated evil in our world.”

So, for our purposes, we’re going to view this exorcism as an example of Jesus’ overcoming evil in the world.   And this is what astounds the people: Jesus has the authority to overcome evil.  Which is still astounding today if you think about it.  What other power or authority is there that can overcome evil, eradicate it, make it go away?  We put people in prison but that doesn’t make evil go away.  Or, more close to home, how many of us struggle with the presence of evil in our own lives?  Do we have the power or authority on our own to just make evil go away?  Isn’t the Apostle Paul’s self-reflective question our daily question: “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15)

There’s an old Native American story about a chief instructing some brave men about the struggle within.  “It is like two dogs fighting inside of us,” the chief told them.  “There is one good dog who wants to do the right and the other dog wants to do the wrong.  Sometimes the good dog seems stronger and is winning the fight.  But sometimes the bad dog is stronger and wrong is winning the fight.”

“Who is going to win in the end?” a young man asks.

“”The one you feed,” the chief answered.

The only food available to feed the good dog within us comes from above, it comes from outside of us, it’s the food of hope and grace whose singular nutritional authority comes from God.    We do not have the power to overcome evil on our own.  In fact, left to our own devices we will choose evil more often than good.

This is precisely why we begin every service of worship with a prayer of confession.  Far from being the self-righteous hypocrites the world paints Christians out to be, we know all too well our own capacity for evil and our own need for forgiveness.  And that’s why we go to church and also meet in our homes or places to study the word of God.

It’s there that we are perpetually astounded by the food of hope and grace.

It’s there that we meet the “Holy One of God” who has the authority to call evil out of us, to forgive us, and to transform us.

It’s there that we are fed on the scriptures read, proclaimed, and taught. It’s there that we are nourished by the sacraments that make us one and transform us at the same time.

And it’s as we leave that place and follow the light out into the world that we, we of all people, are given the authority to speak, and live, and heal in ways that feed a hungry world. Now that’s truly astounding. Amen.

HYMN 455: ALL MY HOPE ON GOD IS FOUNDED– StF

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION: Today in the Gospel story, Jesus healed a man whose mind was full of trouble. We will be remembering people with troubled minds in our prayers today.

Let us pray.

Lord, You made people with minds to think; Give peace and understanding we pray.

We pray for world leaders, surrounded by many concerns, facing all kinds of questions. Give them wise advisers, and a willingness to seek the right help. May they take enough rest to strengthen them for each day’s work.

Lord, You made people with minds to think; Give peace and understanding we pray.

We pray for the church everywhere; for people struggling to understand how You are working in their situation. We pray for those whose faith feels weak. Show Your whole church how to help them, remembering that You alone have all the answers.

Lord, You made people with minds to think; Give peace and understanding we pray.

We pray for those whose minds are disturbed because of distressing things that they have seen. We think those serving in Afghanistan or in other places; those who have lived through wars or other disasters; those with painful memories. Bring them comfort, and show them how to live with their experiences. We pray, too, for the people who talk with them and listen to them. Strengthen them for their work.

Lord, You made people with minds to think; Give peace and understanding we pray.

We pray for those whose minds do not work properly because of an illness; for the elderly, who cannot remember those they love; for those whose minds are ill because of drink or drugs. Be with them in their confusion, and speak to them of Your loving care.

Lord, You made people with minds to think; Give peace and understanding we pray.

We pray now for ourselves. Often things happen which we do not understand, and sometimes they make us feel sad or confused. Help us to remember the authority of Jesus and to put our trust in Him for all our needs.

Lord, You made people with minds to think; Give peace and understanding we pray. Amen

HYMN 465: GUIDE ME , O THOU GREAT JEHOVAH -StF

BLESSINGS: Those who saw Jesus at work were amazed at what He did. As we go from here, may others see Jesus working in us and want to know Him too.

May the Blessing of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be upon us and remain with us always. Amen.