Sunday, February 1, 2009

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

What is this? a new teaching! with authority he commandeth even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.

Job applicants are required to give certain information on an application. This information helps the employer decide if the applicant is qualified for the job and if the job would be right for the applicant. The information includes name, address and phone number, but they are also looking for experience, training and credentials. There is a place for education and previous employers. They ask for the applicant to describe traits and skills that would help them with the job. Finally, they ask for references. These references can’t be family or previous supervisors. In this section of the application, the employers want the names of people who can vouch for someone’s character, not just in relation to work, but in their lives.

At the point where we join Mark’s story in this week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus has not had very much experience in His work, at least to our knowledge. We’ve seen His baptism, the temptation and the calling of the first disciples. It is likely that he had been preaching and teaching along the way, but this story provides our first witness in Mark of Jesus’ miraculous ability to heal. He is relatively unknown at this point. A few might be familiar with His interaction with John the Baptist. They might be wondering about this new prophet on the scene, but He does not yet have any credibility on which to stand in religious circles.

Mark tells us that Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. Now, it was common for visiting teachers to be invited by the synagogue leaders to read the scriptures and teach, but Jesus had little or no reputation as a teacher and preacher. The disciples joined Him quickly, so there must have been some experience upon which those decisions were made very quickly, but He hadn’t done enough to warrant notoriety. Did the leaders of that synagogue know about Jesus and ask Him to teach? Or did Jesus just walk in and start teaching?

Jesus entered into the synagogue that day as the lowly son of a carpenter. He was not an experienced preacher and it was not expected that He would preach. They may have even been surprised at His ability to read the scriptures. He didn’t have the training and had not been studying interpretation for years like the scribes and teachers of the Law. They got their authority from the Torah, their position in the synagogue gave them the credibility to teach and preach the word of God.

Unfortunately, they also taught with their interpretive biases. Interpretation tends to obscure the message given by God, and that is what had happened to the people in Jesus’ day. They’d lost touch with the God who’d set them free, and had been burdened by the Law as it was understood by their leaders.

There was power in the words of Jesus, but His power did not end there. Neither did His authority. The people were amazed by both Jesus’ words and His actions. He spoke about the Kingdom of God in a way that was obvious to everyone—this guy knew what He was talking about. His authority set the people free from the things that had bound up their faith with words that were self-authenticating. He didn’t need anything outside of Himself to make His message true. He was speaking from the heart, not only His heart, but from the very heart of God.

Jesus was not the first prophet to come out of Israel in that day. As a matter of fact, prophets were a dime a dozen, many of which were willing to die for their cause. They were often fighters, people against the Roman occupation and the puppet leadership of the Jews. The people were looking for a Messiah, someone to lead them into freedom and independence again. They wanted the son of David which God had promised. Some of the prophets claimed to be that Messiah. It is not surprising that they might miss Jesus in a field filled with more credible and experienced “saviors.” After all, Jesus was from Nazareth, not Bethlehem. He didn’t fit into their expectations.

When Jesus began speaking, they were amazed. They had no real fear of false teachers and prophets because God dealt harshly with those claiming to speak on His behalf without authority. It is certainly a troublesome situation when someone comes into our midst claiming to speak from God who says something you know God would not say. The so-called prophet may offer a warning such as that found in Deuteronomy, “Heed my words,” but if they do not speak with the authority given by God, we can rest in the knowledge that their prophecy will not come forth. We can also know that the prophet claiming to speak for God who has not been called will find their end.

When two equally authoritative and trustworthy leaders speak prophetic words, the only way to know for sure which is from God is found a few verses after this week’s Old Testament lesson. “When a prophet speaketh in the name of Jehovah, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which Jehovah hath not spoken: the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously, thou shalt not be afraid of him.” While this is helpful to know which words were from God, it doesn’t help us know what is right when the words are spoken.

Jesus didn’t speak like the scribes and the teachers of the Law. He had a new message. His words were different. Yet, He spoke with an authority that was easily recognizable. What was this guy? What did He want? What was He going to do? These are questions that the leaders must have been asking themselves.

In this week’s Gospel lesson, someone comes right out and asks the question. It isn’t a person, however. It is an unclean spirit that has possessed a man. Now, we can’t look at this story and assume that this was an evil place. We don’t always see the heart and body troubles of our neighbors. But we can wonder if this story is meant to represent a type found in the synagogue. The spiritual leaders were possessed, perhaps not by demons, but by their own understanding of God. This was something which Jesus would fight throughout His ministry. He spent three years preaching and teaching so that the people would once again recognize the God who had the power to set them free.

“What do you want with us?” the demon asks. The leaders were probably wondering the same thing. The demon recognized Jesus, put a name to the man. First the spirit uses the name Jesus of Nazareth. This is to remind the people that Jesus came from nowhere. He was nobody. He didn’t fit the template of the one they were expecting. But then the demon did something surprising. It said, “I know thee who thou art, the Holy One of God.” The irony here is that in the very naming of Jesus as the Holy One of God, the demon begs for Jesus’ mercy and grace. Though the demon is cast out of the man, it is not destroyed. Jesus has grace, even for those who are unclean and unacceptable in the eyes of the Jews. We learn throughout the story of Jesus that it is often the outcast and the foreigners who see Jesus as He really is. They don’t miss the truth.

Jesus filled many prophecies during His ministry, often fulfilling the promises and filling different roles in the story of God’s redemption. In the Christmas story we are reminded that He was both priest and lamb. He is friend and king. He is servant and master. In this week’s lessons we see that He is both Messiah and the promised Prophet.

Jesus was the prophet about which was written in Deuteronomy, and He dealt with the simplest and most personal issues. He spoke about pennies and loaves of bread. He used personal stories and parables to explain the Kingdom of God to the people. He touched people that were sick, healed them and offered them freedom from guilt. He dealt with people’s hearts and not the national policies of Rome. I suppose that is why so many failed to recognize Him. He was too down to earth. He was too common. The people looked to prophets because they could not stand hearing the voice of God for themselves. But how could this simple guy from Nazareth fulfill the promise?

The trouble with the false prophets is that they don't speak for God or with His voice; they speak for themselves while claiming to be from God. There is no authority in their words because it is only God who can give us authority. But Jesus had that authority. They were amazed by what He said and what He did.

We don't know what happened to any of the people in the synagogue that day. We don’t know if any of them truly believed Jesus and followed Him. We don't know what the synagogue leaders did after Jesus left. As is true any time a visitor speaks at our congregations, most certainly they faced numerous questions about His teaching. They would have had to explain what Jesus meant to those who did not quite understand and they may have had to do so without understanding themselves. At least some of the people went out and shared their experience with others. Were they able to pass on the good news of the kingdom? What about the man with the demon? Where did he go? What did he do?

The incident in the synagogue is a foreshadowing of another battle Jesus would have to fight. The scribes and teachers of the law were, in essence, possessed by an understanding of God and the scriptures that was burdensome for themselves and the people to whom the ministered. Jesus came preaching something new, but it was not unfounded. The people recognized the authority by which He spoke. They saw the truth. They knew He was right. But the leaders did not want to lose their authority. They, like the unclean spirit, wondered what Jesus wanted with them. “What are you doing here?” they ask. Jesus came to set them free. But it would take God’s Word, God’s power, God’s grace to make that happen.

There is only one God. We know this is true and Paul makes it clear in this week’s epistle lesson that the other gods in this world are nothing. But Paul also reminds us that there are things—idols—that are like gods in the eyes of many people. They are nothing, not real, but they do hold the place of God in the lives of those who believe in them. All those things, or people, in which we put our trust and faith, are gods to us, even though they can not even be compared to God. They are impersonators, given the power and authority of a god even though they are nothing and have no power or authority.

Paul writes, “We know that we all have knowledge.” Lots of people know about God. They have read the scriptures and have prayed. Many people go to church and hear God’s word read and preached. They sing the hymns and do the work of the Church. They serve in the community and live a moral and faithful life. Yet, knowledge is not the center of a relationship with God. Love is. And in this we all fail. We lose sight of God because we are easily distracted by the imposters.

And now, two thousand plus years later, we wonder what this lesson means to us. There have continued to be people who have claimed to be prophets for God. Some even claim to be that prophet promised in Deuteronomy, even though we know that Jesus fulfilled that promise. But the promise didn’t end with Jesus. Instead of sending prophet after prophet, each with a new authority to speak for God, those in Christ are given His authority to share the Good News with others. In Christ we have the authority to cast out demons and to bring healing and redemption into the lives of those who are broken and burdened.

The psalmist praises God for the blessings that are intangible. It is often difficult to see God’s work as it relates to His people. Yes, we have the stories of the Exodus, but we were not there to cross the Red Sea with Moses and the rest of Israel. We can read about the miracles of Jesus and believe in His healing power, but we have not experienced His physical touch. The psalmist knew God’s mighty works among His people, but those works were little more than a memory, handed down by generation after generation. Yet, these are still worth our songs of praise. God did these things, and in them we see His power, faithfulness and grace.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” is a hard saying for most of us. Fear in our world is a bad thing. We fear terrorism. We fear disease. We fear losing everything we own. We fear those things that can bring us harm. We don’t want to fear God; He has been so good to us. His faithfulness and mercy is beyond comparison. Yet, He is fearsome. This is not to mean that we should be afraid of Him. Instead, we are to be in awe of Him. “Holy and reverend is his name.” Holy and awesome. If His name is awesome, how much more so is He?

And so, we are called to praise Him, not only for the beauty of His creation or for the goodness of His dealings with His people. We are called to praise Him because we fear Him. We know of His power. We also know of His mercy and grace. He is faithful. Wisdom is seen in the lives of those who live according to His good and perfect Word; not in the things we can see but in the things that are. Wisdom is seen in mercy and love, it is found in the words and deeds that glorify God and shine His grace.

Our demons might not be evil spirits, but we all know brokenness and oppression. We all struggle with sin and pain and evil in this world. We all have something that can cause us to fall. It is our duty to our brothers and sisters in Christ to live in love, not abusing the freedom—or the power—we have been given through faith by God's grace. Instead, we are called to speak God's word into the world, to share His mercy and grace that we might all know peace. When it is God's word spoken into broken lives, His word brings healing and wholeness. It is when we try to do God's work with our own power and authority that we risk the consequences of false prophecy. When we live in awestruck reverence we find wisdom and in wisdom we gain the understanding of the kingdom of heaven that gives us the authority, and the power, to tell the demons to go away so that the world might be made free.

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