Sunday, January 29, 2006

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

He hath made his wonderful works to be remembered: Jehovah is gracious and merciful.

Bruce and I usually make sure that both of our names are placed on accounts that we have so that if and when there is some problem or situation that needs our attention either one of us can take care of it. Since I've been home for most of our marriage, I'm usually the person to make the phone calls and handle the trouble. Unfortunately, on a few occasions we did not think about joint ownership and it has caused us problems.

When we bought Bruce's last vehicle, we only put it in his name because he was definitely going to be the only one of us to drive it. When we were getting close to paying off the account, I tried to call the finance company to ask how much it would cost to pay off the loan. They would not even talk to me. I did not have the authority to receive that information.

It has been much different in the past few months dealing with my father's estate. After he passed away, I took an oath as the executor and promised that I would do my best to deal with his worldly possessions. Most of the time I found that it was a simple process. Many of the companies accepted me as the right person and took care of the business as I instructed. They needed little more than proof that my father had passed away.

There were other organizations that required more. I could not deal with any financial institutions without a letter testamentary. This is an official, legal document saying that I had the right and responsibility to take care of the business. When I took my oath, I expected these pieces of paper to be complicated forms with legal lingo beyond my comprehension. I was wrong. The paper only said that I was the executor and had an official seal and signature of the register of wills. This simple piece of paper gave me the authority I needed to take care of any business involving my father's estate.

I suppose it is a good thing that the car financing company would not take my word that I am married to Bruce and capable of handling his financial business. In this modern day of identity theft and vengeful spouses, it is good that the companies take care to ensure they are dealing with the proper authority when doing business, especially when doing so over the phone or the Internet.

In today's Gospel lesson, we hear that Jesus went into the synagogue in Capernaum to teach. It was common for visiting teachers to be invited by the synagogue leaders to read the scriptures and teach. Jesus had little or no reputation at this point in Mark's Gospel. So far we've seen Jesus baptized and sent into the wilderness by the Spirit. We've seen Him invite the fishermen into His fellowship. Though there is no indication of previous teaching or miracles, He must have had some following for the disciples to follow Him so quickly. Yet, he's done nothing yet to warrant notoriety. They had just enough knowledge to know He was a teacher and to invite Him to teach.

I wonder why they invited Him to teach. Was it expected if someone came claiming to be a teacher? Were they just curious? Did they think that Jesus might make them look good, after all He really had no authority by which to preach so it might help their own reputations with their congregation to have a stranger in their midst.

Whatever they thought, when Jesus spoke they knew He spoke with authority. He didn't have a degree or a pedigree. As a matter of fact, He was known as Jesus of Nazareth, so they didn't even recognize Him as a son of David. They were amazed, surprised by His teaching.

If we look back at the passage from the Old Testament lesson, we can see that it was dangerous for someone to claim to speak for God. Now, God promised that He would send people to be His mouth – prophets – because the people were afraid to hear Him with their own ears. They were afraid that if they had a direct relationship with the Most High they would die. So, God gave them what they wanted – a spokesperson. First it was Moses. Then throughout the history of God's people there were men chosen to share God's word with His people. They were called prophets.

However, there were also many people who claimed to be prophets who did not speak for God. It was necessary to discern those with authority granted by God and those who acted on their own will. This is still true today. There are those who claim that a person can be taught to be a prophet and there are schools claiming to teach prophecy. Of course, they try to discern if the person was called and gifted by God, but so many of today's modern 'prophets' think one right 'word' makes them a prophet.

It is certainly a troublesome situation when someone comes into your 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.

This assurance made it easier for synagogue leaders to invite strange teachers into their midst. If they spoke by God and for God, then their words should be heeded. If they did not, then they will face the consequences of taking upon themselves the authority that can only be given by God. They were surprised, then, when Jesus spoke because He spoke with that authority. As a matter of fact, the people could hear that He had an authority to speak that even their scribes did not have.

In the synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit. There is a great deal about this visitor that we do not know. Was the man familiar to the people in the synagogue? How often had he visited? Did he appear to have the demon or did he look 'normal' to the other people in the synagogue? How did he get in there if he was unclean? It doesn't seem as though the man with the demon came rushing in after Jesus. Instead, it seems as if the man had been there listening, perhaps not just this Sabbath but on others as well. Yet, when the demon inside the man heard Jesus speak, it let out a cry. "What do you want with us?"

Even the demon recognized the voice, and the authority of Jesus. It was frightened because the manifestation of Jesus in the world meant their days of freedom were coming to an end. The demon tried to get a hold of the situation by calling Jesus by name. Names mean something. In the days of Jesus it was understood that speaking a person's name gave the speaker some power over them. This is why the Jews will not call God by any name, not even in writing. Human beings have no right to call God by name because we could never have power over Him.

The demon gave it a shot, calling Him Jesus of Nazareth. He went even further saying, "I know who you are, the Holy One of God!" We don't know exactly why the demon would want this bit of information known by the people. After all, the Holy One of God meant immanent destruction for it. Perhaps the demon thought it would ruin Jesus' plan or cause the people to look at Jesus with the wrong sort of expectation. The demon played into Jesus' hand, however. Jesus rebuked the demon and His word had such authority that even the demon could not disobey. The demon came out of the man and the man was set free from the oppression that held him bound for what might have been years.

Once again the people were amazed. "What is this?" they asked. Jesus had authority not only to speak God's word, but also to command devils and to bring healing to mankind. This first sign in the book of Mark is given to us to verify His authority. Whatever it was that He was saying to them, we don't see that in the text for today, Jesus was the rightful voice to say it in God's name. He was a prophet, the prophet, for which they were waiting, who could speak for God. His fame spread not only throughout Galilee but even into the regions beyond. It is likely that the stories that spread focused on the miracle itself, but the miracle gave credibility to that which Jesus spoke, so as He moved on to other cities the fame brought people who would then hear Him and also believe.

The psalm for today speaks about the work of God. We know that it is the word of God that is powerful. Jesus did nothing for the man. He never touched him, never told him to go wash. He simply spoke the words of command to the demon, "Get out" and the demon left. Yet, it was the work that brought Jesus the renown. So, too, the works of God brought His renown to the four corners of the earth. His works, according to the psalmist, are works of graciousness and mercy. They are works of power, healing, wholeness. His hand overcame their enemies, brought them freedom and peace. He was always faithful, always upright. Though these words were written of God, they looked forward to Jesus. "He hath sent redemption unto his people."

Though we don't hear the message Jesus was speaking to the people, we know that He was teaching about the Kingdom of God. The kingdom is found in the redemption brought by Christ.

Many of the so-called prophets talk about knowing God, knowing how to be a prophet, knowing what to say. Life in Christ is not about knowledge. As Paul writes, "Knowledge puffs up." No, living in Christ we have something even better than knowledge. We find wisdom in His truths. The self-proclaimed prophet does not know God as is demonstrated by his or her usurpation of His authority. They have knowledge, but no fear of God. They speak their own words while claiming to speak for God and prove themselves to be a false prophet. They might have knowledge, but they have no wisdom.

A common characteristic of false prophets is their haughty attitude, a holier than thou perspective. They are like those Corinthians who would take advantage of their Christian freedom by eating meat from the temples of the gods while causing those without knowledge to eat the meat with a weak conscience, thus defiling themselves with the food of idols. Though there is no real consequence to the eating of the meat, since the idols are nothing, it is still a stumbling block to the faith of some. Paul reminds us that it is better to abstain from those things that might cause another to fall or be destroyed. Paul writes, "And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ."

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?

We might expect that the lesson for this day is that Jesus heals. But there is more to these passages than just the amazing thing Jesus did for the man with the demon. In these passages we learn about the authority granted to Jesus. He spoke with the voice of God and it was God's word that gave Him the authority to speak even to demons and command them.

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. Yet, we know that in Christ we have that authority, the authority to cast out demons and to bring redemption into the lives of those who are burdened by the demons of life. In our modern age we might reject the idea that demons even exist. We don't see people like the man whose legion of demons was sent into the herd of wild pigs. He was obviously possessed, running naked with inhuman strength amongst the tombs. The man in today's story may not have even appeared possessed, especially since he was in the synagogue.

Our demons might not even 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 their lives, as they are called to do the same for us, 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 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. Thanks be to God.

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