Sunday, February 01, 2009

Audio from Sunday, Feb. 1

Sermon from Sunday, Feb. 1

Based on Mark 1:21-28.

The past couple of weeks we have been reading from Mark 1 and looking at the way Jesus burst on the scene. Mark was probably the first of the four gospels to be written, and part of the reason scholars believe this is the case is that it’s so short. The other three gospels are much longer and the theory is that it is likely that Mark was written first and the other three writers filled in details—at least that’s more likely than Matthew and Luke and John writing long gospels and Mark writing a Cliffs Notes version.

Because Mark is so short, it is also rather stark. Here we are in the first chapter of the book, and already so much has happened—we have read about John the Baptist’s ministry; it didn’t bother telling us very much at all about Jesus’ birth; already, as we read last week, Jesus has started gathering disciples about him; and now, all of 21 verses into the book, Jesus has begun his public teaching ministry. And the action is just so intense, and the details are so few, that the book sort of fills you with a sense of “Who is this man?” Mark’s strategy in telling the story is to keep the details few because he wants you to have a sense of mystery about who this Jesus really is; he wants his readers to feel just as overwhelmed and confused
as Jesus’ first listeners no doubt felt.

So travel with me back in time and imagine that you are on your way not to church but to synagogue. You are going to hear the scribes talk. And it’s not bad; really, it’s not. It’s all you know. The scribes were the religious teachers of Jesus’ day; and they were religious authorities because they were learned men (I say men), well-schooled in the Jewish traditions of interpretation of the law. If you wanted to know about what a passage of the Torah meant, the scribes could give you the history of how the Jewish authorities interpreted the text. They could tell you what observant Jews should think about the text based on tradition.

But instead you get something different. A new guy is teaching today, and there’s just something different about him somehow. He doesn’t just rehash the same interpretations, but he speaks differently; he speaks somehow of an intense relationship with God that is not merely a tired religious thing but a daily reality for him. We know this because of the way that Mark says that Jesus speaks as one having authority. The Greek word translated authority here does not mean merely that Jesus had control over his audience. Instead, it means that Jesus was not simply rehashing what other people had said but he was speaking with independent authority. Rather than translating the authority of others, or the authority of tradition, Jesus spoke with his own authority. It appeared anyway that Jesus was speaking with a kind of authority that went beyond repeating what other people had said about God and was instead speaking about the depths of his experience with God.

It is enough to make you wonder what he said, isn’t it? Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus said there in Capernaum. When Matthew uses this phrase to describe Jesus’ teaching, “as one having authority,” it is at the completion of the Sermon on the Mount. And the Sermon on the Mount certainly demonstrates the kind of authority that we read about here. If you don’t remember the Sermon on the Mount, it is when Jesus gathers his listeners on a hillside and he speaks to them about various issues. And many times throughout the sermon on the mount, Jesus uses a formula: “You have heard it said…yada yada yada….but I say to you something different.” Here’s what the tradition says, but here’s what I say. For example in the part of the sermon on murder, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus here repeats the Old Testament commandment about murder, and talks about how they interpreted it way back then; and then he intensifies it. He talks about how the real sin in murder is not strictly the physical taking of someone’s life, but the whole attitude of anger behind it; the anger that starts in whispered curses and insults is the root that comes to blossom in murder. And time and again this is what Jesus does; he says, “Here is what you have heard;” but then intensifies it and gets to the root of the matter. Regarding adultery, he says, “You have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ but I tell you that whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The physical act of adultery is not the only concern because it has its roots in lust; if lust goes unchecked, it will manifest itself in some unhealthy way.

What is interesting to me is that we usually think of Jesus as relaxing the Old Testament laws; for example, he stopped a crowd from stoning a woman caught in adultery, though they had the legal right and precedent to do so. He pointed us to the truth that salvation and reconciliation with God was not a matter of keeping laws perfectly but in building a personal relationship with God. So we usually think of Jesus as relaxing the laws that the observant Jewish culture believed you had to follow. Yet throughout the sermon on the Mount, Jesus did not relax the laws, but he intensified them. Not only were you prohibited from strangling someone, you were prohibited from hating them in your heart. Not only were you prohibited from swearing falsely, you were prohibited from swearing at all; instead, you were to always speak the truth, even when you weren’t under oath.

In Jesus, we see that what God cared about was an attitude of the heart; this was not completely foreign to the religious teachers before him, but Jesus definitely took it to a new level. He reinterpreted the traditions of his day in a totally unique way, which he could do because he was, after all, God in the flesh. So this is what is meant by Jesus’ authority—he boldly claimed the right to supersede and intensify tradition. His audience listened spellbound because he did not just repeat the same old formulas but gave them a new and somewhat difficult path to follow.

Then Jesus does a miracle which further demonstrates his authority. A man in the gathering is afflicted with an evil spirit which makes him cry out at inappropriate times. And the evil spirit through the man, calls out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Now we don’t know precisely what the problem was with the man, but what is key is that the evil spirit recognized Jesus as a powerful spiritual force which was opposed to the evil work the spirit was doing. Just as the listeners had concluded that Jesus was different somehow, that he had unique authority in the situation, the evil spirit also concludes that Jesus is different than all these other scribes who had come before. Jesus was not like them; their traditions were powerless. But the spirit recognized that Jesus had power, had authority they did not have.

And Jesus then speaks to the spirit and says, “Be silent and come out of him,” and the evil spirit obliges. Jesus’ teaching style demonstrated his connection with God and that connection with God gives him tremendous power. Even the unclean spirits, even spirits that don’t want to obey him, have to obey him because of his self-evident connection with God. And the people are amazed because this miracle is further proof of his authority. It becomes quite obvious that this man is not a pretender, that he indeed does know something that the religious traditions have missed somehow, that he does indeed know God pretty well and so maybe it’s worth listening to what he has to say. They say, “What is this? A new kind of teaching—with authority!” And they spread the news about the new powerful teacher quickly, and his fame spreads all around the surrounding region of Galilee.

You can see that the word authority has two meanings in this text: Jesus has spiritual authority because he knows something about God that the religious leaders did not know. This spiritual authority translated to a certain royal authority over those he encountered; because he was in touch with God, to put it bluntly, he had the right to tell people and evil spirits what to do, and they would obey him.

The question of authority is one with which we struggle today. Very few public figures seem to be true and genuine heroes, real people of integrity. Those of you who follow the sports world know that there’s a book coming out on Tuesday called “The Yankee Years,” written by former Yankees manager Joe Torre with help from a sportswriter named Tom Verducci. The book promises to be a gossipy-style tell-all about what it was really like in the Yankees clubhouse from 1995-2007. Torre lets loose about pretty-boy star Alex Rodriguez and his rivalry with the team’s shortstop, Derek Jeter. He talks about the stars behind the scenes and their weaknesses and strengths as individuals. And we want to hear the juicy gossip—at least I kinda do. And you think to yourself, did any of the great Yankees of the past behave like this? Would we ever hear this kinda stuff about Joe DiMaggio? Lou Gehrig? Babe Ruth? They seemed so clean, so wholesome. I mean, you heard a few things about Babe Ruth’s womanizing, but you heard so little of it that you brushed it off easily. Baseball players don’t seem like real heroes today—they seem like us only richer and pettier.

Same with politicians. There was a time in this country, where, remarkable as this may seem, our president was able to hide a disability from the general public. President Franklin Roosevelt was paralyzed from the waist down and essentially wheelchair-bound in private. When he had to make a speech in public, a specially-constructed very solid lectern was used so that he could use it to support his weight, so that the American people would not see their leader looking weak—and so he could appear to be strong so he could run for re-election. Can you imagine that escaping the press today? We knew about every foible on the campaign trail, every note missed in a speech, every prejudice betrayed in a thoughtless remark. We know, for example, that our current president smokes and has failed in several attempts to quit; we knew that our previous president battled alcoholism.

Same, frankly, with preachers. I don’t know that preachers have gotten any more ill-behaved in the last few years, but I do know it seems that way; TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart’s affairs came to light, Pastor Ted Haggard was a major figure in the last couple years for soliciting male prostitutes; even the remarks Billy Graham made about Jewish people in the 1970s came to light recently, and tarnished the glow of these figures we once esteemed (and still do esteem in some cases).

There is precious little about our public figures that we do not know; and the result is a crisis of authority. Because we know about everyone’s mistakes, we don’t really know who to trust. Because we see glaring mistakes in people that we did not formerly see, we conclude that our public figures do not have authority in our lives—we conclude that they are bad examples to follow. Now this is not a bad thing—I don’t want my children growing up to be like these role models exactly. But we must recognize we have a crisis of authority—we do not recognize anyone as trustworthy and so we do not trust anyone to be reliable for us to pattern our lives after. The result is that at our worst we are a nation of rugged individuals, each of us doing what we think is best, trusting very few others and allowing very few others to guide our decision-making. Because we do not trust anyone to measure up, we do not allow them to guide our decision-making; and so we do not really have patterns, role models who we believe in deep down. This is a lonely way to live, but oddly enough we love it; we sometimes love not having role models because it often means not having accountability, and we like that. We love not having role models because it keeps us from having expectations of ourselves.

And so the church proposes another way; not with any one human being the ultimate authority, but recognizing Jesus as the authority. Pattern your life after him, because he will not let you down; do not hesitate to follow in his way, because he is the way and he leads to life both here and forever. I come to you as one without authority on my own, because all I can do is point you to the one who does have authority.

And I must close with these words: the true test of Jesus’ authority came with this encounter with the evil spirit. The crowd knew that Jesus had authority not because the evil spirit said it, but because the evil spirit obeyed. Just so in our lives—Jesus has authority not because we proclaim him but because we follow him, because we obey him. It is appropriate to end our service at this Table today because it too is a proclamation of our willingness to obey him; it is our proclamation that we follow a Savior with a broken body and shed blood. It is our remembrance that Jesus shed his blood and had his body broken once for us all on Calvary; and it is our pledge to each other to let our own bodies be broken and our own blood be shed, our own lives laid down, so that His will can be realized on earth. Here at this table, we do have a Pattern to follow, here at the Table is one having authority; and here at this table we begin to follow him; here at this table we start to obey.