February 1, 2015

He Taught Them as One Having Authority

Passage: Deuteronomy 18:15-22, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
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Please Note: There is no audio for this week's sermon.

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

(Susan C. Kimber, Today's Christian Woman, "Heart to Heart.") Tired of struggling with my strong-willed 3-year-old son, Thomas, I looked him in the eye and asked a question I felt sure would bring him in line: "Thomas, who is in charge here?" Not missing a beat, our Sunday-school-born-and-bred toddler replied, "Jesus is."

Perhaps, like me, you too had your share of struggles with authority as you were growing up? We read that people were astounded at Jesus’ teaching because he taught “as one having authority.” We should first note that authority is about much more than simply being in charge.

There was a time when authority was thought of as a good thing. The authority of expertise, of knowledge, or of office were generally regarded as positive. It was part of the thinking structure of what was known as modernism. Truth was thought discoverable and knowable which carried with it an inherent authority. Psychologist Walter Anderson used the image of a baseball umpire to describe modernist thinking this way: the modernism umpire says, “I call ‘em as they are.”

Modernism gave way to a loss of confidence in being able to know capital “T” truth to an individualized idea of truth. Anderson calls this realism and the realist umpire says “I call ‘em as I see ‘em.” Following that comes postmodernism where the very existence of truth is questioned. Authority is considered a social construct of the powerful to keep power. The individual defines reality for themselves. The postmodern umpire says, “They ain’t nothing till I call ‘em.”

In the midst of such an era the very idea of authority is a very fluid one. Authority has a neutral connotation at best. We are careful to preface much of what we say with, “for me.” We are nervous about claiming something to be so for others. If, for example, in conversation with another about religion, the believer might say something like this: “Well, for me, I find faith in Jesus Christ fulfilling.” Think of how many times people say, “my God would never be (fill in the blank with this or that negative characteristic). Just as in the Capernaum synagogue that day so too today Jesus would stand out because he teaches “as one having authority.”

Now when Mark says that Jesus didn’t teach like the scribes this isn’t to be taken as a put down of the scribes. Characteristic of their teaching was thorough recitation of the development of thought in the rabbinical teachings available to them. Rabbi so-and-so said this of a certain text of scripture, Rabbi So-and-so developed it this way and so on, went their scholarship. Jesus teaches with authority—the teaching comes directly from him. So too for our era Jesus predicates none of his teaching with the caveat “for me”; Jesus doesn’t say “for me, it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” He teaches with an authority that so matter-of-factly assumes as reality the things he has to say. “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” (Mark 7:20)

I invite you to consider Jesus as this One who teaches with authority. I invite you to hear it as good news; very good news for an era where people are left to the aimless self-authority of the umpire who says “they ain’t nothing till I call ‘em.” Very good news for people sensing a great void in trying to make up meaning for life as they go.

1. Think with me about certainty and Jesus’ authority. When it comes to the big decisions of life people typically want as much certainty as we can get. When we buy a home we hire a house inspector and make the purchase conditional on a report satisfactory to us. When we marry we want someone we can trust; a person whose word we find can be believed. When we entrust an incapacitated loved one to medical care we consider carefully the expertise of the institution who will take on their care.

And I would think that we want the same measure of certainty for any faith commitment we make. Faith isn’t a substitute for certainty; it isn’t what you do when certainty fails you. In other words, when I can’t be certain I rely on faith. Faith isn’t like this; biblical faith, that is. Faith, according to the gospel, is a kind of knowing—it is encounter with God in Jesus Christ. Certainty rests in him; certainty is not a by-product of our ability to cross “t(s)” and dot our “i(s)”. You may well have an articulate and thorough house inspection report in your hand—but that report is only as good as character of the person writing the report.

Permit me a brief discursive for those among us philosophically inclined. Basic to every philosophy is a particular epistemology. Epistemology is a theory of knowing. Philosopher and theologian Bernard Lonergan (Method in Theology) summarised the basic issues with three questions. What is one doing when one is knowing? Why is doing that knowing? What does one know when one does it? In answering such questions you may have discovered what I did; thinking about thinking can give you a headache.

Let me clear that in no way am I want to be disparaging of philosophical pursuits. Just as I am very appreciative of those house inspectors whose knowledge and understanding of construction is vast and thorough (much greater than my own); so too I am also very appreciative of those whose carefulness and capacity for thought can guide us in the joys of knowing. For the preacher great gifts can be found in such philosophic work that helps us plumb the depths of the gospel. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, included a text on logic as must reading for all the lay preachers in the Methodist societies. He offered what we would call a reading course in logic when he met with these ministers.

As much as careful and skillful thinking are a help in many areas of life; the gospel is revelation from God. It is an act of God making himself known. Knowledge of God isn’t achieved by careful thinking; it is God’s undertaking in our hearts and lives. In a word, the epistemology of the gospel is Jesus makes himself known. Consider for a moment all the people in the sanctuary this morning; there is a wide variety of life experience, of expertise, of knowledge, of skill. We are anything but a cookie cutter people. Yet our Lord has made himself known to each of us in the particularities of our lives. Now multiply that idea by the number of people who have been to church today around the world. The good news of Jesus is his doing; is his revealing.

We read today of a promise God made to Moses; a promise that God would raise up a prophet for Israel like him; a prophet in whose mouth God would put his words. (Deuteronomy 18:18) At the end of Deuteronomy the author says of Moses: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10) To say that Moses’ influence in the world is vast is always an understatement. For example, the laws that govern western societies are unthinkable apart from the Ten Commandments.

The gospel writers have God’s promise of a second Moses in mind as they write of Jesus; they hold Jesus before hearers as this second Moses. (Matthew is clearest on this theme) Jesus is the one on whose lips were hear the very words of God. Mark has this in mind as he tells us of the remarkable authority of Jesus teaching. The people who heard him were captivated by the authenticity of his teaching—it was coming straight from him.

2. I invite you to consider wisdom and Jesus’ authority. It is a repeated sentence in the older testament; “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Psalm 111:10) We read it from the 111th Psalm in our worship today. Please note with me the implication of relationship in the sentence; how it bespeaks encounter with God. The idea is that we are encountering a person. As we take up the posture—intellectually, emotionally, spiritually—of the fear of the Lord the trajectory of all that wisdom can deliver is set on its right course; it stands on the foundation from which it came.

To be sure the Bible also tells us to love God, to enjoy him, to know that his Spirit prays for us when we do not know what to say. The scripture also tells us to fear him. A principle part of this fear is respect—knowing that God’s greatness and knowledge deserves our listening ear and response of praise. But there is that part of fear that also knows that God is not one with whom we trifle. Jesus who taught us to love God also said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

In our postmodern era of suspicion of any authority; where we are all thought to be umpires where nothing is anything unless we say so; it seems that the only thing we can get our hands on is the tangible. Reality has been reduced to what can be apprehended by our five senses. I can see and touch and experience houses and automobiles and seaside resort and entertainment. Pilate was addressing this issue when he scoffed at Jesus’ claim to truth asking, “What is truth?’ “Here’s truth—I can let you go or have you killed.”

It is important to note the distinction, from a gospel perspective, between what is actual and what is real. Many use the word real to speak of what is actual—this pulpit is actual. It is tangible. When I knock on it my hand doesn’t pass through it. Reality—what is real—is the nature of existence in which the actual finds a place. Jesus came into the world to show us reality; to declare what is real. Relationship with him—the one who is reality itself—is the beginning of wisdom. It is the reality in which wisdom yields her great treasures.

We observe that our understanding of something is shaped by the thing being observed. Mathematics and music call us to appreciate them according to their natures. We might find points of comparison but a calculator will not unlock the wonders of a musical scale for us. The gospel teaches us that God takes action toward humanity. God acts and this is fundamental to his being. We know God in his actions. He acted to create the world: he acted to call Moses in the wilderness; God acts again in coming among us in Jesus Christ. He is acting in calling us to encounter with him.

Consider scripture with me for a moment. We tend to think of the Bible as information about God—and it is surely this but so much more. In treating the Bible as merely information we read then a sort of manual—if we like what we see about God then we will go further. But such an approach does not take into account that God is taking action towards us.

The gospel reveals that God illumines the people who are the beneficiaries of his action. E.g., What has he done in the cross? How do we know? We know as we are made the beneficiary of it. What we know becomes part of the event of his “doing.” How does he acquaint us with all this? Through the human witness of prophets and apostles whom he inspires.
In the event of the cross God reveals himself, and does so by giving himself. God’s act is witnessed by those who are the immediate beneficiaries of it. The human witness to God’s revelation God owns and blesses as his own witness to himself. What humans write God endorses; God writes “on top of it”, as it were. In short, scripture isn’t the revelation, but because the resurrection of Jesus Christ includes the witness (testimony) of apostles it is an aspect of God making himself known to us. This is why reading the Bible is unlike reading any other book; it is included in the action of God towards us.

3. Finally, consider with me comfort and Jesus’ authority. Convinced of God’s great love for me in Jesus Christ I find myself greatly comforted by his authority. For the people in the Capernaum synagogue that day Jesus’ authority was remarkable in how he taught—unlike the scribes—but an exclamation mark was put on Jesus’ authority by the encounter with a man with an unclean spirit. Note with me that Jesus’ confrontation with evil resulted for the benefit of the man possessed. Jesus’ authority is exercised for our benefit.

When Jesus spoke, rebuking the unclean spirit, Jesus is taking action towards this man for the man’s blessing, for his good. We noted a moment ago the gospel declaration that in Jesus God is acting in giving himself for us and the witness to this action by the apostles (scripture) is part of this action. Saying this another way, when we read the scriptures we experience this action of God towards us as he blesses that witness and acquaints us with meaning of his acting towards and for us.

In the course of pastoral ministry I visit people whose suffer the debilitations of dementia. In many instances conversation is impossible. What I see in this Capernaum synagogue story is that no debilitation of mind or spirit is beyond Jesus’ authority. He is ever moving towards us and dementia is no barrier to his love. And so I read scripture when I am with these people because scripture is this vehicle God blesses in his work of making himself known. I know a man whose mother is bedridden, afflicted with dementia such that conversation is not an option; when he goes to visit her he reads the Bible to her. Jesus’ authority is a great comfort.

Pope Benedict once confessed that as priests “we spend so much time preaching about making this world better that we forget to preach about the better world.” This world is a vale of tears and the news of the gospel is that there is an entirely better world and from that world to ours God has come in the flesh. The desire to make this vale of tear more livable is understandable, but we need so much more as the cross of Jesus shows us. “In my Father’s house are many rooms; I go to prepare a place for you,” said our Lord. His authority is an eternal comfort.

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.” Amen