January 28, 2018

What is this? A New Teaching—with Authority!

Passage: Deuteronomy 18:15–20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1–13, Mark 1:21–28
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They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’

While Martin Luther plays a central role in what we call the Protestant Reformation we know he wasn’t alone. Philip Melanchthon joined the faculty at Wittenberg University where Luther taught and became a key figure alongside Luther. Luther assessed him as the greatest theologian ever, a man whose writings were superseded only by Holy Scripture. He was the first systematic theologian of the Reformation. (Like a spewing oilwell, Luther geysered theological riches; Melanchthon gathered, refined and distributed a finished product.) He wrote Protestantism’s basic doctrinal statement, the Augsburg Confession.

In Eric Metaxas’ biography on Martin Luther he describes the key role Melanchthon plays in the Reformation with Luther at Wittenberg. Prior to coming to Wittenberg as a Greek scholar Melanchthon studied at the University in Tubingen. Metaxas’ writes: “… at Tubingen, Melanchthon often found himself bored by fabulistic sermons. One priest piously spoke of how the wooden soles of the Dominican monks’ shoes were made from the actual Tree of Knowledge in Eden. For just such painful moments, Melanchthon carried with him a Latin Bible… A number of times during especially sappy sermons he found himself thirsty for something from the Word of God and, finding none being poured from the pulpit, opened his own Bible and drank a goodly draught therefrom. Several times, he was seen to do this, however, and was gravely scolded. After all, who did this saucy fellow think he was to read a Bible in church?”

1. In Mark’s fast-paced gospel—within 10 verses of Biblical text—Jesus has gone come from Galilee to be baptized by John at the Jordon river, experienced temptation in the wilderness, returned to Galilee preaching good news, gathered some disciples, and comes to Capernaum to launch his ministry. At Capernaum we read, “…when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught.”

The point I invite you to consider is this; the reason we walk into church today and can reach for pew Bible and read; the foundation for doing so is a direct response to the truth that when God comes to us in the Son he comes teaching. God has something to say to us. The chief characteristic of God is the scripture is that God speaks. The right response to God’s action is to read, heed and study what God says and does. As the Psalm we read today declares—“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.”

We find it amusing that Melanchthon would be scolded for having the temerity to read the Bible in church. We marvel that there was ever a time in church life when the church openly discouraged reading the Bible. And yet here we are in an age when we have Bibles galore and many who identify as Christians know little of its content. Perhaps we have taken such ready access to scripture for granted. Further, I read of churches today that boast about reading the Bible as just one among many of the sources of literature for worship contemplation. The reading of the Bible isn’t forbidden but is surely downplayed and put on the back shelf.

The reason we have Bibles in the pews today arises from Luther and Melanchthon and others responding to the way the scriptures were shut off from the people by the church. Such response arises from the conviction that God, who makes God’s self-known in conversation with Israel and in Jesus of Nazareth, speaks—“Jesus entered the synagogue and taught.”

Further, their conviction that the right response to God is to read and study wasn’t limited to study of the Bible, though Bible study was surely foundational and gave rise to the rest. Melanchthon believed that God calls believers to love God with our minds; that God has created the human with the faculties to be able to respond to God speaking—response-able. Melanchthon put that into practise by establishing the first public school system in Germany—he wanted children to have the opportunity to learn to read. This is the right response to God who speaks.

300 years later a Canadian man named Egerton Ryerson would visit Germany and observe the school system implemented by Melanchthon. Upon return to Canada, Ryerson, encouraged by what he saw in Germany, convinced the provincial government to provide public education for all children. Any of us here today who went to public school in Ontario were the beneficiaries of this Biblical vision.

Pressed further the study of science is an appropriate response to God who has created. So is the study of mathematics and engineering that uncovers principles for something as essential as housing, just to name one. So is the study of farming and animal life. The implications of the truth that Jesus “came and taught” are mind blowing to say the least. When a mother takes a young child onto her lap and opens a children’s Bible and reads a story of Jesus you engage in the most profound response to the truth that Jesus taught which directs your child to the One through whom and for whom all the wonders of life were made.

Psalm 139:17-18 provides an apt summary of what I am endeavouring to underline for us. “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.”

2. When Jesus taught in the synagogue that day the people were astounded because he taught as one having authority. Keep in mind as well that Mark relates this story to illustrate the typical response to Jesus’ teaching. The typical teaching people were used to hearing was that of the scribes who were always appealing to past teachers as authorities. Perhaps like we might appeal to something Luther said about the theology of the reformation. Jesus taught as one in whom authority or authentication for what he taught resided. So they marvel. What is this? A new teaching—with authority!

We live in an era that has jettisoned confidence in authority. We know of news stories that have been fabricated to discredit political figures. We wonder about those who warn of global warming—is it science or just a tool for some to push a political agenda? Who do we trust to tell us about what it means to be human; or give us sound marriage advice; or guide us on sexual conduct? Our political debates have become shrill. Yes, there is an appropriate place for debate over what constitutes good governance. What seems to be lost is any sense of overall accountability to God; the commitment that at the end of or debate what we do is now offered to God for the common good of people. When people consider themselves their own highest authority governance—a principality ordained by God for human flourishing—becomes a tool to push personal agenda.

The gospel writer Mark describes Jesus as a teacher and uses the Greek word “to teach/teacher” (didasko and its cognates) of Jesus more than any of the other gospel writers. Teaching is therefore clearly for Mark an essential part of Jesus’ messianic mission, and one which is uniquely appropriate to him. It appears, in Mark’s gospel, that once the good news has been launched anyone may be a ‘herald,’ but “teaching” is particularly the role of the authoritative Messiah.”

For the believer Jesus is the authoritative One and we turn to him as our guide and teacher. I have a prayer I pray before writing sermon and preaching that in part says, “O Creator of the universe, who has set the stars in the heavens and causes the sun to rise and set, shed the light of your wisdom into the darkness of my mind. Fill my thoughts with the loving knowledge of you, that I may bring light to others. …Make my intellect sharp, my memory clear, and my words eloquent, so that I may faithfully interpret the mysteries which you have revealed.” The preacher, in Mark’s understanding, is a herald of the good news this is Jesus Christ, both in what he teaches and what he does. For the believer we look to him for whom and through whom all things are made.

3. I want to probe a little further the character of this authority of Jesus indicated in Mark’s story. Not long ago, I read a charming anecdote involving Pope John XXIII. One day the pontiff was having an audience with a group of people, one of whom was the mother of several children. At one point the pope said to this woman, “Would you please tell me the names of your children. I realize that anyone in this room could tell me their names, but something very special happens when a mother speaks the names of her own children.”

I suspect we know what the pope meant. When a parent speaks the name of a child they do so with an intimate knowledge of the child. And maybe it was something like this that the people sensed about Jesus. Maybe this is what they meant when they said he had an authority others seemed to lack. The teachers of the law were good at teaching about God; their academics were excellent; they deployed well their various gifts of oratory and enunciation. They had great skill but what seemed missing was intimacy with their subject matter.

But not so with Jesus. There was an intimacy to his knowledge about God. He spoke as though he had spent a long time personally being with God. Oddly enough, it almost seemed at times like he was speaking as God. Probably no one in Capernaum that day went quite so far as to conclude that this was God come in the flesh, but when this Jesus fellow talked about God, it was like hearing a mother intone the names of her own children–the love and the personal involvement Jesus had with his subject matter made it clear that this was not coming out of his head so much as his heart.

When Jesus calls us to follow him he does so out of love knowing what is the very best for us. When we hear the love in his voice we are hearing the love of the Father for us all.

But there was a second aspect of this authority that shocked and amazed the people that day. It was Jesus’ exorcism of the unclean spirit from the troubled man. When Jesus spoke things happened. The Greek word used to say that the people were amazed (Mark 1:27) is a word that connotes a certain level of terror, a creeping fear.

The man with the unclean spirit finds Jesus, initiating the exchange. His opening question, asked by the spirit that possesses him, is idiomatic and therefore difficult to translate. It conveys a sense of “Why are you picking this fight?” or “Couldn’t you have just left things as they were between us?” Jesus, by his sheer presence in this synagogue, has upset the order. He has crossed an established boundary.

WE haven’t time to probe the nature of possession by unclean spirits. The point I underline is this—the text witnesses, as do the gospels in general, that the world is shot through and through with spirit and not all of them are good. We may not have a lot of experience with such things but I remind you that Jesus taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil” or “deliver us from the evil one. Perhaps our lack of experience with such things is because our prayer is being answered. Clearly, Jesus has authority over such things.

Here is how you know the difference between the Spirit that is Holy and the unclean—the Holy Spirit will always point us to Jesus. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’