... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Epiphany 4 – Year B, Message Jan 29th, 2012

The Authority of God through Christ

Text: Deut.18: 15-20; 1 Cor.8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Traditionally Epiphany was an Eastern Orthodox celebration in honour of the Lord’s Baptism. However some 200 years later it appeared in the Western Church as a celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as witnessed by the magi or three wise men. The Epiphany season thus affords the Christian community time to reflect and meditate on the significance of God’s revelation through Jesus as to God’s commands to humanity, God’s purpose for Creation, God’s promise of salvation and of Divine authority.

When I was reading the lessons for today I was struck with an illustration from my undergraduate days in Chemistry. During my second year I did two Chemistry courses, one was advanced Inorganic Chemistry the other was Organic Chemistry. The professors for these two courses were like night and day. Where the prof. for Organic Chemistry was dynamic using lots of illustrations and speaking eloquently, our Inorganic Prof. was boring, monotone and bent on spewing facts. His was the image I had of the scribes.

In today’s readings we are struck with the theme of authority especially in both the Deuteronomic and Gospel passages. We are told in the Old Testament passages that by God’s authority at some future time a prophet would be chosen from among the people to speak for God and to convey God’s commands and purposes to the people. Mark in his opening chapter shows that this Divine power resides in Jesus and that his real identity is revealed in and by his teaching with authority. To reinforce the amazement of the people concerning Jesus’ teaching, Mark inserts the healing miracle.

To modern ears this healing miracle is quite foreign in both its content and context. In content we of the enlightened age understand disease as a condition of physical or mental maladies far removed from spirits superstitions and incantations. Yet here is story of a diseased man afflicted by an unclean spirit who confronts Jesus, addresses him as ‘the Holy One of God’ and without asking for it he is healed. The context of the healing has nothing to do with healing or for that matter with the faith of the man or the witnesses. The context as Mark puts it has to do with the legitimizing the authority of Jesus’ teaching as the people acclaim, “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!”

With this in mind we need to take a closer look at the miracle story and see what it had to do with Jesus’ identity and the source of His power. We must remember that in Jesus’ time disease was thought to be due to unclean spirits which controlled their victims. The power of these unclean spirits was determined by their resistance to being exorcized. It is also important to realize that in Near Middle Eastern culture one’s true name was linked with one’s power over another. Hence, if you knew the real identity and name of your opponent, you had power over that person. Much the same thing appears in voodoo and even in the realm of big business takeovers of present day. In the story we hear now an unclean spirit which knows the true identity and name of Jesus. Instead of having power over Jesus as might be expected this spirit is powerless and even forced to submit to Jesus’ words, “Be silent and come out of him.”

As no further mention is made of the man, his faith, or his subsequent actions, it must be taken that this healing miracle is used as an illustration of the authority by which Jesus acted. And since it was an unclean spirit which was defeated, Jesus’ authority must have been from a purer cleaner power – the power of God.

And with the power of God came Jesus’ teaching as one having authority. Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus’ first act in ministry as going into the synagogue to teach. Unlike present day synagogues, synagogues in Jesus’ day were not places of worship but rather places of teaching and instruction, and while there were appointed offices for administration and upkeep of the building, teaching and instruction was left to itinerant scholars or to the scribes. The scribes were that class of scholars who studied the scriptures and extracted from them the various rules and regulations governing every possible situation in life. They also were given the duties of transmitting these rules and regulations to the ordinary person without imparting personal commentary so as to assure reliability and conformity. If comments were necessary they had to refer people to recognized scholars from the past. Jesus, however, did not teach this way. In fact He spoke and expounded with no apparent authority beyond himself, so much so that people understood Him as speaking with the finality of the voice of God. Thus we see the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise made to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet who shall speak to them everything that I command.” Mark’s use of the term ‘authority’ now takes on more than just credibility and reliability; it signifies the divine power and will of God.

But how is this to impact on us some 2000 years removed from His teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum? By his authority and teaching Jesus freed the ordinary people from the boring and oft-times misleading teachings of the scribes. He also, by the same authority, is able to free us from the false teachings and evil spirits that infect us; the fears and superstitions of ourselves – be they money, work, lusts or greed. We no longer have to be tied to the shackles of society.

This is not to say we are to go out and do away with all our societal norms, laws and cultural traditions. That would be disastrous! Instead we are asked to hear Jesus’ words, let them govern our beings and respond in a way so as to bring others to faith. That is what Paul attempted to do in his advice to the early Christians at Corinth.

Freed from the food regulations those Christians could have rebelled against society and eaten food given to idols. But in so doing could also have driven those of lesser faith to abandon their new found way and suffer great guilt rather than experiencing Christ’s truth.

The authority of God acting in and through Jesus is liberating. It has the power to free us from the bonds of superstition and sin and to be open to hear God’s voice and direction for us individually and collectively. We must hear that authority, apply it to our lives and live in such a way as to be the exemplars of Christian value and truth.