January 29, 2012
Ruins of 4th Century Synagogue in Capernaum built over 1st Century Synagogue where Jesus started his ministry
I. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, people followed larger than life figures who they hoped could lead them out of the crisis. They followed those who emerged into and through World War II. With the passing of that generation we have much better perspective to recognize the heroes and the villains. Hitler, Mussolini, Hirohito, Franco, Stalin, De Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt.
A. Leaders of this distinction and authority have not and may not emerge out of today’s global financial crisis and worldwide violent oppression. This is not only because of an absence of leaders of this stature but also because, especially in democratic societies, fragmented public opinion quickly dismantles those who assume prominent positions. We are living in an authority vacuum.
B. In many ways Billy Graham represents the best of the generation of church leaders of the post-World War II twentieth century. A number of them cast long shadows over Church and society. That generation is rapidly passing from the scene, and the day of personality centered ministries is changing dramatically if not fading away. I know this leaves some folk anxious about the future of the Church. I am much more hopeful. I believe that God is not only raising up a new generation of leaders for the Church, but God is also reshaping both the Church’s leadership and ministry in the twenty-first century.
C. I think 1 Corinthians 8:2 speaks powerfully to the leadership landscape of the twenty-first century. “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge.”
II. We are in a time of seriously rethinking pastoral authority. That denominations and seminaries are playing catch up with authors and consultants and congregations is just one sign of how dramatic this rethinking is. First Christian Church in Duncanville took the form we recognize today and flourished in that second half of the twentieth century. Now, over a decade into the twenty-first century, your next pastor will not be leading you back to the familiar patterns of the post-World War II church boom, but ahead into the unexplored territory of the twenty-first century. You will be learning how to proclaim the Gospel to a much more diverse and secular culture in which most people will be unfamiliar with the vocabulary and symbols of Christian faith and Church.
A. Skeptics have always pointed to the hypocrites in the church to justify their aversion to Christ. Every time a prominent pastor falls to a scandal of sex, money or power a cynical feeding frenzy ensues. Perhaps more than ever, pastoral authority in the twenty-first century depends on authenticity and integrity.
B. We didn’t read it today, but the selection from the Hebrew Scriptures recommended by the lectionary for today comes from Deuteronomy 18. I’ve been trying to digest it along with my breakfast every morning this week. Moses is preparing Israel for life in the Promised Land without his leadership. He tells them that God is going to raise up prophets to speak to them. Verses 20-22 say, “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die. You may say to yourself, ‘How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?’ If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.”
1. I certainly know that as your pastor I do not hold the office of prophet in the way Moses was speaking to Israel. I also know that I do not have what the New Testament describes as the spiritual gift of prophecy in the sense of being given revelations from God to deliver to the Church. I do believe I have the spiritual gifts of teaching, wisdom and pastor (in the sense of shepherd). Nevertheless, the words presume and presumptuously jumped off the page at me every morning this week.
2. I am acutely aware of the audacity of standing in front of God’s people every week presuming to speak on God’s behalf. I love preaching and am convinced God has called me to preach, and right now that means God has called me to preach to you. But I must tell you that every Friday as I put the message together and every Sunday as I speak to you, I am terrified that I may have presumed to say something that is not from God and one of you might take it seriously and act on it to your harm.
C. For two weeks I have been soaking in Mark 1:21-28. I believe what I have heard from God this week is to invite you to be astounded at Jesus’ authority to teach and act for you, the Church and the world.
1. This is the first episode of Jesus’ public ministry recorded by Mark. He has just come from calling Simon and Andrew, James and John from their fishing to follow him. These five – Jesus and two pairs of brothers – are the beginning of the band of disciples from which Jesus will grow the Church.
2. Tell Mark 1:21-28
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They 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.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.
III. Be astounded at Jesus’ authority to teach and act for you, the Church and the world.
A. Interestingly, Mark does not tell us what Jesus taught, only how the people in the synagogue responded to him.
1. Unlike the scribes who taught by quoting other scholars, Jesus did not teach with derived but direct authority. He spoke with the supreme confidence that his words were sufficient by themselves.
2. We do know from the teachings of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels that also unlike the scribes, Jesus teaching was not about taking sides in arcane theological debates or solving inscrutable puzzles or giving moralistic directives. Rather, Jesus’ teaching reshaped perspective and character. Jesus taught to form who you are and how you see the world.
B. The people in the synagogue see Jesus’ authority when he commands the unclean spirit to leave the man who cried out in the synagogue. “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
1. Clearly this was an act of liberating love for a person who made the people feel uncomfortable. Undoubtedly they would have wanted to get him out of the synagogue as quickly as possible. Even Mark did not report what happened next for the man but only the response of the people as a confirmation of the authority of Jesus’ teaching.
2. I don’t want to distract from being astounded at Jesus’ authority to teach and act for you, the Church, and the world. In our time and setting I’m sure some of you are thinking about the man with the unclean spirit. Some may suspect that is merely the superstition of ignorant people, or you may be building arguments in your mind about those who you know are doubters.
a) 1 Corinthians 8:4 that we read today says “no idol in the world really exists.” That might seem to support the ignorant superstition argument. A careful reading of verse 10 suggests that what could cause a weaker Christian’s faith to falter is not the meat so much as seeing a fellow Christian eating in an idol temple, as this raised questions about allegiance and identity.
b) 1 Corinthians 10:20 makes the question of allegiance and identity clear with the comparison between the Cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. In a very real sense, taking communion is our full identification with Jesus and exclusive allegiance to him.
c) This verse implies that while no idol really exists, those who sacrifice to them are actually sacrificing to demons, suggesting an underlying spiritual reality. In a similar direction 1 Timothy 4:1 warns against “paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teaching of demons.”
d) Ephesians 6:12 expands the focus from externals and specific incidents to see a malevolent spiritual reality behind the world’s authority figures arrayed against God.
3. The unclean spirit said it knew who Jesus was in an apparent attempt to get power over him before he could destroy it. We often hear that knowledge is power, and all too often it is power to control and oppress. But the power of the unclean spirit’s knowledge is no match for Jesus’ authority.
C. Though not translated as “immediately” in this passage, Mark maintains the urgent pace of the story. At once the Sabbath came; at one there was a man with an unclean spirit; at once Jesus fame spread. Jesus’ authority was so compelling that from day one of his ministry, the word got out.
IV. Be astounded at Jesus’ authority to teach and act for you, the Church and the world.
A. I have often heard this story used as a plea for authoritative preaching from today’s pastors. I have heard preachers lay claim to it by saying, “Thus saith the Lord!” Though backed up with a Scripture quote, what comes next has often struck me as more of a word from the preacher than from the Lord. Every week when you listen to my sermons, I do want you to hear from Jesus, but I want you to be sure that it’s Jesus you’re hearing and not Norm. You need to be listening to Jesus on your own so you’ve got something to measure by and compare with.
1. First, meet Jesus in the Gospels. I’ll be preaching from Mark for a few more Sundays until and a little into Lent. Why not make a point to reading through Mark several times by the end of February?
2. Second, balance your spiritual diet by reading other parts of Scripture too: Epistles, Prophets, Psalms. That will give you a context for understanding Jesus, and Jesus will cue you how to understand the rest of Scripture.
3. Third, pray for the Holy Spirit to illuminate your reading so it is not just gathering information about Jesus but a real personal encounter with him. This calls for humility for preacher and listener alike.
4. Fourth, put the knowledge you gain in the context of love. 1 Corinthians 8:1 says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” If you are really hearing Jesus’ authoritative teaching, it will not lead to rigid judgmentalism but to love, especially love for the people who are hard to love, the people who make you uncomfortable.
B. When we think of teaching, we tend to focus on gathering information and following instructions. If we are to be astounded at the authority of Jesus, we need to slow down and savor his teaching and marvel at his action in ourselves, the Church and the world. Such contemplation will shape and nourish us to grow into Jesus. We will not so much be asking “What would Jesus do?” as we will overflow with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.