Grace Presbyterian Church
February 1, 2015, Epiphany 4B
In academic circles there is a humor piece that makes the rounds on occasion, with a title like “Why God would never get tenure” or something similar. What follows is a list of reasons that, while humorously slanted, could be seen through squinted eyes as more or less academically correct descriptions of events in the history of the church or the Bible. For example, in publication-crazed academia, everyone would recognize the failure reflected in the first reason on the list: “He only had one publication.” Even I had more than that.
Other reasons on the list include (in reference to that “one publication”) “it was in Hebrew,” “it wasn’t published in a refereed journal,” and “some even doubt he wrote it himself.” Other more general jokes on the list include “the scientific community has had a hard time duplicating his results,” “some say he had his son teach the class,” and “although there were only 10 requirements, most students failed the tests.” You get the idea.
One of those jokes, though, actually resonates with today’s gospel reading, just a little bit. Of the “one publication” the critique observes that it “had no references,” or more clearly, “no footnotes.”
If you remember your own degree-seeking days, or if you’ve lived the academic life to any degree, you understand about things like footnotes and a bibliography, or a “works cited” or “works consulted” list – a means by which someone writing an academic paper acknowledges the sources that fed his or her research, those scholars whose previous work made the current work possible. That kind of acknowledgment isn’t completely different from the kind of teaching that was typical of rabbinical scholars or teachers in Jesus’s time. The scholar, addressing a particular text, would carefully develop an argument from the studies done by scholars before him, carefully balancing the work of one scholar against the commentary of another, weighing distinct views against one another, and carefully acknowledging and crediting those scholars whose work he uses. A modern scholar uses those footnotes and bibliographies to perform much the same function.
Keep this in mind when approaching the story in Mark’s gospel for today. In this case Jesus has the opportunity to speak in the local synagogue in Capernaeum. This was not unusual. A teacher did not necessarily have to be a synagogue official to be invited to speak in the service. What Jesus did with that opportunity, though, aroused plenty of attention.
We are not privy to the specifics of what Jesus was teaching here. Mark is not interested in our knowing this, for whatever reason. What he wants us to know is that Jesus’s listeners were quick to know that his teaching was different, and dramatically, surprisingly so. Jesus wasn’t using the verbal footnotes common to the scribal tradition; his teaching was, as the text puts it, “with authority!”
Somehow Jesus was teaching in a way that didn’t involve all those cautious and careful cross-references. He taught “with authority.” He taught as the One – the only One – who did not need to cite and cross-reference and footnote. He taught not just as one “with authority,” but indeed as authority himself.
What happens next in the story often steals the thunder here, distracting attention from what Mark presents first. We’ve already observed, in last week’s sermon, how often Mark uses the word “immediately” in his gospel. Actually he uses it more than we see here. In the NRSV verse 23 is translated as beginning “just then,” but in the Greek it’s the same word – εὐθύς – that elsewhere is translated “immediately.” “Immediately” there was in the synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out… . This isn’t a crazed uncontrollable person, as will show up in chapter five, wandering about the tombs and ranting and raving. This is a man sitting in the synagogue listening to Jesus teaching, with the “unclean spirit” within unable to bear the presence of Jesus. While the many in the synagogue might have marveled at the authority of Jesus’s teaching, only this unclean spirit truly grasped just what that teaching, and that authority, meant.
It meant that “the usual” was no longer enough. It meant that “the way things are” was no longer acceptable. It meant that those things that destroy from within, those things that hold us prisoner or keep us in thrall to what corrodes and corrupts us, those things are no longer in charge.
In fact, this miracle – the best thing to call it, even as uncomfortable as it makes us – actually takes us back a few verses, to the proclamation found in verse 15 from last week:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
This miracle – but more so, this authority, this teaching that is like no other teaching that anyone has heard – is indeed a sign of the kingdom of God come near. That demons, or unclean spirits, or any of those things that would enslave and break human beings cannot stand in the presence of Jesus, is indeed a sign of the kingdom of God come near.
But notice something else about this scripture. Aside from the man with the unclean spirit, how do the people in the synagogue react to what happens? What is their reaction to Jesus’s teaching, or to the silencing and casting out of the unclean spirit? Let’s go looking for adjectives and verbs here to see just what Mark is saying.
Well, the NRSV translation gives us “astounded” in verse 22 to describe the people’s reaction to Jesus’s teaching “with authority.” By verse 27, they are all “amazed,” and chattering to one another. Finally in verse 28 we find out that Jesus’s fame begins to spread all through Galilee, which at least suggests that those who heard and saw went out and told others what they heard and saw.
These are certainly evocative words. But it seems there is something missing in them.
Where is the rejoicing? Where are the “hosanna”s or “alleluia”s? People are amazed and astounded, but are they glad?
This points to something we might want to take with us from this passage. Again remembering last week’s passage, Jesus comes proclaiming that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe in the good news.” We say that the church is commissioned to proclaim the “gospel,” the “good news.” Taken by itself that sounds good, but let’s be honest; there aren’t many people who like the sound of repentance. It makes a demand on us. It says we aren’t just perfectly fine and hunky-dory the way we are. It says things have to change – no, it says things are going to change. And that’s a little scary. And if it scares us, why should we think that those outside the church are going to be particularly comforted by it? This whole coming near of the kingdom of God upsets the established order of things, and that’s not something that everyone welcomes.
The second point has to do with that “authority,” and it might be a particularly appropriate lesson for this day in which our church ordains and installs elders to the session. Some scholars have observed of this story that readers through the ages have made a mistake in interpreting the reference to Jesus’s authority as a slight or criticism against the teaching of the scribes of the temple. No. That can’t be the point we take away from this story. How could the scribes do otherwise? They are but human beigns. Jesus’s authority was bound to be different because of who he was. The very first verse of this gospel tells it straightaway: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The scribes could not possibly teach or advise or govern with that kind of authority any more than a contemporary academic or student can get away without citing their sources in their next paper.
And neither can we. This is a lesson to remember for me, in my being ordained next week, as well as for those who are ordained and installed today, and for those who are already serving on the session, and for those who may serve in the future. The authority of the session – indeed the authority of the church itself rests in Christ alone. It doesn’t come in titles or rituals or majority votes. To the degree we claim authority in anything outside the head of the church, which is Jesus Christ – certainly to the degree we claim authority to rest in our own position or title – we are not followers of Jesus Christ.
But to the degree we immerse ourselves in seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we involve ourselves in studying and meditating upon scripture, we open our eyes to see where Christ would lead us to minister and to reach out both within this church and outside these walls in the community and world around us, then the coming near of the kingdom of God is good news indeed. When we are grounded in the authority of Jesus, the Son of God, we are ready to hear and to follow where Jesus leads, to live as Jesus has already shown us how to live. And then we are ready to be witnesses to what really is good news indeed.
For authority that will never be ours, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH '90): "Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above" (483), "Blessed Jesus, At Your Word" (454), "There Is a Balm in Gilead" (394)