Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
Trinity and St. John Lutheran Churches, Sidney and Fairview, Montana
Why Authority? Mark 1:21-28
[Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
Authority matters. We are taught this clearly in all our readings this morning. From Deuteronomy we heard God’s promise to raise up for Israel a prophet like Moses, another prophet through whose mouth the LORD would speak. In order to believe a prophet, one must know that prophet speaks with authority, and God promises to provide Israel with just such a prophet.
From Paul writing to the Corinthians we learn that with authority comes responsibility, even the authority of being known as a wise Christian. Paul acknowledges the freedom of the Christian, but points out that if in his freedom a wise Christian causes confusion in a brother or sister whose faith is weak, then love has been defeated. The weaker brother or sister looks at the wise Christian as an authority, and so the wise Christian in love will take care to not allow his actions to injure the faith of another Christian with a weaker conscience. The specific situation Paul uses as an example is whether a Christian should eat meat that has been sacrificed to an idol, that is to say, should a Christian go to the pagan temple potluck at which meat previously sacrificed to an idol is being served? Paul denies that there is any reality to the idol or anything necessarily harmful in eating the meat. But how will that appear to a Christian who is struggling in the faith, perhaps one who has just recently come out of pagan temple worship to worship the one true God? Seeing a wise, long time Christian eating meat sacrificed to an idol may greatly confuse such a weak brother. Paul concludes thus: Therefore, if food (that is food which has been offered to an idol) if such food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble in his faith. Wisdom is a form of authority, and so Paul encourages Christians to use their wisdom in love.
Finally, in our Gospel, in the fulfillment of Gods’ promise to raise up a prophet like Moses, indeed, even greater than Moses, Jesus Christ comes, teaching, not with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and ‘maybes,’ like the Jewish people had grown accustomed to with their scribes, who read God’s Word to them but could not explain its meaning with authority or confidence. Maybe it means this, maybe it means that, who can say, that is how the scribes taught. Not Jesus. He comes, speaking His Words as the very Word of God, with authority and clarity and confidence. The people are amazed, and excited, especially when the authority of Jesus’ Word is backed up by the casting out of an unclean spirit from the possessed man who followed Jesus into the Capernaum synagogue.
If you’ve known me for any length of time, you aren’t surprised to hear me extol authority. And from our readings, we see that authority clearly matters. We should gladly maintain its importance. But why? Why is authority important? Why should we want to see authority maintained? What good does authority do for us?
Authority is important, but not necessarily for the reasons we might assume. There are a number of reasons we sinful humans might maintain the importance of authority. Authority matters, most of all in the Church, but pursuing authority for the wrong reasons or basing our identity on the wrong authorities will cause all sorts of troubles. This morning, let’s take a closer look at the reasons authority matters, praying God to grant us to know and pursue and proclaim His authority, in His way, for His purposes.
Very commonly we extol the virtue of authority for family or cultural reasons. At the Eastern Circuit Forum last Sunday evening in Glendive, where pastors and laymen from our corner of the Montana District met to select the Circuit Counselor and to consider a number of resolutions to the Montana District Convention next June, I had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with Andrew Johnson, lay representative from Concordia Lutheran Church of Forsyth, where I grew up.
Looking at him, I knew right away who he was, what family he came from, for all the Johnson men were tall, lean ranchers, with clear eyes and a preference for prominent moustaches and beards. Andrew is cut from the same mold. In an extremely satisfying overlap of generations, we figured out that he was the child of one of my Sunday School teachers, (I’m sure I remember when she was pregnant with him), and my mom had been his Sunday School teacher, and his dad had been a relatively younger elder the same time as my dad, whose funeral Andrew remembered, along with my mother’s, which he attended as a young adult. And so two families with long LCMS roots and long Concordia Forsyth ties were re-united at the Circuit Forum. Great fun.
Later, when Andrew was speaking on the wisdom of a particular resolution we were considering, I felt proud as he spoke up for good old, strict and serious Lutheran teachings. He, I believe, was upholding the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions for all the right reasons. But I must confess in that moment my inward celebration of his stand for authority found its source in other reasons, reasons for extolling authority that don’t really measure up. I was excited because this man made a connection for me to the good old days, to a past and to memories of people that are very dear to me. Which is o.k., even a good thing, especially if our concern is simply cultural and human. Certainly in our world today, many of us long for the good old days when the authority of what our forebears understood to be right and wrong still held sway. Don’t we all believe that things would be better, if people held the same respect for authority that our parents and grandparents did?
Unless and except where our forebears were mistaken. Which is the problem with cultural authority: blindly following the authority of those who have gone before us is no guarantee that we are doing the right thing. Cultural authority has real limits. Would our country have ever rid herself of the shame of slavery if nobody ever questioned the things many of our forebears held to be true? Or what about those German and Scandinavian Lutherans who for decades resisted allowing English into American Lutheran Churches? Where would the ministry of the LCMS be if we were still the Deutschen-evangelisch-lutherischen Synode von Missouri, Ohio und andern Staaten? Now, in their day, negotiating the change in language slowly and carefully was most likely the right thing to do, but what good purpose would we serve in Sidney or Fairview today if we still worshiped in German? Basing our actions and beliefs today on the authority of our cultural forebears, or on the leading cultural voices of our day, will always leave us open to repeating and compounding the errors of others.
We need a better authority, especially in the Church. Which of course we have, the Word of God as recorded and preserved for us in the Bible. This is one of the main points of our readings today: God has established the authority of His Word, given through His prophets, proclaimed by Jesus Christ the only begotten Son of God, and we are commanded to stick to the truth He has passed on to us through His Apostles. That’s what it means when we confess our belief in one, holy, Christian and Apostolic Church, that for us, the Word of the Apostles, and by extension the Prophets, is our authority. And we find that authoritative Word in the Old and New Testaments.
One reason to carefully follow the authority of God’s Word is laid out quite clearly in our Old Testament reading. For the hearers of God’s prophet, Moses passes on this warning from the LORD: ‘Whoever will not listen to my words that [my prophet] shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.’ God clearly expects His people to listen to and obey the Word He has given through His prophets. There will be consequences for disobedience. And for the prophet, there is an even stricter warning, for the LORD continues: ‘But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.'
So there you have it: we are to maintain and submit to the authority of God’s Word because God has commanded us, and because He threatens severe penalties to anyone who fails. This should be the end of debate. God says so. God is all powerful, and serious about what He commands. End of conversation.
Except that it isn’t. God has clearly commanded us to stick to His Word, but our commitment and ability to follow the commands of God are sorely lacking. Submitting to the authority of the Word of God is good and right, and the Church must continue to declare this. But commands and threats, however true and right they may be, do not in the end mean we will obey. In fact, eventually we will do just the opposite. That’s when you really know you are a sinner, isn’t it, when you know the right thing to do, and you know the consequences of disobedience, and yet you find yourself doing the wrong thing, anyway? We poor miserable sinners need a better reason for submitting to the authority of God and His Word.
And we have it, in the example of the man whom Jesus freed from the demon. He gets little mention in our reading, but think about that day from his perspective, put yourself in his sandals. Driven by the power of evil to follow Jesus into the synagogue, imagine the pain and fear you are suffering. An evil and hate-filled voice comes from your own mouth, challenging God’s Son, face to face. But then, in a moment, with a word, everything changes. This nameless, formerly demon-possessed man knows why we should want to acknowledge and submit to the authority of God’s Word: God’s authoritative Word sets you free from demons, from evil, from the power of sin and death. God’s authoritative Word is what delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land. God’s authoritative Word forgives our sinful rebellion, rescues us from the hands of our enemies, and lifts us up to live with Christ.
Before the service, I mentioned the death of little William Daniel Penix, a child of just a year, who was born with severe medical issues, who spent most of his short life on earth in hospitals. Where do his parents and grandparents turn in this hour of deep sadness? To the authoritative Word of Christ, who said let the little children come to me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God. They turn to Jesus who said, Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to Peter who called the Pentecost congregation to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, a promise that is for you, and your children. These authoritative words and many others teach us to know that William’s soul now rests with Christ, and that one day all who trust in Christ will join him, in joy and glory, forever.
Why should we extol and fight for the authority of God’s Word? Because only the Word of God can give true and lasting comfort in our darkest hours. Only the Word of the Cross and Empty Tomb is strong enough and good enough to give hope in the face of death and evil. Only the authoritative Word of the Gospel, the good news of forgiveness in the blood of Jesus, can save us from ourselves.
It’s easier to put on a tough face and fight for the authority of culture, to demand we do things the way our parents or grandparents did, or the way our favorite pop star does it, just because we think highly of them. We can carve out a pretty self-satisfying existence by being culture warriors, fighting the good fight for whatever way we think is right. But our way is guaranteed to lead us away from God. There is no life for dying sinners in the authority of culture.
It’s also easier to stick to the Word of God because God said so, to give a cold shoulder and stern look to anyone who doesn’t understand or who protests our stern ways. But there is no life for dying sinners like us in the authority of God’s Law. We should obey it, and we need to hear it in all its harshness, for otherwise we will begin to believe we can make our own way to God. But the Law of God can only show us our need, only point out our failures, only make us realize that we cannot avoid sin and death and sadness by our own power.
It’s hard to confess the Gospel, because the sinful nature that remains in us does not want to die. It’s hard to confess the Gospel, because to do so means we must confess that this world, for all its many joys and pleasures, cannot satisfy our greatest need. It’s hard to confess the Gospel, because that always includes confessing our own sinful weakness, our inability to do anything to save ourselves.
But, there is life for dying sinners in the authority of the Gospel, for the wisdom of God’s authority is revealed in the love and new life of Jesus. When by God’s grace we cling to the authority of God’s Word, when in that dark, demon-tormented hour of trial we are still listening to Jesus, His better Word of grace and peace and forgiveness will rescue us. Faith craves authority. Faith longs to know that the promises to which it clings come not from human imagination, but from the very mouth of Almighty God. And they do. The promises of Christ, crucified and resurrected, are God’s authoritative Word to save you. Hear God in the story of Christ. Believe His Word. Rejoice in His mercy for you. Amen.