Jan. 28, 2018: Epiphany 4B (English)

Epiphany 4B: Mark 1:21-28 and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Zion Lutheran Church, January 28th, 2018
Pastor Anke Deibler

Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum, and the people are astounded because he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Here is someone with true authority, and the people love it.

The people of Israel had been through a couple of really tough centuries. First the Greeks had occupied the land, then the Maccabees had staged a rebellion, then the Romans moved in and occupied the Holy Land again. Generations of war had exhausted the land and the people.

The Romans had installed Herod as King of Israel, a puppet king nobody liked or respected, who kissed up to the Romans more than he cared about his own people, and who spent huge amounts of money on military defense and luxury palaces.

The religious leadership was more and more corrupt and power-hungry and had forgotten their calling to lead and inspire the faithful. At the time of Jesus’ ministry, there were two high priests, something unheard of in the law, but one was the father-in-law of the other, so what can you do?

So the common people yearned for someone they could look up to, someone who could be a true leader, someone they could trust, someone with authentic authority, someone with no hidden agenda. They remembered God’s promise of raising up a new Moses, who would have a personal, intimate relationship with God, who could intercede for them before God, who could inspire the nation to a renewed commitment to God and faith and covenant.

Is that not a yearning we can relate to? How lovely it would be to be blessed with a leader we could respect and whose guidance we could trust. If only we were given someone without a personal agenda, who had a great vision for how life could and should be according to God’s will, a vision we could share.

Truth and authority have been under attack in our land for a few decades. In our world of global connections, we are exposed to so many ideas, concepts, religions, beliefs, and traditions that it is difficult to agree on anything as absolutely true.

In the 70s, especially following the Watergate affair, we began to question the authority of politicians, teachers, and parents. Everyone wanted to be totally free, without anyone telling them what to do and what to think. Now we are experiencing the result of that freedom, watching a generation growing up with no respect for elders, law officers, teachers, politicians, and clergy. Freddy just shared a survey on the trust given to several professions, and clergy ranks at 41%, just behind car mechanics.

Without any kind of authority in our lives, we are at a loss. Something or someone has to help us determine right from wrong. We keep looking for such people. We create heroes, we put them on pedestals, we give them power over our lives, and we expect them to live up to our expectations. Yet time and again, we get disappointed by the people we thought we could admire and follow.

So we join Israel’s prayer: “O God, send us a true and faithful leader, send us a new Moses, send us someone with true authority, who has nothing but our salvation and well-being at heart.”

In our gospel reading today, Jesus reveals himself as the one with authority. This is very early in Jesus’ ministry, maybe his first sermon in Capernaum ever. Right away, the congregation notices a difference between Jesus and other teachers, like the scribes. They recognize that Jesus is teaching with authority.

Mark doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus was teaching and how that was different from the scribes, so we have to make our own educated guesses.

The scribes were a group of very devoted, learned men who spent their time studying, copying, and explaining scripture. They were part of the religious establishment and based their authority on their knowledge of the Bible, as in “believe me, because it says so in the holy book.”

When Jesus teaches, his authority is based on being the Son of God, as in “believe in me, for I know the Father and the Father knows me”. Jesus’ authority rests within himself, it is not borrowed from elsewhere, and the people notice the difference.

Someone else has noticed the difference and does not like it: the unclean spirits. They are present in that synagogue in the sick man. Back then, people assumed all illness came from evil and from unclean spirits possessing a person. The spirits inside this sick man immediately recognize Jesus and his different authority. They sense that in Jesus, God is present with all his power, including power over evil. Here they are encountering an authority higher than their own. They must yield when Jesus rebukes them, and the sick man is healed.

This demonstration of Jesus power and authority over unclean spirits impresses people even more. Jesus teaches with authority, and he acts with authority. Jesus preaches about the kingdom of God having arrived, and then he backs that preaching up by healing a man and letting him experience the blessings of the kingdom. Word and action match in Jesus; both words and actions are full of authority that comes straight from God and reveals an intimate relationship with God. Jesus is the new Moses God had promised. Jesus is the new leader who can tell the people God’s will, who can intercede for them before God, and who can renew the covenant between God and his people.

Jesus is the authority figure we can always look up to. He will never disappoint us with selfish behavior, racist remarks, immoral acts, hidden agendas or the like. Jesus is the Son of God who wants to rule our lives, who wants to give us guidance in this chaotic world full of conflicting messages, lies, and evil spirits. In our baptism, we became children of God and our lives were placed under the authority of Jesus Christ. If we submit to that authority and follow Jesus’ example, he will help us know right from wrong, he will teach us how to act, he will make our lives more peaceful and fill them with faith, hope, and love.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives us a concrete example for what it looks like when Christ’s authority determines our behavior. Once again, the congregation there has an issue that is causing a fight. This time, it is about meat that had previously been offered to idols.

In the city of Corinth, as all over the empire, there were oodles of pagan temples to all kinds of gods and goddesses. Sacrifices would be offered in these temples, including sacrificial animals that would be slaughtered on the idol’s altar. Some of the meat would be burnt for the idol, the rest would be sold so people could eat it in the temple or at home.

Now the question arose as to whether or not Christians could buy and eat this meat. Could they eat meat previously sacrificed to idols or would that be idolatry? One side argued with the knowledge that in Christ they were free to eat whatever; that in fact, there was no such thing as idols, so who cared where the meat had been before? The other side, however, was obviously troubled by the idea of eating something that had been part of idol worship.

This was a mess, and some guidance and authority were needed to steer the congregation back towards harmony and peace.

Paul agrees with the knowledge that idols don’t exist and that what we eat doesn’t matter. However, he writes, what does matter is that Christ died for all believers, for those who are strong in faith and for those who are weak in faith. As the body of Christ, all Christians are called to strengthen the faith of all members. If some church members have a weaker faith and suffer a faith crisis because they see other Christians eat idol meat, then those other Christians shouldn’t do it.

Christ loves all people and died for all people and gave us the commandment to love one another. The authority of Christ which rules our lives tells us to love each other. For the sake of that love, we sometimes don’t do things simply because it would cause other believers harm or distress. When Christ’s authority rules our lives, not knowledge, but love shapes our actions.

As a modern-day analogy, think of the movie “Groundhog Day”. The main character is the grumpy, self-absorbed TV anchor man Phil Connors. He is sent to Punxsutawney, PA, to report on the annual Groundhog Day event there. Of course, he hates this assignment and makes everybody miserable. Then a blizzard strikes, and the TV team gets stuck in Punxsutawney, which doesn’t exactly improve his mood.

Then a strange thing happens: He wakes up in the morning, and it is Groundhog Day again. He must relive the same day, again and again and again. The radio plays the same song, Phil meets the same people who say and do the same things, the day happens exactly the same over and over again, and he is the only one who knows this.

This gives him special knowledge. What does he do with this knowledge?
At first, he takes advantage of it for selfish gain: he picks up a date, he steals money from an armored transport, and he eats a totally unhealthy huge diner breakfast.

Then Phil gets depressed by his knowledge. He loses hope and tries to kill himself again and again, yet each time he wakes up again on Groundhog Day.

Finally, Phil begins to use his knowledge for good. He knows when the boy will fall out of the tree and is there to catch him. He knows when the four old ladies on an outing will have a flat tire and is there to assist them. He knows when the homeless man will die of exposure and is there to bring him soup.

Finally, Phil lets love rule his life. As a result, he himself is a lot happier, he does an awful lot of good, he gets the woman he loves, and he can finally wake up to a new, happy, blessed morning.

Let Christ’s authority rule our lives. Let us place our words and actions under the authority of Christ’s love, so that we will be happier, so that we do an awful lot of good, so that we will experience love, and so that after death, we will wake up to a beautiful new morning in God’s kingdom. Amen.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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