The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany; Year B (2/1/2015)

Lessons:
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1st Corinthians 8:1-13
St. Mark 1:21-28

Prayer of the Day:
Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see you and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

1:21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and 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.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And 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.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

St. Mark 1:21-28 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

With Authority

In some respects, St. Mark is the most dramatic of the Gospels. There is an urgency in this book (by most accounts, written 10 to 20 years earlier than any of the others) that moves the story forward, paragraph by paragraph. That urgency is apparent in this week’s lesson.

Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum, and begins to teach. His words, St. Mark tells us, are spoken with authority, and his listeners are astounded. In the middle of his lesson, a challenge to his authority arises. A man with an unclean spirit approaches Jesus, demanding to know why Jesus is there, and what he intends to do. The people may be astounded, but the unclean spirits are threatened. With a word (with a word!), Jesus casts the spirit out. The man convulses, the spirit cries out, and he is free! Once again, the people are remarkably impressed with his authority: “even the unclean spirits… obey him.”

St. Mark’s Gospel account was written during a difficult time in Israel’s history. Most scholars place it either just before or just after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Roman army in a.d. 70. In those days the Roman government was generally inclined to leave local populations alone if they weren’t causing trouble. The Pax Romana (“the peace of Rome”) was a hallmark of Roman culture. Local citizens in outlying countries were free to live as they wanted to live, and free to believe as they wanted to believe. But if conflict broke out, as it did between Christians and Jews in the months leading up to the Temple’s destruction, the Roman government was quick to dispatch troops and put down any signs of disorder.

This was a great offense both to Christians and to Jews, who up to that point continued to worship and study the scriptures together in the Temple. It led many of them to ask a very important question: “Who is in charge, in Jerusalem?” Is it the local political leaders? Is it the occupying Roman army? Is it the religious elite? Who has authority over civil, political and religious matters?

St. Mark’s answer is clear. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is pictured as one with great authority. They observe his authority in his teaching: he doesn’t quote other sources, as is the practice of so many rabbis in his day. He teaches out of his own authority, and it astounds them. They observe his authority in his healing touch: the unclean spirits seem afraid of him. They are cast out of this man with a word. If the unclean spirits are afraid, there is little need to be concerned about political or military leaders.

St. Mark portrays Jesus as one with great authority. And what’s more, those who accept that authority in their lives find that nothing else the world can throw at them can make them afraid.

There are many sources of authority in our lives as well. Governmental authorities. Economic authorities. Religious authorities. There are even sources of authority in our social and recreational lives. (Ever try to pick a fight with your child’s soccer coach?)

Among all these voices of authority, where does Jesus stand in our lives? What do we do when our Lord and our faith call us to stand in opposition to a soccer coach, or a social convention, or a religious tradition, or an economic reality, or a governmental edict? “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Are we astounded at the words of our Lord today? Are we willing to grant him authority in our lives, even over the many other sources of authority that we recognize?

Amen.

David J. Risendal, Pastor

Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Why are Jesus’ listeners in Capernaum astounded?
  2. What is the source of Jesus’ authority?
  3. How does he exercise his authority, in this text and throughout the New Testament?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. Am I generally inclined to question authority or obey authority?
  2. When has my faith, or my relationship with God, caused me to question a source of authority in my life?
  3. To whom might I turn for support and encouragement, when honoring the authority of Jesus above the authority of this world becomes frightening?