Saturday, January 31, 2009

Present-Tense Powerful

American Lutheran Church of Long Prairie
Epiphany 4/February 1, 2009
Mark 1:21-28

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Two words grab our attention in this gospel lesson, at the beginning and at the end of these eight verses. Two words stand out—two words that aren’t exactly winsome or inviting in our world.

First there is this word “teaching.” Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and he teaches.

“Teaching” has fallen on hard times in our day. We’re not sure we want to be on the receiving end of “teaching”. We’re heard too many persons tell us that “now I’m going to teach you a thing or two.” Even our schools emphasize, not teaching, so much as learning. Classrooms have all sorts of learners or co-learners these days….but there may or may not be someone who willingly bears the title “teacher.”

Then there’s that other word: authority. Does that word warm the cockles of your heart? I don’t think so. “Authority” is way too close to “authoritarian” in our book….it makes us think about being under someone’s thumb, taking orders from them, not having our own say in some matter.
But here in Mark 1, both of these words—teaching and authority--are used with reference to Jesus, and in both cases, these words are used positively. Those in Capernaum’s synagogue are “astounded” to hear Jesus’ teaching….and they hear in it a NEW teaching….a welcome change that they’re ready to embrace.

And these same hearers are also opening their arms to the authority that Jesus brings. It’s as if they hunger for this authority, an authority utterly unlike what they had known.

So what are we to make of this?

As usual, the text of Scripture offers our best clues, starting with two things.

First, our text says that Jesus teaches and exercises authority “not as the scribes” did.
The scribes were the designated interpreters of the Bible in Jesus’ day. When their scriptures were read, the scribes offered the equivalent of the sermon on the text. They taught the Bible with authority, but it was the authority of the scribes and rabbis who had come before them. In fact, to hear a scribe teach was to hear a string of references to what earlier teachers had said about a passage. “Rabbi Yitzak says this…..but Rabbi Mordechi says that….and Rabbi Aquiba disgagrees, offering yet a third interpretation.”

The scribes taught with authority, but it was a “borrowed” authority, a derived authority. You sat, you listened, you perhaps nodded your head, you might have been intrigued or even moved….but the text of the Bible, the words of our Old Testament didn’t take you anywhere.
Jesus, however, taught in an entirely different way. Jesus’ authority wasn’t derived from earlier human interpreters of the Word. Jesus spoke on his own authority. Jesus spoke for God in such a brash, startling way that listeners couldn’t help but sit up straight. The “buzz” in Capernaum’s synagogue reflected the astonishment of Jesus’ hearers: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!”

Jesus taught in such a way that the nearness, the right-here-ness of God was apparent for all to hear. Unlike the scribes, who tended to make God an historical point of reference…..Jesus spoke as if God were alive and well and present and very active in their lives.

But Jesus didn’t just speak the word of God. He also enacted this Word, in life-giving, future-opening ways.

Because….as if on cue….another voice interrupted Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue. There was a man there possessed by an unclean spirit. And all of a sudden the demon that inhabited the man spoke up, right there in “church.”

I imagine the demon speaking with a voice that came straight from hell: “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.’”

While the Sabbath-day worshippers at Capernaum’s synagogue are astounded, trying to figure things out….this alien voice makes clear what is happening. If no one else recognizes Jesus for who he is, the demon inside this possessed man lays it out plainly: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Now you and I aren’t so sure about this demon-possession business. We don’t expect persons with “unclean spirits” to speak up in worship!

But in that time and in that place, this was not out of the ordinary. Unclean spirits “happened,” it was too bad, but “such is life.”

Except that Jesus didn’t agree. Jesus saw no good reason why demons of any kind should have free reign in this world….so, taking matters into his own hands, Jesus spoke commandingly to the demon inside the man: “Be silent, and come out of him.”

Convulsing the man whose body had been his host, and crying out in a loud voice, the demon left the man….just as Jesus had commanded him.

And here we come to the second huge clue in this text. We see Jesus teaching and exercising authority in ways that actually change “facts on the ground.” Jesus’ word is so authoritative, so powerful, that even unclean spirits must flee before him. This poor possessed man, whose prospects in the world had been shut down by the unclean spirit within him, suddenly is given the gift of a new tomorrow. Jesus teaches and speaks authoritatively, delivering a fresh future for all who hear.

To say it plainly: Jesus’ teaching and authority “astounded” those around him, because Jesus—unlike all the scribes they’d grown up with—Jesus speaks words that actually change “facts on the ground.” Jesus’ words do what they say: freeing persons from evil, opening up a new future for all who are in earshot.

With Jesus in the house, God is no longer a quaint artifact of the past, God is no longer an “historical reference point.”

With Jesus in the house, God is alive and present and active. Jesus removes God from past-tense recollecting. Jesus makes God forever the present-tense nerve center of our lives.
And that is true today, right here and now this morning, no less than it was true in that Capernaum synagogue so long ago.

It’s true today because Jesus, “the Holy One of God,” is alive and well and present with us, even now, even in this moment….still delivering us from whatever evils may have us by the throats, still changing facts on the ground, still delivering a new future to us all.

We are people who believe, teach and confess that when we gather around the Word and the Sacraments, God shows up! Jesus doesn’t just loom large among us as a stirring figure of the past.

No. In the Creed we remove Jesus from the past and we confess that he—though crucified, dead and buried, all of it for us—is nonetheless “risen from the dead.” When we say that, we are saying that the present tense is the only appropriate tense to use in speaking of Jesus today.

This Jesus, who taught with authority in the synagogue in Capernaum, this Jesus who stretched out his arms at the Cross to embrace us all, this Jesus is now alive and present and active in our midst. He is closer to you than the person sitting next to you. He is here “for you” this Sunday morning.

Jesus looks at you, Jesus looks at me, and he teaches us authoritatively to know and to believe in our bones that our sins are forgiven, that whatever manifestation of evil that bedevils us is defeated, that he will continue to make himself known to us in the ministry of this church, and that now—even now—Jesus is catching us up in God’s great rescue mission in the world.

It all boils down to this: God is not past-tense memorable. God in Jesus Christ is present-tense powerful.

To whatever force of evil that has its icy fingers around your throat, Jesus says: “Let go!”
To whatever fear possesses you in this scary time of economic turmoil, Jesus commands: “Be gone!”

To whatever question gnaws at you, Jesus responds: “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world. Behold I make all things new.”

If you happen to have one of those old WWJD bracelets, dear friends, if you sometimes ponder “What would Jesus do?” I invite you to change just one word, and ask yourselves instead the question of a lifetime: “What WILL Jesus do?”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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