Sermon from Sunday 28th January

Mark 1: 21 - 28


Every week the faithful folk of the town would gather at the Synagogue in Capernaum.  There the religious experts who lived in the town would take turns to speak, each giving their thoughts about the religious texts.  They would quote from different passages, explain what some verse meant by referring to other verses in other books, compare the thoughts of different writers and perhaps offer their own conclusions.  It was a weekly routine, this teaching from the word, part of the experience of worship that had continued for so many generations.

No doubt some of these teachers would have scholarly and impressive.  No doubt there were exciting and inspiring moments, as teachers would introduce new ideas and challenge popular ways of thinking.  No doubt there were also many dull moments, as the same old men got up and said the same thing over and over again.  But one day a new travelling teacher appeared, a young man from Nazareth by the name of Jesus.  He arrived in the town with a few friends he had gathered, and on the Sabbath, like so many others, they went to the Synagogue.  At the appropriate point, he took his turn to teach, and quickly, people began to sit up and listen.  I have an image of those who had been half awake nudging those who were less than half awake, “you don’t want to miss this – listen to this guy!”

We don’t know what he said.  It would be interesting to know, but that’s not the point that is being made.  We are told simply that “they were amazed at the way he taught.”  This was the first time Jesus had taught in public, and right away people perceive that they are encountering something different.  He causes such a stir that he becomes the topic of conversation throughout the whole region.  Quite an impact for a first attempt at preaching.  Well I guess many of us have made quite an impact at our first attempt at preaching, but it is not usually for the right reasons.

So, what was it about Jesus that made such an impact?  The key word here seems to be authority.  The only thing we are told about his teaching that day is that,  “he wasn't like the teachers of the Law; instead, he taught with authority”.  The Greek word, "exousia" – was originally translated as “power” in the older versions of the bible, but later translators corrected this, recognising the significant difference.  What people noticed about Jesus was not that he said powerful things, or even that he did powerful things, though both I’m sure were true, but that he spoke and acted with such authority.

Authority is a strange concept.  There is the kind of authority that is officially sanctioned and clearly recognised.  When we see a police uniform we know that we had better behave, (if we are not already) because it is clear that the person wearing it has the authority to take action if we don’t.  When we sit in front of a judge we know that we have to create a good impression, because that person has the authority to sentence us.  In one sense we know what authority looks like, by we also know that it can be more than that, something personal, something invisible.

When I was in Clydebank I was a chaplain in two schools, and would often go into different classrooms.  It was fascinating to observe how different the atmosphere could be.  Some teachers always seemed to be on the verge of screaming, speaking loudly to try to be heard above the general noise and chaos.  “Come on now children, let’s quieten down and get on with our work”.  Others were able to speak very softly and gently, and appeared to be in complete control.  It is hard to pin down what the teachers did differently, but some seemed to carry an air of authority which the children instinctively pick up, and they have a presence in the room which bears no relation to their body size.

Jesus had no humanly sanctioned authority, he had no uniform and no title and no badge, but he spoke and acted as one who knew exactly what he was doing, and had complete confidence in what he was saying.  Clearly, he was a big presence in the world, and his presence was felt wherever he went, and far beyond.  Some were very strongly drawn to him, others were equally strongly opposed to him, but few ignored him.  And this incident, where people were taken aback by the authority that Jesus seemed to carry when he spoke, was only an introduction to his ministry, throughout which he would speak and act with unprecedented authority.

Remember, for example, the time Jesus teaching session was interrupted by a lame man being lowered in front of him through a freshly made whole in the roof, and Jesus said – your sins are forgiven.  It was quickly pointed out to Jesus had he had no authority to say that, only God has the right to forgive sin.  He didn’t get defensive, or argue, or try to justify himself, he was totally assured, and calmly demonstrated his authority by instructing the lame man to leave by a more normal route than he had arrived, which he duly did – on his own two feet.

When Jesus spoke his words had a ring of truth about them that resonated in the hearts of those who were searching for meaning and purpose and assurance, and when he did things, his actions backed up everything he said.  So much so, that those who knew him best eventually found it perfectly possible to believe that he was the very presence of God walking among them.  He did not use any of the normal ways of the world to gain authority, nor did he insist that people treated him suitable respect.  He didn’t go around telling people that he was the Son of God and they had better jolly well listen to him.  He did not need to.  For his words and his actions spoke volumes and the simple truths that he communicated carried a natural authenticity.

At one point the religious experts challenged him, and asked him directly who gave him the authority to do and say the things he did and said.  (Interesting to note that they didn’t question the fact that he had such authority)  At the time he didn’t give a direct answer, preferring instead to leave them with a riddle that they couldn’t answer.  (Mark 11:28 ff, John 20:2 ff)  But the last recorded words of Jesus are quite different.  There he does talk about his authority and where it came from, and he goes on to say some word which, for those of us who believe in him, are fascinating, and intriguing, and terrifying.  They are fascinating, and intriguing, and terrifying because they suggest that Jesus authority is not only something that means we should listen to him, but something that we ourselves should have as we live in his name in our world.

Matthew records Jesus as saying to his followers: “I have been given all authority on heaven and on earth.  Go then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples.  Baptise them, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded.”         (Mathew 28:18–20)  He has equally challenging words for his followers towards the end of John’s gospel: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”   (John 20: 21)

Unmistakably, the expectation was that those who follow Jesus, those who live his way and trust in his name, will inherit the same authority that he did, and will continue the work that he did.  That might sound like a fantastic thing, but a visit to the average church, at least in this part of the word, is not likely to yield much evidence that we really believe that.  If Jesus words and actions communicated simple truths and a sense of natural authority, we seem to have lost something along the way.  Too often defensive, worrying about paying bills and keeping our structures going.  Too often divided, arguing among ourselves, seemingly unable to proclaim any message that some would not want to dissent from.  Too often resorting to the techniques of the world to create an impression of importance.

The life of a believer today may not look as exciting as Jesus made it sound, but the promise and the challenge and the mission remain the same.  It is not to claim authority, or to demand respect, or to insist on our right to be listened to, but to follow the example of Jesus, to live and speak with such honesty and integrity and openness and love, that people might be amazed.

I said a couple of weeks ago that the Christian message is not communicated by advertising or marketing techniques, but by simple honesty, and I guess that is where I end up today again.  The simple honesty to admit that we might be wrong, and we probably are, that we don’t always do very well at being the church,  and are rather poor representatives of the one we claim to serve. But having the faith that, when we are honest and real, something of our connection with Jesus is able to shine through, and communicate simple truths in the same way that he always has.

People were amazed at the way Jesus taught, because it was simple and honest and ultimately because all of his life matched up perfectly with what he said.  May we keep on learning how to proclaim the gospel in our time with that same kind of authority.