Sunday, February 05, 2006

Authority - Action - Amazement. A Sermon preached in Dollingstown and Magheralin on Sunday 5th February 2005. Mark 1:21-28

Do you remember the old song by Percy French, called 'the mountains of Mourne'? It's about one man's experience as he moves to London, and gets a bit homesick, and wishes that he could be back in County Down, where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea. Well one of the verses goes a bit like this:

You remember young Peter O'Loughlin of course,
Well, now he is here at the head of the force,
I met him today, I was crossing the Strand,
And he stopped the whole street with one wave of his hand.

The thing about Peter that surprises the singer is that with just one wave of his hand, he can stop all the traffic. He is of course, a policeman, and so has the authority to do it. But it still amazes him, because he doesn't expect it to happen.

Authority leads to action, which leads to amazement. We find the same pattern working two times in the reading for today. We're going to look at the reading now, and seek to discover more about how Jesus' authority led to action, which led to amazement.

If we imagine ourselves in our reading this morning, we find ourselves in Capernaum, at the synagogue. The synagogue was the meeting place for Jews in each village or town, where they would gather to sing Psalms, hear the Scriptures read, and to have some teaching on the readings. In many ways, it was very similar to what we're doing this morning.

It also appears that the rulers of the synagogue would invite visiting speakers to preach, or to share a word of encouragement. This happened both with Jesus (Luke 4:16-21), as well as Paul in Acts 13:15 in Pisidian Antioch. So on this particular day, Jesus taught in the synagogue.
We aren't told what he said, but we are told about the reaction of the congregation. 'The people were amazed at his teaching.' They hadn't heard anything like it before! Why were they so amazed? 'because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.' (Mark 1:22)

Notice the contrast between Jesus and the teachers of the law. Jesus taught as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. You see, the teachers of the law couldn't give their own interpretation of the law, that is, of the first five books of the Bible. The teachers could only quote the authority of previous teachers, and say 'so and so said this' or 'so and so thought this' about the passage.

But here was Jesus, teaching with authority, his own authority! While Mark doesn't record his words, we can imagine what it was he was teaching. In Mark 1:14, we find the summary of Jesus' preaching: 'The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!'

Mark's summary of Jesus' teaching and the peoples' response is not unique here. We find the same summary statement after the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew's Gospel. 'When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.' (Matthew 7:28-29). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said several times 'You have heard that it was said... but I tell you.' Jesus gave the proper interpretation of the law. And we find that this was what he was doing in the synagogue in Capernaum.

Jesus had the authority to preach and teach, because he was the Son of God. After all, it was God who had given and written the law in the first place. So Jesus was presenting the full and proper meaning of the law, and when he preached, this led to amazement on the part of his hearers.

So what relevance has this for us today, two thousand years later? Well, we can still hear Jesus teaching us, through the study of his word, by the power of the Holy Spirit. And so the challenge stands for us today – are we willing to be taught? Do you make an effort to be learning from Jesus, not just here in church, but also in the Bible study, or your own quiet times?

When was the last time you were amazed by the teaching of Jesus? Are the Scriptures so familiar to you, or is the way that you read them so shallow, that you haven't been excited or amazed by them? Let's pray indeed that Jesus would still teach us authoritatively through his word.

I mentioned earlier that when Jesus preached, it led to amazement on the part of his hearers. Naturally, our thoughts turn to the congregation present. But there was another hearer too. And this links in to what Gareth mentioned in passing last week, about the 'hidden world' all around us.

'Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out' (Mark 1:23). The quietness and dignity of the service is shattered by the shout of a man possessed by a demon. Both through hearing the preaching of the kingdom, and the voice of Jesus, the demon knows immediately who is present in the synagogue.

'What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God!' (Mark 1: 24).

The demon recognises Jesus as being both man and God. He describes him as 'Jesus of Nazareth' and 'the Holy One of God.' And rightly so! Of course the created being knows the One who created him. As Colossians tells us, '[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.' (Colossians 1:15-16).

The evil spirit recognised Jesus, and trembled at his authority, at his power over him. And when Jesus commanded him to depart from the man, he had to obey. Jesus had authority over the demon, and still has authority over all creation.

As the previously possessed man picks himself off the ground, you can see the amazement on the faces of the congregation. And you hear them asking one another: 'What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him!' Once again, authority leads to action, which leads to amazement.

So I ask again. When was the last time you were amazed at Jesus? Do we recognise Jesus for who he is? Isn't it ironic that the congregation didn't recognise who he was, even though they had the testimony of the evil spirit? Here was the Holy One of God standing in their midst, yet they focus on the effects of his authority, rather than on him. They ask 'what is this?' rather than 'who is this?'

Ask people today outside the church who Jesus is, and they might tell you he was a good man, or a great teacher. But his teaching, and his casting out demons, in fact, all his actions were to show and prove who he was – in the opening words of Mark's Gospel: 'Jesus Christ, the Son of God.' The only way Jesus could teach as he did, and cast out demons as he could, was because he was, and is the Son of God.

As CS Lewis famously put it:
"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon and you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."

We've been thinking this morning about the authority Jesus possessed, the actions he did, and the amazement which followed. But the story doesn't end there. Because we also have been amazed by what Jesus has done for us, his saving action on the cross. And our amazement has led us to repentance and to faith, as we trust in his action for us.

Having believed in him, then, Jesus has given us his authority. 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them... and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.' (Matthew 28:19-20).

Jesus has been given authority, and it is because of this that he sends us out, to witness for him wherever we are, in work or school, or home, or in the shops or wherever. And as we do these actions in his authority, telling others about Jesus Christ, the Son of God, then our hearers will be amazed, and want to know more about Jesus and his saving gospel.

Let's pray that we will afresh know the authority of Jesus, the Holy One of God, and that as he teaches and cleanses us, that we will be amazed at his mercy, and grace and love, shown to us. And that we will then, in turn, witness to what Jesus has done.

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