January 29th, 5th Sunday after the Epiphany

Have you ever seen those Canadian Hinterland commercials? You know, the ones where they show videos of Canadian wildlife in their natural habitat? They are short, and interesting. I found that I learned a lot from these little vignettes. But a few years ago, there was a different one. It started the same as the others, with that distinctive music, and the serious-sounding announcer’s voice gradually fading is, as the film began to play. Here is the text of what he said: “It’s night-time in a kitchen just like yours; all is quiet, or is it?”
“The North American house hippo is found throughout Canada and the Eastern United States. House hippos are very timid creatures and they are rarely seen, but they will defend their territory if provoked. They come out at night to search for food, water, and materials for their nests.”
“The favourite foods of the house hippo are chips, raisins and the crumbs from peanut butter on toast.”
“They build their nests in bedroom closets using lost mittens, dryer lint and bits of string. The nests have to be very soft and warm; house hippos sleep about 16 hours a day.”
That looked really real, but you knew it couldn’t be true, didn’t you? That’s why it’s good to think about what you’re watching on TV, and ask questions, kind of like you just did.
Of course, the point of this commercial was to alert children, in particular, to the idea that, just because something was on TV, it wasn’t necessarily true. And my point in telling you about it is to alert you to the idea that some amazing things can be done with video. Also, if you think about computer generated images, even more amazing things can be done. When I think about TV shows like the original Star Trek, or some of the earliest movies, and compare them to some of what we can see today – well, it is obvious that we have come a long, long way.
But, because of the knowledge we have acquired over the years, we have become a nation of skeptics, ready to question just about everyone and everything we see. In fact, there are sites on the Internet dedicated to exploding bubbles, to letting people know that something-or-other just isn’t true. And, possibly because of our skepticism, we are a little uncomfortable to some of today’s Scripture. We read: Just then, a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out. “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!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
We modern people, living in the 21st century, are more than a little uncomfortable with the idea of demon-possession. We explain it by saying that people who were thought to be possessed must have been suffering from some kind of mental disorder, or possibly epilepsy, because surely there can’t be such a thing, can there? But there must be some wee, little part of our psyche which still believes. Otherwise, why would movies such as the Exorcist be so popular? But whatever we think, we wonder why Mark chose to start Jesus’ public ministry with this casting out of a demon instead of a wedding feast, as John did. And, despite our modern UNBELIEF in demons, Fred Craddock commented that we have not managed to eradicate evil in today’s world.
My point is that, if we believe in God, if we believe in all that is good, then we must also believe that evil exists. And too many of us are unwilling to accept both sides of the coin. I remember a young man in one of my senior high classes getting very upset with me because I told him that, of course, I believed in Satan. I did not mean that I worshipped Satan, but that I was very much aware of his existence. This is where so many people make a big mistake. They deny Satan’s very existence, and this is what can give him power and authority, the like of which properly belongs only to God. And it is even more important for us to hear what the evil spirit – the demon – called this man teaching in the synagogue on that Sabbath in Capernaum. He called Jesus the Holy One of God. No one else recognized him, but the demon did. The demon knew that this was the one person on earth who had authority over even him. He knew that this man could command him to stop tormenting the possessed person, and he would have no choice but to obey. He cried out: Have you come to destroy us? The simple answer is, of course, YES. But there is really nothing that is simple about Jesus.
At the beginning of today’s reading, we were told that Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. Now this was not unusual at that time, for a wandering preacher to show up at a synagogue on the Sabbath. In fact, it was almost expected, and the people looked forward to it. But today, ah, today was different. Because this man “taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” You see, the teachers of the law were EXPECTED to know their Scripture. They were EXPECTED to be able to expound on esoteric meanings. In much the same way, a congregation today EXPECTS the minister to be able to cite chapter and verse. People who are in these positions have studied, some longer than others, and are familiar with Scripture generally. But this man, this Jesus, who just appeared out of nowhere, he did more than the scribes and teachers. He spoke as “one with authority”. Now, in Mark’s Gospel, we don’t hear many of Jesus’ words. Think, for example of Matthew and Luke, both of whom relate the story of the Sermon on the Mount. They give us many of Jesus’ words. But the writer of Mark – well, he’d rather tell us ABOUT Jesus’ preaching, and tell us HOW he preached instead of WHAT he said.
And, according to what we read this morning, Jesus spoke with AUTHORITY. Now, this is a word which often leads to misunderstanding, as we tend to equate it with power, but the two are not necessarily the same. In fact, because of the confusion, there is often misunderstanding. So today, we will focus on AUTHORITY, to see how it applies to us as Christians, to us as Presbyterians, and to us as people. As people, there are some situations when we have to bow to authority, no matter how we perceive it. For instance, if I were pulled over by a policeman, it really wouldn’t do much good to disagree with him, if he said that I had jumped a red light. He has the authority to make such calls, and this is one situation in which I have none. Similarly, if someone is placed in a position of authority over me, like a professor, then it is to be expected that I would do as that person tells me.
During my time at seminary, there were many people placed in positions of authority over me. I, first of all, had to answer to my home presbytery, the people who had been the first to see that my call was genuine. There were the professors, at McGill and at Presbyterian College. Even if I disagreed profoundly with what some of them said – and we’ll talk about that another time – I had to produce the work they demanded. I had a mentor, of whom you have heard me speak many times, and she was the one to whom I felt most accountable, as she was the one with whom I worked most closely during my time in Montreal. However, there were other people to whom I gave authority, people who had no real connection with the seminary or even the Presbyterian Church in some cases. I worked with a spiritual director, who guided me over many rough patches, whose comments I came to respect more than I ever thought possible. These people earned their authority by being the kind of people they were. And this is the kind of authority which the people saw in Jesus that day in Capernaum.
This Jesus who is presented to us in Mark’s Gospel is slightly different from the one we met in Luke’s. In Luke, Jesus started his ministry by going to the synagogue, and introducing himself. He read from the book of Isaiah, saying: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. In Mark’s Gospel, the language is very different. We read about the demon being cast out, and we see words such as DESTROY, CONVULSE, and SHRIEK. But Mark’s Gospel shows us Jesus’ actions, shows us what it was that he DID, which gave him authority. And this authority has nothing to do with power. As we see every Holy Week, Jesus himself had very little power on earth. But he DID have authority.
In the church, authority is vested in positions. It really doesn’t matter who the person is – that person has authority because of the position held. In the Presbyterian Church, we have no real hierarchy, as some other denominations do. However, we DO have people called Ruling Elders, who are ordained to their position. We believe that Elders are called by God to their position, and, even though we do have an election by the congregation, this is more to show that the congregation will support the elders as they govern the individual churches. Many people who are not Presbyterian have problems with this. They are so used to directives coming from “on high” that they can’t believe that we are not answerable to some kind of earthly authority. And when we tell them that our national moderator is elected for one year, and that the moderator’s sole role is to conduct one meeting – well, this stymies them completely. But it works for us.
The ministers in each church have authority in spiritual matters. In actual fact, ministers may have influence in other matters, but when push comes to shove, the minister – who is called a Teaching Elder in our denomination – defers to the Kirk Session. Fortunately, in this church, this works well. I have found that the Kirk Session and I are on the same wave-length most of the time. Now, that doesn’t mean that one or the other of us is nothing more than a rubber stamp. It DOES mean that we all want the best things for this church, and that we – for the most part – agree on what those things are. Not all Sessions are as focused as this one. Some are hungry for power, and see the Kirk Session as one way to get it. These usually end up being totally dysfunctional.
Now, back to Jesus. He had no Session, and he was not himself a ruling elder. But he SPOKE WITH AUTHORITY. Where did he get this authority? And, even more importantly, how did other people recognize it? We know that they recognized it because we read: The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. But if these teachers of the law didn’t have authority, why were they in such positions? How could they have been placed there, if the people didn’t respect them? The teachers of the law – also called scribes – were interpreters of the law of Moses. Such people still exist today in Judaism, and they still interpret the law. But their authority was given to them by the texts, rather than anything else. These were learned men, men who devoted their lives to reading and studying, and to sharing what they learned with others. People would come to them with questions concerning such things as kosher food preparation, or marriage and divorce laws, and these men would reply in the light of what Scripture said. So their authority came THROUGH Scripture. But Jesus’ authority was contained in himself. It is still contained in himself. He is not merely interpreting the law that was given generations before. Jesus is bringing a new message to the people. He didn’t want to get rid of the law. Remember, on other occasions Jesus insisted that he had not come to ABOLISH the law, but to FULFILL it. And the people who listened to him on that day were amazed.
Not so the man who was possessed. The demon in him recognized Jesus, and he was afraid – afraid for his very life. He also recognized Jesus’ authority, but, unlike the other people in the synagogue, he knew its source. He knew that Jesus came from God, and he knew that the only real authority was also from God. And that is something we need to remember, today. Any authority we have is from God, and his is the only authority which really matters. Too many of us accept a different authority. Too many of us allow other things to control our lives – things like money, or the lack thereof; things like addictions to alcohol or drugs or video games or food. We let the clock and the calendar dictate to us what we should be doing and when. We are under the authority of chronos time, rather than kairos time. We let fear and prejudice dictate our reactions to other people or situations. We allow the expectations of other people – or of society in general – determine our behaviours.
And I would tell you that these so-called authorities count for nothing in eternity. What counts is God, and God’s authority. God DOES want to have authority over us; God DOES want to control our lives; God DOES expect obedience from us. And in return, we receive his abundant grace and blessings in this life, with life eternal just around the corner. Thanks be to God.


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