The Barrel by John H. Pavelko

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The Marks of Authority

Mark 1:21-28

The bell rang and we stood up to file off to our first period class. Most of us were still dazed from a weekend of sleep deprivation. We weaved our way through the river of bodies that filled the hallways with a reluctant shuffle. Our steps lacked enthusiasm and the topic of our first class extinguished any motivational spark. Physics may have been an interesting subject to Einstein but spring fever coupled with senioritis had already inflicted our class. We all knew would graduate. We were merely going through the motions to complete the final term. Mr. Harding knew both his subject and the formidable challenge of teaching seniors spring term. He was always well prepared for class and he mixed lectures with experiments to keep our interest. Everyone respected him. He spoke with a calm clarity, forcing us to listen. But this week would not be a normal week. Mr. Harding was absent and in his place stood "The Sub."

I do not quite understand all the ins and outs of adolescent psychology to explain why it happens but something happens to a class of students the moment "the Sub" appears. The first act of mischief is often as innocuous as switching seats to confusion student identities. Then it moves to the ridiculous; requests for hallway passes or questions that have little relevance to the topic under discussion. It may then deteriorate into the free exchange of notes between friends or even personal conversations during the lecture. However it digresses, it is not long before "The Sub" losses control of the class. By the end of our week with "The Sub," four separate senior physic classes reeled out of control, accomplished nothing, and made a mess of a physic lab. 

Two students become so upset with "the Sub" for opening the Dark Room door while they were developing film that jerry-rigged the Vander Graff machine to the doorknob of the Dark Room. A few minutes later when "The Sub" went to unlock the door with his key, a 3-inch spark sent him reeling. The following Monday morning, Mr. Harding unleashed his fury upon us. We first had to listen to a lecture on our lack of respect for authority and then we had to atone for our antics by spending the period cleaning the lab.

Many factors contribute to a substitute teacher's lack of authority. Some reside in the person; they just do not have a commanding presence. Some are due to their behavior; they appear hesitant or indecisive. Some of the responsibilities also reside in the students; negative attitudes toward authority and a defiant spirit toward rules compounds a tenuous situation. Whatever factors produced that week of chaos in my Physics class, they were absent in the person and presence of Christ. On several occasions, the writers of the New Testament note that his authority amazed the people. Through his presence, his message, and his power, Jesus displayed an authority that garnered the attention, respect, and admiration of the people.

Ironically, the image of authority tends to convey a negative rather than positive connotation in our society. Speakers are complimented for being an authority in a particular subject because of their depth of knowledge, seldom is a speaker praised for speaking with authority. We want leaders to speak with conviction but authority tends to become authoritarian, dictatorial, and tyrannical. 

In the pulpit, congregations want pastors who are warm, caring and compassionate in their preaching but I do not recall ever reading a Church Information Form in which the Pastor Nominating Committee stated that it was looking for a pastor who taught with authority. People who attend church prefer to be drawn into the story through humorous tales that poke fun at their inconsistencies in a good-natured sort of way. They prefer to be lured into the message by gripping stories that dramatize the heroic triumph of good over evil. Congregations recoil at an in-your-face sort of message. They quickly lose interest in sermons that are preachy. 

So what about Jesus, what was his style? What did he do or say that commanded the attention of his audience? And how does that have any relevance to our lives and ministry?

Mark tells us that Jesus began his ministry in the synagogues of Capernaum. The city was situated along the north coast of the Sea of Galilee and served as the hub of commercial traffic for the region. The Romans stationed troops there and King Herod assigned a top-ranking official to the municipality. The religious community of the city only maintained loose connections with the power group in Jerusalem. The religious establishment in the capital city did not have much use for the socially crude Galileans who only gave a halfhearted commitment to keeping of the Law. 

It was the perfect city for Jesus to begin his public ministry. People traveled from distant parts of Israel to the city for commercial trade. They exchanged news about business, politics, and religion. They would be a willing and eager mouthpiece to spread the news of his ministry and teaching. Yet, he would be far enough away from the power structure of Jerusalem to avoid a direct challenge. This would allow him to build a following and establish his ministry before he would be forced to confront them.

The synagogue also offered the perfect setting for Jesus. Each Sabbath the local community would gather for a time of prayer and teaching in the synagogue. The ruler of the synagogue would lead the people through a liturgy similar to ours. The striking contrast between First Century Judaism and religious life today is the lack of a permanent preacher or teacher. The community shared the responsibility.1 When the time came for the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the ruler would invite someone from the community who had the Torah to read and interpret. The ruler could also invite a visiting teacher. Early in his ministry, Jesus may have volunteered but soon afterwards, they would have asked him. The people quickly recognized that he teaching was different from all the others. Most Bible scholars claim that this was due to his style.

The custom of the day called for a scribe or teacher to read the Old Testament lesson in Hebrew and then translate it in Aramaic explaining why he had chosen various words. Then quoting from other scholars, he would offer their understanding the passages' meaning. The lay preacher seldom offered his own independent interpretation. He would rely strictly upon the teachings of their tradition.2 Most commentators claim that Jesus, in contrast, never quoted from anyone. "When he spoke, he spoke as if he needed no authority beyond himself. He spoke with utter independence. He cited no authorities and quoted no experts. He spoke with the finality of the voice of God." 

While plausible, that explanation falls to provide a satisfactory explanation for the bitter antagonism the Jewish leadership expressed toward the man from Galilee. I believe that the contrast between Jesus and the scribes had to be more of substance than style. You do not stone another preacher out of jealousy merely just because he does not use a manuscript. You do not whip a man within an inch of his life because he does not quote from your favorite author. You do not drive thrones into his head because he is gifted with oratory skills that you lack. The scribes, teachers of the law, the Pharisees, and the Sanhedrin were not jealous by how he said it but by what he said. It was his message not his media. Therefore, to understand the authority of his teaching we must understand the content of his message.

Mark is perhaps the least likely book of the NT to read if you are looking for the content of Jesus' teaching. Mark is a man of action, probably as impetuous as his uncle Peter, as in Simon Peter one of the Twelve. If Mark had been born in our century, he could have written the script for The Lord of the Rings. He gospel moves along at a frantic pace as he retells stories of healings, exorcisms, and miracles over nature. He omits the major portion of our Lord's message as found in the Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom parables. But Mark includes enough of a summary for us to know the content of our Lord's teaching-repent for the kingdom of God is near.

The kingdom of God, what an overused but so misunderstood phrase, especially by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. They had been taught the stories from childhood. How God had chosen Abraham and Sarah to give birth to his chosen people. How God had kept his covenant by blessing their descendants Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. Every child in Israel could retell the story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, who was sold into Egyptian slavery to save his people and how Moses would one day lead the nation out of Egypt and into the land promised to Abraham and Sarah. Every child could also tell the story of David's battles against Goliath and the enemies of Israel and the shepherd boy's ascension to the throne. These were kingdom stories about a kingdom of brick and mortar, a kingdom with an earthly reign. So, after the collapse and destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, the people placed their hope in the promise that one day God would restore that Kingdom. 

After 700 years, they were still waiting when Jesus came preaching, "Repent for the Kingdom of God is near." It was an old message but Jesus gave it new. And in given it new meaning he threaten the religious, political, and economic establishment. The Kingdom of God for Jesus would not bring the destruction of Roman conquest. The Kingdom of God would dawn in the presence of Roman tyranny. This was ground breaking heresy. Nothing short of the expulsion of Roman soldiers from Jewish soil, would satisfy the religious rulers. The presence of one Roman soldier was a blight upon the land. But Jesus called the people to live out the power of the Kingdom in the here and the now. The Kingdom for Jesus was not a coming military campaign but lifestyle transformation of God's people. The Kingdom would dawn each time a leper was healed or, a wealthy man would sell his possession and gave the money to the poor. The Kingdom of God would come each time a person would turn the other check to an angry assailant or would forgive the person who sexually abused them as a child. Jesus told the people that the Kingdom of God is not in the future but now, in how they live, in how they treat one another, in how they manage their finances, in how they respond to persecution. 

The Kingdom of God for Jesus was not an abstract theological term but a living reality in the lives of his followers. Their values would not be the values of the world. Their ambitions would not be the ambitions of society. Their goals would not be the goals of their culture. Everything about them would set them apart from their culture.

This is a difficult message for us Protestants. We have been taught all our lives that we are justified by faith and not by works lest one should boast. Our salvation is a free gift of God offered to all but Jesus is saying something radically different. Jesus announces that you will be able to tell in whom the kingdom has dawned by how they live. For those who have found the Kingdom they will not be hoarding their money in bank accounts and high tech stock portfolios, they will generously giving to the needy. Citizens of his Kingdom are not concerned about the latest fashions or the glamour of exotic makeovers, implants, or botoxs, Kingdom citizens are adorned with the simple beauty displayed by the grass of the field and the lilies of the valley. Kingdom people do not strive or pray about expanding their territory because they know that God's kingdom is displayed with each loving act of kindness and compassion.

This is also a difficult message for those us who live in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have assumed that our economic prosperity, and military success is an indication of God's blessings. In a song entitled "With God on Our Side," Joan Baez retells the horrors committed by our ancestors who assumed that God was blessing them even in their acts of racism, genocide, and oppression. God has indeed blessed this nation. God has indeed used this country to defend freedom and to proclaim the gospel. But the kingdom of God is not defended with smart bombs, cruise missiles, and Navy seals. God's militia is armed with the breastplate of righteousness, not bulletproof vests. Nor will Kingdom of God dawn through our advance technology as yesterday's tragic and heart wrenching events reminded us that even for perfection, mistakes are made and lives are lost. Our only weapon is the sword of the Spirit, the Scriptures. Our only offensive strategy is loving the unlovable. Until we come to understand that the values, the aspirations, and the goals of our culture are contrary to the Kingdom of God, we will not enjoy the true blessings of God. 

Jesus' message amazed the people because he dared to challenge the status quo. He dared to diagnosis the disease that had inflicted God's chosen people. He dared to shatter their misinformed dreams. He did not offer a feel good religion or a positive approach to Roman occupation. He did not offer four easy steps to finding peace with God. Nor did he reduce his message to a few common themes shared by the other pagan religions. 

Jesus proclaimed the transforming power of the Kingdom of God. His words shamed the average person who wanted an easy religion that made few demands but offered eternal rewards. His message challenged the religious establishment's oppressive grip on the minds and pocketbooks of the people. His words endangered the tyrannical control of Rome. Threatened by his authority these common enemies formed a true axis of evil and crucified him.

I wonder if we will listen and respond to his proclamation of the Kingdom or simple treat him as some substitute rabbi who has no authority over our lives.

1 William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Revised Edition), (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000, c1975, Electronic version, Logos Software, Mark 1:23.

2 Barclay, The Gospel of Mark.

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