Sunday, January 29, 2012

Preaching Like a Scribe

Mark 1: 21-28

In our modern world, when preaching among most people who consider themselves believers, reading this particular text is sometimes problematic. It’s sometimes uncomfortable. What do we do with Jesus’ healings? What do we do with demon possession? The aspects of the Gospels that are overtly supernatural are hard to deal with. We don’t practice them here, we don’t keep them as part of our tradition as Methodists, and such things in our culture are fodder for either movies like the Exorcist, TV Evangelists who ask for money, or country barn churches. Not for us middle class, hardworking, practical, reasonable people.

I have never performed a healing in the sense that a person’s physical health was changed after I had prayed for them. I don’t believe that it is impossible, and it may signal that I do not have enough faith, but it has never happened. I have tried.

It’s a hard thing to say, but that has not been one of my gifts. It is not where the source of my authority lies.

When we read this whole chunk of scripture (scholars call them “pericopes”), the question is about authority. Jesus’ healing of the demon possessed man is one example, but the leading example is that he stands up in the synagogue and teaches, not like the experts, but as one with authority, and they were all amazed.

What does that mean? Teaches with authority? How does he teach not like the scribes; or better asked, how do the scribes teach?

If it is a matter similar to how many people preach, there is a sense that sermons and Bible studies are a matter of “this is what scholar said, this is what that scholar said”, and allowing the weight of scholarly opinion, combined with one’s own opinion, to sway you to one side or the other. The source of authority there, then, isn’t what is clear and true, because sometimes that’s just not so easy to see. So the Scribes waffle, because they just don’t know, because none of their research provides a clear leading of what’s right.

Jesus teaching with authority, though, may have been a matter of knowing more than the scribes, and then providing a resolution with a clear leading for the people of God. What was unclear is now made obvious through his teaching. Authority then, is lodged in knowledge and a well reasoned conclusion based on that knowledge.

This, I think, is what the people mean when they said “What is this? A new teaching? And with authority?” Jesus had laid it all out, step by step, in language that was so clear and basic, As Thomas Jefferson once said “so as to command their assent.”

Having received such respect, he then handles a disruption in the worship service, as a man comes forward and starts shouting about Jesus being the son of God, and Jesus calls the spirit out of him.

Now that would be a pretty interesting Sunday morning, wouldn’t it? As the people go off into the restaurants and brunches after church, they talk about what they’ve seen: Wow, this new guy, he preached like he actually knew something, and then he healed crazy old Mr. Smithers!” And the people around them overheard their conversations, maybe asked what had happened, perhaps other posted it on their Facebook statuses, others twittered, and maybe someone was lucky enough to film it with their phones.

How many people would be impressed with the healing, and how many with the authoritative teaching?

I guess what I would say to you is that both are way that Jesus is beginning to introduce himself to the people, to the world he is about to overturn. Some people respond to the flashy healing, some people respond better to a teacher who has such a grasp on the Scriptures and their commentators, and rather than just demonstrate his knowledge by presenting all the varying opinions, he presents what is necessary to provide the clear answer of God.

Between the two, I’d rather have the teacher. It seems a mightier task.

What is the nature of authority? What is it that causes you to respect one preacher, and not another? When a new preacher comes, is it their robes, their voice when they sing, their comfort in the pulpit? I like ones that sing well, can provide good engaging music, can teach me with knowledge tempered by mercy, and loves me, but that’s my opinion. What do you want? What changes over time? Does their authority grow or shrink as you see them preach, organize worship, the hymns they choose, when they sit in a meeting, be around people? Do you give them the benefit of the doubt in the beginning, or do they have to start at zero and grow in your eyes?

At the risk of teaching like one of the scribes, I’m not going to tell you what you should prefer in a teacher or a preacher. You’ll like some, you won’t like others. Jesus was a great teacher, and a healer, and many things besides, and many, many people didn’t like what he did. Many people didn’t accept his authority, and you’d think, being the son of God, he’d be the one everyone would agree on.

But they didn’t, in the end, did they? So, what then is the nature of authority?

I’m not giving a lot of answers today, and I am asking a lot of questions for you to wrestle with on your own. But what I can suggest is that at root, the authority we as Christians should look toward is the Holy Spirit, the aspect of God that lives with us, in, and seeks to connect us with each other. Whatever your authority may be, let it be based in grace, in mercy, in kindness, and in wisdom. This is how the authority of God is exhibited to everyone. Amen.

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