Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 31 January 2021.
• First Reading: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20 (But a prophet who presumes to speak in My Name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death)
• Psalm 111
• Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8: 1-13 (Be careful that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak)
• Gospel: Mark 1: 21-28 (Jesus’ exorcism of an impure spirit. ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority!’)
When I was working in the planning office and had to write letters, in the early days all letters out of the office had to be signed by an office manager. If he – and mostly the manager was male – did not like the letter, then it would not be signed. It would be sent back for amendment.
Indeed, if the manager did not really know what to say, then the letter would be sent back for redrafting many times, often with little explanation of what was required.
But one of the least respected of the 10 commandments is the third: ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord your God in vain’. We have tended to restrict it to banning all those naughty, sweary words that get uttered in times of stress or tension.
And yes, the Name of Jesus – or Christ – is probably used more as a swear word by the frustrated and the ignorant than by believers at prayer in church.
But then there is a far more serious side to the commandment which applies to the justifications we apply to our own actions and opinions.
We may have a deeply held cultural or political conviction which we may bolster with references to the bible and to the gospels.
But our lessons have something quite different to say about the Word of the Lord, and the prophets whom God sends to His people to express it.
In Deuteronomy, we are told of the prophet whom God would raise up from among His people. The promise arose from the plea of the people not to hear the word of God directly for they were afraid that they would die.
And so God gave His words to Moses who would then instruct the people. After the passing of Moses there would be others who would give the people God’s counsel, first of all the Judges of Israel, and then the prophets.
But all were under the same instruction: not to speak in the Name of the Lord unless they had been instructed to do so. Any prophet who foretold something that did not come to pass was to be put to death, because they were evidently not speaking for the Lord but for themselves.
But then Deuteronomy looks forward to a special prophet who would have a special authority in speaking and acting for the Lord.
This promise is developed through the course of the Old Testament but neither Elijah, who was present at the Transfiguration of Jesus, nor Isaiah (see chapter 53) saw themselves as that specially anointed prophet of God.
Neither was going to be the Anointed One, the Messiah. Each would stay within the limits of their faith, their ministry and their authority.
And so we then have Mark’s account of the first steps of Jesus’ ministry. He first proclaimed His message – ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel’.
And then Jesus demonstrated His personal authority to speak in these terms, by exorcising a man in the synagogue.
The people had already been listening to Him and being amazed at His authority in His teaching and now they saw it in action.
From Matthew’s gospel we see that Jesus was quite happy to speak on His own authority – ‘You have heard it said, but I say to you …’ and in John’s gospel Jesus regularly used the I AM idiom, – ‘I am the bread of life, the Good Shepherd, the Way the Truth and the Life …’ which reflected the name God gave to Moses: ‘I AM’.
But Mark gave stress to Jesus’ personal authority in the whole structure and character of his gospel, written to impress a Roman public for whom the might of the emperor and his legions were all-embracing.
But Jesus took His authority to its conclusion for it was also an authority to confront false or distorted teaching and to take that confrontation to its logical conclusion.
The powers of the state might have thought that with the crucifixion of Jesus, their problems were over. Yet with His resurrection their problems had just multiplied themselves.
In going to the cross, Jesus was placing His personal authority where it belonged: under the sovereignty of God. It was God who would raise Jesus up from the dead, and not His own efforts.
His authority and indeed any authority was never going to be about bossing people around. It was always going to be exercised in obedience to His Father, and never outside His will and purpose.
Perhaps for us it is also a matter of, first of all, recognizing His authority in our lives. As we do this then we will find ourselves being directed into unexpected areas of Christian service.
Yet it is always a matter of saying, with John the Baptist: ‘He must increase and I must decrease’, (John 3: 30) and with Jesus, ‘Not my will but yours.’ (Matthew 26: 36-42). Small wonder that one of the first pleas of the Lord’s Prayer is: ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.’