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The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. Year B

Speaking with Authority

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

During the season of Epiphany, we have explored the many ways and times that God calls us, not only on a personal level, but also as a Church, and as a nation. The readings this week continue the theme of call, as they explore how God speaks to us through other people. They speak to us of authority. How do we determine God’s truth? How do we determine who is speaking with integrity?

I came to a new realization about what authority meant a number of years ago when I participated in a healing circle. I was the only non-aboriginal person in the group. We sat in the circle and when we wished to speak we picked up a stone from the centre of the circle and as long as we held the stone we could speak. Many people spoke of their past hurts and anger. I picked up the stone and found myself talking about my experience teaching in a residential school, about my sincerity and sense of mission in going to the north, and at my hurt and confusion and anger at the injustice of it all. I said that I expected that they would feel nothing but contempt and anger for me. I put the stone back. The Elder, an old woman, picked it up. She went back and sat in silence for some time. Then she let out a whoop and returned the stone to its place. Another woman began to speak. She told me that the Elder spoke for all of them. They could hear the authenticity of what I spoke, that it came from the heart, and that I was their sister. It was an ‘aha’ moment for me as I realized that in that one rather primal yell they had recognized her authority.

The question of authority was critical for the people of Israel. Prophets and priests claimed to speak and act in accordance with God’s will, and yet conflicts and disputes arose. They grappled with how God speaks us. They settled on certain criteria. The prophet needed to be an Israelite. He was called to speak as God commanded, and then what was spoken had to be realized in the events that ensued. It needed to be confirmed.

We sometimes have the wrong idea about prophecy. We think that it is about foretelling the future. But it is far from that. The word prophecy comes from the Greek, προφετεσ, "one who speaks before others." It is a translation from Hebrew meaning “one called to speak aloud". The prophets were called to speak aloud, to speak what had been discerned through the closeness of their walk with God. A prophet was one who listened to God. Their call was to speak with authority. The root of the word, authority, is literally “to make to grow”. What they said should help people grow in the way in which God intended.

Perhaps a look at the prophets of our age can give us some insight. In my first parish was such a person. He worked in a much-maligned occupation. He was a meteorologist who worked at predicting the weather. I recall an interesting story that he once told me.

It seems that when the Pope was planning his trip to Los Angeles he wanted to know what the weather would be like. A weather consultant was hired by the Vatican to make some recommendations. He looked at the last thirty years of weather in Los Angeles at the same time of year as the Pope's visit was to take place. He came back and said to the Pope, "At the time of your visit it is likely to be very hot and dry." The Pope made his plans accordingly and the trip went off as expected.

Farmers' Almanacs work on the same premise. They look back about thirty years and make a prediction based on reasonable expectations. Of course, with Global warming bringing with it violent storms and unpredictable weather, it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict with any degree of certainty.

Parents do exactly the same thing. Your child comes to you asking permission to do something. Based on your own experience you know what will happen. You say no and give a reasonable explanation about why. There are the usual arguments. And if you do give in and the outcome is as you predicted, with any luck your child will come to you and say: "How did you know?" However, it will more likely be twenty years later when they are dealing with their own children.

Scripture too looks at past history. So often the story begins with God recounting to a prophet all that God has accomplished for God's people in the past. "Wasn't I with you at the Red Sea? Did I not provide you with manna in the desert? Now go and tell my people...” and the prophet is able to speak with authority. "Thus says the Lord:” The prophet is able to challenge the people on a moral level. He is able to speak what needs to be heard in the light of past experience.

Authority on ethical decisions comes about in a similar way. For example, the people of Corinth, including the Christian community bought groceries in the little shops in the market. Much of the meat was the produce of the local temples. The sacrificial animals and birds were sold. That presented an ethical dilemma for the Christians. Should they eat meat that had been dedicated to a pagan God? They tried to reason. Idols are not real. Nothing has happened to the meat. Just eat it! What difference could it possibly make? Paul gives them a reason to reconsider. If it is a stumbling block to someone, then your decision is a bad one. Ethical decisions should result in doing the loving thing. If your action causes someone to feel a sense of guilt, then you need to reconsider so that the person is not hurt by your decision. A good example might be in the use of alcohol. If I am with someone who is an alcoholic and I drink, then I may be contributing to that person’s problem. I would be better to refrain from drinking. Even though what I am doing is perfectly reasonable, I should limit my freedom for the better good. I should do the loving thing.

Jesus was known as one who could speak with authority. Hearing him speak in the temple gave people an understanding of their potential, of the possibilities. He did not talk down to them. He treated them as friends and equals. He taught them to be realistic about themselves. He helped them to know that God had called them to greater things than they could imagine. His authority made them do what all authority should do. It helped them grow.

Sometimes the person who bears authority is misunderstood. It was so with Jesus. A demented heckler shrieked at Jesus at the top of his voice. Jesus confronted the situation. He healed the person.

This scene is not as foreign to us as it seems. It is played out in our modern world. Jesus was saying something new. New things are often exciting, but at the same time they can seem threatening. Those who bear the prophetic word, those who advocate change, are often rejected or even attacked for their beliefs. The attack on such people can become quite personal. A spirit of open communication is essential in living out our life as a church community.

So what does it mean to this parish as you say goodbye to your priest? What is the prophetic word that you need to hear and share? What disappointments and brokenness does this parish face? What fears need to be assuaged? Our lives are filled with such times. God does not stay away from us because of our challenges and shortcomings. God uses them to come closer to us, to draw us closer. So let us look outward at the brokenness we see in our families, in our friends, and most of all in our congregation. Let us ask ourselves how God might be choosing us to work through us to bring new life into the situation. God continues to use us to further God’s kingdom. Thanks be to God!
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