Called to Obey
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 1:21–28
The Fourth after Epiphany
January 27-28, 2018
“Being SJLC 2018: Called to Obey”
Authority – that is a word loaded with many connotations in our nation and culture today. In some respects, the spirit of our times very much resembles the spirit of the times present in America fifty years ago in 1968. Then as now, there was tremendous societal pressure with rapid changes taking place. There were strong racial tensions, growing gaps between the generations, and a great distrust of authority, both institutions and figures of authority; almost a spirit of anti-authority. Sound familiar? Hopefully, we have learned a few things over these last fifty years about authority: about life, about ourselves, about our history, about what truly matters. Hopefully, we have learned about truthfulness and integrity, understanding and compassion. Without these things, authority has no credibility. I vividly recall what former Southeastern District President Richard Hinz said in a meeting when I was a newly-minted pastor some thirty years ago. What he said then is just as relevant and applicable now as when he first said it. What he said was this: “The only legitimate, authentic, and useful authority we have in the church is one which makes itself known in humble and loving service.” I find myself often reflecting back on President Hinz’s words. They have been something on which I have striven to ground my own life and ministry over the years. In today’s Gospel lesson, we are told about the reaction the people of Capernaum had to Jesus’ teaching in their synagogue: “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). Jesus’ authority is not grounded in what others said or did. Jesus’ authority is grounded in who He is, and who He is was clearly revealed at his Baptism by John in the Jordan River when the Spirit descended upon him as a dover and the Father’s voice resounded: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Jesus’ authority, his life and ministry, his preaching and teaching, his suffering, death and resurrection for our salvation are all grounded in who He is as the Father’s beloved Son. Because of this, we are called to obey. In our Epiphany focus of Serving Jesus – Living in Community, that is the theme for preaching this day: “Called to Obey.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
We learn to obey at an early age, following rules established at home by our parents and at school by our teachers. But at some point in our development, we like to see how far we can get with not obeying the rules. We experiment with disobedience: talking back and arguing with mom or dad, staying out past our curfew, driving over the speed limit. In testing the boundaries, we can become defiant in our disobedience, insisting that the rules apply to everybody else, but not to me. Or we rationalize our way around rules because we don’t want our freedom to be restricted. To obey, whether as a child or an adult, can be a real challenge. So it is very ironic what we read in today’s Gospel lesson. A demon-possessed man pops up in the very synagogue where Jesus is preaching and teaching, and the demon shrieks through the man’s voice: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are – the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). It should be noted that in Mark’s Gospel, those you would expect to recognize Jesus as the Messiah do not, and those you would not expect to recognize him actually do. God’s chosen people steadfastly refuse to see Jesus as that promised Messiah, but the outsiders, the Gentile foreigners, together with the demons, are the ones who do see Jesus as Messiah. Jesus rebukes the demon, and expels him from the poor man: “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:25). Jesus would do the same for you and me today. He would cast out and expel from us every obstacle that stands in the way of his reign and rule of love in our lives. The question is: will we give Jesus access to our lives for him to do his work? And here is the irony: the demon obeys Jesus. Why is this ironic? We would, of course, expect demons to obey Jesus as the Son of God. They have no choice but to obey him. The irony is with us: why do we have such difficulty in obeying Jesus? Like the demons, we, too, know who Jesus is. He is the Holy One of God, our Savior and Lord. But we are not demons; we are God’s beloved sons and daughters who have been washed clean in the cleansing waters of holy Baptism. Why, then, do we so often want to serve our own will, rather than the will of Jesus? Why do we have such a hard time obeying him? We confuse liberty with license; freedom with foolishness. This is what Paul is talking about in today’s Epistle lesson (1 Corinthians 8:1-13), where freedom in the Gospel may turn into a curse rather than a blessing; it may become devilish if my freedom causea offense to other members of the Body of Christ. Our obedience as well as our disobedience impacts others. As Paul writes: “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and sisters and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). The context here was followers of Jesus going with neighbors and friends who were not followers of Jesus to pagan temple dinners and eating meat at these banquets that was sacrificed to idols. Our freedom in Christ is rooted in Christ submitting his will and life to that of the Father. He “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). How we use this God-given gift of freedom in Christ matters; it matters greatly. It concerns not just our own individual selves, but the lives of people around us – people for whom Christ gave his life. Having given his life to set us free from sin and death, Jesus now calls us to obey and follow him because it is in obeying and following him that we are truly free.
In matters of faith, there is old obedience and there is new obedience. The old obedience is rooted in our sinful human nature, and tells us that we have to work out our own salvation. We have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and make ourselves acceptable and pleasing to God. We have to be good enough to earn God’s favor. That kind of obedience does not work; it never has and it never will. In Jesus and his authority over the power of evil, sin, and death, there is a new obedience. It’s not about score-keeping or beating ourselves up in order to make God love us. Rather, it is about what God in Christ has done for us, receiving this as a gift and living a life of freedom that is rooted in love, not fear. And so our obedience becomes transformed; it is no longer something done under compulsion or begrudgingly. Rather, as the words in our order for Confession and Absolution at the start of worship with Holy Communion states: “… that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of your holy Name.” Article VI of the Augsburg Confession, the earliest of our Lutheran Confessions, is entitled, “The New Obedience,” and says this:
It is also taught among us that such faith should produce good fruits and good works and that we must do all such good works as God has commanded, but we should do them for God’s sake and not place our trust in them as if thereby to merit favor before God. For we receive forgiveness of sin and righteousness through faith in Christ, as Christ himself says, “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants’ (Luke 17:10)…
In the week ahead, we will have opportunity to see and participate in good works. Our congregation will be serving at the Hypothermia Shelter at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Springfield, ministering to homeless people in our community. Each of those persons has a name, a life, a story, just like we do. They, too, are loved by Jesus. Now, Jesus calls us to love one another as He has loved us without regard for what people look like, where they’re from or what they’ve done. Called to obey for the sake of love, this is what Serving Jesus – Living in Community looks like as we join Jesus on his mission. Amen.