Monday, February 2, 2009

The Authority to Forgive

The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
Mark 1: 21-28
Bror Erickson

And immediately there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit. And he cried out. 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.” But Jesus rebuked him saying “Be Silent, and come out of him!” and the unclean Spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice came out of him.

I am reminded of the verse in James: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19 (ESV) Even the demons believe --and shudder. Their faith is not one that trusts in God for salvation, but one that fears their destruction. It isn’t so much a belief, but a knowledge. They know their days are numbered, and they know the voice of God when they hear it.
God is one. It is picked up on in this verse from James and in our Epistle lesson today. It is foundational to Christian belief, God is one. There is no way around it. There is but one God, only one. And Jesus is the voice of that one God, here today speaking in the synagogue as one with authority, because he has authority. The scribes didn’t. They didn’t have authority. They did not presume to speak for God. It is a dangerous thing to do. They did not presume to put words in God’s mouth. The best the scribes could do is interpret scripture for the people. They were not authorized to do anything else. But Jesus spoke with authority. He was the counterpart to Moses, the one of whom the Lord God had said “I will raise up for them a prophet like you, from among their brothers, and I will put my words in his mouth and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” Jesus was this prophet God had promised when the people grew afraid of his voice and his fire and feared for their lives. And now we hear that self same fear in an unclean spirit.
What have your to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?
The demons shudder in the presence of God, for he alone can destroy them. Think about it. Who can destroy an unclean spirit, but God? Why should an unclean spirit be afraid of a man? And this is at the bottom of the story here. The people don’t know who Jesus is, the demon does. The demon recognizes his superior, his enemy.
The people don’t know what to make of Jesus. Here is a man, one of them. He is unknown. This is the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry. John the Baptist has just been arrested. His days are numbered. And now in steps Jesus. Who is he? He speaks as if he has authority, as if he were not a mere scribe or a rabbi, but, perhaps, as if he is like one of the prophets of old. The people are astonished. Perhaps even a bit offended. Jesus has that effect even today. He tends to offend far more than he comforts. Especially when all the fairy tales about Christ and sugar plums are dispelled, and the sweet baby in the manger, so easy to love, becomes a homeless bearded man, who threatens to bring a sword and turn families against themselves. And we see that today with friends and family, mother being turned against daughter in law, son against father in the name of Christ, as one or the other confesses that God is one in three persons, and not three separate gods one in purpose only. There is but one God. And he speaks today through Jesus. With authority, the authority of God.
What is strange though is how Jesus speaks with authority. It isn’t law. Oh he has that authority. But law rarely offends like the Gospel. Feel free to expound on the law all you want. You can make up laws if you want. I don’t advise it, it would be breaking the second commandment. But what I am saying is people will listen to law. They flock to it. Dr. Laura cranks out book after book, and has all but a cult following. She expounds nothing but law. You don’t need authority to speak law. People know it innately. They know right from wrong. When you give them advice they follow it because they know it to be true. They may not want it to be true, which is why they are in the trouble they are in, but they know it to be true.
When people approach Jesus with questions of the law, they never leave offended. Depressed may be. Everyone wants to eat their cake and have it too. The law never lets it happen. But when Jesus speaks forgiveness then the stones are picked up. One has to have authority to forgive. You don’t take it upon yourself to sidestep the law. Authority is required. “I as a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by his authority....” Because he is the only one who truly has authority to forgive. Only God has the authority to forgive, because it is God who gave us the law, and it is against him, and him alone we sin. As David cries out in psalm 51:
[4] Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment. Psalm 51:4 (ESV)
I always find that funny. David saying he has only sinned against God. The man who steals Uriah’s wife, father’s a child by her, and then has Uriah murdered. But he has sinned only against God. There is truth in this. In sinning against others we sin against God, for we all belong to God. We are his creation, his children. When we sin against others we sin against those God has created in his image, even if they have lost that image, and we sin against those whom he has shed his blood for, so that that image might be restored. In short we sin against God, whenever we sin. And only the person sinned against has the authority to forgive. I can’t forgive a person for stealing from you. I might forgive him for stealing from me. When we take a man to court we expect justice, not forgiveness. If the man wins the case that is one thing. But the judge cannot say yes you owe the man $2,000 dollars, but I forgive you so it doesn’t have to be paid. That judge would lose his job, and rightfully so.
But we sin against God first and foremost. We sin against his law. And it is his law that demands our life. No one really needs more authority than man can give to arbitrate God’s law on earth. But to forgive, that requires divine authority. And it is this authority that He spoke with that day. And it is this authority that shocked, amazed, confused and offended the people in the synagogue, even as it does today. And it was this authority that prompted the demon to shudder, and shout and cause a scene. Because the demon knew that He who has the authority to forgive, has the power to destroy even the unclean spirits. And even the unclean spirits have to listen. For Jesus is the Holy one of God, who has the authority. And with that authority he forgives, yes even you.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, the Holy One of God, Amen.

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