Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
January 31, 2021
Lessons: Deuteronomy 18:25-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people recognize the Christ as their ultimate authority in all things.
Key Scripture: They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. – Mark 1:22
Last week we pondered the role of timing in the RCL lessons. This week the lessons lend themselves to a discussion about authority. After all, the liturgical season of Epiphany exists to reveal Jesus as Son of God, Messiah, and savior of the nations. Some Christian traditions celebrate three (or four) epiphanies or revelations of Jesus’ authority: Jesus revealed to the wise folk who followed a star, Jesus’ baptism, and his first miracle of turning water into wine. Some traditions celebrate the revelation to the shepherds as the first epiphany or revelation of Jesus. The remaining Sundays of the Epiphany season show Jesus calling his disciples, healing the sick, casting out demons, and teaching with authority.
This week’s gospel lesson features Jesus engaged in both an exorcism and authoritative teaching in the synagogue of Capernaum. People are amazed at Jesus’ new teaching. This isn’t anything like the teaching of the scribes. And clearing out demons! This is pretty impressive and helps spread Jesus’ fame throughout Galilee. Paul amplifies Jesus’ teaching in the epistle lesson by providing guidance to the congregation about eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. Even the Old Testament lesson and psalm have plenty to say about authority. The big question for us today is this: Whose authority do we trust and follow? I suspect if we are honest with ourselves, Jesus has a little bit of competition these days.
Read on for entry points to all four lessons…
Deuteronomy 18:15-20: Moses assures the people that God will raise up a new prophet for them. Just because he is old and will die doesn’t mean that God will not continue to guide and care for the people. God will simply speak through a new prophet, giving that person words and wisdom needed for the task. God will give authority to this person and promises in verse 19 that if anyone does not heed the prophet’s words, God will hold that person accountable. God also makes provision for how false prophets will fare; they will die. Our reading omits the final two verses of the chapter, but I encourage you to read them because they provide Moses’s instructions to the people on how to discern between the words of a true prophet and a false prophet, saying
21 You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the Lord has not spoken?” 22 If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it.
What lesson may we today take from Moses’s words? Not everyone who speaks from a position of authority has received that authority from God. We must discern between true and false prophets. Adding the final two verses of this chapter helps in our discernment, so do be sure to include these verses in your preaching and teaching.
Psalm 111: The ten verses of this psalm provide a good explanation of why God’s authority is the final word and how that authority is exhibited. The psalmist begins where one should always begin with divine ultimate authority—praise and thanksgiving. Better yet, do it in community as church! Verses two through nine explicate the wondrous works and traits of God. The final verse, 10, makes clear our proper response to God: We respect and honor God and in doing so we begin a journey to greater wisdom and clarity. How do these traits and markers described by an ancient poet/songwriter inform our discipleship today? In short, why God as our ultimate authority?
1 Corinthians 8:1-13: What a rich explanation from Paul! Preachers and teachers will find quite a few threads to pull with this lesson. We learn that authority works better when grounded in love (“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” — Verse 1b). Paul assures us that there is ultimately only one God, one source of ultimate authority, although there may be gods and lords that compete for our life, resources, and allegiances. Speaking specifically to the Corinthian’s issue of meat sacrificed to idols, Paul says, “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (vs. 9). Or, as my wise Bishop sometimes counsels, “Just because we may doesn’t mean we ought.” When we submit to God as our ultimate authority, we will learn to make different choices in response to loving God, neighbor, and (yes) self.
Mark 1:21-28: The people name it and claim it: Jesus teaches with a fresh, new authority. This isn’t your usual synagogue worship when Jesus comes to town. Not only does Jesus teach with authority, he also silences and exorcises unclean spirits. It doesn’t take long for news of this new radical rabbi to spread throughout Galilee. We humans are quick to follow someone who speaks with fresh authority whether that person is a preacher, pundit, political figure, or popular culture maven. We are attracted to fame and the next big thing like moths to a flame. We sometimes even see this with new Christians who embrace the teachings of Jesus only to be unwilling to let go of vestiges of other “authorities.” We might see it with a church member who becomes frustrated with congregational leadership or minister and pulls their little red wagon right down the road to a “better” church. Yet as the Epiphany season teaches us, there is only one true and ultimate authority: The crucified and risen Christ. Every other claim to authority is either secondary to Christ’s authority or a false authority. How do we Christians test or prove authority today? How do we vet our claim of Christ’s authority in a world that sees Christianity as often irrelevant, wacky and hypocritical, and perhaps even false? With all the splintering and mudslinging, it’s not difficult to see how folks might think this way, leaving us to ponder just how we point most effectively to the Christ and ultimate authority and truth.
Are you able to preach, teach, and lead worship with fresh authority each week? The answer most likely is “no.” Not many of us bat a homer every week, but that doesn’t excuse us from the work of faithfully proclaiming and leading God’s people in worship. Don’t beat yourself up or let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but do give your vocation your best. Remember that our authority comes not from our own knowledge or effort but rather from God’s Word and Spirit working within us—and us giving said Word and Spirit some wiggle room to work. The world needs more grace and more wiggle room and margin. A good place to start is with dedicated time for prayer.
Consider sharing one or both of these prayers from Martin Luther with your worshiping community this week:
Luther’s prayer before worship: O Lord, you see how unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office. Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed in it long ago. Therefore, I call upon you for guidance. Gladly indeed will I give my heart and my voice to this service. I want to teach the people. I myself want constantly to seek and study your Word, and eagerly meditate upon it. Use me as your instrument. Only, dear Lord, do not forsake me; for if I am left alone, I will most certainly ruin everything. Amen.
A prayer for all in the church: Almighty and everlasting God, we pray first for the spiritual kingdom and the blessed Gospel ministry. Give us devout and faithful preachers who will bring forth the treasure of your divine Word in its truth and purity. Graciously guard us against heresies and divisions. Look not upon our great ingratitude, for which we have long ago deserved that you should withdraw your Word from us. Do not chastise us as severely as we deserve. Let other calamities befall us, rather than deprive us of your precious Word. Give to us thankful hearts that we may love your Word, prize it highly, hear it with reverence, and improve our lives accordingly. May we not only understand your Word, but also meet its requirements by our deeds, live in accordance with it, and daily increase in faith and good works. Amen.
This week considers what makes someone famous. Have youth make a list of famous people they admire and why they admire them. Invite them to ponder what sort of authority these famous people have over our lives and world. You might go first with a story of your own to break the ice. After all have had a chance to speak, ask them if a famous person has ever let them down by their behaviors or falsehoods, etc.? How did that feel? Do they still admire this person, or was their admonition diminished?
Where can we find ultimate authority that is real and true? Entertain all answers until you land on the correct answer of the Christ. Have someone read the gospel lesson (Mark 1:21-28) and then discuss ultimate authority and how we recognize the Christ’s ultimate authority in our world despite clamors for our allegiance and attention.
This week’s focus verse is 1 Corinthians 8:9: Take care that your freedom does not cause someone else to stumble.
Suppose I LOVE peanut butter, but you are deathly allergic to it. I am free to eat peanut butter, but it will cause you to have a serious medical emergency. Is it okay for me to eat peanut butter in front of you? (Entertain the children’s answers.) It would not be a good exercise of my freedom to cause your throat to close up, to make life harder for you.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church he was addressing a specific dilemma. Christians were eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols in the city. Their faith in Christ and the fact that didn’t believe or worship the false idols made it okay for them to eat the meat. After all, someone has to eat the meat!
But what if one of the other Christians believed that eating meat dedicated to pagan idols was truly an affront to God? This Christian believes it is wrong, and is greatly troubled to see other church members dining on this meat. It makes this Christian question their faith. What would be the best option: to continue to eat the meat or to stop for their fellow Christian’s sake?
Just because we can do something doesn’t mean that we should do it. When these questions come up, we can ask Jesus to help us make a wise decision, and we can ask our parents to help us figure out the best thing to do. Here’s a hint. Always choose the thing that would show love for your neighbor. Always look out for other people’s good and best interests. Why? Because God wants all people to flourish and experience God’s love and grace.
Finish with a simple echo prayer and blessing.
Dear God (Dear God),
Thank you (Thank you) for loving us (for loving us). Help us to make good decisions (Help us to make good decisions). Help us to love God (Help us to love God), and to love our neighbor (and to love our neighbor) and to love ourselves, too (and to love ourselves, too).
Keep us from fear (Keep us from fear). Keep us hopeful (Keep us hopeful). Make us helpful (Make us helpful). Give us peace (Give us peace). Amen (Amen).
Stewardship Bulletin Insert
We find our freedom in Christ, both freedom from the tyranny of the law and freedom to love God and our neighbors. Thank you for loving God and neighbor through your generous gifts of time, talent, and resources that support our congregation’s ministries and outreach.
2020 marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian.” Luther viewed this writing as “a summary of the whole Christian life” (487). In it he reminds us of the paradoxical reality that the “Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (488). Yes, we Christians have inner freedom in Christ, but we are outwardly to be in service to others. We are saved by faith alone, and we start from there by serving others in grateful response to Christ’s mercy and grace.
Note: Citations above taken from The Freedom of a Christian, 1520, Annotated Luther Study Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016).
If you have children at home consider exploring what freedoms you have and discuss these questions: 1) When might using this freedom hurt others? 2) When might my freedom help me to serve others? 3) How do I decide when and where to use my freedom? 4) Can I give my freedom away to others? 5) Are my freedoms really free?
2012 Reflection: https://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2012/01/about-authority/
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