In the OT lesson appointed for this Sunday, we’re told that the role of a prophet is to be a messenger of God – one who speaks with the authority of God. That may be why Deuteronomy instructs the people to continue to look for a prophet like Moses who is called by God to speak God’s Word. For forty years Israel had wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Pro-mised Land, and during that time the entire first generation had died except for Caleb, Joshua, and Moses. In today’s lesson Moses gives his final address to Israel’s second-generation. Its purpose, he says, is to prepare this generation to heed the prophet who will succeed him. I might observe the obvious analogy to a parish preparing to call a new rector – but Moses’ point is that the people have a direct responsibility to listen to that prophet as the voice of God himself. The frequent difficulty for you and me, of course, is not only that the word of God is mediated through other human beings but that, alongside fake news, there are also false prophets.
I think the obvious connection between today’s OT lection and today’s gospel is that Mark portrays Jesus as one who is to be recognized as speaking the word of God with authority – and he does that by describing a time when Jesus entered the synagogue and astonished his listeners by teaching as ‘one with authority’. They recognize his power to influence people by his com-manding knowledge and his performance of miracles – and we are invited to remember that in his very first synagogue appearance, Jesus’ teaching is so impressive, so evident of his role as the bearer of God’s true word, that he is immediately granted the authority to speak on God’s behalf as a true messenger of God.
A little sidebar may be instructive here. For centuries NT scholars and theologians have debated which of the 2 synoptic accounts of Jesus’ ‘presentation’ in the temple is to be preferred – Mk’s or Lk’s? I’ve already indicated why some think Mark’s account preferable – Jesus’ teach-ing in the temple is so obviously God’s true Word that he is immediately acknowledged as auth-orized to speak on God’s behalf. Luke’s account, on the other hand, describes how Jesus’ par-ents brought him to the temple to dedicate him to God and how Simeon miraculously identified him as the Lord’s Messiah. The difference is that Mark’s account signifies that Jesus’ personal activity, his power and his passion, commanded respect and authority – while Luke’s account, apparently meaning to extend chronologically the nativity narrative, says that the Holy Spirit miraculously revealed the baby Jesus’ identify to Simeon. Like many ecclesiastical decisions that are said to be led by the Holy Spirit, my suspicion is that this one was made in order to gar- ner agreement from the participating churches. So the lectionary’s preference is for Luke 2:22-40 and next Friday, 2 Feb, is the designated date for this feast – but we have 2 texts and today’s gospel also is a suitable text for Jesus’ presentation and this is why.
As every preacher learns soon or late, prophets need to be careful about the authority they claim for themselves, or that is claimed for them. I am especially heedful of this every time I preface a sermon by saying that ‘I venture to speak in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’. And I remember that the principal charge against Jesus was blasphemy when Deuterono-my declares that prophets shall die who speak a word in God’s name that God has not command-ed – or when they speak in the name of other gods. So a prophet who truly spoke in God’s name became the basis of hope for a messiah-prophet who would deliver God’s people from the bond-age of sin, just as Moses had delivered them from Egyptian captivity. And Mark’s gospel por-trays Jesus as just that prophet-messiah who speaks God’s Word with authority. Indeed, accord-ing to Mark, but most clearly in John’s gospel, Jesus not only speaks God’s Word – he is God’s authoritative Word.
Now and then I see the sign of a fish on automobile bumpers. I suspect that you’ve seen them, too. The fish was an early secret symbol which Christians, in a hostile environment, used to identify themselves. We call the fish symbol “ichthyology” because the Greek word for ‘fish’ is ‘icthus’, and for the early Christians its letters were an acrostic which stood for Éçóïõò ×ñéóô ò Èåïò Ó ôÞñ – “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”. Some years ago a number of letters-to-the-editor appeared in the local papers. They were provoked by an earlier letter which argued that the fish-with-legs symbol for Darwinian evolution is not an insult to Christians. The implication of that symbol is that our origins lie in natural processes – and that an account like that in Gene-sis is unbelievable – that an extra-terrestrial being made every particular thing in heaven and on earth. (I might note, parenthetically, that this is exactly the issue in the 2 ‘presentation’ passages. One is a natural sequence from birth to dedication and the other supernaturally caused) But back to the author of the letter who further claimed that many, if not most, Christians realize that “the Bible is not literal fact but rather a wonderful mix of history, myth, and parable”. Of course, re-sponding letters followed and sometimes angrily emphasized that “the Bible is the true word of God” – that it is “Jesus’ incarnate Word” – and that “either you literally believe all of what the Bible says, or you are calling God a liar”.
What was at stake in these letters-to-the-editor – and what lies at the heart of the propers appointed for today – is the issue of authority, and not only as regards biblical interpretation. I personally think that authority is THE issue that has rankled Western civilization since the mid 20th c. What is it? Whose is it? How is it used? Who may speak with authority? For us, the question is to whose opinion about Jesus’ message should we pay attention? These, and related questions, entail a lifetime of work to come to even tentative answers. All the same, in the short time allocated for a sermon, here is a brief, Band-Aid comment on authority.
In its classical sense, authority has the power to construct reality for us. Consider, e.g., “science says”. Authority is the referent for whatever we take to be true and good and beau-tiful. It is the citation of what sanctions and approves what we believe. It is a claim upon us that compels two responses: one of them is trust, the other is obedience. When you think about it, being under authority is something like being in love because it entails, as it were, giving your-self away to another. Nobody is surprised that being in love means giving your self to another, and nobody genuinely in love will be surprised to learn that being in love also means giving up to another a considerable chunk of one’s independence and autonomy. In our culture, where indivi-dual independence and autonomy are so much cherished, some will find what I am about to say repulsive, if not downright unpatriotic. But it needs saying that religious authority is exactly like loving authority in that it invites someone else – in this instance, God’s Christ – to construct reali-ty for us and to define for us what we acknowledge as good and true and beautiful. I suspect that many of us have heard, and maybe even said, “I don’t see what she sees in him” – which makes the point exactly. Whatever she sees in him is visible only to her eyes of love. Same song, second verse: “I can’t believe she believes that” is also spot on – what she believes is credible only because she so passionately wills to believe it.
My experience is that this is why being a preacher or teacher, or anyone else who practic-es a profession which claims authority, is such an awesome responsibility. We want our autho-rity to be clear, and to articulate clearly what we profess. We don’t want hypocrites for preach-ers, or quacks for doctors, or phonies for teachers, or frauds for lawyers. We don’t want coun-terfeits and fakes at the filling station or the grocery store. In a word, we don’t want cheats and swindlers anywhere purveying lies as truth, ugliness as beauty, or badness as goodness. It’s im-portant to be able to trust authority because authority expects obedience. And if you want a for-mula, that’s precisely what faith is: trust plus obedience.
Faith, exactly like being in love, entails a surrender of one’s private judgment to another’s authority – in this case, to God’s authority. Exactly like being in love, faith is surrender of my private and autonomous definition of what is true and good and beautiful to God’s Christ. And just as love is always prior to any account of ‘what she sees in him’, so faith is always antece-dent to whatever reasons may be given to prove the legitimacy of its authority. Reason, in other words, only secondarily approves what faith believes. Blaise Pascal’s wonderful aphorism is precisely on target: the heart has reasons, he said, which reason knows nothing of.
When ordinations occur in this church, ordinands are given a Bible after which the Bish-op says to Deacons: “Receive this Bible as the sign of your authority to proclaim God’s Word and to assist in the ministration of his holy Sacraments” – and to Priests: “Receive this Bible as a sign of the authority given you to preach the Word of God and administer his holy Sacraments”. In both instances, the Prayer Book is careful to make clear that the Bible is not the authority but a sign of the Church’s authority to preach and to celebrate.
Martin Luther taught that the Bible is canon insofar as it displays the Gospel – it is sacred, he declared, not because of claims of inspiration or inerrancy, but because it unfolds and witness-es to God’s story of redemption. Understanding the Bible in this way norms Christian witness not by providing sample statements and proof texts by which to test other statements, nor by providing interpretive ideals from somewhere else like a cultural philosophy – but by reminding us of the identity of the one whose word we hear – Jesus.
All of us know the difference between a sign and what it signifies. Many years ago, my custom was to take a class in the spring semester to Washington, DC, and New York City to ob-serve both ecclesiastical and secular bureaucrats at work. In the 1960s, IBM had conceived and constructed what was called the ‘drum computer’, and through floor-to-ceiling plate glass wind-ows passers-by on 5th Avenue could see these monstrous cylinders humming away at various projects. Our host, as befits a corporate executive, was thoroughly enamored of this new techno-logy. “It can do just about anything,” he said, “answer any question – and do it in the blink of an eye. Here, Professor,” he said to me, “sit down at the console and ask the computer any question you want and (he added chuckling) be sure to indicate in which of 8 languages you would like your answer”. With some trepidation, I sat down and typed in the question: “who was Jesus?” And instantly a stream of tape was disgorged from this marvelous machine. “Jesus of Nazareth,” it read, “born in Bethlehem 4-6 BC, in the reign of Herod the Great to a carpenter named Joseph and his young wife, Mary – baptized by John in the Jordan – believed by some to be the long-awaited messiah – executed by crucifixion in the reign of Pontius Pilate outside Jerusalem in 26-32 AD”. And on it went. When the stream of tape ended, I said to our host, “You know, my question has been the source of much controversy among scholars. Over the centuries it has caused lots of ink, and not a little blood, to be spilled”. “Yes,” said our host, “isn’t modern technology wonderful”.
I still don’t know a lot about computers but I knew enough then to know that somebody had to program that machine! The computer was the sign of an authority – but the authority be-longed to the person who programmed the computer. So a sign cannot overcome and obliterate what it signifies – and it is precisely the same with the authority of the Bible. The book is a sign of the authority of the One whose Word it conveys – it is the story through which Jesus is made present as Christ to the church.
Sermons and eucharists, like the Bible, are also signs of the authority of the One whose Word they convey. Indeed, exactly like the Bible, they are the conjunction of earthly sign and divine presence. And all three – together with teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, and all of the other ministries and practices we do here at St. Timothy’s – are sacramental when they allow the messiah-prophet, Jesus, to present himself to us. What is important about sermons and sacraments – indeed, about everything that we do here – is not whether we are entertained, or even edified, by them. What is crucial about sermons and sacraments, and smells and bells, and everything else we do here, is whether they help to transform us to become more faithful disci-ples of Jesus.
That is why our perpetual prayer should be that every liturgy celebrated here, every ser-mon preached here, every ministry undertaken here, may have a converting, metamorphosing effect on us because Jesus is present in them. Should that happen, by God’s grace, it is right for us to give him thanks and praise – and to offer, as we customarily do, this Holy Eucharist to his honor and glory. All this we offer through your Son, Jesus Christ. By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and for ever. Amen.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.