On Divine Authority
June 6, 2021
1 Samuel 8: 4-18
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Mark 3: 20-35
“…and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit. Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Today’s sermon title is On Divine Authority. All week I have been thinking about authority, what it really is, and how it can both serve us and enslave us. I wonder if our complex relationship with authority has something to do with the fact that we humans are born completely and totally dependent, requiring care and instruction for years. There are many other animals that gestate for much longer periods than humans; elephants gestate for nearly two years, same with camels and moose and rhinoceros and horses. By the time they are born they can, quite literally, hit the ground running, or swimming. Even sea lions and sharks gestate longer than humans.
From the moment we are born, we are looking to someone to take care of us and that someone becomes, for a time, the author of our lives. Looking at the word authority we see the word author in there. This is no coincidence. The word author comes from the Latin auctor, meaning “originator, promoter.” We most often think of an author as one who writes, but the definition of an author is “a person who invents or causes something.”
In my experience, it does not take long before even a newborn begins to broker deals with whomever is the authority figure in their young lives. A screaming baby will send an adult scrambling for a solution more quickly than just about anything. One may wonder who really holds the authority and the power in such a situation.
I’m delving into this issue of authority because I think it is at the core of both of our scripture readings for today. Plus, I suppose I have authority issues because it makes me squirm a little bit inside and that is a clear indication that there is a lot to unpack. Authority is defined as, “legitimate power which one person or a group possesses and practices over another.” Let’s keep this definition in mind as we travel back just over a thousand years in time to when the Hebrew people were governed by 12 tribal judges and the prophets who informed their leadership. The tribes were under constant threat of invasion and occupation. During Samuel’s lifetime, the major threat was the Philistines. After 20 years of oppression under Philistine authority, Samuel led the Hebrews to victory in battle and established long-awaited peace. The people were not satisfied for very long, though. They demanded to have a king. They were sick and tired of being pushed around. Samuel tried to warn them about what they would give up, but the people insisted. Samuel relented and gave them an authority figure, a king by the name of Saul. Saul looked like good king material, but like so many that find themselves in a position of power, it proved to be too much for him. Tim Mackey writes, “Saul’s root character flaw is self-exaltation and self-deception. He thinks he knows better than everyone else, including God. The biggest tragedy is that he’s not even aware of it; he is completely blind to his arrogance and always believes he’s in the right…Saul placed his real trust in himself, his plan, and in other’s opinions of him.”* Saul, like so many in positions of power, fall under the illusion that they are the ultimate authority. In such a paradigm, there is no place for Divine authority to have a hand in the authorship of a people’s history.
Divine authority has quite the opposite position in the life of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. In our story today, Jesus is accused of doing the work of the devil. Word has reached Jesus’s family that the religious and political leaders were making these accusations so his mother and brothers do what any caring family would do; they find him and attempt to save him from the trouble he is creating for himself. Somehow I have always missed this detail of the story. My mind goes straight to the part where Jesus seems to disown his family in favor of his followers.
Jesus is not disowning his family. He is defining who is the true author of his life and ministry. He is defining an extended definition of family by including “all who do the will of God” as being “my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus is inviting into his family all who choose to look to God as the ultimate authority.
The Roman leaders are unsettled by this play for allegiance that rivals their own emperor. And the religious leaders are incensed that this upstart prophet from some backwater town is healing people left and right and speaking right to the heart of his growing number of followers. Jesus did not come through the ranks and if they don’t find a way to stop him soon, the people may turn to him en masse and any authority they now have will be lost.
It’s the same old story, is it not? Those in positions of authority have a profound influence, for better or for worse. And once in a position of authority, even a person of strong moral character can succumb to their fear of losing the authority they hold and compromise their values in the most egregious ways.
I remember when the pandemic began; I was both terrified and widely optimistic that this could be the thing that could bring us together. In many ways, it has. But the hand of the author wrote a different narrative for our nation. In the words of Jesus, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Then, again, with the global uprising and outcry for racial equality grew and grew, so did my hope that surely we could agree on basic human rights. But the hand of the author wrote a different narrative for our nation.
This will not be the last time, but take heart, Friends. There is a Divine authority that is at work in our world today. More and more of us are tuning in to it. Even the numbers in a recent Pew research poll show that religious faith has been strengthened during the pandemic.**
In closing, I lift up all of us because each and every one of us hold positions of authority within relationships, within family, at work or in public service. May we be aware of our influence and may we seek guidance from the Divine authority we call God. May we shape our lives in the fashion of our teacher, Jesus Christ, and may our authorship be tempered by compassion, mercy, and love. So be it. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer: God of All, we hold our cares about so many things and at times our caring can feel like a heavy weight. Help us, we pray, to cultivate the practice of prayer and the practice of asking for help. In a culture that so values independence and self-reliance, it is difficult to appear in need or vulnerable or weak. Remind us, God, in our times of fear and doubt, that there are unlimited reservoirs of goodness available to us if we can humble ourselves to ask, and humble ourselves to receive. As individuals, teach us to care for ourselves so that we are making choices from a foundation of fullness, not of need or fear of lack. As communities, teach us to extend ourselves to those who we tend to avoid. As a nation, teach us that our greatness is most accurately measured by our kindness to the least among us, as Jesus Christ so humbly exemplified. If ever we are in need of direction, turn our minds to this prayer, that Jesus gave his disciples so long ago…Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction: I leave you with these words from the book of Numbers: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”