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God is Lord and Love

(Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Mark 1:21-28)

While I was in seminary, I took a course called Systematic Theology.  Systematic theology is theology that is clearly defined and cohesive.  The different parts of the theology fit together, like a puzzle.  So, a particular person’s theology of God fits with her theology of Jesus, which fits with her theology of the Holy Spirit, which fits with her theology of Creation, which fits with her theology of Evil, which fits with her theology of Salvation, and so on.   One of the books we had to read during the course was, Not Every Spirit:  A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief, written by Christopher Morse, who is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Seminary in New York City.

Professor Morse wrote his book from a unique perspective.  Instead of writing about what he believes as a faithful Christian, he wrote about what he doesn’t believe.  He wrote his book from the perspective of disbelief, and this is the reason why expressed in his own words:

“Running through the traditions of scripture within the Bible there is what may be termed a call to ‘faithful disbelief.’  A key instance of this is most simply expressed in [the] words of the First [Letter] of John:  ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (4:1).”

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world (4:1).”  Morse is reminding his readers that authority and power can come from a variety of sources, but not all of those sources are from God.  This means that we must figure out from which source any particular authority and power are coming.  Adolph Hitler was very authoritative and powerful.  Many people thought he was the answer to Germany’s problems.  They came to find out, however, that Hitler’s authority and power did not come from God.  Over time, it was revealed that Hitler was a false prophet.

 

This question of from where power comes is the theme of the gospel passage today.  At the beginning of the passage, we find out that Jesus was teaching with authority in the synagogue.  Authority, of course, gives one power.  While Jesus was teaching, a man with an unclean spirit entered the synagogue and 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” (Mk 1:24).  Now, an unclean spirit meant an evil spirit, so the scripture passage is telling us that an evil spirit possessed this man, and that it spoke to Jesus on behalf of its evil spirit cohorts.  They – the evil spirits – recognized Jesus as the Holy One of God and feared that he had come to destroy them.

 

After the evil spirit spoke to Jesus, Jesus asserted his authority.  He rebuked the evil spirit.  He told it to be quiet and to come out of the man it had possessed.  And the evil spirit did what Jesus told him to do.  Those gathered were amazed.  They asked each other, “What is this?  A new teaching – with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mk 1:27).  Jesus demonstrated that his authority and power came from God.  The evil spirits had been correct:  He was the Holy One of God, and he had come to destroy them.

 

How do we know when authority and the power it brings with it are from God?  What do that authority and power look like?  What don’t they look like?  Christopher Morse believes that God is Lord and that God is love.  You can’t say that God is Lord only, and you can’t say that God is love only.  God is both Lord and love.  God has authority and power over all things.  In the final analysis, God will not be defeated by anything.  Yet God’s authority and power are only used with love.  Here’s how Morse says this:

“Christian faith refuses to believe that love, as defined with reference to God, is subject to final defeat by any opposition.  [In other words, God’s love cannot be defeated by anything; God is Lord.]  Christian faith refuses to believe in any form of domination that is not the dominion of love.”  [Yet, God will only dominate – be Lord –  through the power of love.]

Authority and power that are from God are used with love.  If they are not used with love, they are not from God.  What we are to do, then, when confronted by authority and power, or when using authority and power, is to discern if the authority and power are used with love.

 

The apostle Paul gives us further teaching on how to use authority and power so that we are in alignment with the way and the will of God.  He states in the 1 Corinthians 13 passage:  “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1-3).  If we have tremendous authority and power that can do amazing things but wield that authority and power without love and do those things without love, then we are not in alignment with the way and the will of God.  We are nothing and we gain nothing in terms of the kingdom of God.  And the same is true of not only us but of anyone wielding authority and power.

 

So, how do we know if authority and power are being used with love?  What are the criteria for discerning that in ourselves and others?  Paul goes on to give a description of love:  “Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (4-7).  Love is patient, kind, rejoicing in the truth, protecting, trustful, hopeful, persevering.  Love is not envious, boastful, proud, dishonoring of others, self-seeking, easily angered, resentful, delighting in evil.  We can use Paul’s description of love to discern whether the authority and power we or others are wielding are in alignment with the way and the will of God.  Are patience, kindness, truthfulness, protection, trust, hope, and perseverance present?  Are envy, boastfulness, pride, dishonoring of others, self-seeking, anger, resentment, and a delight in evil not present?  Well, then, the authority and power are in alignment with God.  Is the opposite true?  Impatience, cruelty, lies, a lack of protection, a lack of trust, a lack of hope, a lack of perseverance, envy, boastfulness, pride, dishonoring of others, self-seeking, anger, resentment, and a delight in evil present?  Well, then, the authority and power are not in alignment with God.

 

It is important as we live our daily lives that we discern if the authority and power we wield ourselves or are wielded by others is in alignment with the way and the will of God.  It’s important to discern that in ourselves because we desire to be faithful disciples of the Holy One of God, Jesus Christ.  And it is important to discern that in others because we don’t want to fall prey to false prophets, like many did with Hitler.  After WWI, Germany and the German people were in dire straits due to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles.[1]  The German economy was destabilized and there was runaway inflation.  Hitler was a gifted public speaker, and the demoralized Germans were swayed by his promise to create a new German order.  They felt so desperate that they fell prey to this false prophet.  One of the lessons of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party is that humans are particularly vulnerable to false prophets when we feel demoralized and desperate.  We have, however, the teaching and example of Jesus, the teaching of Paul, and the Holy Spirit to guide us in discerning if the authority and power we are experiencing are in alignment with the way and the will of God.  We can read the Sermon on the Mount and 1 Corinthians 13, among many other scripture passages, and pray that we be guided to discern correctly.

 

At the end of the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:18-20).  The authority and power of God were given to Jesus.  He commissioned his disciples to go into the world and live as people who have access to God’s authority and power through him, reminding them that he is with them at all times.  It is our responsibility as disciples of Jesus to figure out how we are to use the authority and power of God in Jesus’ name.  When we consider what we can do as individuals and as a church, we are involved in the process of figuring out how we are to use the authority and power of God as disciples of Jesus.  Whatever it is we decide to do as individuals and as a church, we have to ask ourselves a few questions:  Will we be tempted to be tyrannical and misuse the authority and power that has been given to us?  Will we be tempted to be submissive and not use the authority and power that has been given to us?  Or will we be able to speak and do the truth in love, knowing that Jesus is with us always, to the end of the age?  These are the questions we must ask ourselves.  This is the test we must undergo as faithful disciples who worship and follow a God who is both Lord and love.

 

Jesus lived, died, and rose with a new authority and power, an authority and power that were given to him by God.  Jesus commissioned his disciples to live as people who have access to this authority and power through him.  Let us not be afraid to use it.  Let us not be afraid to test ourselves and others regarding it.  Let us remember that Jesus is with us always, to the end of the age, guiding us, inspiring us, and encouraging us.  Amen.

 

Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, January 28, 2024, the Fourth Sunday After Epiphany.

 

[1] Information about Hitler and the rise of the Nazi party is from “How Did Adolph Hitler Happen,” by the National WW2 Museum.  https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/how-did-adolf-hitler-happen

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