January 31st, 2021: Paul Walker “No Dumpster Necessary”

Paul N. Walker    1/31/21   Christ Church     Mark 1:21-28         “No Dumpster Necessary”

     In the ridiculously rude and funny animated show South Park, Cartman is an elementary aged kid with slightly sociopathic tendencies. In one episode, he dresses up as a policeman and gets on his trike, tricked out with a siren and flashing lights. As he pedals down the road, a car whooshes by. Cartman turns on his siren and lights and pulls the car over, which is driven by the father of his friend, Stan.

     Stan’s father gets out of the car and the camera pans down to Cartman in his police uniform. He is about 2 feet tall. He screams, “You were speeding! Going 40 miles an hour! Do you know what the speed limit is!” Stan’s dad points to a 40 MPH speed limit sign. Then he says, “Hey! Aren’t you Stan’s little friend who always comes over and plugs up our toilet? You’re not a cop! Get back to elementary school.” At which point, Cartman starts pounding the dad’s shins with his baton and screaming, “I am a cop! Respect my authoritah! You’ve got to respect my authoritah!”

     The point of this ridiculous opening illustration is to remind you of what you already know: anyone who has to trumpet his or her authority to get respect obviously has no authority to begin with. Authority doesn’t naturally confer with an office or a uniform; true authority must come from within.

     Real authority is a rare commodity. Even the best of us undermines our own authority by our foibles, shortcomings, and inconsistencies. People being people, people who are shot through with sin, are a less than fertile ground out of which true authority can grow.

      I’ve noticed that even people whose authority has been truly earned, people who command respect without asking for it, will tend to doubt themselves from time to time. I have a friend who has be incredibly successful in his business and has the clear respect of his colleagues. 

     And yet, when he went through a rough patch, he was thrown into a crisis and wondered if he had lost his acumen and his touch. He floated the idea of closing up shop. One friend rightly told him, “Look, you didn’t accomplish all you’ve accomplished, then go to bed one night and wake up stupid the next morning. You’ve got to ride this out.” In the end, he did ride it out and things turned around.

     My point here is that genuine authority is as elusive as it is rare. Which is why the people at the synagogue were startled by Jesus. Today’s gospel reading takes place right at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry – chapter 1 of Mark, which was the very first written account of Jesus’ life. He walks into the synagogue in Capernaum and starts teaching. The scripture says, “they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Apparently, the scribes were trading on borrowed authority, much like Cartman. But not Jesus – the people immediately recognized and respected his authority.

     So much so that an unclean spirit within a man knew his reign of evil was coming to an end. “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.” In what must have been a most dramatic scene, Jesus rebukes the spirit, the poor man writhes on the floor screaming, and the demon flees the scene. Pretty strong illustration for Jesus’ first sermon!

     But here’s what caught my attention in this passage. After that alarming scene, the first thing the people say “What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” The exorcism was secondary – a kind of proof of Jesus’ authority. His teaching – really His Person – was primary. Again, genuine authority is as elusive as it is rare.

     So, what is this authoritative teaching of Jesus? We can speculate on what he taught in the synagogue that day, but it is better to stick with what we know. In Mark chapter 1, we just have 2 instances of Jesus speaking. One clearly demonstrates his authority – He commands two fishermen to drop their nets and follow Him – which the immediately do. And the other is the authoritative teaching which has gotten everyone’s rapt attention. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel.”

     Repent and believe the gospel. That is similar to what people had heard from John the Baptist. But obviously different. And with authority. How so? I will risk a grotesque over -simplification here. Pre gospel repentance is a little like fraternity hazing. You have to earn your stripes before you are accepted in the brotherhood. 

     One night when I was a pledge, the brothers picked the pledges up unannounced, blindfolded us, put us in cars, drove us around for 30 minutes, then put us – still blindfolded – in a dumpster, and drove off.  Turns out that it was the dumpster behind the fraternity house. Still, this episode was enough for me to decide I did not want this kind of repentance, so I de-pledged that fraternity!

     It is not an oversimplification to say that the fraternity model is the way of all religion everywhere. If you want to come to God, you better pay your dues. Make yourself worthy (repent) and then you will be accepted. But Jesus come with a new teaching – the gospel. No dumpster required. And, certainly no blindfold. In fact, repentance is taking the blindfold off and having an honest look at yourself.

     Repentance is simply an honest evaluation of yourself. It is saying, “I can’t do this. No matter how I try, I can’t make myself worthy. I can’t control my bad thoughts. If the truth be known (which is what true repentance is), what I really need to say to you, God, is that in all kinds of ways, I am the little engine that couldn’t. I need help. In fact, I need Your help.”

     Repent and believe the gospel. Help has been given to you in Jesus. In Him is the kingdom of God at hand. In His cross your sins have been forgiven. In His resurrection, you have been given life. And belief in Him is the only thing needful, even and especially if your life feels like a dumpster fire. 

     The gospel has authority because the gospel is true. That’s why real repentance and belief resonates so deeply in your heart. That’s why religious trickery always sticks in your craw. The gospel always goes down easy. So, my friends – and I say this on good authority – repent and believe the gospel.

     Amen.