Year B — The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Commentary for January 29, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
The old saw, from George Carlin originally, is that “atheism is a non-prophet institution.”
 

Certainly, the role of the prophet in Israel’s religion is a central one. We are urged to listen and pay attention to the words of a true prophet. (What that constitutes is sometimes a bit up for grabs.)

But the prophet is bound pretty seriously by his or her claim to speak a word from God, as well. Verse 20 says that claiming to speak for God — when actually you are not — is worthy of death. Might want to think about that, preachers, the next time you enter your pulpit!

Psalm 111
Half-hearted. Lukewarm. Tepid. Unenthusiastic.

These are not words that describe any organization or effort that most of us would want to be a part of, do they? In fact, if we find ourselves in the throes of lethargy and boredom while attending a meeting or event, we generally will go to great lengths to find a reason to excuse ourselves and move on to something more productive — or at least more interesting.

The psalmist reminds us that worship is to be “whole-hearted.” This is the greatest enterprise in heaven or on earth. Come on people of God, let’s give it all we’ve got! Or, our audience (God) might just look for an excuse to head on out somewhere else!

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Knowledge and authority — and their proper use — are part of the theme running through today’s readings. For each of us as Christ’s followers, there are some things that we “know,” Paul writes. 

I “know” that a particular behavior or action is “okay” for me; it does not cause me any harm in my faithful walk with Christ. Someone else, however, may have a concern about that action. I need to have some level of consideration for what they “don’t know” as compared to what I do.


We could probably construct a long list of such questionable actions, depending on our culture, the time period, our particular theological leanings, etc. For the Corinthians, it as all about idol meat. Growing up in a small, rural West Tennessee town in the 1960’s-70’s, for me it was “dancing and drinking.” (Some thought good Christians could do those things in moderation; others thought it must surely be a sin!)


So, what do you know? And even more importantly, how does what you know help either to advance or to limit the purposes of God and God’s reign in the lives of those around you?

Mark 1:21-28
Jesus never had to pull an Eric Cartman (“You will respect my authori-tah!”)

All he had to do was what he was sent to do — teach and preach the good news of God’s grace — and people sensed the authority in his words.

We are often taught or coached that we must convince people to have faith in Christ, or to hold a particular interpretation when it comes to particular doctrines or theological interpretations. Some of our traditions may even require obedience to authority represented in a bishop, superintendent or other ecclesiastical office.

Regardless, there is an authenticity that comes from representing God openly, honestly and truthfully (see commentary on Deut. 18, above.) Whether or not one’s message on behalf of God is ever accepted, the power of it will be plain to see when it is offered in the spirit of Christ.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Back in the early 1990’s former President Jimmy Carter was on the David Letterman show. He told a story about going on a speaking tour of Japan.
He said he told a little joke and, after the interpreter had finished translating, the room erupted in laughter. Carter was both surprised and pleased.
After the speech an old friend of Carter’s who spoke Japanese told him why everyone had laughed so loudly.
The interpreter had said, “President Carter has told a very funny story. Everyone should laugh now.”
Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus “taught as one having authority, not as the scribes.”
In this case, the scribes were like President Carter’s interpreter, telling people how they should feel and respond rather than making clear what God had said..
Most people have gotten accustomed to getting our truth from interpreters who tell us how we should feel, how we should respond.
From parents to pastors to politicians; from teachers to TV talking heads; our ears are bombarded by the voices of interpreters telling us how we should feel, how we should respond, to everything from eating our veggies to the latest uptick in the stock market.
And most of us, most of the time, have learned to listen to our interpreters with a grain of salt, sort of half-listening to what is said as they drone on in monotonous, “should”ing mode.
Which is what makes an authentic and true voice so startling. A voice like the voice of Jesus, who “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (the interpreters)” (vs. 22)
When Jesus preached at Capernaum, the text says the people were astounded and amazed. They didn’t know what to do, nobody was telling them how to feel or what to do, whether to laugh or not.
Genuine freedom is a very frightening thing. And emotional freedom is the most frightening freedom of all, as the casting out of the unclean spirit shows.
Without debating spirits and demons and mental illness and emotional compulsion and all that; can we say that the unclean spirit is that which is in all of us that resists genuine freedom and responsibility in our lives?
Upon hearing the voice of authority, a voice declaring our freedom; our unclean spirits immediately resist because our unclean spirits recognize in that voice of freedom the call to change.
Indeed, the unclean spirit is correct when it accuses Jesus of having come on a mission of destruction, “Have you come to destroy us?”
Jesus does indeed come into the world and into our lives with an agenda of anarchy.
Jesus came to tear down any and all walls of separation that keep God’s people apart from one another.
Jesus came to erase the structures of slavery to sin which keep us in bondage to our own badness.
Jesus came to wipe out the diseases of the soul that keep us from knowing God’s love and hold us back from loving one another.
Yes, Jesus came to destroy.
But, he came to destroy in order to rebuild, to reconstruct, to recreate.
Jesus came to remake us in the image of God.
To make of us new creatures in Christ.
It is no wonder that unclean spirits, past and present, are afraid.
They know that the coming of Christ spells the end of their reign of fear in the human heart.
In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the children are somewhat afraid when they learn that the savior of the Narnians is Aslan, a lion.
Is he safe?’ they ask, “Safe!” the beaver responds, “Of course not. He’s a lion. But he’s good.”
Just so, Jesus is not safe; he did indeed come to destroy.
But he is good, because he also came to remake us into the wonderful and loving human beings God made us to be in the first place.
And it is no wonder that the people were both astounded and amazed.
In the clear, un-interpreted, un-translated, rural accented voice of Jesus they heard a call to freedom, a call to shuck off all the shoulds they had heard all their lives.
In that voice, they heard a call to respond to the love of the one who loved them.
In that voice, they heard a call to leave fear behind and to step out in freedom to do God’s work in God’s way in the world.
In that voice, they heard a call to love the unlovely, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to cry out against unclean spirits of war and oppression, injustice and indignity wherever they have a stranglehold on human lives.
In that voice they heard the voice of God say, “I love you, come follow me.”
Amen and amen.

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