Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany for Year B (February 1, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Deuteronomy reminds us that, while we may feel it is a dangerous thing to hear directly from God, we still maintain a responsibility for whomever it it is that we DO listen to. Are we hearing the right voices? When we hear, are we seeking to be obedient? And — for preachers and proclaimers — are we rightly saying what it is that God has given us to say? God’s word is great — speaking and hearing it bears great responsibility.

Psalm 111 gives us many “every day” reasons to praise and thank God. Making space for the reverence of God is a wise beginning for any life.

The Apostle Paul is often criticized for being “picky” in the directions he gives to the congregations that he writes. To be fair, especially here in this section of Corinthians, he is responding directly to questions that have been asked. At issue is meat sacrificed to idols — i.e., “false gods” that don’t really exist. Is it okay for a Christian, who doesn’t believe in such “false gods,” to go ahead and pick up some nice veal down at the discount idol-food store and take it home to the family? Paul says, in effect, “Yeah — you can do that and be clear as far as your own conscience is concerned — but just be aware that somebody else (like maybe your own children, or a good friend) might not have the same attitude about it. Don’t do anything that is going to damage them just because you can.”

The passage from Mark for today has the crowds also having to determine the truth/validity of the words they are hearing from Jesus; this man is speaking “new teaching.” It sounds amazing, but is it “true” for us? We can never give up asking this question. Again, both speaker and hearer bear some responsibility in delivering God’s message.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In today’s lesson from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by teaching in the Synagogue. His teaching was met by astonishment, “They were astounded,” is how Mark put it. Their surprise was not so much at what he taught, but at the authority with which he taught it. “For He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” The scribes taught like translators, like interpreters. Instead of saying “This is what God says,” the scribes said, “This is what God means and this is how you should respond!”

Each of our lessons deals with issues of a community of faith trying to live faithfully in a world that is full of evil influences.  And to live faithfully, a community needs a leader, a “voice of authority,’ to help them navigate through a dangerous world.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is presented to us as Moses’ farewell sermon to the Israelites before they cross over Jordan into the “promised land.” It deals with two issues.

Firstly, since God is not allowing Moses to go into the promised land people are wondering, “Who will tell us about God when Moses is with us no more?” Moses shares with them the promise that God will provide a prophet. “Your God will raise up for you a prophet like me, from among your own people.”

Secondly, in words about not listening to false prophets, and about false prophets dying; the text calls the Israelites to separate themselves from the surrounding culture. These words seem very harsh to modern ears. It is important to note that the Israelites were going among the Canaanites who practiced child-sacrifice. The concern was about giving in to the spirit of the age.

I Corinthians warnings about “food offered to idols” is another cultural mystery for us in the 21st century. It seems to have nothing to do with us. But, we recognize that just as Christians in first century Corinth lived in a culture that had values very different from those of  Christianity, so do we. On a variety of issues we in the church stand at cross purposes with the world in which we live, And because, the only alternative to separating from the culture, like the Amish, is to live as participants in our culture, we look for a “word from the Lord, ” to help us steer a Christian course, as individuals and as a community.  Just as Paul attempts to steer a Christian course in an alien culture, we must look to scripture, tradition and the wisdom of the community to work together to find our way.

Our Gospel lesson from Mark draws these concerns about the world and about authoritative teaching together. We’ve already talked about how the people were astonished that Jesus taught with authority. The text goes on to show Jesus acting with authority to confront evil, even in the household of faith. (I am fascinated by the line, “there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit.” I’m just wondering; was he a first time visitor, or was he on the church council?)

Too often in the church, we identify the evil as out there and the good as in here. The great Russian novelist and ardent Orthodox Christian Alexander Solzhenitzen said something to the effect that, “the line between good and evil does not go between countries or empires or religions or political systems. The line between good and evil goes right down the middle of every human heart.”

Jesus comes to remove the unclean spirits from all of us, to attack that line that goes down the middle of our hearts. Like the man with the unclean spirit, we often wish the holy would leave us alone to live lives of selfishness, materialism and devotion to the pleasures of the flesh. But, as the demons in our story recognized; Jesus, the Living Word of God, has come to us on a mission of destruction, with an agenda of anarchy. The Word comes to tear down the walls of separation that keep us apart. The Word comes to break the chains that keep us in bondage to badness. The Word comes to wipe out the diseases of the soul that keep us from knowing God’s love and from loving one another. Yes, the Living Word which is the Christ comes to destroy, but he destroys in order to rebuild, reconstruct, recreate, remake us in the image of Christ.

Amen and amen.

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