Sermon delivered on the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.
Lectionary texts: Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8.1-13; Mark 1.21-28.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This morning I want to continue to look at the theme of God’s Kingdom and the new creation that both Fr. Eric and I have talked about over the last three weeks. Specifically, I want to look briefly at what we might learn from Jesus about the Kingdom when we see him teaching and acting with authority as he did when he healed the demoniac in today’s gospel lesson. Remember, the stories that ended up in the gospels didn’t get there by accident. The gospel writers had a reason for including them and we need to pay attention to what each story has to say to us, curious as they might sound to our 21st century ears, at least at first blush.
In today’s OT lesson, we get a pretty accurate snapshot of the human condition. The teaching Moses is giving Israel takes place in the desert. God’s people are about to enter the promised land but without their leader, Moses, and this has the Israelites more than a little unnerved. Faced with the prospect of having no human leader, they are naturally afraid and wonder who will lead them into the promised land. Sure, God has been with his people in the desert in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, but ironically that’s been part of the problem! The reason God’s people have wandered in the desert for forty years is because they have consistently refused to listen to God and his prophet, Moses. Moreover, as today’s text reminds us, God’s people are afraid to come into God’s direct presence because they know they would surely die. They are sin-stained and know God cannot countenance sin or evil of any kind in his holy Presence.
This is a classic-love hate relationship between God and his people, at least from our human perspective. On the one hand, Israel knows she cannot survive or take over the promised land without God’s presence and help. On the other hand, God’s people had consistently demonstrated that they would much rather try to do things their own way and resented God meddling in their lives. Consequently, Israel had a history of disobedience and rebellion in the desert that caused her time in exile to extend far longer than anyone wanted. Sound familiar? As Augustine once prayed, “Give me chastity, Lord. But not yet!”
Now we may not be wandering in a physical desert, but many of us remain alienated from God nevertheless. Like our spiritual forebears wandering in the desert and waiting to enter God’s promised land, far too often we would prefer that God just butt out of our lives and let us live in the manner we see fit. After all, we know far better than God about what is good and right for us, don’t we? Of course, we all know this is ridiculous but it illustrates well the plight of the human condition. Badly flawed and with a limited perspective, we are all control freaks to one degree or another, all the while knowing deep down (at least if we are honest with ourselves) that we are not up to the task of living life the way we were created to live it. Simply put, we just don’t seem to want to trust God completely, in part, because we aren’t sure if God can deliver on his promises to rescue us from our hurts and fears and all that can go wrong in life. This flawed human tendency has been exacerbated for us here in the West, in part, because we don’t have a clear idea of what God has in store for us or what it means to live in his Kingdom.
Thankfully, however, God is faithful, loving, and full of grace, and continues to reach out to us to rescue us from ourselves and the sin that enslaves us. We see this truth illustrated in today’s OT lesson when God promises to give his people a prophet who will help guide and teach them so that they can be for God the people he calls us to be. Like Moses, the only person ever to know the Lord face to face (Deuteronomy 34.10), God’s promised prophet would know God so intimately that he could be trusted to be God’s faithful mouthpiece, the primary function of prophets and prophecy. At first blush the text suggests that God would always provide his people with a prophetic voice, as indeed the historical and prophetic narrative of the OT confirms. But as Israel would discover, not all prophets were who they claimed to be and many led Israel astray. Even when they were legitimate, prophets like Moses quickly learned that they and their message were not generally well received. For example, tradition claims that Isaiah was sawed in half by his own people because they did not like what God had to say to them through his prophet. Such a deal. But we can understand the people’s reaction, even if we don’t agree with it. Who among us likes to be told that we are failing miserably, especially when it comes to our relationship with God and being faithful to his calling for us? We may not reach for a saw, but we have our ways of showing God and his messengers our displeasure!
Despite these problems (which are problems with humans, not God), Israel continued to hope for God’s promised prophet and increasingly saw him as being intimately connected with the Messiah, if not the Messiah himself—God’s anointed person who would usher in God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven. We see an example of such thinking illustrated in the so-called four Servant Songs of Isaiah (cf. Isaiah 42.1-4; 49.1-6; 50.4-11; 52.13-53.12) where the Servant (God’s Messiah) would be fully endowed with God’s Spirit so that he could be trusted to be God’s faithful mouthpiece to guide God’s people. More importantly, this Servant, by suffering for his people and bearing their sins, would be the agent of God’s healing love and new creation so that God’s people would have their exile and alienation from God ended forever (cf. Isaiah 54.1-55.13). In other words, this Servant would signal the beginning of God’s promised Kingdom. Given the human condition, however, it is not surprising that many Israelites forgot or rejected this suffering Servant theme in favor of a conquering and heroic prophet/Messiah, more in line with the successful exploits of king David. After all, it’s a lot sexier and more glamorous to desire a conquering hero than a crucified Messiah, the latter being a contradiction in terms to most Jews of Jesus’ day.
Fast-forwarding the clock, we see this expectation of a prophet/Messiah still percolating vigorously in Israel in Jesus’ day. We recall that this was one of the first questions people asked John the Baptist: “Are you the prophet?” And this brings us to today’s gospel lesson because we have to stop and ask the same question about Jesus. Is he the promised prophet? Well, yes and no.
Yes in the sense that there was clearly a prophetic function in Jesus’ ministry. We saw previously that this was part of Jesus’ vocation when he was baptized and of course Jesus did announce the Good News of the coming of God’s Kingdom. We also see Jesus being God’s mouthpiece in his teaching and that brings us to today’s gospel lesson. Mark tells us that the people were astonished when they heard Jesus’ teaching because he taught them as one who has authority. Notice carefully that Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, simply that he taught with authority. So clearly there was a prophetic function or dimension in Jesus’ ministry.
But thanks be to God Jesus was more than just the promised prophet! Jesus was God himself. Surely if Jesus is the Word of God as John teaches us in his gospel (cf. John 1.1-18), then it is Jesus to whom all the other prophets of Israel had listened. That’s why when Jesus spoke, people listened and were astonished by his authority. But not only did Jesus speak and teach with authority, he backed up his words by deeds of power and authority as we also see in today’s gospel lesson. Even the demons who were hostile to Jesus and God’s good plans for his creation acknowledged Jesus to be God’s Messiah. Here is an authority that really speaks!
More importantly for us, when we see Jesus casting out demons and performing healing miracles of all kinds, it reminds us that we are seeing God himself introducing signs of new creation into his world and we had better pay attention to this precisely because they are signs of healing and restoration that will accompany God’s promised new creation. We have a hard time making sense of “miracles” like these if Jesus isn’t who he claimed to be and if God’s promise of new creation weren’t true. But they make complete sense if we understand Jesus’ acts of power as glimpses of what God has in store for us in the new creation. In other words, Jesus could bring these acts of power to bear in this world precisely because he is who he claimed to be, God incarnate, and this is what Mark is trying to get us to see. Here is God, embodied in Jesus, coming to his people as promised, announcing that his Kingdom is near and bringing all kinds of astonishing acts of healing and redemption to bear on people, culminating in his saving death and mighty resurrection. Mark is inviting us to see these signs as proof that God is trustworthy and indeed in control, putting to right all the wrongs that human sin and rebellion have caused.
And this, of course, will require us all to decide what we are going to do about Jesus and his authority. Are we going to be like the demons who acknowledge Jesus’ authority but who obey him unwillingly or are we going to acknowledge Jesus’ authority and obey him willingly? One choice will get us kicked out of the party while the other will get us invited in. And like it or not, there is no fence sitting. To not decide is to decide. Everyone of us has to make this choice and so we are invited to use our minds to look at the entire record to help us choose wisely. This is ultimately why stories like today’s end up in the gospels. There’s a mind-boggling party awaiting those who choose to give their lives to the One who has the power to heal and redeem us and who promises us the hope of a glorious new creation where evil is defeated forever, where all our hurts and brokenness are healed, and where even death itself is abolished. But to join the party, we must choose to follow this Jesus. And how do we do that? Jesus himself tells us: By denying ourselves, taking up our cross each day, and following him. Nothing less will do.
But what does this mean? What does it look like to deny ourselves each day, take up our cross, and follow Jesus? We see a wonderful example of what this kind of radical lifestyle change means in today’s Epistle lesson where Paul schools the church at Corinth on what it means to be a follower of Jesus and a member of his body, the Church. The issue Paul addresses was specific to the church at Corinth but the underlying principle applies to Christians everywhere and at all times. Paul is telling us that denying ourselves means, in part, that we have to be very careful and look out for the welfare of other believers, something that goes against our grain.
For example, whenever my dad went out to dinner with his minister, he never drank in front of that minister. I asked him about this one time and whether he wasn’t just being a hypocrite. “No,” he replied. Most ministers he knew didn’t drink and so dad, who was not a big drinker himself, refrained out of respect for the minister. Now would dad have destroyed a minister’s faith if he would have had a drink in front of that minister? Hardly. But that misses the point Paul is trying to make. Dad denied himself so as to avoid possibly offending the sensibilities of a fellow beliver. That didn’t come naturally. He had to work at it and so do we.
This principle has all kinds of other applications for us as well. For example, what are we to do when something a fellow believer does offends us during worship? Being typically human, we immediately get all puffed up by our knowledge and start criticizing the other (they should know better, etc. etc.). Every one of us here has done that. But that is not denying self or taking up our cross. Certainly, there are times and situations where the behavior of others is genuinely selfish or destructive to us and we must insist that they stop. Denying self does not mean we become a doormat to a fellow believer or never get our way. But in the course of human conflict, if we are going to follow Jesus, this principle of denying self and looking out for the welfare of our fellow believers had better rise to the front, and quickly. Otherwise, we are no better than the pagan and godless world to which God calls us to minister and be his agents of new creation. When conflicts arise in our church, as they inevitably will, we should immediately read and seek guidance from texts like Matthew 18.15-20 and today’s passage from Paul. Otherwise, we in effect say to Jesus like the demons did, “I know who you are, Jesus, but I choose not to obey you willingly.” And if that happens consistently enough, we are effectively telling God thanks but not thanks to his gracious invitation to us to live with him in this life and in his promised new creation which we see in-breaking all throughout the Gospel.
But when, by God’s grace and the help of the Spirit, we choose to say yes to Jesus’ gracious invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow him, we prepare ourselves to live as citizens of the future new creation and in the meantime we are enabled by the Spirit to bring God’s healing love and redemption to people and the world around us who desperately need that love. Sure, there will be scoffers. But there will also be others who look at us and exclaim in astonishment, “Look how those Christians love each other! What’s that all about? Is that what we have to look forward to in the new creation?” When that happens, of course, we will have a further sign of Jesus’ authority in and among us as we struggle to live faithful lives in the power of the Spirit and the hope of God’s promised new creation. And when that happens, we know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.