A Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Epiphany; Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111,
1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark 1:21-28
The first unusual thing I can remember in a worship service was a sermon that was preached from behind the altar. Near the beginning, our priest pulled a big the dollhouse out from beneath the altar and used it as a prop. It was a long time ago a really, long time ago, and I don’t know what he said, but I remember the prop.
The second one was after a Mother’s Day service when the priest pretty much blamed mothers for all things wrong in the universe. As we stood up after the service to leave, the lady behind my mother tapped her on the shoulder and quietly said: “Well, we know who got cold grits for breakfast.”
My little brother developed a habit of using his finger to shoot the choir members as they processed. She worked for weeks to get him to stop. And one Sunday he did; of course, that was the Sunday our Rector used his finger to shoot my little brother as he went by.
There were a couple of worship disruptions that were obvious to the whole congregation. One Sunday an older lady passed out as communion started. A couple of parish doctors went to her side, the priest came down the aisle and blessed her. Some young men carried her to the lobby and the local ambulance, this was before the days of EMSs, came and took her to the local emergency room. She was back in church the next Sunday, and all things were mostly forgotten.
Perhaps the most exciting liturgical disturbance happened during the reading of the Gospel. The crucifer was facing me I was reading the Gospel when I saw his eyes roll back in his head. He was passing out with the heavy cast iron processional cross, with lovely but very pointed ivy leaf ends. I recall him going one way; me just missing grabbing him as he fell backward the cross going the other way; and the people in the pews going every which a way to get to the acolyte and dodge the cross. His parent got the acolyte to the office and called the EMTs. The congregation dusted themselves off, shook the wrinkles out of their clothes. Next week all was back to normal.
None of these misadventures rises quite to the level of having a daemon possessed member W A I L out at the end of the sermon. More importantly none of them reveal a prophetic voice, which is one of the things that happens in this morning’s Gospel. But before we get there, let’s explore what Deuteronomy is leading us to understand about prophets.
We heard Moses say
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; (Deuteronomy 18:15).
What kind of prophet is Moses? Is he
- a prophet from the royal prince of Pharaoh’s house?
- or the newly arrived older brother who breaks up the fight between two Hebrews and then flees when challenged “Who are you, ~ will you kill us like you killed the overseer?”
- or perhaps the shepherd who hears voices from a flaming, but not burning bush off the side of the sheep path?
- or maybe the chosen one who constantly tries to avoid the assigned task?
- or the brave one who challenges God on behalf of the Hebrews?
- or the committed one who calls the Hebrews to account for their miss deeds?
When we look at Moses’ story we see that he is a complex figure. He is often a dynamic, brave, inspiring leader, and we can see his prophetic character. He is also a spoiled, privileged, timid, uncertain man we cannot imagine leading anyone anywhere. The learning here is that since as complex and flawed a person as Moses is a prophet, actually, one of the model prophets, then there is no reason for us to relax, because any of us may be called to give voice to God’s words, any of us may be called to be a prophet for God’s people (Bridgeman; Bratt). While this may raise our expectations, or our anxiety, it does not help us understand who a prophet is? Just who is a prophet? What is a prophet?
Our word ‘prophet’ comes from the Greek interpretation of the Hebrew navi which means “someone who is called” or “someone who calls upon the gods.” A prophet may also be called seer, or a man of God, (Sakenfeld; Hatchett; Easton) Those who shared a message from God are generally referred to as a prophet; those with a divine vision are often called a seer (Easton). Women could be prophets; Deborah, one of the Israel’s early Judges is also a prophet. Prophets spoke predictions, judgement, they also
- spoke to God,
- they critiqued and gave advice to the kings,
- they called Israel to honor God,
- they wrote,
- they tested Israel as a people and as individuals,
- and they served as ‘watchmen’ for moral compromise again for individual and the nation, as ministers, and intercessors for Israel and sometimes for her enemies.
God realizes that Israel would be, and that we are, tempted to adopt the practices of her neighbors’ competing value systems (Bratt). God knew the inherited offices of priests and kings were vulnerable to being unresponsive to the changing religious and social circumstances (Clements). Divine awareness of Israel’s and our failures includes times of crisis, and other pivotal dynamic moments, in their and our, social history (Clements). This includes the collapse of both kingdoms that fell apart in the face of unstoppable external and internal pressures. Some sought to retrieve many of their fundamental values (Clements). Nonetheless it was necessary that qualified people be available to mediate between the people and God (Clements). It still is.
Who these divine moderators are is difficult to determine. Just who is a prophet? And who is a false prophet? Prophets are often rejected, so a prophet has to be prepared to be called a heretic, be rejected by Kings, priests, and scorned by the people, including family, friends, and neighbors (Lewis). True prophets serve only God, they cannot be discovered by divining, soothsaying, hydromancy, sorcery, astrology, spellcasting, or necromancy because this kind of magic corrupts the proper relationship between God and creation (Gaventa and Petersen – Deuteronomy). I expect modern algorithms are equally ineffective for similar reason. Magic and math aside, the supernatural is not. Many prophets are associated with miracles – including healing (Hatchett). A true prophet stands up to the authorities, challenges established and assumed powers, is committed to law, and justice, that is equitably administered, crosses into spaces where no one has dared to go, and rips apart the barriers, boundaries, and borders that separate God’s people from God or each other (Lewis; Clements). A true prophet bears witness, their life is an example of phileos those deep personal bonds of affection (The Living Curch; Clements). Perhaps the truest way of identifying a prophet is their deep awareness of God’s agency within the human-divine relationship; the way in which God had guided Israel in the past and guides us today and how they acknowledge the invaluable divine gift they have (Harrelson Psalm 111; Gaventa and Petersen – Psalm 111).
Jesus is often referred to as a prophet. The people’s amazement at his teaching in the synagogue, that is something new with authority is one sign of his prophetic calling. That his presence in the synagogue disturbs Pharisees, and Scribes who are distressed by his teaching that challenge their traditions and expertise is another sign of his prophetic calling (Perkins). The conflict between Jesus and the daemon is a conflict between powers of good and evil (Kittredge). The question What have we to do with you? is an effort to control the encounter by distancing Jesus; and it emphasizes the hostility of the encounter (Thomas Nelson – Mark). Casting the Daemon out demonstrates Jesus’ divine authority and identifies him as a miracle worker (Perkins); which is a continuing theme in Mark’s Gospel story and sign his prophetic calling (Keener and Walton – Mark) The daemon’s defeat reveals that Satan’s power is failing, because Jesus is here to redeem God’s people, which indicates the Kingdom of God is drawing near (Perkins). Jesus silencing the daemon overcomes the threat of gaining a reputation of being an exorcist (Perkins). All of these are part of reveling that Jesus is a prophet in Moses’ tradition.
The problem in Corinth beneath the question about eating meat offered as a sacrifice is the nature of the social classes in the Christian community in Corinth (Gaventa and Petersen – 1 Corinthians). Paul’s basic argument is that
Christian community is founded on the one fact: Christ died for each person. That, and nothing else, is the common basis of Christian community. Therefore, to cause harm or even stumbling for someone for whom Christ died is [a slander] against Christ (Sampley).
The Corinthians, as should we, should be making all their decisions not based on power, privilege or right, but on love and on building up everyone in the community (Harrelson – 1 Corinthians). Scott Hoezee asks What is the loving thing to do here in Christ? Borrowing an old phrase, I foresee and new wrist band WLTWJD – what loving thing would Jesus do (Hoezee, 1 Corinthians).
I mentioned earlier that Moses’ complex flawed personality raises the possibility that at some completely unexpected time we may be called to speak a prophetic message or share a prophetic vision. Yes, ~ I know the feeling. And in today’s world in which we are experiencing so many cultural, social, political, and moral traditions and rules fading away we struggle not only to keep our bearing and stand strong, we also struggle to see the relevance of God/Jesus/Spirit.
So soon after Christmas, there are no halleluiahs in the air. In such a time when halleluiahs stick in our throats Psalm 111 offers renewal. It is one of the Psalms of “Orientation” … a reminder that the world is ruled by our gracious and compassionate God. Yes, everything looks like it is all wrong; but appearances are deceiving; God is righteous, God knows and loves each and every one of you (Mast). The psalmist or the psalm itself is a prophetic voice; sharing with us that the knowledge and wisdom to navigate these seemingly unhinged times lies not in ourselves, though we will be instruments, but in God’s eternal commitment to you, and God’s eternal love for you (McCann Jr).
I would just as not experience another memorable disruption in a worship service. And I expect you’d just as soon that today’s turbulent times quickly become calm waters. I cannot see through the shadows of this valley. However, I do trust God; I trust God to continue to govern all things on earth. I do trust divine peace is yours to receive,
so that you need not fear the changes of life,
but that you can look to them full of hope as they arise.
God, whose you are, will deliver you from them.
He has kept you safe this far,
and he will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it any longer
God will hold you deep in his arms.
Do not be afraid of what may happen tomorrow;
the same ever-loving Father who cares for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
He will shield you from suffering
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.
So, let’s put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations
and be at peace (adapted from St. Francis DeSalles benediction).
Biasdell, Machrina. What’s the Question?, Epiphany 4 (B). 28 1 2018. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/>.
Bratt, Doug. Epiphany 4B Deuteronomy 18:15-20 . 28 1 2018. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Bridgeman, Valerie. Commentary on Deuteronomy 18:15-20. 28 1 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.
Easton, Matthew George. “Prophet.” Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp. n.d.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 28 1 2018. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Hannan, Shauna. Commentary on Psalm 111. 28 1 2018.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hatchett, Randy. “PROPHECY, PROPHETS.” Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent C. Butler. Prod. Holman Bible Publishers. n.d.
Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 4B Mark 1:21-28. 28 1 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
—. Epiphany 4B 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. 28 1 2018. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-18c/>.
Kamudzandu, Israel. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.” 28 1 2017. Working Preacher. <workingpreacher.org>.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Kittredge, Cynthia Briggs. Commentary on Mark 1:21-28. 28 1 2018. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.
Lewis, Karoline. “What Is This?”. 28 1 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.
Mast, Stan. Epiphany 4 B Psalm 111. 28 1 2018. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/>.
McCann Jr, J Clinton. The New Interpreter Bible Commentary The Book of Psalms (NIBC) Job 42:10. Vol. III. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.
Perkins, Pheme. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Mark. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Bel and the Dragon. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Sampley, J. Paul. New Interpreter’s Bible Commemtary The First Letter to The Corinthians. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. IX. Nashville: Abingdon, 2015. X vols.
The Living Curch. 1/28: Witness to the Word. 28 1 2018. <livingchurch.org/1/28: Witness to the Word>.
Thomas Nelson. The Chronological Study Bible NIV. Nashville: HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc. (NIV Chronological Study Bible) Genesis 1:1, 2014. OliveTreeapp.
Walton, John. Chronological and Background Charts of teh Old Testament. GrandRapids: Academie Books, 1978.