Lectionary: Epiphany 4B

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Matthew B. Harper

A Sermon for Epiphany 4B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
1st Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Sometimes I think that perhaps life is simply safer and easier in prison than out. Life in here can be difficult, painful, and violent, but there is a clarity and honesty to it. The outside world, one I’ve only seen on TV and in glossy magazines for 20 years now, seems to be consumed with acrimony and judgment. Rather than bringing us closer together, new technology is just documenting how we are splitting ourselves into tribes, and casting our anger at others. We are a world in need of a savior.

The season of Epiphany, where we find ourselves today, is a transitional season. It is a season of revealing, a time of revelation when God is manifest in special ways. We have celebrated Advent and Christmas, a period both of foretelling and incarnation. God is here, and now we focus on seeing God at work, being revealed as we move towards Lent and Easter.

As Christians we are always looking and listening for God at work. We’ve read the stories these last few weeks, remembering God revealed to the Magi and revealed at Christ’s baptism. Today we are seeing Jesus revealed at the beginning of his ministry as one with authority to teach in the synagogue, as one with authority over unclean spirits, and, most importantly, as one who uses that authority to heal, reconcile, and give of himself in love.

Our reading from Deuteronomy comes late in Moses’ life. After God had manifested himself so dramatically at Mt. Horeb the people cried out for priests and intercessors. They knew they needed God, and knew they could not stand before God’s majesty without help. Moses was that first intercessor. Now the end of his life is in sight, and nobody knows what comes next.

There will continue to be priests and prophets God tells us. Moses will die, but God’s work continues. There will be men and women of God, and we are bound to listen and obey them. But there will also be those not of God, false prophets, trying to lead us astray. The rest of the chapter gives guidance on how we discern between righteous and false prophets.

Every promise in the Old Testament about priests and prophets to come is also a foreshadowing of Christ. Jesus the Christ is the high priest forever, but God never left himself without a witness. Throughout Paul’s letters to the early church he continually reminds all believers that we too are priests and prophets. We are disciples, apostles, and ministers to a broken and sinful world.

I think it therefore begs the question, are we true prophets of God, or are we the false prophets God warned about?…..

Mark’s gospel skips over our Advent and Christmas stories, and instead starts with the beginning of Christ’s earthly ministry. Jesus has come into the Synagogue, and is teaching with his own authority. The congregation discerned something about his presence and character that spoke of God. A man with an “unclean spirit” challenges Jesus. Something about this spirit recognized God, and thought only about God in terms of destruction. This possessed man, or the spirit within him, was afraid.

But God didn’t judge, God didn’t condemn, God healed. Jesus cast out this unclean spirit that the man might be made whole. Reading further into the gospels we know that this is the pattern of Christ’s life and ministry. He came not to condemn the world, but to heal it. To serve us, to save us, and all out of God’s great love for us.

What, do you think, was this “unclean spirit”? The phrase is so foreign to our thinking today that I want to suggest several possibilities. First, in ancient times many mental health issues were thought to be the work of evil spirits. Today we are better at identifying and helping those who suffer with mental illness, but there are many illnesses we cannot cure. The second possibility is a health issue, like epilepsy, that was also attributed to spiritual causes. Third, this spirit could be like the “spirit” that seems to damage the personality of many people. We all know individuals who are so consumed with anger, grievance, jealousy, or sorrow that it consumes and becomes part of their very being.

And, of course, no matter how foreign it sounds to us we must consider that this is demonic, a kind of fallen angel, who is in rebellion against God and has plagued this man to corrupt him and lead him to destruction.

Whatever the cause, he is suffering. Suffering in a way we can in fact relate to. And Jesus casts out his pain, offering him a chance at hope and healing.

So is Jesus a righteous prophet, or a false one?

Judging from this pericope alone we can say, “Righteous.” Why? Well, because Jesus acted with Godly authority, and used that authority to love and heal. Instead of offering condemnation, he offered hope.
So what does that mean for all of us? If we are priests and prophets how can we act with righteousness?

Paul, in writing to the church at Corinth, offers us enduring guidance. “Knowledge,” he says, “puffs up; but love builds up.”

That’s it. That’s the defining criteria that we see in Jesus and through Paul’s writing. In Corinth there were people eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. They knew these idols were false. Paul called them “so-called-gods.” They were right, and they focused on their “rights.” But in doing so they were hurting others.

Were they right? Absolutely.
Were they loving? Not so much.

Knowledge is important, but by itself it is empty. It only puffs us up. But love, love that seeks to bestow blessings, truly build us up. For these Corinthian believers being “right” was more important than being loving. Their “rights” were more important than their relationships.

False prophets indeed.

How does any of that affect us, and what does it have to do with Epiphany?

First we have to understand that Epiphany isn’t something that just happens to us, it is something we are part of. This isn’t just a testimony about God being revealed TO us, it is a reality of God being manifest THROUGH us.

In prison our community has a popular saying: “You may be the only Bible someone ever reads.”

Think on that for a moment.

“You may be the only Bible someone ever reads.”

Well… what does that Bible say?

You are part of God’s epiphany to the world. We call ourselves Apostles, Disciples, priests and prophets, these are all ways of saying we are The Body of Christ. We are Jesus people, and all we do and say is part of God’s continuing ministry to the world.

Are you focused on your “rights”, or your service to others? Are you consumed with being right, or with being loving? What “so-called” idols are there in your life? What impure spirits have tormented you?

In prison there are few illusions about righteousness. We are all sinners. And we are all from deeply divided tribes. Separated by race, politics, poverty, education, and religion we still live in intimate proximity to one another. The role of peacemaker is desperately needed. Acting in love means listening to one another, accepting one another, and forgiving one another. Not because of us, but because of God.

I’m an outsider, but I’m also an insider, and the world I see beyond these prison walls is a world in need of a savior. I see a world full of people obsessed with being right, and with demonizing the people who disagree with them. We divide into our different tribes, and stop reaching out. We have forgotten how to listen, and we are forgetting how to love.

Race
Religion
Politics
Social issues
Abortion
Homosexuality
Guns
Taxes
Immigration
President Trump

We are so ready to fight.

Can you really love your neighbor? Can you listen without judging? Can you believe you are right, while also allowing that you might be wrong? Can you hold in your heart and prayers those on the other side of the issues, those from a different ‘tribe’?

Can you seek healing, and not condemnation, for those who oppose and challenge you?

Can you be a disciple of Christ to this lost and sinful world?

Think on these things. Ponder what it means not just to receive an Epiphany, but also to be one. Not to be a false prophet, but a righteous one. The world needs God, and God wants to use all of us.

Today, as we pray our prayers for the people, let us ask God’s help to do this.

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