Sunday, February 1, 2009

Words of Authority: A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany

Preached at St. Mark’s Chapel, CFB Greenwood, 1 February, 2009

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, Mark : 21-28

This week I met that kind and gallant chaplain, Padre Foz, and he asked me if I could use a break from preaching, since I’m currently tasked to take full time French language training. “Mon Dieu, mais non, Monsieur!” I said (and of course I said it in French). I thanked Foz for his very kind offer, but insisted that its important for me to preach on a regular basis. Preaching, I said, is like any other skill or discipline, and needs to be practiced. After saying goodbye to Foz and looking at the readings for this Sunday, I thought to myself, “Mon Dieu, what have I got myself into?”

Today’s first lesson contains words that should strike fear into any preacher’s heart. In this passage from Deuteronomy, the dying Moses is giving words of instruction to the people of Israel before they cross into the promised land. God, he promises them, will send the Israelites prophets to continue to lead them. God will give these prophets words so that they “shall speak ... everything that I command”. Well, so far so good, I thought to myself. But then comes the kicker. Moses warns that “any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak – that prophet shall die” (Deut 8:20). Reading that passage makes me want to back away slowly from the pulpit, and, like Buggs Bunny in the famous cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”, say “Bye-yee!” and vanish into hiding.

If you were listening to the first lesson, you should have also had a nervous moment, because Moses has words of warning for congregations as well as for preachers. As Moses tells the Israelites, God has warned that “Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable” (Deut 18:19). That passage puts a heavy weight of responsibility on listeners as well as preachers. It reminds us that we are all engaged in a serious business, and that the sermon is taking us into places where angels fear to tread. Are you sure you want to stay and listen, or should we just go for coffee now and call it a day?

Why don’t we stay and risk it, and consider, first of all, why we take this risk, Sunday by Sunday, of hoping to hear the voice of God. After all, it is a risky business, and we’d be foolish to forget that fact. At the beginning of our first lesson, Moses asks the Israelites to remember the time when God spoke to them from the heights of Mount Sinai, referred to here by its other name of Mount Horeb. “This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die” (Deut 18:16). If we go back to the original story in Exodus of Mount Sinai and God’s gift of the Ten Commandments to Israel, we find that it was a pretty scary time. The mountain was wreathed in smoke and was shaking, God’s voice was like thunder, and the people were told to stay away lest they perish.

However, it was all for a purpose. God gave a way of life to the Israelites, that they were to follow. They were to worship God and keep his laws, and were not to follow the false gods of neighbouring peoples. In return , God would make this group of escaped slaves into a blessing for the whole world. “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mind, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). In other words, Israel’s job was to lead by example. They were to show the rest of world that living in a relationship with God was the best possible life, the greatest blessing, that the world could imagine. Israel had been brought out of slavery, and this covenant relationship with God would keep them free.

Sunrise at Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula

Hopefully this passage puts your mind at ease. Knowing the context behind today’s first lesson, we can be reassured that we are gathered here as part of God’s plan to make us a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. We are here because we have been called in our turn to be part of God’s people, to do our part in showing God’s love to a hurting world, and to invite others to come and joins us as God’s people. But what about those dire warnings in our first lesson about what happens when we get it wrong as preachers and as congregations? Is God really going to punish us if we make a mistake in speaking or in listening, if we fail to get it right? It rather seems like we are on a pretty narrow spiritual path, with danger lurking on either side if we get it wrong.

So with these dangers in mind, how do we know when we are hearing an authentic voice of prophecy? How do we know when we are hearing God’s voice? After all, not all preachers come across with the authority of a Moses or a Billy Graham.

There are a lot of competing voices out there. Within Christian churches we find many different calls to follow God in different ways. Some ask us to embrace the world and be tolerant to other faiths. Others warn their followers to turn away from the world and from non-believers. Our second lesson is an example of a competition, as Paul writes to Christians in Corinth who are worried about how they can get along with neighbours who dedicate their lives and their meals to other gods. In bookstores there are many different prophets in the self-help section, like Rhonda Byrne’s bestselling book, The Secret, or Bruce Wilkinson`s The Prayer of Jabez, which both promise security and prosperity if we just ask for the things we want. Which prophets do we follow?

The answer is blessedly simply. We need to follow prophets who point us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God and to his words. There are many words in the world. There are many words in churches. But only the words of Christ have power to save us and to make us into what God wants us to be, his people. Notice how the word authority runs throughout our gospel lesson (Mark 1:21-28). The people in the synagogue in Capernaum recognize Jesus as having an authority that is missing in their own teachers. The unclean spirit in the possessed man recognizes that Jesus is “the Holy One of God” and obeys Jesus’ command to leave the man. Those who witness the healing recognize that Jesus brings “A new teaching—with authority!”. Indeed, the whole point of the gospel lesson today seems to be a very simply one, that only Jesus has authority and words of power, and if we want healing, life and freedom, we need to follow his words. And so we have our means of testing any prophet or would be prophet we run across. If that prophet points us to Christ and to his authority, then that prophet is one worth listening to. Otherwise, ignore them.

We see Paul bringing the authority of Christ to bear in the second lesson . Some of the Christians in Corinth are nervous because they have to buy their meat from temples where animals are sacrificed to the Roman gods. Is this food spiritually safe, they wonder? Of course it is, says Paul. He tells them, don’t worry about the Roman gods, because “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6). Paul wants the Corinthians to have this “knowledge” so they can rest secure in Christ, knowing that food dedicated to unreal gods can’t hurt followers of the real God. However, Paul also wants them to use this knowledge to act like a Christian community. Maybe other believers are still unsure about whether food bought in Roman temples is dangerous, while you aren’t troubled by it. If so, respect your fellow Christians and abstain with them. Remember that Christ died for all of you, and build your community on that unity. So here, in what might otherwise seem like a very odd lesson, we see Paul as a prophet of God, preaching nothing but the authority of Christ, and using that authority to teach and help his fellow Christians.

The same lessons are just as applicable to us as they were to that ancient Christian church in Corinth? How are we to get along with those who follow other gods or no gods at all? With love and courtesy, but always as those who believe in the reality of Jesus Christ, the Son of the true and living God. How do we deal with fellow Christians who have different opinions and ideas than we do? With love and courtesy. How do we use our food, our money, our time and our talents? With love and with a sense of concern for all, remembering that Christ died for all. Any prophecy or preaching which stays within these arcs is safe prophecy and preaching to follow and worthy of being taken to heart.

This Sunday is known in the calendars of some churches as the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. In these weeks after Christmas, we are called to consider the ways in which Christ, whose birth we celebrated a month ago, shows himself to the world as the son of God. Today we are called to remember his authority, and we are reminded to remember that we can trust his words and rely on them as our lifeline. Today in our first lesson we heard Moses remind the Israelites of their fear of the majesty of God, and of how they couldn’t bear to hear God’s words or see Him because they would die (Deut 18:16). Christ allows us to set this fear aside. He comes to the world, in St. John’s words, to “take flesh and dwell among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Now we need no longer fear God. We can stand to be with him, indeed, we can walk with him, hear his words, no longer as the voice of thunder and fire, but as one who speaks to us with authority, and with grace, and truth. As we will say shortly in the words of our offertory hymn “What a friend we have in Jesus”. A friend, yes. A friend, and a teacher, whose words have authority, and by whose words we know that we are loved and saved by God the Father. Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments:

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive