Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – 01.28.18

Our first lesson for today is part of a reassuring talk that Moses is giving to the people right before they inhabited the land of Canaan.  Moses will not be part of that future, he will die and be laid to rest on top of a mountain overlooking the land God promised the Israelites.  Yet Moses does not complain about the fact that he, who led the people under stressful conditions for forty years through the wilderness, will not accompany them to the land that is their ultimate destiny.

            Instead Moses shares his wisdom with them, preparing them for life without him, with a new leader.  In chapters 13 and 14 of Deuteronomy Moses warns them against becoming captivated by pagan gods and false prophets.   He encourages them to remain loyal to their God, the God who saved them and led them out of exile in Egypt to the Promised Land.  Just before our reading begins Moses talks about Israel’s future leaders.  The first group to be established will be judges and officials to administer what he calls “true justice.”  After they get settled he advises them to choose a king, anointed by God.  They are to support the religious leaders, the priests, who come from the tribe of Levi.  These three groups together will form the institutional leadership of their community.  They are to follow their leaders and avoid the pagan priests and magicians.

            But, as Moses explains to the people, that was not enough checks and balances for God, and so another prophet will be appointed by God, a prophet like him who will arise from among the people.  The chosen judges, hereditary priests and sanctioned king would not be enough to guarantee that God’s will and word would continue to be communicated to the people.  The prophet’s identity will, like Moses himself, come from speaking God’s word through divine inspiration.  Unfortunately, Moses did not provide a complete litmus test to determine who is a genuine prophet, except that they are to be like him.  Notable characteristics of Moses include that his vocation was not his idea, he was rather reluctant to accept God’s call, but he did so for the sake of the people.  An authentic prophet usually calls for better treatment of the poor and vulnerable and conversion on the part of the comfortable and powerful.  A prophetic message will almost always cause tension and it will not bring any obvious advantage to the messenger.  At best the prophet is ignored, at worst he or she may be exiled or killed.

            God sent many prophets through the ages who fit that description.  Our gospel is, of course about Jesus, who is more than a prophet but is a prophetic figure.  As we have noted before, the Gospel of Mark is very brief and concise, yet often summarizes the entire gospel message in one story.  This is Jesus’ first official action in the gospel.  He began his ministry in Galilee, where he grew up.  Our story takes place in the synagogue in Capernaum, a town in Galilee.  Jesus had taken up temporary residence there, and was welcomed as a rabbi, or teacher, in the synagogue.  The question of the day is “who is this man, who teaches with authority, and not like the scribes?”

            The scribes were the scholars and official teachers of the day.  They studied scripture and interpreted its meaning.  They were the religious professionals.  But Jesus did not just talk about scripture, he professed his faith in it through his words and actions.  His authority came from his authenticity, shared with such enthusiasm and joy that the people could not help but respond to it.  The people were amazed because they knew of his background as the carpenter’s son.  He was able to offer surprisingly sophisticated explanations, using stories and parables they could understand.

            It is interesting that the attention of the crowd was not focused on his dramatic healing of the man possessed by demons.  It is focused on his teaching.  They heard the demon identify him, naming exactly who Jesus was, “the Holy One of God.”  But Jesus, while ordering the demon to leave the man, also invokes for the first time in the gospel what is called the messianic secret, a hallmark of the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus does not permit anyone, whether people or demons, to identify who he really is.  Jesus rebukes the demon, telling him to be silent but also to leave the man.  The demon does not let go easily, but Jesus, with his authentic authority, prevails.

            The Rev. Ismael Ruiz-Milian, who is director of the Hispanic House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, tells of an experience he had in Tijuana, Mexico.  He was in a park and, as was his custom, he approached a man who looked to be in need and asked if he would like a meal.  He identified himself as a pastor.  The man responded by screaming at him, “I killed several people just for fun, and if I want to, I can kill you right now in front of all these people.”  Whenever Ruiz-Milian remembers that encounter, he gets shivers all over just as he did then.  After what seemed like a long time, he said to the man, “I don’t know why you did all that, but please know that God loves you, and because I have experienced God’s love in my own life, I can tell you that I love you too.”  That made the man even more upset and he cried in despair, “No! No, that is not possible.  I am a bad person; no one can love me.” 

            Ruiz-Milian responded, “Yes, God loves you and I love you too.”  At that point the man’s demeanor changed completely, he reached out and held his arms and began to cry.  Ruiz-Milian asked the man if he could pray with him, and the man requested that he pray for his family who he had not seen in years and was afraid he would never see again.  Ruiz-Milian prayed, and then the man left without a word.  He remembers that the encounter lasted about four minutes but it felt like half an hour.  He felt as though it was happening in slow motion and wondered how the crowd that had gathered to watch felt.  No doubt they just wanted it to come to an end as quickly as possible.

            It must have been the same with the crowd at the synagogue that observed Jesus heal the man with the demon.  It probably made them uncomfortable and they were glad when it was over.  Yet in spite of that startling distraction, they remembered his teaching and how amazing it had been.  They learned a lot that day both from his words and his actions.  He taught with an authenticity and passion that could not be matched by the scribes, as learned as they were.  But he also taught by his actions, approaching a man who would seem to be unapproachable by most people, and acting purely out of compassion, he healed him.  All the demons Jesus encountered knew right away that Jesus had been sent by God and that their power was completely impotent against him.  It would take the people, even his closest followers, a while longer to come to that understanding.

            What does Jesus have to do with us?  The only actual teaching spoken by Jesus Mark has given us thus far are the nineteen words of last week’s gospel – “The time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”  We are all invited to accept the invitation to follow Jesus on the journey where we will experience his passionate and authentic teaching for ourselves.  Amen.

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