Sunday, January 28, 2018

Epiphany 4
Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom. All those who do his work have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!

What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? Over the past few weeks weíve seen the stories of some of Godís prophets: Samuel, Jonah and John the Baptist. The words they spoke and the work they did was not always easy. They were not perfect; as a matter of fact, they were often afraid, uncertain, and unwilling to do what God was asking from them. In the end, however, they did as God asked, spoke the word that He sent them to speak and in doing so they called people to God and changed their lives. They did great things and are still remembered today for their gifts and their impact.

The prophetic word of God is a message sent through a chosen vessel for Godís people. The message is not always the lesson we want to hear. Samuelís message to Eli was frightening because it meant death and an end to Godís promise. Jonah didnít want to take that word to Nineveh because it meant mercy for his enemies. Johnís message disturbed the status quo; the call to repentance required an acknowledgement of sin. Some prophetic words are messages of grace and hope; as a matter of fact, every warning comes with a word of promise. John did not just call the people to repentance, he promised that they would see their salvation.

It is hard, though, to know for certain that the words we hear are from God. The prophets do not always fit our expectations. Samuel was young. Jonah was an enemy of the Ninevites. John was downright bizarre. Why would anyone listen to them? Yet, people listened and were changed by the Word. It wasn't Samuel or Jonah or John who made the difference, it was God and His word. We know this because the word was fulfilled.

We are surrounded by many people claiming to speak for God. I used to belong to an email list that purported to send prophetic words to the world, especially to Christians. Many of these words were (are) uplifting. They encourage Christians to go forth in faith, to do whatever it is that God is calling us to do. I became disengaged with the group when I realized more than half of their messages were sales pitches for the speakerís latest book or for a workshop on how to be a prophet in todayís world. I have no doubt that some of their words are real, that they speak with Godís grace and love for Godís people.

However, some of their words have been false. I recall a message that came through the list a few years ago about an incoming weather situation. The word was for the city that was about to experience a catastrophic storm. The word told the people that the storm was a sign of Godís wrath and that they would suffer the consequences of their sin. The storm veered off its path and had little impact on any cities. Not long after they released another word about another storm. This time they waited until after the storm hit, claiming that they knew what it meant when it was received, but that it was necessary to withhold the word until the time was right. Quite frankly, when the word was released, I could barely see how they made the connection, but they claimed it was the fulfillment of Godís word.

We have to be careful about who we believe. The promise in todayís Old Testament lesson doesnít help us much, either. God tells us that we can believe those prophets whose words come to pass but that those who try to speak for God that have not been called will die. What do we do in the meantime? What do we do when we are between hearing the message and seeing its fulfillment or lack thereof?

I was hanging out in an online chat room one day when a young woman was impressed with something I said. I donít remember what it was, I doubt it was anything of any real consequence, but she thought it was brilliant. She even called me a prophet. She told me that she was learning to be a prophet and she wanted to know if I would help her by reviewing a sermon that she wrote. She sent it to me.

I tried to be kind, but from the beginning I knew that the sermon was problematic. The language, grammar and spelling required serious editing, but so does my writing (Iím sure thereís at least one mistake every day!) I emailed her with some suggestions and we began a conversation about the sermon. Her ideas were of a passionate novice. They were new and they were unbiblical. We went through the text together, but she quickly realized that the scriptures were showing her the error of her ideas and she didnít like it. She refused to believe she was wrong and she continued to twist the scripture to fit her interpretation. She then turned the tables and tried showing me the error in mine. I listened, but she never argued from the Bible. She thought she was a prophet. After all, so she claimed, the sermon was from the Holy Spirit. She refused to accept that her arguments were not from God even though they did not line up with the scriptures. She thought I was the Holy Spirit because I didnít believe her. Her argument had no authority, however, because it was not founded on Godís Word.

Jesus had a way of stopping people in their tracks. In todayís Gospel lesson the crowds were in the synagogue ready to hear what they already knew about God. It was not unusual for visiting teachers to be invited to read text and explain it to the congregation. I can just imagine the surprise of those people: Jesus knew what He was talking about!

In the Old Testament lesson, God promised to give us prophets who will speak His word into our lives. Moses was the first among many. The Israelites were afraid to hear Godís voice and to see the fire of Godís presence, so they turned over the hearing and seeing to another. They told Moses to get Godís Word from Him and deliver it to them. They didnít seek to know God themselves; they only wished to know what Moses would tell them. There is nothing wrong with learning from others, from listening to what they can teach us about God and His Creation. However, when we let go of all responsibility for knowing God personally, we run the risk of depending on people who do not really know God or speak for Him. Moses had that intimate relationship with God and could be trusted, but he was followed by prophets, priests and kings who were not trustworthy. They spoke words for other gods or claimed to speak for God when they did not know Him. The people followed these false prophets, over and over again. They lost sight of God.

The people in Jesusí day were not much different. They, too, believed what the leaders of the temple and in their synagogues told them. Were they afraid of Godís voice or fire? I donít know. Perhaps they were too lazy to seek God on their own. Perhaps they were too confused to understand Godís Word without the teachers. Perhaps they had been manipulated into believing in an idea of God that is not true.

So, when Jesus came and preached they heard something different. They called it ďnew,Ē but in reality Jesus was preaching the pure, unadulterated Word of God. There was something in the teaching, not the presentation, that struck the people as true. He wasnít just a good spokesperson; He knew what He was talking about. He knew God, and when He spoke, He spoke with one who has authority. The difference between Him and the scribes must have been shocking; after all, they had been listening to the scribes for so long that they didnít recognize the falsehood. When they heard Jesus, they knew that He had something the scribes didnít have; they knew He had the truth.

Jesus was not the first prophet to come out of Israel in that day. As a matter of fact, prophets were a dime a dozen, many of which were willing to die for their cause. They were fighters, people against the Roman occupation and the puppet leadership of the Jews. The people were looking for a Messiah, someone to lead them into freedom and independence again. They wanted a son of David as God had promised. Some of the prophets claimed to be that Messiah. It is not surprising that they might miss Jesus in a field filled with more credible and experienced ďsaviors.Ē After all, Jesus was from Nazareth. He didnít fit into their expectations.

Jesus entered into the synagogue that day as a lowly son of a carpenter. He may have preached before that day, after all they offered the invitation, but He was not an experienced preacher. He didnít have the training and had not been studying interpretation for years like the scribes and teachers of the Law. They got their authority from the Torah, but they taught with their interpretive biases. Interpretation tends to obscure the message given by God, and that is what had happened to the people in Jesusí day. Theyíd lost touch with the God whoíd set them free, and had been burdened by the Law as it was understood by their leaders. Unfortunately, we often see this happen with seminary trained pastors today.

ďWhat do you want with us?Ē the demon asked. The leaders were probably wondering the same thing. The demon recognized Jesus; it put a name to the man. First the spirit used the name Jesus of Nazareth. This reminded the people that Jesus came from nowhere. He was nobody. He didnít fit the template of the one they were expecting. But then the demon did something surprising. It said, ďI know you who you are: the Holy One of God!Ē The irony here is that in the very naming of Jesus as the Holy One of God, the demon was begging for Jesusí mercy and grace. The demon was cast out of the man, but it was not destroyed. Jesus offers grace even for those who are unclean and unacceptable. We learn throughout the story of Jesus that it is often the outcast and the foreigners who see Jesus as He really is. They donít miss the truth.

Jesus stopped the people in their tracks. I can just imagine the surprise of those people: Jesus knew what He was talking about. Iím sure weíve all heard, at some point in our lives, both types of preaching: the kind that makes a difference and the kind that leaves us cold. Weíve heard good preachers and bad preachers. The difference is not only between good speaking and bad speaking. The good preacher speaks according to Godís Word and will, and not according to their own idea of Godís will. Iíve known good speakers who made horrible preachers because it was not Godís Word coming from their lips.

Jesus commanded the demon to be silent and to get out of the man he was possessing. The spirit did indeed obey Jesus, but it did not do so quietly. ďThe unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.Ē The call for silence was so that the demon would not disrupt the holiness of the moment. They were in a synagogue. The people had come to worship God. This incident might have happened with little fanfare if only the spirit had been silent. The spirit knew Jesus, better than most people would ever really know Him. It knew Jesus was the Holy One of God. It was not time for that information to be revealed. And it came from the wrong source. Who would believe a demoniac? Jesus silenced it, but it did not go down without a fight.

Ironically, this incident is a foreshadowing of another battle Jesus would have to fight. The scribes and teachers of the law were, in essence, possessed by an understanding of God and the scriptures that was burdensome for themselves and the people. Jesus came preaching something new, but it was not unfounded. The people recognized the authority by which He spoke. They saw the truth. They knew He was right. But the leaders did not want to lose their authority. They, like the unclean spirit, wondered what Jesus wanted with them. ďWhat are you doing here?Ē they asked. Jesus came to set them free. But it would take Godís Word, Godís power, Godís grace to make that happen. All too often our words continue to hold us hostage, so we would do well to recognize the difference between when we should remain silent and those times when the good news is too good to be kept to ourselves.

The most breathtaking, and inspiring, moments of my life have been in extraordinary places. Thereís nothing like standing on top of a mountain, seeing the snow-covered range go on and on seemingly forever. At night, the sky above those mountains is filled with so many stars that they would be impossible to count. A beach at sunrise, with nothing obstructing the view of the rising sun, is amazing. Standing at the foot of a giant redwood is beyond imagination. A field full of bluebonnets, a rainbow sweeping over a plain, and a perfectly still mountain lake can raise in us a sense of wonder and praise like little else.

We are also awed by the power that God has given to the creation. The roar of a lion, the thunder and lightning of a storm, the constancy of the waves crashing against the shore reminds us that we are just a small part of Godís great big world. It is not always pleasant. It is fearful to be in the path of a tornado or a hurricane. The tiniest mosquito can spread life-taking disease. Yet, even those parts of creation have a purpose and are given by God to do His will. A raging wildfire that is out of control is frightening, yet a necessary part of the natural process of forest growth and renewal. We donít always understand these things, especially when they cause us harm, but God is always worthy of our praise.

In todayís Psalm, the writer praises God for something much different than the tangible blessings of creation. It is difficult to see Godís work as it relates to Godís people. Yes, we have the stories of the Exodus, but we were not there to cross the Red Sea with Moses and the rest of Israel. We can read about the miracles of Jesus and believe in His healing power, but we have not experienced His physical touch. The psalmist knew Godís mighty works among His people, and yet those works were little more than a memory, handed down by generation after generation. These stories are still worth our songs of praise. God did these things, and in them we see His power, faithfulness and grace.

ďThe fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdomĒ is a hard saying for most of us. Fear in our world is a bad thing. We fear terrorism. We fear disease. We fear losing everything we own. We fear those things that can bring us harm. We donít want to fear God; He has been so good to us. His faithfulness and mercy is beyond comparison. Yet, He is fearsome. This is not to mean that we should be afraid of Him. Instead, we are to be in awe of Him. Holy and awesome is His name. If His name is awesome, how much more so is He?

And so, we are called to praise Him, not only for the beauty of His creation or for the goodness of His dealings with His people. We are called to praise Him because we fear Him. We know of His power. We also know of His mercy and grace. He is faithful. Wisdom is seen in the lives of those who live according to His good and perfect Word; not in the things we can see but in the things that are.

There is only one God. We know this is true and Paul makes it clear in todayís passage that the other gods in this world are nothing. But Paul also reminds us that there are things Ė idols - that people count as gods. They are really nothing, but they hold the place of God in the lives of those who believe. All those things or people in which we put our trust and faith are gods to us, even though they are not God and are really nothing when compared to God. They are impersonators. So are those who speak a word that is not really from God.

Many of the so-called prophets talk about knowing God, knowing how to be a prophet, knowing what to say. Life in Christ is not about knowledge. As Paul writes, ďKnowledge puffs up.Ē No, living in Christ we have something even better than knowledge. We find wisdom in His Word. The self-proclaimed prophet demonstrates that they donít know God by usurping His authority. They are not humble, they do not fear God. They speak their own words while claiming to speak for God; they might have knowledge, but they have no wisdom. In the end, they will be proven to be a false prophet.

A common characteristic of false prophets is their haughty attitude; they act holier than thou. They are like the Corinthians who took advantage of their Christian freedom by eating meat from the temples of the gods while ignoring the needs of the weaker believers who did not understand. They ate the meat without explaining what it means to have Christian freedom. Those watching knew only that the meat has a purpose in that temple and they followed the example without knowing the truth. They put their trust in the idol without understanding that by trusting in that idol they are rejecting the true God.

There is no real consequence to the eating of the meat, since the idols are nothing, but it was still a stumbling block to the faith of some. Paul reminds us that it is better to abstain from those things that might cause another to fall or be destroyed. Paul writes, ďAnd thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble.Ē

We are called to live a life that glorifies God, the life that reveals Him to our neighbors in a way that is life-changing. We are called to speak Godís Word so that they will know Him. We have to remember that as they learn they will watch us and learn from us, so it is up to us to be witnesses who will speak and live the truth. We have the freedom to do as we please, but if our freedom puts another at risk it is up to us to stop for their sake.

There was power in the words of Jesus, but His power did not end there. Neither did His authority. The people were amazed by both Jesusí words and His actions. He spoke about the Kingdom of God in a way that was obvious to everyone: this guy knew what He was talking about. His authority set the people free from the things that had bound up their faith with words that were self-authenticating. He didnít need anything outside of Himself to make His message true. He was speaking from the heart, not only His heart, but from the very heart of God.

We may not be authorities in much, or be great speakers, but we are given the authority of Christ to be Godís voice in the world. We must beware that the words we speak are true and from Godís own mouth. Our authority comes from God, and He has given us a way to know what is true and right. We are blessed because we have something the people of the past did not have. We have the Holy Spirit. That doesnít mean we should rely solely on our human hearts, minds and spirits. We can be wrong. We have to test the words we hear against that which God has given us in scripture. We have to ask, ďIs that word true?Ē Human beings donít change. We are as likely to be led astray as the people in Mosesí and Jesusí days.

We must approach God with fear and trembling, knowing without a doubt that false prophets who teach false gods will come to an end. But we need not fear Godís voice or His fire; by seeking Him we will see clearly. We will know Jesus, His life and the work He has called us to do. We canít rely only on the words of others; we must know God for ourselves. We must spend time in prayer, in studying the scriptures. We must join with other Christians in worship, to praise Him and to seek God in the company of His faithful. We must abide in Jesus, to dwell in His authority and experience His power in our lives.

What does it mean to speak a prophetic word of God in the world? It means glorifying God in a way that sets people on the right path, turns them to the only God who can be trusted and who will save them from themselves. We might be called to speak a word as did the prophets throughout the ages. It might not be easy because the messages of the prophets are often words of warning. However, every word that comes from God comes with a promise. Even when we are called to bring people to repentance, we know that God has something wonderful waiting for them on the other side. The word that is true is the one that rests in authority of God and is delivered by His power. That word is the word that will succeed because it will lead Godís people to praise Him.

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