Sunday, January 29, 2012

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

I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.

We had dinner with some friends the other night and one noticed my e-reader on the side table. They began to ask some questions, with the disclaimer that they were firmly committed to reading from real books. They gave the usual reasons, reasons I quoted a year or so ago when I was not yet using my e-reader. I agree with their arguments. I love to feel the pages of the book. I love to walk around book stores. I have a thousand books on my bookshelves I need to read. I didnít think I would like to have an e-reader, but more than a year later I love mine.

I gave them a few of the benefits. While it is good to feel the weight of the book on my lap and to turn the pages, I have found it is so much easier to hold a lengthy book on the e-reader. I have control over the font size. I can get a book in seconds, no matter where I am. I read faster, possibly because I do not get lost on pages filled with small type and big words. It is much easier to find my place if I get distracted while reading. The e-reader is easy to carry anywhere, available to read anytime. They continued to have excuses, which I quickly put to rest. I donít know if I convinced them that they should have e-readers, but they left thinking that it might be worthwhile to check into the possibility.

I was watching one of those cooking shows and one of the chefs began using new fangled cooking techniques. Modern kitchens have equipment like immersion circulators, anti-griddles and centrifuges to Ďcookí the food in new ways. They use carbon dioxide and liquid nitrogen to change the substance of the food. These chefs juxtapose cooking with science, and make cuisine an intellectual experience as well as a culinary one. One of the judges on the show was initially disturbed by the molecular chemistry used to prepare his food, and he admitted so to the chef. But in the end, he was won over because the food was extremely good. He saw the value in this new way of doing things by someone who knew how to do it well.

I donít know whether Iím the best person to convince someone of something new, especially since I tend to be rather old fashioned. I donít much like change. I see value in the way things work, and have worked for a long time. And yet, Iím willing to listen and learn and try new things. I wonít change for the sake of change, but if someone proves to me that it is worthwhile, Iíll try. Sometimes Iím convinced; sometimes Iím not convinced. When I am convinced, Iím willing to share the reasons why and to tell others how worthwhile this new thing can be. Iím probably not the best person to convince someone of the virtues of molecular gastronomy, but my experience gives me some authority to share some knowledge about e-readers, at least enough for someone to say, ďIíll think about it.Ē

Jesus stopped the people in their tracks. They went to the synagogue that day expecting to hear the same old stuff. It was not unusual for visiting teachers to give a message at worship. They would 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. 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 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.

Sadly, too many of us are like the Israelites in the days of Moses. They 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.

He has promised to give us prophets who will speak His word into our lives. Moses was the first among many. But Moses was followed by prophets, priests and kings who lost sight of God. 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 believed in the false gods and the false ideas about God because they were too afraid to listen or see Him for themselves.

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 by that generation 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 convinced by good speakers who did not have the authority to speak for God, manipulated into believing in an idea of God that is not true.

So, when Jesus came and preached, what they heard was different. They called it ďnew,Ē but in reality Jesus was preaching the reality of God. There was something in the teaching, not the speaking, 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.

Human beings donít change. We are as likely to believe the false prophets as the people in Mosesí day and the people in Jesusí day. The Corinthians fell into the same trap, facing confusion over their own issues. In the letter to Corinth, Paul talks about food sacrificed to idols. This might not be a problem for us, but we face similar temptations.

There is only one God. We know this is true and Paul makes it clear in this weekís epistle lesson that the other gods in this world are nothing. But Paul also reminds us that there are thingsóidolsóthat are like gods in the eyes of many people. They are nothing, not real, but they do hold the place of God in the lives of those who believe in them. All those things, or people, or ideas, in which we put our trust and faith, are gods to us, even though they cannot be compared to God. They are impersonators, given the power and authority of a god even though they are nothing and have no power or authority.

Paul writes, ďWe know that we all have knowledge.Ē Lots of people know about God. They have read the scriptures and have prayed. Many people go to church and hear Godís word read and preached. They sing the hymns and do the work of the Church. They serve in the community and live a moral and faithful life. Yet, too many people do not really know God. They give the responsibility of understanding and experiencing God to others, and seek only to hear what they have to say on the subject. They are afraid to hear or see. Unfortunately, many leaders are more like the scribes than Moses. They speak what they want to speak rather than what God has spoken to them. They get their authority from their own ideas and desires, rather than from God. They are false prophets who teach about a false god.

There is only one God, but that does not mean that all our gods are God. The gods we create, the things we honor and worship beside or above God, are merely idols. We like to believe that we have just found a new way to describe God, or that we have given Him a new name, but the reality is that they are no more than idols. We must be careful that the image of God that we believe and follow is truly that image that is given to us in the scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ. If we follow anything or anyone else, we will find that we are chasing after false gods.

Paul was concerned for the people who were still eating the food of idols as if it was the food of idols. We might know that it is just meatóthat it isnít something that honors a godóbut if someone sees you eating that meat, they might believe in the god because of your actions. The same can be said about our ideas and our other actions of faith. We might understand that what we are doing is not for some strange or foreign god, but if people see us doing something outside the reality of Jesus Christ, then they may think that god is equal to or the same as our God.

Two thousand plus years after Paul wrote this letter to Corinth, we have to recognize that we face similar problems. There are still people who claim to be prophets for God, teaching ideas that do not come from His mouth. Some even claim to be that prophet promised in Deuteronomy. Moses was the first of Godís prophets, but the promise was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The promise continues with those who speak Christ into the world. Instead of sending prophet after prophet, each with a new authority to speak for God, those in Christ are given His authority to share the Good News with others.

Jesus had authority not only to speak Godís word, but also to command devils and to bring healing to mankind. This first sign in the book of Mark is given to us to verify His authority. Whatever the teaching that day, Jesus was the rightful voice to say it in Godís name. He was a prophet, the prophet, for which they were waiting, who could speak for God. We continue in His authority, speaking Godís Word into the world and bringing healing and redemption into the lives of those who are broken and burdened.

The psalm for today speaks about the work of God. It is often difficult to see Godís work as it relates to His 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, but those works were little more than a memory, handed down by generation after generation. Yet, as we praise God for those ancient acts, we reveal His presence to the world today. In our praise and thanksgiving for Godís goodness, the world sees His power, faithfulness and grace.

ďThe fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdomĒ is a hard saying. We have so much to fear, God should be the least of them, right? 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. He is gracious and merciful. He is holy and awesome. He is worthy of our thanks and praise.

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 God has given us a way to know what is true and right. 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 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, praise and 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.

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