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Fr. John Allison

Epiphany 4B

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Mark 1:21-28

January 28, 2024

Christ Church, Hudson


I want to back up a bit and begin by considering our Old Testament reading. In our reading from Deuteronomy we have the assurance that God will not leave his people without a prophet after Moses dies. This assurance is given in response to the knowledge that Moses is nearing the end of his life and that in this knowledge Israel faces the prospect of being without the mediator on whom they had become so dependent. In the verses immediately preceding our selection today practices such as divination, child sacrifice, soothsaying, and sorcery are all condemned as being abhorrent in the eyes of the Lord, disloyal to Israel’s covenant with God as they focus on the efforts of humans rather than the action of God. There is great concern that in the absence of a prophet, Israel will fall away from its covenant, and, indeed, there is legitimate concern. But in God’s promise that he will raise up among them another prophet like Moses, we have also the directive that it is the action of God, rather than the practices initiated by Israel, that will convey God’s will for his people. The responsibility of God’s people is to listen actively for God’s will as conveyed through the prophet. 

So, what is a prophet? It is common in popular usage to understand the prophet as one who offers a vision of the future but in the case of Israel and the role of the prophet as described in the embodiment of Moses it is so much more. The meaning of the Hebrew root for  the word we translate as prophet does not easily correspond to an English equivalent but it’s best understood as both one who is called by God and as one who calls others. The prophet is one who is called by God but the prophet is also one whose role is to call the people back to God, to call them to repentance. And, as I’ve said before, repentance is about reorienting ourselves toward God when we find that we have strayed, when we have oriented our lives toward something other than God’s love.  God initiates the action in his call, and it is our responsibility to respond. Because the people were frightened by the prospect of direct contact with God, Moses became the mediator between them and Yahweh, and in that role he became the model for all the prophets that follow. Moses’ task in conveying God’s will to the people became the central factor in Israel’s relationship with the Lord. 

Fast forward 800 years or so and the early followers of Jesus see this prophetic role fulfilled in him. In Matthew (we read this passage just two weeks ago at our Wednesday Eucharist when we celebrated the Confession of Peter), Jesus asks his disciples, “who do the people say that I am?” And they respond, “some say John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” At that point, it’s only Peter who recognizes Jesus for who he really is: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

Here in this season after the Epiphany, we are called to recognize Jesus for who he is. Our readings, all through this time, show us through signs and miracles who Jesus is. Our Gospel from Mark continues following last week’s account of the calling of the first four disciples and picks up with Jesus going to the synagogue on the Sabbath to teach. It would have not been so uncommon for a Jewish male to teach in the Synagogue but in this case, the people recognize something different: “he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.” The scribes composed official documents and often functioned as lawyers and government officials as well as interpreters of scripture. Their teaching largely consisted of recitations of what has been said historically concerning a text, essentially offering a string of citations. Jesus, however, taught as one having authority. We are not told what he taught but the implication is that his teaching came from God and not the human authority of the scribes. It is perhaps not surprising then that the scribes, along with the chief priests and elders, later become some of his chief opponents as they saw him as a threat to their authority. 

But, it’s following this teaching that we see the first public act of Jesus’ ministry—a healing, or, more specifically, an exorcism—and it’s in this exorcism that we have a first glimpse of Jesus’ true identity being revealed. The unclean spirit that possesses this man knows who Jesus is. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 

Now, I’m struck by this confession of Jesus’ identity by the demon; in many ways it echoes Peter’s confession that comes much later.  At this point in the story no one else has any clue as to who Jesus is, and throughout the Gospels we see other instances of outsiders and demons who recognize Jesus for who he is even though his closest followers do not see it. For his loyal followers it’s not so easy. It’s not so clear. It takes them a long time and even then, after the resurrection, it’s still not so clear to them, at least not at first. 

Do we recognize Jesus when he comes to us? How readily do we hear his call and turn to him? 

Thomas Merton, in his book The Wisdom of the Desert, offers stories and teachings from some of the earliest Christians who left the cities in the fourth century to go and live in the desert. One of them says this: “when the eyes of an ox or mule are covered, then he goes round and round turning the mill wheel; but if his eyes are uncovered he will not go around in the circle of the mill wheel. So too the devil, if he manages to cover the eyes of a man, can humiliate him in every sin. But if that man’s eyes are not closed, he can easily escape from the devil.”

Epiphany is about opening our eyes. We spend much of our lives going round and round with our eyes covered but in Christ we are called to something new; that’s why we began this season after the Epiphany with a renewal our Baptismal vows.  Jesus is not the prophet his followers were expecting but in him God’s promise is fulfilled. Jesus is not the mediator between human and divine as was Moses but is God incarnate, God made flesh. God with us. Do we see his action in our lives? Or, a better question still, is do we turn to him when he calls us? Do we reorient ourselves to God’s will for us? As creatures made in God’s image we are called to take off our blinders and step out of the turning round and round of the mill wheel. We are called to a new future that God has opened for us in Jesus. 

Our baptismal covenant asks that we seek and serve Christ in all persons. To do that, we must first open our eyes. Do you see Christ when he comes to you? Do you recognize him in your neighbor? Do you recognize him in your enemy? How is Christ calling you to serve him? How might we love one another as God loves us?

Our answers to these questions are already initiated in God’s love for us. Our response,  our willingness to take God’s love into the world, is up to us.  

I’ll close with some lines written by the great poet William Stafford; he wrote this the morning before he died: 

You can’t tell when strange things with meaning will happen . . . “You don’t have to prove anything,” my mother said. “Just be ready for what God sends.” I listened and put my hand out in the sun again. It was all easy.