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Today in the Spirit: Epiphany 4B

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In the week of Epiphany 4, Year B, we continue our way through Mark’s narrative of our Lord’s first weeks of ministry in Galilee. Mark 1:21-28 tells the story of Jesus’ first visit to Capernaum, where, after teaching in the synagogue, he exorcizes a demon from a man in attendance. An emphasis in the story is given to the response of the people who are amazed at the authority of this man in word and deed– “A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (28)

In the assigned OT reading from Deuteronomy 18:15-22, we listen to that portion of Moses’ teaching in which he declares to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen (15). Upon hearing the Gospel reading, the worshiper will immediately understand this to be a prediction of the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. The appointed Psalm 111 is a psalm of praise that will supply us with language to join in the astonishment of the people of Galilee over the actions of Jesus in their midst: The works of the LORD are great, sought out by all who have pleasure in him (2, BCP Coverdale).

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The next in our series of readings from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. In this lesson, Paul reacts to what has been reported to him as selfish behavior of some church members who offend others by eating food sacrificed to idols in their presence. His teaching on the matter includes counsel based on personal practice: Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (13). The assigned Collect for the week calls upon God, who knows both our personal vulnerability as human beings and the “grave dangers” we face at the hands of those who oppose the kingdom of heaven, “to support us in all dangers and carry us through every temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”   

The Collect

O God, you know that we are set in the midst of many grave dangers, and because of the frailty of our nature, we cannot always stand upright: Grant that your strength and protection may support us in all dangers and carry us through every temptation; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen

It Is To Him You Shall Listen (Deuteronomy 18:15-22)

You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. (13-18)

It might be wise to include two extra verses at the front of this reading to supply context. It is important to see that the promised prophet YHWH will send to Israel is an alternative to the lesser fortune-tellers and diviners the other nations rely on for “divine” direction. The Gospel reading on this Sunday sets apart Jesus as possessing new authority in much the same way Israel’s God sets apart this prophet. Further, the admonition it is to him you will listen reminds us of the voice of heaven over Jesus at the time of his transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7, which we will hear on Last Epiphany).

Hear how the apostle Peter, who walked with Jesus and would have known the passage from Deuteronomy, gives much the same admonition to the Christian community as Moses did to the Israelites in exile. He speaks of the enemies of the church like Mose describes the nations inhabiting the promised land: “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened,” writes Peter (possibly quoting Isaiah 8:12). But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord (1 Peter 3:14-15 NIV). Here is the heart of the church’s messaging this week in Epiphany: Set apart Christ as Lord. See his works, hear his teachings, and fear him. So the psalmist will conclude in Psalm 111: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding (10).

In the Spirit, today, affirming the prophecy of Moses, the testimony of the psalmist, and the works of Jesus, I dedicate myself to revering Christ over all other contenders for the allegiance of my heart.

Great Are the Works of the LORD (Psalm 111)

Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
    in the company of the upright, in the congregation. 
Great are the works of the Lord,
    studied by all who delight in them. 
Full of splendor and majesty is his work,
    and his righteousness endures forever (1-3).
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
    all those who practice it have a good understanding.
    His praise endures forever! (10)

The people’s response to Jesus’ teaching and healing, as displayed in today’s Gospel reading, that they were amazed (Mark 1:22,27 NIV), is given the voice of worship in this psalm of praise. The cry Great are the works of the LORD is what the people say in response to the many ways the One and Only God astonishes us–what he has done, what he is doing, and what he will do. The end of the psalm, almost like a closing commentary on the psalmist’s participation in worship at the temple, defines godly fear–reverence, awe, praise of who God is and what he has done–as the beginning of wisdom. Praise is not one thing, and wisdom another, the song reminds us (we make that separation too often to our great loss). Be amazed and act wisely.

’Tis the season of annual meetings in our churches. One can only hope that many a pastor’s report this year will be filled with the bold and joyful recounting of the many ways our Lord has sustained the work of the people, how he has revealed himself in growing the saints and using them in routine and unexpected ways to display the coming of his kingdom. Jesus is always at his work with us in the church.

Today, in the Spirit, we join with the psalmist at the temple and the people of Galilee in witnessing to the works of the Son of God in the world and expressing our fear of the divine. Let that witness of wonder in praise add to us wisdom.    

Lest I Make My Brother Stumble (1 Corinthians 8:1-13)

Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (12-13)

Look carefully at the parts of this passage that begin with thus and therefore. This is where the critical teaching lies. Near the beginning, Paul writes, Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence” (4, the quotations indicating Paul is probably quoting a common saying). At the end of the passage, there are two consecutive sentences (above) also beginning with these adverbs: 1) Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ; and 2) Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

That last one, written in the first person, probably conveys a personal practice of Paul. See how forcefully he holds to the principle that maintaining the fellowship between saints trumps personal attachment to opinions on secondary matters. Paul will not, of course, deny the truth of Jesus Christ, but he will forgo any personal preference to eat meat if, in so doing, he will offend any other believer. In a section of Romans dedicated to a similar theme, Paul calls the deliberate deference we give to building up our fellow Christians as the continuing debt to love one another (Romans 13:8). 

Today, Holy Spirit, show me the areas where, in my holding strictly to Christian adiaphora (matters of indifference), I may be offending a brother or sister and soften my heart to look after the Christian conscience of others as a matter of charity.

So Amazed That (Mark 1:21-28)

And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes. And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “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.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

Or, the people were all so amazed that they…(27 NIV, GNT). However we choose to translate the original at this point, the text will convey a sense of amazement piling on among the people who witnessed Jesus on this occasion. Notice that after our Lord’s teaching in the synagogue, but before the demon’s expulsion, the people were astonished by his words, but it was within the bounds of their experience; they had the scribes to compare him with. After the expulsion, they resort to questioning one another as to something alien to their experience, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! 

Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 202 AD) was one of the early church Fathers who taught us that the incarnation of Christ was an essential tool of the Father God to display the works of God by means we would most easily discern his glory. In Against Heresies, he writes:

“We could in no other way have learned the things of God unless our Teacher, being the Word, had been made man. For none could declare to us the things of the Father, except his own Word…Nor again could we have learned in any other way than by seeing our Teacher, that we might become imitators of his works and doers of his words, and so have communion with him, receiving our increase from him who is perfect and before all creation.”

Devotionally, if we are paying attention, we can still discern insights in the teaching of God from the Scriptures, as well as power and compassion in the works of God in our own lives, so as to produce an overflowing of astonishment, constantly causing us to scratch our heads in wonder. (Is this not what John means in his Prologue: we have all received one blessing after another? [John 1:16 NIV]) The question is, what will the wonder lead to? Will it produce faith in us or not? For all the attention given to the wonder of the people in this passage, we see no evidence here of faith to follow Jesus. His fame spreads throughout Galilee, yes, but that does not translate into numbers of true disciples. 

Today, in the Spirit, in the quiet that comes after astonishment has passed  I pray to you for the gift of trust in you also to come in increasing measure.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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