The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18.15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8.1-13
Mark 1.21-28

So did you ever wonder where we crossed the line from directly communicating with God to having prophets and other intermediaries do our communication for us?

It seems that as time has moved forward we have less folks who have direct conversations with God (at least that are recorded and generally accepted). And it also seems the "authority" to read / teach / interpret scriptures has fallen to a select group of folks as opposed to the general public. It would be interesting (and require more time and skill than we have) to map the trajectory of how humans moved from interacting directly with God to most humans depending on a select few to interact with God on behalf of the group and then (especially since the Reformation) moved back (at least for us Protestants) to each person with a bible (and some without one) feeling confident to speak in the name of God and who claim to know God's Opinion / Will on any issue that comes up.

It is interesting to see how our own comfort level and confidence (maybe even Authority) has gone back and forth on this activity that most of us Christian hope to be able to participate in. Well, this week we see a couple of different positions on this issue....

First, in Deuteronomy, we see Moses offering some extended commentary to the Israelites on the commandments he received. This section is a place where Moses is explaining the "proper" worship of God--who can do it and how they are to do it, etc. In this section Moses reminds the people what they asked for before. It refers specifically to Deut. 5.23-31 where the people tell Moses they are afraid of hearing the voice of God themselves...they are afraid they will not be able to hear the voice of God and continue to live, and so they ask Moses to be the go-between for them. They ask him to speak for them and to then tell them what God says back. And so in this particular section, Moses is reminding them of their request and explaining how it will work--he tells them that God will raise up a prophet that will speak the words of God. The people should listen to the prophet of God and obey God's commandments that come through the prophet. And then there is a little caveat about how to discern a prophet of another God--(according to verse 21-22) if a prophecy does not come true, it did not come from God, and if a person speaks in the name of God without being commanded, that person will die. Seems like a delicate and dangerous job description.

In Psalm 111 we see the psalmist speaking strictly in third person. This writer is not (in this case) speaking directly to God, but instead is speaking of the wondrous deeds and mighty power of God. It is interesting to note that the first 10 verses are praise upon praise and then the last verse tells us "the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom..." Hmmm. Here is another case made for really being careful about being in relationship with God and not being too cavalier about it. There is a deep respect present here...the kind of respect we have for the strength of nature--most of us would not dare to beg a tornado or hurricane or earthquake to come after us, and in this case the psalmist does not directly confront God.

In Paul's letter to the Corinthians we see him sort of fulfilling the "prophet" role. He is talking to them about a specific question of practice--eating meat that was sacrificed to idols--and its effects on other Believers. Paul is interpreting the Jewish law in the new light of the life and teachings of Jesus. This seems to be a situation where the Corinthian community had some conflict about what would be the best practice...who had the correct interpretation and understanding of the teachings of Jesus, and Paul steps in and offers what he understands to be the Word of God on the situation.

And in this week's gospel lesson we see Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry / teaching career. As he begins to teach in the synagogue in Capernaum the people were amazed because he taught (the Scriptures) as one having authority, not just as a scribe or average Jew. He is even met by a guy with an unclean spirit or demon who confronts Jesus and questions why he is there. Jesus's interaction with this unclean spirit blows the rest of the observers away because Jesus was interpreting the scriptures With Authority that none of the rest of them had.

-Who speaks for God?
-Who talks to God?
-Is it us or someone else?
-Who has the authority to teach / interpret the scriptures?

Almighty and ever-living God,
you are beyond the grasp of our highest thought,
but within the reach of our frailest trust:

Come in the beauty of the morning’s light
and reveal yourself to us.
Enrich us out of the heritage of seers and scholars and saints
into whose faith and labors we have entered,
and quicken us to new insights for our time;
that we may be possessors of the truth of many yesterdays,
partakers of your thoughts for today,
and creators with you of a better tomorrow;
through Jesus Christ, the Lord of the ages.

Henry Sloan Coffin


Second Sunday after the Epiphany

1 Samuel 3: 1 - 20
Psalm 139: 1 - 6; 13 - 18
1 Corinthians 6: 12 - 20
John 1: 43 - 51

Have you ever gotten a sweet promotion or new opportunity or committed to something that seemed so glorious and wonderful and attractive that you did not even really think twice about it? And then, as you move further into the new opportunity, you become aware of the burden, of the deep responsibility, of the gut-wrenching gravity of the work that you are now doing? Perhaps you held that darling newborn in your arms, cooed lovingly while stroking its downy soft hair and sweet velvety cheeks and then two days later, with your eyes crossed at 3 a.m. wondered as you held the same child, now loud and inconsolable, "What HAVE I gotten myself into?"

The scriptures are full of stories about individuals "set apart" - called under unique circumstances to be a prophetic voice, to act against the dominant society, to step out in faith and lead their family or their community in a new direction, to name injustice, to perform stunning acts of mercy. These stories mostly paint extraordinary pictures if you read them one by one. And yet, if you take the broad view, you might see how universal this experience of call and responsibility is. It is not just for the mighty, it is not just for the great -- we're all called, and with that call comes some awesome obligation.

In 1 Samuel, a voice speaks to Samuel in the deep night while his mentorsleeps nearby. Samuel has trouble identifying the voice, at first thinkingthat it is actually the mentor, Eli, speaking to him. The scripture tells us that at that time, Samuel did not "know the LORD." Finally, it is Eli who explains that this call, this disembodied voice that is reaching Samuel, is actually coming from the LORD. Eli encourages Samuel to listen and to be prepared to be obedient. When Samuel finally hears and understands, the LORD reveals to him that the house of Eli - his family and tribe - are going to be punished for their disobedience. Of course Samuel is hesitant to tell Eli this...and Eli insists. How ironic that it is Eli who understands that Samuel is being called, encourages him to be obedient, insists that Samuel share what has been revealed and is then condemned for failing to be obedient himself. It seems Samuel was Set Apart to (in this instance) offer a heavy reminder to someone in power. Did Samuel have a moral dilemma? Were his loyalties divided?

The Psalmist praises God who knows his people. This is a deep reflection by someone who has become intensely aware of being Set Apart and intimately known by God. It is a hymn of awareness. God discerns our thinking, knows our ways. The psalmist also marvels at the weight of God's creation and omnipotence. It is a song of being known sung by someone who is aware he is Set Apart.

In John, we read an early account of Jesus' special identity revealed in his exceptional ability. Essentially Jesus names Nathanael for what he is, an upstanding and devout Israelite. Now, we don't know much about Nathanael, and we also don't know much about Jesus' relationship to him, but Nathanael's response is one of recognition followed by an affirmation of faith that this man is indeed somehow in special relationship to God, a king of the Israelites as the prophets spoke long ago. Nathanael recognizes Jesus’ ability to know him deeply, recognizes that this is a teacher Set Apart

Finally in 1 Corinthians, Paul offers some direct and overt direction on what it means to be Set Apart. His message is summed up in verse 20: "For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body." It is a less poetic and more didactic version of Psalm 139. As opposed to offering an individual reflection of how wonderful it is to be so fully known by God. Paul is seen here trying to convince folks they should have this same experience and same personal transformation.

-Do you feel that as a Child of God...as a follower of Jesus, you are Set Apart?
-Are there ways your life is different because you are Set Apart?
-Has your call ever led you to uncomfortable places or uncomfortable choices?
-How did you know what to do in those instances?

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the pris’ners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

The Summons
John L. Bell, © 1987, The Iona Community.


Baptism of the Lord

Genesis 1.1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19.1-7
Mark 1.4-11

Beginnings are an interesting phenomenon.

Our lives are full of them. The Roman philosopher Seneca said "Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."

This week we look at a couple of different beginnings. We look at The Beginning of Creation as recorded in Genesis and we look at Baptism through stories found in Mark and Acts.

Now whether you accept the first couple of chapters of Genesis as a historical and scientific account of how the earth and humanity were created or you read those stories as a mythical account used to help folks imagine where all of "this" came from, no one can dispute that these first few verses are diving head first in to the Beginning of something. This week's lectionary selection is just a snippet of the story as found in Genesis, however in a discussion about beginnings, it is the most important. The creation of / the separation of Darkness from Light is a monumental moment. As we attempt to interpret this and understand it each of us has to attempt to imagine what a "formless void" where "darkness covered the face of the deep" would be like and then what sort of a boon it would be for, suddenly in a place that only knew darkness, Light to show up. That would certainly seem like the beginning of something, wouldn't it?

The psalmist is lifting both a praise and a hopeful petition toward God – the God who created and who interceded was surely on hand, strong and mighty.

In Acts, Paul baptizes disciples who were baptized by John – a baptism of repentance. Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus Christ, a sign of their belief in the Messiah and his teachings. Was Paul "overriding" John's baptism, or declaring it insufficient?

Then we move forward to Mark's account of John the baptizer appearing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This was a new spin on the ritual washings Jews participated in at the time. But it seems that he was offering people a new start. Most of us have heard the definition of repentance to mean a complete away from something toward something completely new--a new beginning even. And then we see this special moment when Jesus is named by God as "the Beloved Son". Wow, a blessing / affirmation like that can also create a new beginning, can't it?

Is baptism a new beginning? If so, what is beginning?

Is it an affirmation of a new beginning?

Does baptism bring light out of darkness? In what ways?

"Obviously or consciously, we are all pilgrims, searching this world over for the Lost Thing---that which the early Desert Fathers called philokalia, the 'Beautiful-Good.' In all the Celtic affairs, soul-yearning seems as much the stuff of life as breathing. In our time it is a more haphazard affair, for we are constantly grasping at the moon. The cure is a kind of open secret, a turning around, a shifting of the gaze from what is far to what is near, to the stillness of beginnings, to the simple secret place where the soul gathers its nourishment: a knowing of the roots. A knowing of the roots. This is a quality of Traditional People---those drum beaters and dancers and firelight storytellers who chose to dwell outside the walls of the empire."

Source: Michael Green December, 2008, Celtic Blessings Calendar