January 28, 2024

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

January 21, 2024

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

From the Gospel according to Mark, “‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustaining Sanctifier. Amen.

     Have you ever attended a dinner party where, in spite of the alluring aroma of the incredible food, something you ate just didn’t taste quite right. So you wondered where on earth this food came from?

     That is the sort of situation St. Paul addresses in today’s reading from I Corinthians. Some church members feared that they might be eating meat that had been offered to idols. It was typical for pagan temples to sell off any leftover sacrificed meats after worship services. So, when you went to the market, you had no idea if the meat on sale had been offered to a pagan god. Paul reminds the Church that we know and serve the only one, true God who, Paul says, is greater than any other god or lord in the heavens or on the earth. So he says – and I paraphrase here - “Who cares if some priest waved that hamburger over a pagan altar? Their god means nothing to us. Whether we choose to eat or not to eat has no impact on our spiritual life. So, go for it and enjoy yourself.” But then, Paul adds a word of caution – a caution that has divided the Church for centuries. He says, “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Paul explains that if any of our actions, anything we do or say, encourages someone else to commit what they believe is a sin, then don’t do it. The hard part for us is that in today’s multi-cultural society with different standards of conduct, especially among many Christian denominations that tell us we can’t do this or that, what we choose to eat, drink or do, or how we choose to live is often considered unchristian. For example: Some churches insist that Christians don’t drink alcohol; nor do they gamble, play cards, go to movies, or dance. Some say real Christian women never wear slacks and Christian men do not have long hair, and the list goes on. Sadly, this requires that Christians be divorced from culture rather than engaged with it, never have any fun, or just relax with a cold beer on a hot summer day.

     Paul would say such rules are ridiculous! And yet, he reminds us that any excess can be unhealthy for God’s people. So, if what you are doing or saying might cause someone else to stumble, then, think twice because you might harm someone in addition to harming your own selves. That’s good advice. But then, Paul goes a little further. And this is what irritates me about Paul and what I like about him: he pushes the envelope just a little more to ruffle our comfort zones. Paul says that if we do something that we know for ourselves is a sin, remember we never sin in private. Oh, we might think that how we live outside these walls is our own business and has no effect on the Church. But Paul says that even things done in secret damage the body of Christ. “Private sins” can influence what we think about a particular cultural issue, and unduly and unfairly reflect upon our church and church mission. For example, if in our hearts we harbor any form of racism, we might ignore issues of racial equality and then try to deter the Church from taking a stand in the community. If, in our hearts, we believe that the poor deserve their misfortune, we might deter efforts to offer them food or clothing, or ignore the beggar on the street and in so doing, ignore Christ.

     Church history is filled with examples of well-meaning Christian people who worked in opposition to the Church’s commitment to foster the truth, mercy, justice and fairness that the Psalmist tells us comes from the very hand of God. So Paul, while affirming our total liberty in Christ, says we do not know everything other than the fact that God is always doing new things. So, he says, watch how you live and how you respond to the needs of society lest you quench the Holy Spirit’s work within you and within those around you. Don’t let your actions lead someone away from the Christian faith that, at its core, seeks to bring God’s mercy, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, welcome and wholeness to all who seek God.

     Now, there are times when some in the Church do things that might give us pause at the moment and yet, down the road we realize their actions were a prophetic affirmation of God’s new work. Our reading from Deuteronomy says there are two kinds of prophets: those who call us to return, to repent, and live as God intends for us to live. Those prophets help us not only rediscover God’s values, but embrace and demonstrate them today! Then, there are prophets chosen by God to lead God’s people in a new direction. The problem is sometimes we don’t know right off the bat if the person is speaking God’s words or advancing their own agenda. That’s why scripture tell us that prophets should be tested and not simply acquiesced to. Real prophets disturb and challenge the status quo so that we rethink our lives; see life in a new way; or walk onto what seems to be unstable ground in order to follow God more closely. The reality is that prophets truly inspired by God, speak to the very heart of our beliefs and challenge our priorities and that makes people uncomfortable.

     I think that explains why the people were confused as to the identity of Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. Was he a new prophet or advancing his own agenda? Jesus is teaching in a synagogue. We have to assume from people’s response that he was unknown to them. And they were amazed at the depth of his teaching because, Mark tells us, he “taught them as one having authority, and not (like a regular scribe or teacher).” So it is understandable why they were unsure. But, oddly, no one asked him. It is a man with an unclean spirit that finally speaks up and confronts Jesus. (The fact that someone with an unclean spirit was present at worship should remind us that communities of faith are far from perfect!) The spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” And then adds, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” The unclean spirit knows that Jesus is not just a prophet, but the promised Messiah, the Holy One of God and yet, others present can’t see that yet. Jesus rebukes and evicts that spirit saying, “Shut up and come out” and the spirit does as Jesus commands. Everyone wonders, is God doing something new here? But there is an even deeper, more timely lesson in this short reading, and it has to do with that question, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

See, the unclean spirit already knew the answer because he heard Jesus’ voice and recognized it as the voice of God. But as for the others? Well, Moses said in Deuteronomy sometimes people don’t want to hear God’s voice, they don’t want to be challenged. Nevertheless, while the people had yet to recognize the voice of God, the unclean spirit did, and obeyed it. And that poses a question for us. What does Jesus have to do with us, do in us, right now? Within the context of our readings from Deuteronomy, Corinthians, and today’s Psalm, it seems that Jesus would want us to not only hear what God has said, but allow God’s ways, God’s values, to be a vital and defining part of who we are. But we won’t know unless we ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” What have you to do with me? And therein lies the real challenge – the challenge of not only being prepared for whatever his answer may be but being honest with our selves about whether we really want to hear his answer.

     The good news is that we can ask Jesus that question and, unlike the unclean spirit, not fear that he has come to destroy us, but rather, remember God’s promise to uphold us and love us, and for us to do the same. We can choose to accept, that in desiring for us to be God’s people in this community: to be God’s light and healing presence to our neighbors and each other; God may be calling us into a new way of life. Calling us to be people committed not to manmade or church-made rules about dress or liberties, but committed to demonstrating in our thoughts, our words, and especially in our deeds, our daily lives, the truth, justice, equity, mercy, grace, reconciliation, and welcome that we have received of God and extend the same to everyone and anyone we meet, and do so in new ways, prophetic ways. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Friends, I believe the answer is: everything and by God’s grace let us not only hear Jesus’ answer but choose to live it.  Amen.