Hearing God's Message -- A Lectionary Reflection

Hearing God’s Message

            How does one know the voice of God?  What helps one discern when God is speaking and when God isn’t?  These are important questions, as people of faith desire to know what God is up to and what God would have us do.  We needn’t embrace a deterministic world view to concern ourselves with such questions, for in our prayers we do desire to enter into conversation with God.  Sometimes we have difficulty with this need because the voice we hear seems to be different from what we expect. 

Our ability to hear God’s voice and sense God’s presence is that we now live in a de-enchanted world – our view of the world, in the words of Rudolph Bultmann, has been demythologized.  It has been laid bare and we find it difficult to find underlying meaning and purpose.  It appears to many people, that we are alone in this world.   It’s true that there are still remnants of an older worldview that clings to extreme supernaturalist views of the world, but that world continues to shrink. 

We want to believe, with the ad writers of the United Church of Christ that “God Still Speaks,” but how will we hear that voice?  How will we recognize the prophet that arises from our midst so that we might heed that voice?  Will we be amazed and even disturbed by the words and actions of those who bring this word into our midst, a word that often unsettles the status quo? 

            With these questions in mind we come to the lectionary texts for this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany.  The Gospel of Mark guides our journey, seeking to reveal to us a Jesus that we sometimes can’t get our heads around.  As the title of a Peter Gomes book puts it – the Gospel of Jesus is often scandalous.  So, as we tend to these texts, from Deuteronomy, from 1 Corinthians, and from the Gospel of Mark, how do they help us hear the message of God? 

            The reading from Deuteronomy raises an interesting point.  According to this text, the people have asked Moses to ask God to provide them a prophet, a spokesperson, once Moses is gone, so that they can hear the message of God without having to risk encountering God face to face.  They find it difficult to listen to God’s voice and look at the fire of God.  It has become apparent to them that to encounter God “face to face” is too overwhelming.  To do so would lead to their deaths.  Do we feel the same way?  Do we have this striking sense of God’s presence that is so overwhelming that we shrink back, or is ours a domesticated God, one that is easily handled?  Are we feeling the need for a mediator?  Or can we handle it on our own?   If we live in a de-enchanted world with a demythologized gospel, then do we have anything to fear from being in the presence of God?   Have we relegated God to being the “man upstairs,” a sort of feeble grandpa who we trot out on special occasions or entreat when we need a few bucks to tide us over?  Sometimes it seems as if there is no fear of staying too long in the presence of God, and I wonder – is this a good thing?    

            The good news for the Israelites is that the LORD God hears their pleas and promises a prophet who will arise from among the people.  This person will receive the words of God and tell the people what God had commanded.  Anyone who doesn’t heed this word will be held accountable.  There is a catch, however, as God will hold accountable the person who “arrogantly speaks a word in my name that I haven’t commanded him to speak.”  In other words, choosing to speak on behalf of God is a dangerous calling – be sure you are hearing correctly! 

            The Corinthian letters are, I believe, important voices in the modern world.  They speak to a church living in a deeply pluralistic setting.  Paul must help them navigate their context.  We may not embrace all the we find here, but it is a reminder that we live in a world full of diverse voices, not all of which are in sync with the desires and purposes of God.   In this particular passage, Paul speaks to Christians who believe that they have reached the pinnacle of spirituality.  They believe they have sufficient knowledge (gnosis) to make them immune from any temptation to follow after competing voices.  Paul speaks of this “knowledge” as leading to arrogance, an arrogance that stands contrary to the love that is God.  In this situation, the issue is eating meat sacrificed to idols.  These Christians seem to have demythologized their context, and since the best meat in town is to be found at the local temples, why not dine there?   After all, these so-called gods are empty idols.  They have embraced the message that there is but one God, and therefore all other “gods” are mere idols.  Paul’s view is a bit less de-enchanted.  Yes, there is but one God, and these idols, are mere statues, but there are spiritual realities that they need to take into account.  But more importantly, they need to be aware of their brothers and sisters whose world view is much less de-enchanted.  For them to dine at the Temple could lead them into worshiping this other deities, leading them away from their encounter with God through Christ. 

Paul acknowledges that knowledge (gnosis) is good, but knowledge can puff up with disastrous consequences.  Therefore, focus instead on love of your brother and sister who may not be as “strong” as you are.  Recognize that your freedom could cause them to stumble.  Is that steak so delicious that you feel it necessary to destroy their faith to have a taste?  What if you’re freedom leads some of your brothers and sisters to worship false gods?  Is it worth it?  Paul suggests that such arrogance is a sin against Christ, because it is a sin against one’s brother or sister.  Thus, Paul decides that if food causes the downfall of a brother or sister then he won’t eat meat again. 

            This is an important text because it affirms the importance of community.  I should take into account my sister or my brother in the faith when I choose to act.  My freedom in Christ is circumscribed by my love of neighbor.  Having said this, I need to acknowledge the danger of legalism.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many examples of people using this text to limit freedoms.  Don’t have a beer; don’t go to a movie, etc.  So, freedom should be circumscribed by love, but freedom should not be circumscribed by legalism.  I realize that in my current context as pastor of a Mainline Protestant church, my situation is different than it was years ago when I was involved in a rather conservative Pentecostal context.  But that experience is a reminder that legalism is also a threat to our ability to hear the voice of God.  But, the key here is to keep our own behavior formed by love of neighbor.

            Finally we come to Jesus’ visit, with his disciples, to the synagogue at Capernaum.  Something to note here is the use of adverbs like immediately and suddenly.  Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry is an active one.  Jesus doesn’t saunter up to the synagogue and have a seat; instead he enters the synagogue immediately and begins to teach.  And events don’t just emerge slowly, they happen suddenly, such as when a person with an evil spirit stands up in the synagogue and screams at Jesus – accusing him of coming to destroy the demonic spirits.  

            Such is the nature of this encounter that the people are amazed and shaken.  Wouldn’t you be in a state of shock if someone came to church and just strode up to the pulpit and began preaching?   As a pastor, I’d surely ask some questions about why a person would do such a thing.  I don’t care if this preacher teaches with such authority that the people are amazed – there’s such a thing as decency and order.  It would be nice if this preacher would give me a chance to sit down and discuss when and where this conversation should take place. 

Added to this preacher breaking into the service and demanding the pulpit, you have the additional frenzy caused by the demoniac who stands up and shouts at Jesus.   Yes, everyone would be in shock.

            But the story is complex.  Jesus has come to the synagogue and has begun teaching, but the demons not only fear being destroyed, but they inadvertently identify Jesus – you are the holy of God, they declare.  When Jesus hears their affirmation, he silences them.   There’s something odd about Jesus’ power encounters in Mark – he’s not eager to receive the witness of these entities.  And yet, this encounter serves to affirm the message – there’s something unique about Jesus.  He has a new teaching – the gospel of the reign of God – but he also has power over unclean spirits.    As you would expect, the news spreads quickly.  Soon the entire region of Galilee has heard the news.  There is a new prophet in town, and he seems to have the power of God within him. 

            As we hear this text, it calls forth from us a response:   Who is this person?   What is he? What do I make of him?  It was a question asked then and it’s again being asked.  We in the Mainline Protestant community, especially those of us engaged in interfaith work, this question is central.  Historic Christian teaching insists that Jesus is the unique revelation of God.  No one comes to the father, except through Jesus.  There are increasing numbers of people in the church today who are uncomfortable not only with an exclusivist message, but even one centered on Jesus.  So, who is Jesus?  How does he speak and embody the realm of God for us?

            As we ask these questions about Jesus, as they are raised by the text, we need to acknowledge that there is present in this passage the possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment.   Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with the scribes (legal experts – CEB).  And there’s the presence of the demoniac in the synagogue.  Yes, we need to be wary of expressing perspectives that would denigrate the Jewish people, even as we seek to hear God’s voice in the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth.

            As we listen for God’s voice this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, what are you hearing?  Is it a surprising message?  A challenging one?  Does it make you feel uncomfortable?   

Read the texts for the week from  the CEB, click on texts above.


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