Weekly Lectionary Commentary (Epiphany 4, Ordinary 4)

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Because the people of God were afraid of God’s voice and thought they might die if God spoke to them directly they wanted Moses to mediate between them (i.e. they wanted Moses to fill the role of prophet–to be the mouth piece of God).  After Moses was no longer living they wanted to maintain the presence of a mediator.  God agreed.  God promised to raise up a prophet similar to Moses who would give the word of God to the people.   Apparently God was likewise unsure the people would survive future encounters without a mediator.

After God promises a future mediator, God then addresses two possible problems with the mediation plan.  First, there could be a prophet that speaks in the name of other gods offering God competition for the people’s allegiance.  Second, there could be a prophet who speaks a false message and attributes it to God.  God warns that either violation is a capital offense.

This is a dangerous text to hear in worship.  Religious pluralism is a reality, and harsh sectarian violence is a terrible problem plaguing our world.  In reading scripture corporately we should not add fuel to the fire.  However, we do recognize that often ‘true prophets’ come with difficult messages–messages that challenge power and privilege, and that convict us of our corporate sin.  It is hard enough to hear these messages without having to sort them out from other prophets preaching health and wealth and proclaiming the maintenance of the status quo in a world of suffering.  Discerning the real word of God is a task none of us can avoid, and Deuteronomy 18 points out the seriousness of this vital work for the individual and congregation.

Psalm 111

Ralph Jacobsen has done a great job illustrating Psalm 111’s place within the Psalter, in particular it’s relation to Psalm 112 (you can find Ralph Jacobsen’s commentary here http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=5&alt=1).  The gist of the commentary is that Psalm 111 and Psalm 112 are sibling psalms (Jacobsen calls them ‘twins’).  They are both acrostics.  Psalm 111 makes statements about God.  Psalm 112 makes statements about humanity.  Each psalm is 22 lines.  Each psalm is divided into 10 verses.  Both speak about the importance of ‘fearing God.’

Understanding the difference between God and humans is an important life lesson.  Perhaps these psalms were used as a teaching aids to Israelite children as they learned the difference between creation and creator.

Two prime assertions about God are found in Psalm 111.  First, God has proved God’s-self trustworthy in God’s actions (i.e. God has done great, honorific, majestic, and righteous things, and God has maintained the covenant).  Second, God has given good commandments (i.e. God has given commandments that are trustworthy, eternal, faithful, and upright).

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

The debate over whether or not food could be eaten that was offered to an idol is not something we readily relate to in the modern world.  However, Paul’s advice in dealing with the question of whether or not food can be eaten that was offered to idols is replete with modern day applications.  The advice is this: when acting in the freedom we have as Christians always assess the impact our actions have on others.

The opening verse of Paul’s comments perhaps state it best “Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”  Our own knowledge of our freedom can be used to elevate ourselves over others who still battle with the shackles we have left behind.  Acting with a “free-elitism” can cause discord, polarization, the entrenchment of opposition to freedom, and be counterproductive to the kingdom of God.  Paul’s point seems to be, “If you have to choose between ‘knowledge’ (acting on your freedom) and ‘love’ then choose love.

This in no way forgoes a program of further education and movement in directions of liberty.  Rather it understands the careful discipling that is involved in bringing people along in their freedom in Christ.

Mark 1:21-28

Epiphany is about understanding who God is in Christ.  It is with interest then, that we take note of Jesus’ first act of public ministry (following the calling of the first disciples).

On the Sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue in Capernaum and begins his ministry of teaching.  We are not told the content of the message, only the result.  Those who heard Jesus were “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”  The accolades are interrupted by an unclean spirit who cries 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.”  The identification of Jesus as the Holy One of God is significant in that it is the new title we are presented with on this fourth Sunday of Epiphany.  Jesus commands two things of the unclean spirit: be silent, and come out of the man.  The spirit obeys both commands (seemingly against the spirit’s will, since the whole ordeal was accompanied by convulsing and crying).  The crowd is awe-struck.  They have not seen the likes of this kind of authority, and from that moment the fame of Jesus begins to spread throughout Galilee prompting Mark’s later attempts to keep the fame under wraps (i.e. what scholars call Mark’s messianic secret).

The importance of this scene providing the inauguration for the teaching ministry of Jesus is significant.  First, we learn that Jesus presents himself as a teaching rabbi–and one who delivers his teaching with authority (unlike the scribes).  Second, we note that Jesus encounters his first unclean spirit in the midst of the gathered synagogue, perhaps an attempt by Mark to foreshadow the reception of Jesus’ authoritative teachings by the religious establishment.  Third we read that the unclean spirit that keeps this man in bondage is fearful of the one whom the spirit calls “the Holy One of God” illustrating Jesus’ power to free people from their bondage.  Finally we conclude by pointing to the spreading fame of Jesus amongst the Galilean people–Jesus’ claim on truth has found a receptive audience.

Celebration of Worship

As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the important role of prophet as a mediator and mouth piece for God.  Jesus played this role in Mark’s gospel in the context of worship, and as we encounter Jesus week in and week out through the reading of the gospel we are continually challenged by the one who refuses to let the unclean spirit dwell amongst us.  We receive his teaching with all of its authority, and it is disturbing to the powers that hold us in bondage.  They scream out against Jesus, and showing his authority Jesus commands them to be silent and then sends them out from the worshipping community.  This all happens, as long as the worshipping community discerns the word of God and does not spend its time listening to false prophets who speak words without authority (but who also don’t make a stir, and allow the status quo to go unchallenged).

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