On Side — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines, Mark 1:21-28

John had worshiped in the same congregation for all of his ninety two years. He struggled to read the words of the liturgy or hymns. He couldn’t really hear the readings, prayers or sermon. Yet he never missed a Sunday of worship. During a home visit, the pastor decided to find out why.

“John,” she shouted across the kitchen table, “I know you can’t see or hear much at church.” He smiled and nodded. “I’m wondering,” she continued, “why you keep coming.”

John sat up straight in his chair. “Pastor,” he said, “I want people to remember which side I’m on.”

John understood today’s Gospel. Jesus comes to battle sin, death and the devil. It’s important to remember which side we’re on.

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If you imagine Satan as a Halloween character in red tights, horns and hooves carrying a pitch fork, you’re not going to get this. There is a power deep in the fiber of the universe that wants to enslave you and me. That power energizes the forces that divide us from God, ourselves and one another. That power sucks the joy and hope out of life.

Alexander Schmemann put it well. “To renounce Satan,” he wrote, “thus is not to reject a mythological being in whose existence one does not even believe. It is to reject an entire “worldview” made up of pride and self-affirmation, of that pride which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death and hell.”

We are called to declare which side we’re on. But we can only do this because God is on our side. I don’t mean that God is on the side of a particular national or cultural or political movement or group. I mean that God is “for you.” Listen to these words from Romans eight, verse thirty-one: “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” That is, if God is for us, no power can change that.

Paul finishes this paragraph with his greatest affirmation of faith: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is the Good News for you today. God is for you. Nothing in all of creation has the power to change that.

Do you have moments (or hours or days) when it seems that darkness, despair and death are winning? I do. The headlines and hype of our age don’t help. Too often I choose to see the worst in the world and others and myself. I pray “Are you there, Jesus? Do you care, God?”

In God’s Word, in our worship and sacraments and in our life together as Church I get the Holy Spirit’s answer. Nothing in all of creation can separate me from God’s love in Christ Jesus my Lord. If I listen, I see light and life and hope. I pray that this is what happens for you as well.

Do I live on God’s side? This battle with Satan begins at our baptism. Baptism is an exorcism. From the earliest centuries of the Church, the baptismal liturgy has included a section called “The Renunciation.”

If the Gospel were to be recited in totality as candidates prepared for their own baptisms, then this scene and those like it throughout Mark’s account would prepare those candidates for their own exorcism during the rite that still lay ahead of them that night. In that regard, I think that perhaps the most important part of our baptismal rite is the one omitted from our current worship book and practice. That element is the “Renunciation.”

“Do you have the kind of heart that expects from [God] nothing but good, especially in distress and want,” Luther asks us in the Large Catechism, “and renounces and forsakes all that is not God?” If so, Luther asserts, “Then you have the one true God” (paragraph 28). If our hearts cling to anything else, he warns, “Then you have an idol, another god” (paragraph 29).

The Renunciation includes three questions. Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? Each time we respond, “I renounce them.”

I have often included the threefold Renunciation as the prelude to confessing together the Apostle’s Creed during the season of Lent. This helps worshippers to remember the historical function of Lent as final preparation for baptism and the ongoing function of Lent as remembrance of and recommitment to our own baptismal covenants. You could use this text from Mark as a way to introduce that practice and prepare people for such a liturgical addition in your own Lenten liturgies if you would choose to do so.

We don’t use that word, “renounce,” very often. To renounce means “to give up, refuse, or resign usually by formal declaration.” It means “to refuse to follow, obey, or recognize any further.” Baptism is an exorcism. Like the man in our gospel reading, we are set free from the powers of sin death and evil. And we are signed up for the ongoing battle.

In 1523, Martin Luther wrote out the first order for Christian baptism in Lutheran churches. In his instructions, Luther issues a stern warning. “It is no joke to take sides against the devil,” he declares. Baptism means that we are burdened with “a mighty and lifelong enemy.” We need, he says, the “heart and strong faith” of fellow Christians along with their earnest intercession through prayer.

We do not go into the battle alone. Jesus will go anywhere, face anyone, do anything to keep you in God’s loving heart. That’s why in the Creed we say that he “descended into Hell.” You can’t find the place where Jesus won’t go. You can’t face a foe without Jesus at your side.

We’re in this fight together, but it is still a fight. I think often of these words from First Peter, chapter four, verse twelve: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” One of Satan’s favorite tools is to convince us that he has retired from the field. Nothing is farther from the truth.

Matt Skinner notes that we have a worldview that doesn’t really accommodate shrieking demons. So, what does this text have to say to us? “At minimum,” he writes, “this passage provokes us to stop assuming that ‘the way things are’ must always equal ‘the way things have to be.’ The reign of God promises more, whether the ‘more’ can be realized now or in a far-off future.” We live in an era when the demons of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and lots of other isms are shrieking so loud as to nearly drown out any other voices, “but since Calvary they no longer have authority.”

“Naming the demons is a way to recognize that they exist,” writes Osvaldo Vena. “We start with the big one, Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems. Then,” he continues, “springing from this one, come the others in fearful company: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, militarism, terrorism, war, greed, extreme individualism, globalization, out-of-control capitalism, media-infused fear that leads to paranoia, and governmental manipulation of information. To name just a few.” Just a few — yes, we know.

The demons will fight back, both in Mark’s gospel and in our own lives as disciples. They will appear to have the last word as Jesus shrieks out on the cross. But that is not the last word for them or for us. Nonetheless, disciples need both discipline and stamina for the demonic pushback to come.

For example, we can listen to the counsel of Ibram X. Kendi in How to be an Antiracist. Kendi notes that antiracism has made progress in American society. But racism has made progress too. Every time faith, hope, and love move forward, the forces of sin, death, and the devil respond. We should not be surprise by such pushback, and we should be prepared to continue the fight.

You and I know people who are struggling to find freedom, meaning, purpose and direction for their lives. This is a matter of life and death for them. Together, let us witness to them about the joy of life on Jesus’ side. God is for them, for us, for you. Amen.

Text Study for 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 4 Epiphany B 2021, part 2

The question raised in our reading is whether Paul understands Jesus as God. Was Paul in some sense a Trinitarian? Fredricksen thinks this cannot be demonstrated from Paul’s writing in the context of first century Jewish theology and pagan practice. N. T. Wright is one of a number of scholars who are convinced that Paul was in fact at least an incipient Trinitarian. They point to 1 Corinthians 8:6 as one of the anchors for this understanding. I find these arguments convincing.

Wright walks us through the arguments regarding a high Christology for Paul in his popular book on Paul, especially in chapter 5, “Rethinking God.”

“Jewish monotheism, then, always ranged itself over against paganism,” Wright asserts, “seeing the pagan world as embodying and expressing the failure of human beings to live as they were made to live, to reflect the image of their maker” (page 89). Wright notes that here in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is helping the new Christians discern what it looks like to reflect that Divine image in a pagan society and to do so as “Jewish-style monotheists” (page 94).

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It should be clear that Paul has moved beyond the happy pagan accommodations that Fredriksen describes as necessary for divine peaceful coexistence. In our reading he declares that there is no God but one, and the other gods are not really gods at all. This one God “worshipped and acknowledged supremely in the daily prayer, the Shema…” (page 94) which Paul quotes here. And Jesus the Messiah is the true and final content of God’s self-revelation.

If Jesus is this true and final content of God’s self-revelation, then those who follow Jesus must live their lives on the basis of love. So, Paul contrasts love with mere knowledge, something the Corinthians value highly. In fact, Wright says, Paul goes on “in the rest of the chapter, to insist that self-sacrificial love for one’s neighbor is the primary consideration when working out how to live within a pagan environment” (page 94). We will explore in detail what that looks like in the next section of the comments.

If gods are in the blood, as Fredriksen asserts, and if they are intimately connected to places, then residents and citizens of a place owe worship and devotion to those gods. Without that devotion, the local gods might not bless their kin group with safety, security, and abundance. If a person avoided or resisted the local public rites, that person might put the well-being of the whole land at risk. In fact, no one really cared what you might think about that local god. But you needed to do your public duty in offering sacrifice and eating the meat.

Paul responds to one of the questions he received from the Corinthian congregation—whether or not they could eat the meat produced by public sacrifices in the Greco-Roman cults. In a situation where good meat was hard to find, the sacrificial leftovers were a ready source of quality protein. Eating the sacrificial leftovers was also a simple way to participate in public and civic life and demonstrate that one was a good citizen of the political culture.

In verse one, Paul seems to quote what he has heard from some of the Corinthian Christians – that the Holy Spirit has gifted all of them with some measure of knowledge. Perhaps they are asserting that this knowledge allows the knowledgeable to make decisions that the less informed (perhaps ones they called the “weak”) are not equipped to make. We know that this is a live issue not only in the Corinthian congregation but perhaps in the Roman churches as well (see Romans 14).

Paul turns their claim around. Claims of superior knowledge make one arrogant, not wise. Our knowing must be informed by loving. Otherwise, it is an inadequate source of real knowledge. What is most important, first of all, is not what we know. What is most important, rather, is who knows us. Our love for God (and neighbor) opens us to real knowledge. We will hear the climax of this discussion in chapter thirteen with Paul’s great hymn to love.

With that preface, Paul moves to the details of the discussion. He quotes from Deuteronomy 4 and 6 to assure his listeners that idols have no objective existence. Rather, “there is no God but one” (quoting the Shema). People regard many things and people and entities as divine, sacred, and worthy of worship. But saying a thing doesn’t make it so. If Christians know anything, we that that “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (verse 6).

Paul quoted the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, and then he expands it in a remarkable way in verse six of our text. In this verse, Paul gives the words for “Lord” and “God” in the text two different referents, as N. T. Wright points out (page 571). The identity of Jesus Christ with the God of Israel is not a later theological invention but is rather assumed, as it is here, in the earliest Christian theology, hymns and prayers.

N. T. Wright tackles this section of 1 Corinthians in The Resurrection of the Son of God. He suggests that chapters eight through ten are taken up with the issue of idolatry and Christian practice. That may seem odd, since chapter nine is focused on Paul’s “freedom” as an apostle. But, Wright says, on the basis of the Christian story, “you must learn how to regulate your apparent rights and freedoms with the overarching responsibilities that are yours because of what you are in the Messiah” (page 292).

Paul concludes in chapter ten that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (quoting Psalm 24). Paul refuses, Wright asserts, to lapse into the dualism which is a characteristic of much of the paganism of his time. The earth (including meat) is not bad in and of itself but is rather part of God’s good creation. And Christians know that other gods don’t really exist at all. But that doesn’t license Christians to blithely eat the sacrificial leftovers.

Paul’s “long pastoral experience tells him that not all consciences become re-educated at the same pace,” Wright notes, “and that it is far better to live with apparent anomaly than to force someone to act against their own conscience” (page 293). Verses seven through thirteen make precisely this argument, and it is repeated in 10:23-11:1. “But take care,” Paul warns in verse 9, “that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Paul monitors and modulates his apostolic freedom, as he reports in chapter nine, for precisely this reason. Paul “has certain writes which he has chosen not to use,” Wright continues, “at least not in Corinth, so that the progress of the gospel may not be hindered” (page 293).

This is a consistent theme in Paul’s letters. For example, in Galatians 5, freedom is not to be taken as a license for lawlessness. In the Letter to Philemon, Paul says he could order Philemon to take a particular action, but he won’t do that. Moderating our freedom in the gospel for the sake of that gospel is, according to Paul, a basic principle of following Jesus.

While we may struggle with this particular practical issue, how Christians relate to public symbols and civic cults has perhaps never been so pressing an issue for us American Christians as it is right now. Monuments to the Confederacy and Confederate battle flags are points of physical conflict.

The presence of American flags in Christian sanctuaries has been a subject for heated debate for generations. A number of German-American Lutheran congregations named or renamed themselves as “American” congregations in order to escape political suspicion during and after each of the World Wars.

Bibles are held by public figures as talismans of legitimacy. The United States constitution is described as a sacred and holy document. We’ve idol trouble – with a capital I and a capital T. Therefore, Paul’s analysis is as fresh as the morning headlines.

Robert P. Jones documents the intimate connection between Christian churches, especially in the southern United States but not exclusively, and monuments to the Confederacy and white supremacy. These monuments are often referred to as sacred or holy. Defacing or removing these monuments is often described as desecration or sacrilege. These are all terms that one might attach to the veneration of the image of a god – that is, in Christian terms, the worship of idols.

The veneration of idols for the sake of appearing (or actually being) publicly pious was demonstrated by the congregational responses to the construction of Monument Row in Richmond, Virginia. Robert P. Jones describes this phenomenon in White Too Long. “By 1930, Richmond’s white aristocracy had also uprooted seven of its prominent churches, replanting them in the shadows of the Confederate monuments,” Jones notes. “When west Richmond construction crews weren’t erecting Confederate monuments, they were relocating white Christian churches” (page 111).

That relocation included a Lutheran church which remains in that same space now. The purpose of these monuments was clear. “Monument Avenue, with its blend of monuments to Confederate leaders, leading churches of the major white Christian denominations, and imposing homes,” Jones asserts, “was carefully designed to serve both as a living civic tribute to the Confederacy for Richmond’s white elite and as a Lost Cause pilgrimage site for whites across the South” (page 111). Jones notes that this quasi-religious function has not been altered.

“A century later, it remains a leafy, upper-class, mostly white neighborhood dotted with tall-steepled churches and massive granite and bronze tributes to the Confederacy. As an official National Historic Landmark district, it still serves as a tourist magnet. And it continues to make its cultural statement. As historian Charles Reagan Wilson noted: ‘Richmond was the Mecca of the Lost Cause, and Monument Boulevard was the sacred road to it.’” (page 112).

Paul’s principle will not allow us to blithely pretend that proximity to such monuments is now an innocent accident of history. Our concern is for the tender consciences of those who see that proximity must be the limit to expressions of our “freedom.” Of course, we must first attend to our own self-delusion in our white congregations, if we think that somehow we are above all that white supremacist stuff now.

“Do you have the kind of heart that expects from [God] nothing but good, especially in distress and want,” Luther asks us in the Large Catechism, “and renounces and forsakes all that is not God?” If so, Luther asserts, “Then you have the one true God” (paragraph 28). If our hearts cling to anything else, he warns, “Then you have an idol, another god” (paragraph 29).

References and Resources

Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”

            “GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0

            “GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3.

Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.

Text Study for 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 4 Epiphany B, part 1

I’m taking a week off from the Throwback Thursday books, because there’s so much to say about the texts for this week’s preaching. I’ll focus on the second reading in this post and the next one.

What does it mean to have a god? This is the fundamental question Luther raises in his Large Catechism as he thinks about the First Commandment. “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god,” Luther writes, “is nothing else than to trust and believe in him with our whole heart” (paragraph 2). To have a god, Luther asserts, is to trust someone or something in life and in death. “To cling to him (sic) with all our heart,” Luther later writes, “is nothing else than to entrust ourselves to him (sic) completely” (paragraph 14).

Idolatry, then, is about setting up and maintaining images of divine beings. But more than that, idolatry is an orientation of the heart. “Idolatry does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it,” Luther writes. “It is primarily in the heart, which pursues other things and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devils.” In having no other gods, Luther reminds us in his Small Catechism, “we are to fear, love, and trust God above anything else.”

Photo by Gianluca Grisenti on Pexels.com

Luther’s perspective would seem odd to the first century pagan world and spot-on to Paul. Paula Fredricksen gives us some excellent insight into how odd Paul’s monotheistic insistence would be to first century pagans. It’s worth spending time on her three youtube.com lectures, two of which are noted and linked in the “References and Resources” section.

Frederiksen notes that Israelite religion was “aniconic,” that is, representations of God or of other gods were forbidden in the Torah. The prohibition against images, Frederiksen suggests, is not the same as the assertion that other gods do not exist. The existence of the gods of other nations is assumed in a number of texts in the Hebrew Bible, all the while insisting that the God of Israel is supreme, or “highest of the gods.” Some texts in the Hebrew Bible even portray other gods as part of the heavenly council or court.

Once Jews moved into the Diaspora, they had to deal with these other gods on the home turf of those gods. In the Greek translations, the pagan gods are sometimes referred to as “daimonia.” That doesn’t necessarily mean “demons,” as we might now assume. In Greco-Roman understanding, particular, daimonia were lesser gods, gods junior grade, godlets. They were still real and had power and authority in their home territory and among their people. But for the Jews, these other gods were created by and subject to the one God of the Jews.

According to Fredriksen, for first century pagans “the world was full of gods.” She describes the century as “god-congested”! When pagans announced, however, that their particular god was the greatest god, she continues, that was not the same as declaring that the god in question was the only god. Ancient monotheist, she says, understood the gods to be in a hierarchy of power and authority. That hierarchy extended from the highest God to the lowest point in creation in a descending degree of divinity. “Godness, theos, in antiquity,” Fredriksen notes, “was a fluid idea.”

In particular, we should note that Roman emperors were considered first “sons of god,” and then later themselves “gods” (first, after death and then later during their earthly lives). This can be seen on Roman coinage, statuary, cameos, and in documentary evidence. This doesn’t mean that emperors displaced the “higher” Roman gods in the imperial pantheon. Instead, the emperors simply took a place in that pantheon higher than any other human beings. So, the divine status of the emperors simply reflected their status on earth in relationship to other humans.

This matters in part because a major assertion in the New Testament is that Jesus is “Lord,” and Caesar is not. This is a contested and even dangerous political claim that could result in persecution of Christians by local and/or imperial authorities. We see some of this described in Acts and Revelation. It is described in Paul’s writing as well.

Fredriksen points to Paul’s own words, including here in 1 Corinthians 8, that point to the existence of other gods. (Gal 4:8-9 1 Cor 2:8 1 Cor 10:20-21 1 Cor 15 24-27 Phil 2:10 Rom 8:38). She notes that Paul does not expect Jesus to destroy all these other gods. Paul expects that Jesus will triumph over them and make them fall into line. So, in Philippians 2, every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. That conquest shall impact all who are above the earth, on the earth, and under the earth. So, Jesus’ victory (in the Incarnation, Resurrection and Final Coming) will bring order and justice to every part of the cosmos, both mortal and divine, both material and spiritual.

Fredriksen suggests that “gods are in the blood.” In antiquity, gods and humans formed kinship groups. Gods were the senior members of the group, but divine beings and their people were members of the same family. Those families were anchored to specific places as well as specific peoples. Like modern politics, most ancient religions were local. Gods were authoritative on their own territory and with their own kinship groups. If those gods strayed from their home territory, they sometimes acted as hostile invaders (just like their people). At the least, gods wandered with their people and up against other divine beings and their families.

Ancient and modern paganism associate gods with “blood and soil.” If that reference makes you squirm, I’m glad. That is one of the slogans of the Nazis in twentieth-century Germany. No matter how the Nazis sought to claim and co-opt Christianity (and no matter how successful they were in that project), the National Socialist worldview was essentially pagan rather than Christian in any orthodox sense. The Nazis worshipped the gods of blood and soil, people and place. As the movement developed, that essential paganism became more public and pronounced. Too late, many German Christians discovered that their national religion regarded Hitler as Lord rather than Jesus. But I digress.

In the Roman empire and other ancient empires, Fredriksen notes, gods bumped up against one another as their people moved from place to place. Empires would not tolerate “religious wars,” and for most people such conflicts were not necessary. Gods could follow their people but didn’t need to claim another god’s territory. In the Roman empire there wasn’t so much religious tolerance as there was divine peaceful coexistence. “A sensible display of courtesy towards the gods of others,” Fredriksen says, went far toward maintaining social peace.”

Since gods didn’t demand exclusive allegiance, they weren’t in competition with one another. “Practical pluralism prevailed,” Fredriksen alliteratively asserts. But the gods didn’t appreciate it when gods poached family members from one another. Ethnic gods were in the blood. Even the God of Israel seems to be Jewish, without a desire to steal sheep from other flocks. Therefore, no matter how odd the Jews seemed to their pagan neighbors, the Roman Empire could allow a Jewish exception to a number of rules and laws because for the most part the Jews stuck to the religious rules.

Christians declare that God is not limited to one nation but is transnational. Christians declare that God takes in converts from other nations and calls them to be exclusive with God – the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This God is highest god, the only one deserving of worship (see the First Commandment). So, Christians cannot be good citizens of the Empire in the same way that other religious people could be. This will take us to the problem of eating meat offered to idols, that is, divine beings who no longer deserve that worship. Christians cannot be promiscuous in their religion, in their diets, or in their sex lives (all items address in First Corinthians).

The chaos of divinity in the first century, then, is the milieu in which Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians. As I noted earlier, I think that Paul and Luther would have understood one another better than Paul’s pagan neighbors would have understood him. Every sin, Luther said, is a sin against the First Commandment. That is, every sin can be resolved into some form of idolatry. And idolatry, as N. T. Wright suggests, is the source of human evil in the Jewish analysis.

More on this text in the next post.

References and Resources

Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”

            “GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0

            “GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3.

Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.

Text Study for Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 4 Epiphany B 2021

Jesus speaks for God among us because Jesus is God with us.

“Don’t talk,” wrote Jose Luis Borges, “unless you can improve the silence.” This is one way to summarize the import of the first reading for this Sunday. This is a helpful rule of thumb for anyone seeking a deeper spiritual life. And it is excellent counsel for a culture obese with words and starving for wisdom.

Now that Moses is departing from the Hebrews, the writer of Deuteronomy wonders, who will speak for God among us? The writer preaches in the voice of Moses, soon to die on Mount Nebo, to a people leaving the wilderness and heading into an even greater unknown. Deuteronomy is directed to the people in the Babylonian Exile, cut off from the Temple in Jerusalem, the king and his priests, and even from the prophets who spoke “The Word of the Lord.” Who will speak for God among us in such a godforsaken place as this?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Chapter eighteen gives support to the homeless, landless, wandering Levites among the people – the last remnants of the priestly tribe whose vocation has been to bridge the gap between the Hebrews and their God. These rootless religious shall remain entitled to a decent living as the Lord promised them in earlier days. They shall sustain the traditions of the people in chaotic times. But the people shall not pay attention to the pretenders, the imposters, the hucksters, and charlatans among them, sure to take advantage of the uncertain situation.

This is the theme of the paragraph leading up to our reading. Deuteronomy portrays the religious figures of the “nations,” those who already inhabit the land, as practitioners of fake religion. They risk their children as burnt offerings. They practice divination and soothsaying. They read the tea leaves or the chicken bones or the playing cards and make pronouncements. They consult ghosts and spirits. They plead for voices from beyond the grave, cast spells to manipulate events and people, pronounce curses to punish offenders.

Who will speak for God among us? Certainly not the parade of pretenders inventoried here! Attending to those voices will demonstrate loyalty to other gods. “You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God,” we read in verse 13. That rendering in the NRSV seems more interpretation than translation. “You shall be perfect, complete, whole, in being with the LORD your God,” the writer actually says. Listening to the LORD brings the Hebrew listener into deeper unity with the Divine.

Moses had performed that role for the Hebrews in the wilderness, but now he is bidding them farewell. Whose voice shall they heed? They shall listen, he says, to the voice of a prophet “like me from among your own people.” Moses, then, is the type and template for the prophet to come. The people have learned from hard experience that coming face to face with God, as they did at Mt. Horeb (Sinai) doesn’t work out as well as one might hope. Moses was the one who could speak to the LORD face to face (or at least nearly so) and live to tell the tale.

How will we know that this prophet speaks for God among us? Moses asserts that the words of the Prophet must be tested. First, if the prophet speaks in the name of those other gods (described by proxy in verses nine through fourteen), that “prophet” is false and shall die. It’s not clear from the text whether God will carry out the punishment or the people shall do so, but that’s of little concern here. So, first – no false gods.

Second, if the prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but events do not bear out the words, then the prophet is not speaking for God. The prophet has then spoken in mere arrogance, and there’s no reason to take that one seriously. It seems to me that this is the case where the prophet mistakes his/her/their own words for God’s words rather than speaking the words of some other god. Wait and see how things work out before you get too excited about what you hear.

It’s best if prophets don’t talk unless they can improve on the silence.

Who will speak for God among us? “When men (sic) choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing,” wrote Emile Cammaerts. “They then become capable of believing in anything.” We live in such a time as Cammaerts described. The number of people clambering to speak for God among us seems to double daily. This is not an argument against atheism, despite what some might suggest. But it is certainly an argument in favor of spiritual circumspection. Very few who wish to speak these days are improving on the silence. We shall not pay attention to the pretenders, the imposters, the hucksters, and charlatans among us, sure to take advantage of the uncertain situation.

We can take counsel from the text before us. If the prophet seeking our attention is one like Moses, then perhaps we should turn aside for a moment. But we Christians read that through the lens of Jesus Christ. For us, the voice which commands our attention must be the voice of Jesus, speaking to our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. If the prophet looks and sounds like Jesus, then we must attend.

This takes us to the gospel reading for the day. The voice of Jesus commands the demons to retreat and they obey. The voice of Jesus speaks words of comfort and compassion, and the sick are healed. The voice of Jesus declares a time of repentance, and hearts are turned to faith. The voice of Jesus calls for followers, and disciples are made. The voice of Jesus brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. The voice of Jesus frees the oppressed and proclaims the LORD’s Jubilee (see Luke 4).

If a prophet among us sounds like that, then we Jesus followers should listen. If not, then we shouldn’t be troubled by the noise.

The Prophet will not tell rich people that they should become richer in order to prove that they are truly blessed. Nor will such a prophet tell the privileged to do everything they can to defend their domains against the invasion of the masses yearning to breathe free. The prophet will reject the bad science fiction of the QAnon movement and the malicious mythology of white male supremacy. The prophet will proclaim comfort for the afflicted and affliction for the comfortable.

Thus, the prophet will likely end up dead at the hands of those who attend to the gods of power, privilege, and property.

If I were to read and preach on this text in a Christian worship service, I would likely want to read verses twenty-one and twenty-two as well as verses nine through fourteen. Because when it comes to prophets, the proof is in the pudding. Not only do we need to see where the prophecy ends up. We need to see where the prophet ends up. The fact that Jesus is executed by the oppressive machinery of the imperial state is a good reason to pay attention to what he says. No one gets executed for spreading comfortable and self-serving falsehoods. It’s truth-telling that gets you killed under authoritarian regimes.

We Christians are called to discern together what Paul calls “the mind of Christ. We see that phrase repeated in his letters, but it is most clearly stated in Philippians 2. The mind of Christ is demonstrated in the self-emptying love of God in Christ, obedient even to the point of death on a cross. It is because of that outcome and the resurrection that overcomes the dying that we can and should exalt the name of Jesus above every name and that every knee should bow to him in the end.

In a time when idolatry is rampant and destructive, we have a chance in this text to address some of that spiritual illness. When the Holy Spirit fills us with the mind of Christ, we can offer an alternative story to the violence, greed, fear, domination, and death which are worshipped with such energy in the present moment. The second lesson for Sunday offers even more insight and opportunity in this regard.

Jesus speaks for God among us because Jesus is God with us.

References and Resources

Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”

            “GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0

            “GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3.

Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.

Text Study for Mark 1:21-28; 4 Epiphany B 2021, part 2

In response to Jesus’ exorcism and healing, the people describe Jesus as one who preaches and teaches with “authority” (verse 22). Jesus operates on his own understanding and initiative and does not engage in the proof-texting and footnoting that would be characteristic of the scriptural teachers and experts of his day. He speaks for God among them, and they recognize the source and strength of his words and actions.

What is the nature of Jesus’ authority? It is certainly not, as Stephen Hultgren notes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, any authority underwritten by worldly power. It is, instead, the authority of the Word of God. “The only authority he had was the supreme confidence that what he did and said was God’s will and God’s truth,” Hultgren writes. “His authority lay in the sheer power of his words and in the example of his deeds. His authority lay in his living as God’s servant.” This is the only authority the Church has as well.

Photo by Andreas on Pexels.com

Hurtado describes that concern with authority as a major emphasis in Mark’s account. And he describes five dimensions to that authority: authority in his teaching, authority over demons, authority to forgive sins, authority over the temple and its administration, and authority to share his authority with his disciples, especially when it came to authority over the demons (page 26).

“The all-important issue of authority appears once again,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest in commenting on this text. “Persons who acted out of character with their station (honor status) at birth were cause for immediate concern in ancient Mediterranean communities. Since a craftsman’s son would not have been expected to speak in public, Jesus’ hearers are indeed amazed, perhaps even shocked. However,” they conclude, “Mark has already let the reader in on his justification for doing so by asserting Jesus’ claim to high status as the son of God” (page 181).

“The teaching and the exorcism are connected, then, since both result in amazement and acclamations about Jesus’ authority,” writes Matt Skinner. “Teaching and exorcism both have immediate effects, and both issue claims about who Jesus is. Inquiries into Jesus’ authority are inquiries into his identity.” Of course, we as readers know about his identity, but those inside the story (and those hearing it for the first time) have to wait for the final climax to be sure.

Hurtado notes that the crowds respond to Jesus’ teaching with “surprise and wonder but not with faith.” He points to several such expressions on the part of the crowd, “but in all these instances these responses are clearly meant to be seen as something less than Christian faith and true illumination about Jesus’ significance” (page 27).

Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus shares the authority over demons with his disciples. He shares the power healing as well, but that discussion comes in the next scene in Mark’s drama. Here, let’s focus on the authority given to the church to name and cast out the demonic within, among and around us.

“How different from the conception of power and authority in our politics!” Hultgren wrote in 2009. “Our politicians try to manipulate us. They say one thing and do another. They use their authority for self-aggrandizement. They look for short-term gain, even if that means doing the wrong thing, rather than doing the right thing and trusting that in the long-term, history (not to mention God!) will vindicate them. Will the future be any different?”

Well, no, it hasn’t been, Professor Hultgren. Human authority seems mostly to know the way of worldly power. “Jesus’ authority and kingdom ministry invite us to imagine a different world — and to live towards it,” Hultgren concludes, and there’s obviously plenty of work left for people of faith to do.

“When the church learns again how to speak and act with the same authority,” suggests N. T. Wright, “we will find both the saving power of God unleashed once more and a similar heightened opposition from the forces of darkness” (Kindle Location 421). We can speak and act in that way, Wright notes, because we know (unlike the disciples in Mark 1) how it all turns out. “They can still shriek, but since Calvary they no longer have authority,” Wright concludes. “To believe this is the key to Christian testimony and saving action in the world that, despite its frequent panic and despair, has already been claimed by the loving authority of God in Jesus” (Kindle Location 423).

Matt Skinner notes that we have a worldview that doesn’t really accommodate shrieking demons. So, what does this text have to say to us? “At minimum,” he writes, “this passage provokes us to stop assuming that ‘the way things are’ must always equal ‘the way things have to be.’ The reign of God promises more, whether the ‘more’ can be realized now or in a far-off future.” We live in an era when the demons of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and lots of other isms are shrieking so loud as to nearly drown out any other voices, “but since Calvary they no longer have authority.”

“Naming the demons is a way to recognize that they exist,” writes Osvaldo Vena. “We start with the big one, Unbelief: losing one’s faith in God, in life as a sacred force, and in our fellow human beings. It is the feeling that nothing can be done to solve our problems. Then,” he continues, “springing from this one, come the others in fearful company: homophobia, racism, sexism, classism, religious and ideological intolerance, violence at home and at school, poverty, militarism, terrorism, war, greed, extreme individualism, globalization, out-of-control capitalism, media-infused fear that leads to paranoia, and governmental manipulation of information. To name just a few.” Just a few — yes, we know.

The demons will fight back, both in Mark’s gospel and in our own lives as disciples. They will appear to have the last word as Jesus shrieks out on the cross. But that is not the last word for them or for us. Nonetheless, disciples need both discipline and stamina for the demonic pushback to come. For example, we can listen to the counsel of Ibram X. Kendi in How to be an Antiracist. Kendi notes that antiracism has made progress in American society. But racism has made progress too. Every time faith, hope, and love move forward, the forces of sin, death, and the devil respond. We should not be surprise by such pushback, and we should be prepared to continue the fight.

Matt Skinner frames it well in is commentary. “Where are we still amazed by Jesus’ authority, by his teachings and deeds’ potential to upend our assumptions about what’s possible? Where can we see souls set free from destructive tendencies and powers that we thought were beyond anyone’s control?” He notes, “Preachers who bring these observations to the forefront of their sermons remind congregations that Epiphany is not just about longing for and acknowledging past manifestations of Jesus’ greatness and the gospel’s power; it’s also,” he concludes, “about discovering what deserves our amazement in our current and longed-for experiences.”

This can take us to the description of “The Prophet” in Deuteronomy 18.

References and Resources

Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”

            “GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0

            “GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3.

Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.

Text Study for 4 Epiphany B 2021: Mark 1:21-28, part 1

                    

Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that this reading illustrates a typical Markan literary device, what we might call “sandwiching.” Jesus teaches and the crowd reacts, but in between is the story of an exorcism. The middle of the sandwich demonstrates and deepens what comes first and last in the scene. We will experience this in greater complexity in Mark’s account when we get to the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the raising of the daughter of Jairus.

Photo by Andreas on Pexels.com

Osvaldo Vena, in his workingpreacher.org commentary, gives a more detailed structural analysis of the text, outlining the chiastic structure of the verses. This analysis confirms that the exorcism is the center of the story and provides the anchor for our interpretation and understanding of it.

“It is significant that the first scene of Jesus’ ministry…is one in which he teaches and performs an exorcism,” writes Larry Hurtado. “Both actions are emphasized in Mark’s Gospel as characteristic aspects of Jesus’ ministry and, by placing this account in the opening of Jesus’ ministry,” he continues, “Mark shows the reader immediately a representative scene” (page 26).

Hurtado notes that this and other scenes of exorcisms show some of the content and activity of God’s reign as it comes in Jesus. This reign is an attack on the powers of evil which hold people in bondage. The reign of God, as portrayed in Mark, Hurtado writes, “is God’s power (authority) in action” (page 27).

Matt Skinner aptly describes it as a “fight scene,” the first of several in Mark’s account. “Mark wants us to know, here at the outset of Jesus’ public ministry — that Jesus’ authority will be a contested authority,” Skinner writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Jesus’ presence, words, and deeds threaten other forces that claim authority over people’s lives. These other authorities have something to lose.”

We see here for the first time that even though ordinary humans tend not to recognize who Jesus is, the demons get it right away. This recognition is not a statement of faith (as in trust, allegiance, and loyalty). It is, rather, an attempt to control Jesus by outing him and naming him. “Demons cry out essentially to protect themselves against Jesus,” note Malina and Rohrbaugh, “by using formulas and techniques known from magical practice” (page 181). “Jesus’ command to the demons to be silent has to do with the fact that he does not want them to name him,” adds Vena, “since in that culture the one doing the naming had more authority than the one being named.”

“Jesus’ suppression of the demonic acclamations also shows that Jesus was not interested in mere acclamation,” Hurtado writes, “and at the same time, these acclamations help establish for the reader the validity of the claims about Jesus that are made in the opening of the book (1:1) and that are integral to the Christian faith” (page 28).

As readers and listeners, we know that the demons are right, even if the disciples are still in the dark. “The name ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ encodes social information all in the region would have understood,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “By going on to identify Jesus as the ‘Holy One of God,’ the demon acknowledges another status for Jesus that the crowd will soon see demonstrated” (page 181).

No human “gets” Jesus in his fullness until after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. So, the new converts who hear Mark’s account in preparation for their baptism are in the same position in the story as were the first disciples. Those who witness the exorcism are impressed with Jesus’ power. They communicate his reputation to the surrounding area, but this is not a proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The crowds don’t spread the good news about Jesus (verse 28). Mark doesn’t use the word for “gospel” here. Instead, they spread his “fame” throughout the region. This news is, Hurtado writes, “in Mark’s view, not true faith but only notoriety. This immediately begins something of a tragic note in the story,” he concludes, “while it sets the scene for the ensuing accounts of Jesus’ further ministry” (page 28).

If the Gospel were to be recited in totality as candidates prepared for their own baptisms, then this scene and those like it throughout Mark’s account would prepare those candidates for their own exorcism during the rite that still lay ahead of them that night.

In that regard, I want to reflect a bit on what I think is an important historic part of our baptismal rite, one omitted from our current worship book and practice. That element is the “Renunciation.”

We maintain that element in our ELCA rite of Affirmation of Baptism, aka Confirmation. The Renunciation fulfills the ancient function of the Exorcism in the earliest baptismal rites – the casting out of demons in order to clear a space for the Holy Spirit to enter into the heart of the new believer.

In the rite of Affirmation of Baptism, each confirmand makes a threefold renunciation of “the devil and all the forces that defy God,” “the powers of this world that rebel against God,” and “the ways of sin that draw [us] from God.” In response to the question about each power, the confirmand responds, “I renounce them” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 235).

I have had to explain to confirmands on a number of occasions the meaning of “renounce,” since that’s not a common part of contemporary vocabulary. I have sometimes wondered if that is also a symptom of our unwillingness to say “no” to much of anything in our lives these days – especially when it comes to the demonic forces that defy and rebel against God and distract us from our lives of discipleship.

I have often included the threefold Renunciation as the prelude to confessing together the Apostle’s Creed during the season of Lent. This helps worshippers to remember the historical function of Lent as final preparation for baptism and the ongoing function of Lent as remembrance of and recommitment to our own baptismal covenants. You could use this text from Mark as a way to introduce that practice and prepare people for such a liturgical addition in your own Lenten liturgies if you would choose to do so.

I find that this practice can remind us all that renunciation is not a one-time event but, rather, is a daily discipline. Renunciation, moreover, is not only a rejection of the authority of sin, death, and the devil in my life but also a way to cling to the forgiveness, life, and salvation given to me in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a letter to Jerome Weller, written in 1530, Luther offers this consolation and encouragement. Weller was one of Luther’s most devoted students and was beset with frequent bouts of spiritual anxiety and depression. Luther notes that the attacks of the Evil One are incessant and ongoing. He urges Weller to refrain from ruminating on the temptations and rather to despise demonically inspired thoughts. “In this sort of temptation and struggle,” Luther writes, “contempt is the best and easiest method of winning over the devil” (Tappert, page 85).

If contempt is not an effective defense, Luther continues, then Weller should try pleasant distraction. Seek out the company of some happy fellows, “drink more, joke and jest, or engage in some other form of merriment,” he urges. “We shall be overcome if we worry too much about falling into some sin” (Tappert, page 86).

This might seem at first like frivolous counsel. But the power of changing one’s focus is profound. Rumination can become a deadly downward spiral of dark thoughts. Sometimes a mental and spiritual “snap of the fingers,” an emotional splash of cold water in the face is precisely what is needed to return to a healthy frame of mind. I may not be able to engage in the company of some happy fellows during The Pandemic, but I can at least take a walk.

In the end, Luther urges Weller, depend assertively on the truth of the Gospel. Here Luther speaks, as he does in the previous passages, from his deep and long battles with his own spiritual anxiety and depression. “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell,” Luther writes, “we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know’,” Luther concludes, “’One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also’” (Tappert, pages 86-87).

We come back to the name that casts out demons and gives healing and life.

References and Resources

Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”

            “GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0

            “GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-3.

Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-121-28-5.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.