Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 2018

Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Revelation 12. 1-5a; Mark 1.21-28

Brian Reader

As well as it being the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, it is the Sunday before Candlemas, and the end of the Christmas Season; the time when we lose the Crib and the last of the Christmas trimmings. Today is also listed as Leprosy Day & Homelessness Sunday, but I could find nothing about homelessness or Leprosy in the readings. However, the story of Jesus curing a Leper can be found in verse 40 if you continue to read chapter 1 of St Mark’s Gospel.

So what message can we learn from our readings for this morning. On first a reading they seemed strange. I found them difficult to understand and seemingly lacking any link which would give a single theme.

The first was a passage from Deuteronomy. In it the writer, traditionally thought to be Moses, says ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.’ And in the New Testament, in John, this passage is seen to be a reference to the prophet ‘par excellence’ – that is Jesus himself.

For our next reading we had a bit from The Revelation. When I was in Sunday school, I was warned off reading Revelation as it was considered too difficult, but here it is, as our reading so we better try and understand what it is saying to us. Revelation is unique in the New Testament. Its message is of the final victory of Jesus Christ over all the forces that oppose God, and this is conveyed in a series of visions. John was writing for a persecuted Church, and these chapters are full of encouragement to enable the persecuted Christians to take heart.

The woman stands for God’s chosen people, from whom the Messiah Jesus, and through him the Church, was born. The red dragon does not represent Wales but Satan himself, who is hell bent on destruction of all that is good. If the reading had continued, the main message would have become clearer. Although Satan is strong and powerful and his attack fierce – his time is short. He has already been overpowered by Christ: so he can be overcome by Christians. Satan is destined for destruction, and the Church is destined for eventual triumph. God’s people are at all times, and everywhere, under His sovereign protection.

Our Gospel reading tells us of Jesus and how he taught and healed with great authority, the authority of God himself. So we see that all three reading do have a link – it is Jesus himself – our Lord and Saviour.

Let us try and imagine what it would have been like on that Saturday, the Sabbath in the small town of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. Here in the synagogue is a man, not one of the recognized teachers, who begins on his own authority to tell people what God’s will is. Although Mark gives no record, you can imagine what he said. It was certainly not what they expected. He announced the coming of the Kingdom, spoke of God’s mercy and forgiveness, of help and hope and liberty, and joy in believing.

It was like a breath of fresh air. The manner of his teaching was more astounding than the content. If he caught your eye, it was arresting; each one felt that he was talking just to them. And he spoke with such authority. The usual teachers – the priests and scribes, the literate ones, the self-appointed scrupulous guardians of Jewish ancestral traditions – they didn’t teach like that. They always said, ‘as Moses said’, or ‘as Rabbi so-and-so said’: but Jesus presented no argument, just a simple statement of fact. Jesus spoke with a quiet but compelling authority all of his own. And with the same authority he spoke words of healing, like a message straight from God. They had never heard anything like this before.

One man was especially affected. Most of the time he was fine, or he would have been excluded from society and the synagogue. Today, the electric atmosphere and excited buzz around him, aroused his nervous tension and provoked the outburst. You may not believe in demons and ascribe his symptoms to hysteria or epilepsy or some other disease that we would recognise today. But demon-belief was common in the ancient world, and would have been in this congregation and the man himself. The wonder in this synagogue was not only that the man was cured; but the manner of it was more surprising than the fact. There was no incanted list of spirit-names to find a stronger or higher spirit, as was standard practice for the many exorcists; Jesus simply commanded and it was done.

Sometimes people for whom life had become a total nightmare – whose personalities seemed taken over by alien powers confronted Jesus; indeed, they seem to have had a kind of inside track on recognizing him, knowing who he was and what he’d come to do. He’d come to stop the nightmare, to rescue people, both nations and individuals, from the destructive forces that enslaved them.

So whether it was shrieking demons, or simply whatever diseases people happened to suffer from, Jesus dealt with them, all with the same gentle but deeply effective authority. This is how Mark begins to tell us both about how Jesus became so popular so quickly and of how the course of his public career, pointed unavoidably to its dramatic conclusion.

There is no doubt that Jesus quickly attracted huge crowds, and that his authoritative healings were the main reason. That in itself would have been threatening to the authorities; but, there was more. Jesus had joined in a struggle against the forces of evil and destruction,
forces that still exist in the world today. Jesus came to be the human bridge or ladder across which people could climb to safety. And in the process, he himself paid with his own life – the price of this saving authority, Christ on the Cross, a human bridge with outstretched arms carrying people from death to life; that was simply part of the integrity of his healing action which now stretches to eternity. The demons had their final shriek at him as he hung on the cross, challenging and mocking for the last time the validity of his authority. On the cross he completed the healing work he began that day in the synagogue.

When the church learns again how to speak and act with the same authority, we will find both the saving power of God unleashed once more and with it a similar opposition from the forces of darkness. Similar, but not the same. The demons recognised Jesus, and knew he had come to defeat them once and for all. They can still shriek, but since Calvary they no longer have authority. To believe this is the key to Christian testimony, and saving action in the world, that despite its frequent panic and despair, the world has already been claimed by the loving authority of God in Jesus.

So to return to Leprosy Day & Homelessness Sunday… Well we know that Jesus heals and since my childhood great steps have already been made to bring a cure for the crippling disease of Leprosy, although it is far from being eliminated. Homelessness on the other hand is different. We know that it sometimes results from mental health issues, including the breakdown of relationships, and addictions to alcohol, drugs and/or gambling. These can all lead to homelessness. Also we know that the greed of individuals, and poor decisions on house building, land usage, and social injustice can all be factors. Jesus has the necessary power in his own strength and person to heal individuals. We should continue to pray for God’s guidance, and give what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Remember, God has supplied the world with everything sufficient for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

And so today our theme has been Jesus. There was never anyone like Jesus. He speaks the truth about God. He can meet your need; He can set you free. And if you allow him to work through you, you can help change the world.

AMEN

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