Sunday 28 January 2024 Epiphany 4, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary time
The unfaked life
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28
Context: a morning service with some all-age or informal input, which might include the following: either at the beginning of the sermon or earlier in the service, play a dramatic clip from a film or online resource, showing God giving the ten commandments to Moses; during the sermon, there is a moment for reflection on life events. If appropriate, pause at that point for buzz groups or discussion
Aim: to recognise God’s Word in Jesus, with authority to guide and power to transform us
Can you visualise the scene when God gave the ten commandments to the people of Israel? Film makers have a great time showing all the drama of the moment. For the people, it was utterly terrifying. There was thunder and lightning, earthquake, smoke, and fire – all the things you would expect in the awesome presence of God. They cried out for mercy. ‘Moses’, they pleaded, ‘you speak to us and we will listen; don’t let God speak to us again, or we will die!’ (Exodus 20:19.)
So, Moses entered into God’s presence, and brought God’s laws down to the people. As well as the ten commandments, there were laws for just and fair dealing, care for the most vulnerable, ways of responding to sin and wrongdoing, and guidance on how to come before God in worship: all the community needed for their life together as God’s people.
And from then on, God sent prophets, like Moses, to mediate between the terrifying presence of God and the people. The people would recognise a prophet by the fact that his (or occasionally her) words would ring true. They spoke with authority, and their words were borne out by events. We know some of their names: Isaiah, Jeremiah... You may not have heard of Huldah – one of the women who had this role. They didn’t have an easy time, because, mostly, the people didn’t listen, but carried on going their own way.
But the idea of someone who would speak with authority stayed in people’s minds, and this is what they began to recognise when Jesus started teaching. Right at the beginning of his ministry, according to Mark’s Gospel, people were astounded by his words, because they had that ring of truth. Wherever he went, troubled spirits were overcome, people were healed, hypocrisy and exploitation were challenged, and the most unexpected people responded to his call.
All through his ministry, people asked: ‘Is he the prophet, the one we are waiting for?’ The answer was ‘No, not quite’. Jesus was something more than that: he was the true mediator between God and human beings because he was God, here in human form, speaking to people face to face.
Moses and the prophets spoke God’s word, often with great wisdom and courage. But Jesus embodied the Word of God. He not only spoke about God’s justice, but also stood up to a mob of men who wanted to stone a woman to death. He told brilliant stories about care for people who were outcast and vulnerable, and then healed a group of lepers – by touching them – which was unheard of!
And always, always, he transformed people’s lives if they would let him. Often his call was to leave their former lives and follow him, and many did. Others, he told to stay where they were – go back home, into their community, but renewed, different, transformed. They had been touched by God’s living Word. Speaking of outcasts, Levi, a tax collector, heard his call and simply left everything behind and followed him. But another tax collector, Zacchaeus, did something perhaps much tougher. He stayed in his job, but paid reparations to those he had exploited, and lived a transformed life.
These people whose lives Jesus touched were facing just the same kinds of issues that we face today: anxiety about health, or about loved ones; coping with unfair systems; how to tread the pathway between right and wrong in working life where it’s not always clear; how to find forgiveness or deal with regret when things go wrong; living day by day in this rather messy, confusing world.
Just for a moment, think about some of the dilemmas or problems that you have faced recently – or maybe it’s something facing you right now. What helps you decide what to do? What makes it difficult for you? Where do you go for help in your own anxiety or pain?
I thank God because he does still sometimes send prophets, wise and experienced people who help steer and guide us or bring us God’s word of comfort when we need it. Again, think for a moment, who are those people in your life? Quietly thank God for them and thank God for the times when you are that guiding friend for someone else.
But I thank God most of all for the One who both spoke with authority and embodied God’s Word. I can look to Jesus for the wisdom of his teaching, but also for his life and actions, his gentleness with those who regretted their sins, his rage at hypocrisy and exploitation, the way he reached out to all. Above all, I thank God in Christ for the reality of renewal and transformation, day by day, in our lives with him.
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