Raising Up Prophets
The following is a sermon preached in ACU Graduate Chapel on January 24, 2018.
Sermon Texts: Deut 18:15-20 and Mark 1:21-28
Well, here we are in Epiphany. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Epiphany it’s the few weeks between Christmas and Lent, and it’s often overlooked by churches as “ordinary time.” But there’s not much ordinary about Epiphany. Webster’s Dictionary gives two primary definitions for epiphany. It can be the “manifestation of a deity” or the “recognition of the essential nature of something.”
In the church calendar, Epiphany is a time for us to remember the manifestation of Jesus to the world during his earthly ministry. It starts with the feast of the three kings who had an epiphany when they found the infant Jesus after a long journey from the east. It includes the baptism of Jesus and an epiphany to those who were present by the voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” And it ends with the Transfiguration, which was an epiphany including Moses and Elijah, to which the disciples really didn’t know how to respond. There are plenty of epiphanies in this season called Epiphany, plenty of “aha” moments when God breaks into everyday life and reveals that he is up to something that will change everything forever.
That’s what God said he would do, isn’t it? Way back in Deuteronomy, while Moses is giving his farewell address just outside the promised land, God makes a promise to not only be with his people but to provide an intermediary to help mitigate the relationship between a holy God and a sinful people. God knows they need it. When he appeared to them at Mount Sinai (a.k.a., Mount Horeb) the people couldn’t handle it. They freaked out. They recognized the presence of God on the mountain in fire and smoke—a quintessential epiphany—they knew they were doomed. You could say they had an epiphany about the epiphany.
So they asked Moses to intercede for them, to report God’s words in a way they could understand. You know, a way that was less likely to strike them dead on the spot. God honored their request by speaking through Moses. But in Deuteronomy they’re ready to go into the Promised Land, and Moses isn’t going with them. So God promises to raise up another prophet—someone like Moses—to intercede for them. All the people have to do is listen to the prophet like they listened to Moses. (They haven’t always listened to Moses but that’s a different story.) They also have to determine whether the prophet is speaking God’s words or speaking in the name of another god. In other words, they have to recognize the presence of God in their midst. They need an epiphany.
When’s the last time the lightbulb went off for you? Have you had any epiphanies lately? We’re awfully busy around here, raising up prophets like Moses to speak the words of God to his people. How long has it been since something you read or a conversation you had blew your mind? I don’t mean the realization that, “Wow, Dr. Aquino is really smart” (that happens all the time). And I don’t mean, “Hey I finally figured out how to parse that verb” (though that’s nice for a language geek like me). I’m not even talking about the, “So that’s what Dr. Childers means,” sort of blow your mind. I mean the real, serious, “aha” moment recognizing the presence of God at work in your life—the first definition of epiphany—and then realizing how the essential nature of God—the second definition of epiphany—changes everything. Has it been awhile? Maybe we’re so busy writing papers and reading books and preaching sermons that we forget sometimes to step back and realize just what God is up to in this community. Call it an occupational hazard. Call it misplaced priorities. Whatever you call it, let’s be careful that our work for God’s kingdom doesn’t keep us from recognizing the One who raised us up in the first place.
Fast-forward from Deuteronomy to Mark. God’s people have been plugging along, doing the best they can to worship a holy God and listen to the words he spoke through the prophets. Throughout history God has raised up men and women to remind the Jews about the covenant: what it means for them to be God’s people and for God to be their God. They’ve gotten pretty good at determining who is speaking God’s words and who isn’t. Or perhaps I should say that they’ve gotten pretty good at knowing who they’ll listen to and who they won’t. They’re in the synagogue every Sabbath, singing and praying and reading Scripture, totally oblivious to the epiphany that’s about to take place. And then Jesus comes in the door.
Maybe it’s that occupational hazard again, but I think we’ve been reading this text with too much understanding of the rest of the story. We know Jesus is the Son of God. Mark’s audience knows that Jesus is the Son of God. But the people in the synagogue didn’t know that. Well, one of them did, but we’ll talk about him later. All the rest of the synagogue knows is that this guy Jesus isn’t teaching the way they’re used to. The translation says the people were “amazed” at his teaching. In English, something described as amazing is usually something good. A better translation might be that the people were stunned or perplexed at his teaching … or maybe they were asking, “Who does he think he is?”
There’s good reason why the synagogue at Nazareth tried to throw Jesus off a cliff in Luke 4 or why the Jewish leaders picked up rocks to stone him—twice—in John. Based on the people’s reaction in our text it doesn’t seem like they thought he was speaking the words of God. If word is spreading in Galilee about Jesus’s miracles you can bet word was spreading about his teaching, too. Moses promised that God would raise up a prophet like him but these people didn’t think Jesus was it. To the contrary, Mark 3:6 tells us that the Pharisees and Herodians were already looking for a way to kill him. According to Deut 18 they probably thought they were following God’s command to put a false prophet to death. Our larger perspective leads us to wonder how these religious leaders could be so blind. How could they not know who Jesus was? We should probably forgive them for failing to recognize the presence of God in their midst. We miss him sometimes, too.
Here’s what I’d like to know: how is it that the only one who recognized Jesus in the synagogue that day was someone—or something—that didn’t belong there? How had their worship gotten to the point that an evil spirit could come right in and make itself at home? The people might not have recognized Jesus, but that spirit sure did. Go figure: evil spirits can have epiphanies. “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” And Jesus has an epiphany as well. He recognizes the essential nature of the spirit and takes action. “Be quiet! Come out of him.”
Unfortunately the true witness of an evil spirit didn’t help Jesus that day. Again, our knowledge that Jesus is the Son of God makes us read the exorcism as a good thing. Jesus is freeing a man from spiritual oppression. But this demonstration of power leads to the false assumption that Jesus is casting out demons because he’s in league with them. “What is this?” the people say. Since they’ve already decided to take offense at his teaching, the people can’t see who Jesus is. They don’t realize that God is up to something that will change everything forever.
So what about us? Are we so caught up in singing and praying and reading Scripture that we’re totally oblivious to the revelation that has taken place in Jesus? Has our worship gotten to the point that an evil spirit could come right in and make itself at home? Would we recognize it if it did? Are we so busy raising up prophets that we overlook the one who has already spoken the words of God? Have we already determined who we will listen to and who we won’t? Or are we so busy writing papers and reading books and preaching sermons that we forget sometimes to step back and realize just what God is up to? Are we so focused on studying the words of God that we forget to allow those words to transform our lives? It’s the season of Epiphany, but every day is a chance for epiphany. Don’t let the “aha” moments pass you by.