February 1, 2009
IV Epiphany (RCL Year B)
Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; I Corinthians 8: 1-13; Mark 1: 21-28
Good morning! On the 39th Day of Christmas my True Love gave to me--a broom and a dustpan and a request to sweep out the service porch, which was covered with needles and branches as we dragged the trees outside earlier this week. We’re not quite finished with the Christmas clean up, though it’s moving along. A few pictures to hang back in their usual places, and boxes of ornaments and other decorations to be carried down to the basement. And I’m sure we’ll be sweeping up pine needles on the Fourth of July.
But tomorrow is Candlemas, Feast of the Presentation, Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the traditional end to the Great 40 Days of Christmas.
We’ll celebrate that feast day by transferring it to a Feast of the Presentation service of Choral Evensong on Thursday, and then for the next three Sundays the traditional calendar of Pre-Lent: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima. Next Sunday we’ll hear a big shift in theme in our propers, the Collect and the Readings, as on the far, far distant horizon ahead of us, with Christmas still just barely visible in the rear view mirror, the central and life-changing themes of Ash Wednesday and Lent and Holy Week and Good Friday and then Easter morning all begin show themselves. The spotlight shifts. Themes of reflection, repentance, amendment of life, the invitation to a spirit of renewal. It will all unfold at its own pace, and one day at a time, but just to notice on this Sunday that we are coming to a hinge point, an important and meaningful transition.
First things first, though, and a last word of Christmas this morning, and to set the stage for the three readings appointed today I’d just like to read again and to hang as a kind of banner or as a thematic framework for us a verses from the First Chapter of St. John’s Gospel that we read at the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve and then repeated several times in the appointed readings for the weekdays and Sundays of the First Week of Christmas: John 1, verses 14-17:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the father. (John bore witness to him and cried, ‘This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me.’”) And from his fullness have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
So now: the escaping Hebrews have seen for themselves the awesome, powerful works of God. Right in front of their eyes. Not in a storybook. The devastating plagues, death and destruction through the whole nation all around them. The parting of the sea, and then, again, the crashing of the waves as they came together over the advancing Egyptian army. The cries of anger and terror of the Egyptian soldiers as they were swept away still ringing in their ears. And now these days at the great and holy Mountain of God, flames shooting out into the night sky, smoke, earthquakes. Only Moses brave enough to set foot onto the trail to the mountaintop. Of all of them, only that one man.
But the word of the LORD comes to them, in all that. In the midst of their breathless fear. This God of power and might. Without him, they are nothing. Yet who will dare to come into his presence? If you see my face, you will die, he says. And in that moment of anxiety, hope and fear all mixed together, he speaks a word of promise. I will never abandon or forsake you. Even when there is no more Moses, I will be with you, to support and sustain and protect you. And when the time is right, I will send another, and my Word will once again be with you.
The Law was given through Moses: grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
And Paul’s letter to Corinth. The reading is in this sequence the last few Sundays, as Paul is pastor to this community that is experiencing the sadness of division, factions arising, all kinds of odd behaviors and misbehaviors, huge errors and tiny slights and cuts, a spirit of spiritual pride, a sense of superiority. Things we now about when we look in the mirror.
And in all this Paul says that the Body is one, that to preserve unity it may even be necessary for the strong to give pride of place to the weak, even for those who have the right answer, to give way to those who have the wrong answer.
Even if you know in your heart that the Gospel of Christ has freed you from the Old Law, from rule-based puritanical moralities, even if you know in your heart that you are saved and freed by grace along, in the love of Christ in the sacrifice of the Cross--if acting out your freedom threatens the unity of the Body and the faith and confidence of those who perhaps aren’t quite as spiritually advanced as you: then you must step back. You must slow down. You must wait for one another.
Because it’s not simply a matter of letting bygones be bygones and living with the differences. It is a matter that has to do with recognizing and honoring the real presence of Christ in this Body the Church. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.
And through all this then to Capernaum and this Sabbath Day, as Jesus is invited to read and teach in the local synagogue, and then his teaching gives way to this miraculous and amazing exorcism and healing, with that dramatic debate with the Evil Spirit: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth. I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” And there is this stunned silence. Awe and wonder. “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority.”
That’s the key word here: authority. Power. Recognizing that this isn’t just another lecturer reading from his research in the library. The presence of God in their midst, right there in front of them. His glory. As of the only Son, from the Father. Grace and Truth. No one has ever seen God. But now this. Here, before our very eyes. The Evil Spirits not debated but cast out. Defeated. And there is: healing, forgiveness, new life. Lifting us up into God’s very presence. The only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
The thirty-ninth day of Christmas. In our midst. And here he is. That’s the message for today. That’s the Christmas message. Here he is. Knocking at the door. As we hear the Word. As we come forward to the Holy Table. As we open our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts to him. And his manger-bed in that Bethlehem stable is everywhere, all around us, and in us.
The mystery and miracle of Incarnation: not just a chapter in a book of theology, but the reality of our lives, as we are here together this morning. So again—the last time to say this for a while, but with a reality at all times and in all places: Merry Christmas to you, as we share this Holy Communion this morning, and blessings, and peace, and good will. The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And he is still here.