We are a small Episcopal Church on the banks of the Rappahannock in Port Royal, Virginia. We acknowledge that we gather on the traditional land of the first people of Port Royal, the Nandtaughtacund, and we respect and honor with gratitude the land itself, the legacy of the ancestors, and the life of the Rappahannock Tribe. Our mission statement is to do God’s Will in all that we do.

Lectionary, Epiphany 4, Year B

I.Theme –  Scope and meaning of God’s Authority

 "St. Peter’s – inside picture as a drawing"

The lectionary readings are here  or individually: 

Old Testament – Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm – Psalm 111 Page 754, BCP
Epistle –1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Gospel – Mark 1:21-28

Mark – Jesus demonstrates divine authority by healing a man with unclean spirit. Jesus preaches the Good news even when it leads to conflict

Deuteronomy – Moses encourage people to listen to God’s prophet and heed God’s word

Corinthians – True obedience to law must be balance by love and compassion

From Bruce Epperly – "Process and Faith"

"Today’s lectionary readings reflect on the nature of authority and the impact of our actions on the wellbeing of others. The season of Epiphany is an invitation to reflect on the many places and ways God reveals Godself to humankind. With the mystic Meister Eckhardt, Epiphany is grounded in the affirmation that all things are words of God. Anyone of us – and also the non-human world – can be a vehicle of divine revelation. Yet, revelation is always contextual, concrete, and variable.

"In the historical matrix of life, some persons and places are more transparent to the divine than others. This is a matter of call and response – God’s call and our responses as individuals and communities. Still, even though all of us turn away from God at times, some more than others, all persons have something of the divine within them. As John’s Gospel proclaims, the light of God enlightens all, even when we pursue darkness rather than light.

"The words of Deuteronomy are both promising and threatening. God will raise up a prophet – another spiritual leader or group of leaders – to succeed Moses. According to the text, God will put words in the prophet’s mouth. Those who don’t follow the prophet’s words will be punished. Any prophet who extemporizes or deviates from God’s revelation will be destroyed.

"The good news is that “God is still speaking” and we can find enlightenment for our path. Still, these words are ambiguous and raise a number of questions:

"Can finite, time bound, and imperfect human beings speak God’s words “perfectly?”

"Can prophets and spiritual leaders ever escape their historical, ethnic, and religious perspective?

"Can we directly speak for God or are our words, by nature, indirect and opaque despite their insight and inspiration?

"How do we know which words come from God and which are self-promoting and manipulative? That is, in a pluralistic environment, how can we discern the difference between “true” and “false” prophecy?

"Psalm 111 speaks of divine authority as a blend of love, power, and justice. Creation itself reflects divine authority, the ability of God to shape our world, cosmologically as well as ethically. There is plenty of free play and competition in the universe – each event emerges from many causes ranging from environment, personal choice, and divine direction – but within this intricate matrix of causation, there is a consistent force aiming at novelty, justice, fairness, and beauty. Authority figures must be judged by their adherence to the “moral arc” of divine intentionality.

"We must always ask the following questions: Does an authority figure promote justice, creativity, and beauty? Does an authority figure seek what is truly best for the community, including honoring diverse opinions and lifestyles? Does an authority figure enable people to be more creative, more adventurous, and more compassionate?

I Corinthians 8:1-13 explores the nature of personal authority and our responsibility for the way our actions – even matters of personal preference – shape the lives of others. Paul notes that even though some of our behaviors or words are in and of themselves innocuous, we need to take heed for their impact on others – especially less mature members of our community. Ethics, Paul recognizes, is not a matter of absolutes or unbending principles, but the impact on the people right in front of us. If our abstractions harm our neighbors, then our principles are of little value to the communities in which we live.

"The reading from the Gospel of Mark (1:21-28) sees Jesus’ authority as joining words and action. Jesus walked the talk, and spoke words that transformed people’s lives and reflected God’s vision for humankind. In today’s reading, Jesus’ sermon leads to action. He confronts a man, possessed by a destructive spirit. While we don’t know the nature of this spirit, it destroyed his personality, rendered him an outcast, unclean, and unable to live with his family. Jesus confronts this unclean spirit with the simple words: “Be still. Come out from him.”

"Jesus’ authority leads to healing and wholeness, inclusion and hospitality. Jesus’ power was for good. His words and actions promoted creativity, agency, growth, and interdependence.

"Today’s readings promote spiritual practices that enable us to attentive to God’s “whispered word.” Discovering our personal authority involves a commitment to prayer, devotional reading, communities of support and accountability, and concern for others. They also challenge us to embody the values we affirm as we seek the wellbeing of our companions and communities. Contemplation and action are one dynamic reality: our insights lead to healing and affirming actions that shape people and communities."

II. Summary

Old Testament –  Deuteronomy 18:15-20

The Book of Deuteronomy stands as the fifth and final book in the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) and as the first book in the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 11 Samuel, 1 & 11 Kings).

The passage in Deuteronomy belongs to a larger section of the book, Deut 16:18 – 18:22. It deals with the authority of a number of officials in Israel: judges and other officials

The literary setting for Deuteronomy is at the end of Moses’ life as the wandering Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land. Moses is the only leader they have ever known, and his impending death puts the community in jeopardy. Deuteronomy represents Moses’ last words to Israel, both present and future. The style is one of a sermon. In other words, it is not simply information, but it encourages and cajoles, calling the people to belief and a life lived according to God’s instruction

This passage deals with prophecy. In biblical times, prophets were not rare. Indeed, 2 Kings tells that the king of Israel had 400 prophets at his disposal (1 Kings 22:6)! The problem was not finding a prophet it was finding a prophet that was truly speaking for God.

Prophets performed a wide range of functions, including some that are condemned in Deuteronomy 18:10-11.

The prophets played a major role in speaking God’s word calling them back to the first commandment, which is to worship God alone.

Prophets of the Lord are the mouthpieces for God, and their proclamations are made without the common acts of divination or speaking to dead spirits. Prophets of ancient times should probably be thought of as preachers, for they interpret the word of God to the people. Ancient Prophets, however, were distinct from priests who were responsible for leading the people in worship. The only function of an ancient prophet was to declare the word of God to the people. They did not run meetings or organize the congregation

In Deuteronomy 18 we go back to the more fundamental question of how we know on whose authority a prophet speaks. The question is addressed squarely in the Gospel reading (Mark 1:21-28) as Jesus begins his ministry. Mark indicates that the authority Jesus has himself and on which he works is from God. But in Deuteronomy, the writer is bold enough to ask a hard question: wherein does religious authority, here the authority of a prophet, lie? Or more simply, how do we know the word of a prophet (or preacher) is from God

This passage begins with the reason why prophets are needed. It reaches back to the giving of the law in Exodus 19 and 20. When the people heard God speak they were so frightened, they begged Moses to speak with God and be their mediator. Prophets, then, are selected by God ("I raise up" verses 15, 18; "I will put my words" verse 18; "I command" verse 18) for the sake of the people. Prophets answer to God, not to the people, so they are free to speak the truth. Prophets also come "from among their own people" (verse 18). These speakers of truth are home grown. They know the ways and the hearts of the people they speak to and connect with them. They who speak for God must also be paid attention to, for to ignore their calls is the same as ignoring God (verse 19).

Verse 16 gives the history of the mediatorial role of Moses. To hear God’s voice directly was too frightening. People wanted Moses as a buffer between themselves and God

A prophet can speak only if they are sure that it is the word of God they are hearing. The verses which are omitted from the lectionary reading declare that only those words which come from God will come true.

Verse 19 indicates with what seriousness the word of the prophet should be received: God himself holds people accountable for it

There are two caveats: one against the revolutionary and one against the false prophet. The disobedient person who did not listen to God’s words, also did not obey his Word found in the Law. This person was an outlaw, an anarchist. By definition, he should die.

The second warning was against the false prophet who spoke in God’s name or in the name of idols. This person set himself against the religious leaders. If the religious leaders spoke for the Law, then the prophet critical of the leaders stood outside the religious institution and deserves to die.

Two criteria are given for detecting a false prophet. A. The false prophet speaks in the name of other gods. A good criterion, but normally false prophets are much more subtle in their deception. Note that Hananiah the false prophet in the days of Jeremiah was known to have said, "Thus says Yahweh." B. The second criterion is that the false prophet speaks a word God has not given them. But how are we to know that

The Old Testament gives two other criteria for identifying false prophets. C. They say something that doesn’t happen. The trouble with this criterion is that we often have to make a decision today and can’t wait for history to prove the prophet true or false. In addition, some of the biblical prophets said things that never happened (e.g. Second Isaiah). D. The prophets who prophesy "peace" are false prophets. These are the prophets who say everything is ok and there is no need for repentance.

The hanging question is the same today as it was in ancient days: how do we know which of the many preachers/prophets who speak are truly speaking for God? The answer in the text is clear. If what the prophet says comes true, then the prophet is speaking for God. It seems like a good answer, but it does not answer all of our questions. Prophets talk of eternal things and life after death. Some of what they say is simply unknowable in this life. The test in Deuteronomy certainly helps us with some prophets who claim to speak for God, but not all. What is clear is that if a prophet/preacher leads folks astray, it is the prophet and not the people who are at fault. Unfortunately, unscrupulous prophets tend to prey on those who are the weakest and most vulnerable

Psalm –  Psalm 111 Page 754, BCP

Psalm 111 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving, a psalm type in which the singer gives thanks for God’s goodness in delivering him/her from various life-threatening situations such as illness, oppression, or enemy attack.

These psalms are usually for thanks of a deliverance of an individual but this one is for God’s deliverance of an entire community.

There are 4 parts:

Verse 1: A Vow to Give Thanks

The individual worshiper giving thanks to God in a public setting of worship; the council of the upright and the assembly.

Verses 2-4: The Deeds of the Lord Praised/strong>

The wonderful deeds involves things difficult to understand, something different, striking, remarkable; something transcending the power of human intelligence and imagination.They are worthy to be remembered and reflect the authority of a gracios God.

Verses 5-9: The Deeds of the Lord Described

Psalmist outlines, in brief descriptive phrases, the works and wonderful deeds of God. In verse 5, God gives "food," a reference perhaps to the giving of the manna and quail in the Wilderness (Exodus 16 and Numbers 11). Verse 6’s "the inheritance of the nations" suggests God’s giving of the Promised Land to the Israelites (Deuteronomy 6-7). The "precepts" of verse 7-8 are part of the Torah, the instruction of God given at Sinai (Psalm 119:27, 104, 173). Verse 9 concludes with the words "he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name." God’s covenant and God’s name are foundational traditions of ancient Israel. Upon these the community may depend for its future as the people of God.

Verse 10: An Introduction to Wisdom 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom.” At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will. The Hebrew word for "fear" is powerful in meaning, but it has more to do with feelings of awesomeness. It is more about being in the presence of the holy other with cautious reverence than it is about the sweaty-palmed, shaking, gasping for breath kind of fear we often experience. When we enter into a relationship with the God of the Bible, it is a high calling. It is a dangerous, a reverent, a fearful relationship.

The reasons for the praise of God, which is everlasting (v. 10c), are part of the life of the people of Israel. They may sound general and abstract at first but they have been part and parcel of shaping the life of the people. This is what we celebrate and praise God for in his incarnation in Jesus Christ.

Epistle –  1 Corinthians 8:1-13

In 8:1-11:1 Paul deals with the issue of eating food associated with pagan worship, obviously one of the matters raised by the Corinthians in their letter to him

In that lengthy section, Paul questions whether it is permissible for believers at Corinth to eat meat (in temple dining areas) that remains after animal sacrifices have been made at pagan temples. The opening verse (8:1) indicates that this was a live issue at Corinth. Those who refuse to eat such meat consider it a matter of conscience (8:7). Essentially, Paul argues that because idols have no real existence as actual gods, one has freedom in regard to this question (8:4, 8; 10:23, 25-27). Nevertheless, out of love and regard for the other person for whom it is a matter of conscience, one who claims such freedom should be willing to relinquish it (8:9-13; 10:23, 28-29).

Paul sets out to examine a position argued by libertine members of the Corinthian congregation, namely, that eating food associated with idols is not a problem for a believer, given that the idol-gods are no gods. In the first part Paul states that the eating of meat that had been sacrificed to an idol is acceptable because the “gods” which the idols represent don’t really exist

Paul doesn’t appeal to scripture, or to the teaching of the apostles (or even Jesus) to come up with his answer. He appeals to reason. There are no other gods = the idols are worthless = the meat is fine.

At the outset of this chapter Paul places two terms in contrast: "knowledge" (gnosis) and "love" (agape). The two need not be antithetical, but in this case "knowledge" is used in a derogatory sense. Paul is not speaking about knowledge in general, but of a religious sophistication that is arrogant. It "puffs up." On the other hand, the love of which Paul speaks is a self-giving love. It is modeled on God’s own love, demonstrated in the giving of his Son. It is a love not based on the worth or attractiveness of the other person, but generated from within. Love such as this, Paul says, builds up (or edifies) the community. The two terms are set against each other: "knowledge" leads to spiritual self-aggrandizement, whereas "love" promotes a healthy, vibrant, spiritual community.

It is not a matter just of being right, but of doing the ‘right thing’, the caring thing, by them. Paul’s assessment is that this will mean abstaining where it would create problems for them. This is generous and sensitive love.

Love has to be informed and situational. it. It should not, however, cease to be what it is, that is, situational advice about love, and become a general rule for every situation.

The center is truth in love, Christ in God. The center is compassion and understanding. In each new situation we need to decide. The issue is always relationships, seen in the context of God’s will of wholeness for people. It can never just be about being right or about getting people by hook or crook to do things our way.

So now, to the subject at hand: eating food associated with pagan worship practices. First, Paul quotes from their letter and agrees with their "knowledge"; "we acknowledge with you that ‘an idol has no existence in itself’ and ‘there is only one God.’" There may be no real god associated with idol worship, but these "so-called gods" are very real to those who believe in them

In speaking about God as the source and destination of all that is, we should not forget Christ’s role as mediator in creation (v. 6). The weak, he says, have not yet matured in their thinking as Christians: they have not yet shed their cultural attachments to idols; they feel that eating sacrificial meat is disloyal to Christ

Then vv. 8-9: in arguing that what one eats is irrelevant, the strong should be careful that their libertarian attitude does not impede the progress of “the weak” towards God

Paul now makes the point that the libertines’ "knowledge", which gives them their sense of assurance, self-awareness and independence, is not possessed by all believers

Eating this food could cause a misunderstanding. Those who are weak might think Christians can worship both God and idols, and thus, revert to pagan rituals. Therefore, it is better to refrain from eating food that has been offered to idols.

In vv 10-12, Paul now drives home his point. It is precisely because God is indifferent about food that we should not demand our right of free action independent of the welfare of our brothers and sisters. To demand rights of free action based on a questionable spiritual insight, an insight which then destroys a brother’s faith, is to "sin against Christ."

Paul concludes by saying that if eating causes a brother’s downfall, then he is quite willing to "never eat meat again." So, Paul says, that while the meat is technically ok to eat, if it hurts the faith of other people—if it damages the spiritual health of other members of the Body—then Christians have a duty to fore-go the meat, and help out their brothers and sisters in Christ.

The message of Paul for the church of today is that one may well have freedom in Christ, but it must be used with discretion and, in particular, with care for the sake of the vulnerable

The conclusion for us is that reason is a valuable tool in interpreting what’s right and wrong in the Christian faith and life. And, perhaps most importantly, we find that even when you have the “correct answer,” that’s not enough. There are pastoral and spiritual implications of keeping the congregation together. And those implications are more important than being right.

Such freedom belongs, for Paul, within a context of responsibility and especially of love. Paul never seems happy with absolutes. Knowledge and insight is always relational. People are always in focus. Underlying his thought constantly seems to be: and what does this mean for those around me and for my relationship to God.

Paul is not happy with people being right; he wants relationships to be right, too. In fact he would not have separated the two. Relationship matters most 

Gospel –  Mark 1:21-28

Jesus has been baptized, tempted in the wilderness, and now comes to proclaim and demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth, and he does this by opposing the forces of evil which would rob the children of God of all that God hopes and intends for them

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus was blessed and baptized with the Holy Spirit as he heard the promise proclaimed to him, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased!" Now Mark contrasts this experience with that of the man possessed by an "unclean" spirit, a spirit that is most assuredly not telling him that he is beloved of God or God-pleasing in anyway

Chapter 1:21-34, represents a single day in the life of Jesus, or more properly, a Sabbath day and the evening of the next day, given that the new day begins at sunset. The events of the day include a visit to the Synagogue and to the home of Simon and Andrew at Capernaum

It was the Sabbath and, following his habit, Jesus was in the synagogue for worship. Even to this day, it is a part of Sabbath worship in the synagogue for someone to read the day’s lesson as the basis for the day’s study and possible discussion.

As Jesus became better known he would be asked to read the scripture lesson and elucidate upon it. On this occasion, Jesus was standing before the congregation, beginning his exposition. The worshipers were amazed at his informed wisdom and knowledge of the Pentateuch and at his ability to hold the attention of the audience with his message. Apparently he was an excellent speaker and a stark contrast to the dull scribes who usually droned on about the demands of the law. At the outset, Mark identifies the substance of Jesus’ mission – divine communication.

Our passage tells us of the recognition of Jesus’ authority, both in word and deed. Jesus, the "Holy one of God", the messiah, speaks with authority/power, such that even the demons are subject to his word. In response, the people are both excited and alarmed. The difference is described in two ways: Jesus teaches "with authority" vv. 22, 27; and it is a "new teaching," v. 27

A man, possessed by an evil spirit, then enters the synagogue. His personality is so damaged that the powers of darkness now rule his will. The demoniac could enter the synagogue because of an open-door policy which permitted anyone to attend. His presence is a symbol of how good and evil are associated in this world. The people of that New Testament era believed that there were unclean spirits or demons living inside of people that caused diseases.

The demon speaks through the man to confront Jesus, in the process not only questioning Jesus (“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”) denouncing Jesus’ right to interfere with him and also identifying him (“I know who you are, the Holy One of God”). When Jesus “rebukes” the demon, the demon is expelled from the man with convulsions and cries.

In the Old Testament “Holy One” is used predominantly of God but the same words also applied to humans. As applied to Jesus it is one who uniquely reveals the power of God.

In Mark, this unclean spirit is the first to "know who Jesus is," the Holy One of God, and publically acknowledge him as such. That man with an unclean spirit understands who Jesus is better than anyone else in the room . The disciples don’t figure it out until Chapter 8, when Peter says, “You are the messiah, the one sent by God.” This man of unclean spirit is way ahead of everyone, and he want to know, “What are you going to do with people like me? Are you going to destroy us?”

The fact that Jesus can order the spirit to be silent and come out of the man further confirms that Jesus has spiritual authority; is a person of higher spiritual rank than the unclean spirit; is a Holy One of God.

Again and again, Jesus smashed evil in the places where it claimed authority:

• In the desolation; [Mt 4:1; Mk 1:12; Lk 4:1];
• In the synagogue [Mk 1:23]; 
• In the temple of Jerusalem (when he casts out the money changers [Mt 21:13; Mk 11:17; Lk 19:46]);
• But, especially in people’s hearts:

Mark still hasn’t told us a thing about what Jesus taught, but he has showed us that Jesus had a power over things that people label as unclean. Mark is making this point: that the will and purpose of God present in Jesus is engaging and fighting against the purposes of evil that exist among humanity

In sum, Jesus’ symbolic acts were powerful not because they challenged the laws of nature, but because they challenged the very structures of social existence.

Jesus may have the authority to silence unclean spirits, but as we all learn to our own peril, no one can silence gossip, not even Jesus. And so his fame begins to spread through those present telling others what Jesus has done.

In Mark and elsewhere we find Jesus often teaching with a directness which drew on common life experience rather than derivatively by interpreting scripture. This had the effect of shifting the power base of knowledge from the experts (in scripture, scribes) to the common people, who all knew about common life experience. It was a different way of doing theology, which democratised the process.

The scribes taught with erudition, but Jesus taught with authority. Jesus interprets the Scripture as one who has the right to say what it means. Furthermore, his teaching has no need of external support, whether from Scriptures or elsewhere; his word is self-authenticating, not like that of the scribes.

The key word is authority. Already we see a pattern shaping up: a] being an ‘observant Jew’ even though he is at odds with the ‘official’ church of his dayb] teaching within the framework of that church’s worship as well as out & about in the margins; c] reaching out to people in the ‘too hard’ basket (very marginalised); d] confronting evil, in this case in the form of ‘demon possession’; e] being prepared to break out of the Sabbath-keeping straight-jacket when compassion demands it;

In this story, in fact in all Jesus’ exorcisms, we see the activity of God gaining control over a creation separated from him and now hostile to him, a creation subject to dark forces. These hostile powers are brought under God’s rule by an authoritative word from the divine man, Jesus.

By verse 27, Mark emphasizes that the people are astounded, amazed but in Mark they don’t provide faith

They have never before witnessed such an authoritative teaching. Here is a rabbi who declares a word without reservation (not even "thus says the Lord", but "I say unto you"). Mark has already set up a major theme of his gospel—the issue of Jesus’ divine authority, his bringing of something radically new, and the eventual result of which will be his death

In a worldly sense, Jesus did not have any power at all. He was not a worldly king with political or military power. He was not of the priests, who had the power in Roman Judea. He was not even a scribe with the authority of Jewish tradition. The only authority he had was the supreme confidence that what he did and said was God’s will and God’s truth. 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

The Holy One of God had arrived to clean out the temple. Yet, he also came to clean out our temples; the unclean spirits living inside of us When Jesus comes into our hearts we no longer live in “opposition” to holiness

The kingdom of God in Mark is good news because it brings liberation at a number of levels. The central thing is enabling people to be how God made them to be. That must involve addressing powers and gods that enslave. Here is a congregation with evil in their midst. When Jesus arrives on the scene, it has to be dealt with before anything else can happen

Mark tells us to listen specifically for the voice of the Son of God. In Mark’s gospel we’re being schooled to learn to recognize the distinctive voice of Jesus the Son of God. We learn it through what he talks about, through what he doesn’t talk about, and through his actions that speak louder than words.

III. Articles for this week in WorkingPreacher:

First Reading Deuteronomy 18:15-20

PsalmPsalm 111  

Epistle  – 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 

Gospel  – Mark 1:21-28