Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15–20, 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 & Mark 1:21–28
What do you think of when you hear the term ‘prophet’?
It’s not really a term used that often in modern speech, however when it is used, it’s probably done so to refer more to either someone who can predict the future, or someone who is a champion for issues of social justice. People such as Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Dylan and Joan Baez immediately come to mind when I think of modern day prophets.
Out of curiosity I ‘googled’ prophet recently and my search yielded 206 million results in just over half a second. Of the top three results, one included information on Muhammad the prophet, which is probably not that surprising, because he is perhaps the universally, most well known prophet, and another was information for a company that specialises in business transformation consulting, which was a bit surprising. The top result, was a definition specifically relating to religion that said: ‘a prophet is an individual who is regarded as being in contact with a divine being and is said to speak on that entity’s behalf, serving as an intermediary with humanity by delivering messages or teachings from the supernatural source to other people.’
This definition certainly seems appropriate to describe the figure of Moses, who himself is referred to as a prophet in our reading from the Book of Deuteronomy, because God chose to communicate through Moses to the people of Israel when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land of Canaan. Moses is recognised in the Old Testament as a prophet without equal; first among the prophets of Israel. He is mentioned more often in the New Testament than any other Old Testament figure, with New Testament writers often comparing the words and deeds of Jesus with those of Moses to explain the mission of Jesus. And reading backwards from the Christian tradition, the verse from today’s passage from Deuteronomy, ‘the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people’, is often interpreted to be a prophecy about Jesus.
The religions of Islam and Judaism refuse to accept that Jesus was the incarnation of God, however both do recognise Jesus as a great prophet. We can understand why, if we refer back to our Wikipedia definition of prophet which said that a prophet serves as an intermediary between a divine being and humanity by delivering messages or teachings from the deity to people.
What’s interesting when we think of the messages or teachings of Jesus, is that he didn’t directly address issues of social justice. There is no record in the Gospels of Jesus criticising the policies of those who were governing Jerusalem and the region of Judaea on behalf of the Roman Empire, or calling for social reform. Some might argue it was implied in his teachings, but it wasn’t explicit. What was explicit in his teaching, was the priority that should be given to God in people’s lives; to love God with all of one’s heart, mind, soul and strength.
This was also the central message of the prophets of Ancient Israel. A recurring theme of the Old Testament is the people of Israel turning away from God to worship and put their trust in idols – man-made objects in honour of imaginary, foreign gods. The prophets were sent by God to call people back to Him; to worship Him, and put their trust in Him.
The issue of idolatry is at the heart of today’s passage from 1 Corinthians. According to Jewish law, it was not permitted to eat food that had been offered as a sacrifice to idols. The elite members of the church in Corinth, who were better educated than most in the church, understood that idols were merely man-made objects, and that the gods they represented did not exist, so for them there was nothing special about food that had been offered to these idols and was then being sold in the market. They had no issues in buying and eating such food, not for a moment believing it would affect their relationship with God in any way.
But for those members of the church who were more superstitious, to eat such food would have been to sin against God, and the associated guilt might have caused them to lose faith. So Paul was suggesting to the better informed, or more knowledgeable, that it was perhaps best, for the sake of their fellow church members, if they did not eat such food, so that others might not be tempted to do the same and then suffer because of their lack of understanding, which Paul refers to as a ‘weak conscience’.
Western society today is obviously very different to the society of first-century Palestine, but one thing that isn’t different is that idolatry still exists today, albeit in a different form. The gods that people worship today are money, status, power, influence, and material possessions. It’s these idols that people give priority to in their lives, devoting much of their time and energy to in trying to attain more of them, and never being satisfied, always wanting more. Meanwhile, God either doesn’t exist at all in their lives, or is at best something that sits on the periphery, not something they devote much time or energy to.
The message that both Jesus and the prophets of Israel gave, is that God is present and active in our lives. He loves us and wants what is best for us. By His grace God calls all people to be in relationship with Him, but people need to be open to receiving His grace. To do that they must create a space for Him in their lives. They must give priority to Him over the other things that occupy their focus and attention. They need to love Him with all of their hearts, minds, souls and strength, and in so doing, to love their neighbours as themselves.